Would I kill him if I could?

A radio interview with scientist Robert Sapolsky shocked me. My humanist book group was currently discussing his tome on human behavior. Sapolsky spoke of his fantasy of killing someone. Not just killing — but with torture, described in graphic detail.

The “someone” was Hitler.

Sapolsky’s fantasy might seem innocuous because of course Hitler is already dead. But if this were 1944?

Capital punishment opponents deem killing always morally unacceptable, no matter how bad the person. Yet I believe some people deserve the ultimate punishment, as a matter of justice.

So with Sapolsky: fantasizing himself an avatar of justice. However, torture adds a problematic dimension; it must entail mindful cruelty by the torturer, a corruption of their soul, and of the moral legitimacy of whatever authority sanctions it.

There used to be a widespread fetish in academia denouncing “judgmentalism,” with categorical judgments considered always suspect. Of course that’s turned completely around, now academia embraces judgmentalism with a vengeance, punishing viewpoints not in lockstep with the catechism of the day. But without going to such extremes, the former anti-judgmentalism was surely wrong. Humans are built to be judgment machines; life is all about making judgments. We are also programmed to be justice seekers. Thus Sapolsky vis-a-vis Hitler.

My own judgment app is set on “high.” A lifetime of hard thinking about issues confronting us makes me feel, at this point, pretty strong in what I judge good or bad, right or wrong.

Certain personages are on the wrong side of that judgment, earning the sort of hatred Sapolsky evinced toward Hitler. This is not hate as a baseless prejudice (as with, for example, white racial hatred). To the contrary, its salient characteristic is being justified by sound rational considerations. Thus I hate Putin; Assad; Maduro; Lukashenko; Ortega; Erdogan; Kim Jong Un; Xi Jinping; Min Aung Hlaing; alas the list goes on, it’s far too long. I hate them for the evil each has perpetrated.

There’s one person I hate more than anyone, ever. (You knew where this was going.) A hatred burning with a pure incandescent flame. Yet this too is no irrational prejudice, but its exact opposite. A deeply considered moral judgment grounded in facts. The crimes are not in the Hitler-Stalin-Mao class; however, unlike the other mentioned cases, this one for me is personal. Because it concerns my own country, which I have profoundly loved for what it represented and stood for. Which this evil monster has damaged beyond calculating. Maybe wrecked forever.

So do I fantasize like Sapolsky? Or would I actually do the deed if I had some opportunity? In fact, no. It would be self-immolation. He’s already caused me so much suffering — heartache, anxiety, literal lost sleep. He can destroy my country, but I would not let him destroy my life itself. And assassination would make him a martyr in many eyes, throwing gasoline on America’s political dumpster fire.

However, I do harbor a fantasy, every morning, when I retrieve our newspaper and open it. A fantasy of a big black headline. It might not be justice; after all, everybody dies. And even if it’s from natural causes, conspiracy theories would run wild, and millions of his cultists would expect him, Christlike, to return. But he could do no more harm. And maybe, just maybe, most of America could recover its sanity.

4 Responses to “Would I kill him if I could?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    The act of killing is still evil, even for a greater good. A bomb on Hiroshima, an assassin’s bullet, state executions… “an eye for an eye and the world goes blind.” We can control our thoughts and actions, live in harmony with our values.
    A Don John fantasy? Satisfies bigly.

  2. Jim K Says:

    How I’ve longed to learn of Trump’s demise. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

  3. David Lettau Says:

    A desire to see evil men get justice I see as a sign of mental health and clarity. Would I kill Hitler if I could time travel back to say 1920? Yes. Would I try to kill him through torture? No. Sapolskys torture fantasies bring to my mind Nietzsche’s warning that those who fight monsters must take care that they do not become like the monsters they are fighting. The ghastly irony I feel whenever I hear men of otherwise good will and benevolence advocating torture is that I believe they are giving a posthumous victory to Hitler. ( as do racists and anti- semites) I too would feel schadenfreude in spades were I to hear of the demise of the worlds most dangerous criminal ( How is it that Trump is still at liberty? C’mon Merrit Garland) But the use of torture ( “Enhanced interrogation”) is a dark stain on the recent history of our republic, and I would not employ it no matter how evil a person might be. To quote from a poem of Edna Vincent Millay,” I have to die, but that is all I will do for death”

  4. Dave Says:

    they should put you know who on a space rocket with a one way ticket

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