Inhuman horrors refuse to be explained

A book came out last year – a pretty interesting book – called Explaining Hitler. The author Ron Rosenbaum was investigating one of the most troubling questions of our times. How do you explain Adolf Hitler?

Rosenbaum was not, himself, trying to answer this perplexing question. Rather, he was exploring the many ways in which historians, theologians, holocaust survivors and others have tried to make sense of this man who has become the singular representation of evil incarnate. Rosenbaum’s unique insight is that the explanations people make for the Führer say a lot about their larger understanding of the world.

First of all, there is the great debate: Great Man vs. Everyman. Was Hitler an anomaly, or just an average man shaped by circumstance? If there weren’t Hitler, would there still have been a Hitler?

Some historians have pinpointed definitive life events that they believe transformed Hitler from human to monster. Was it his mother’s painful cancer treatment at the hands of a Jewish doctor? His young cousin’s mysterious suicide? Did he experience a nerve gas induced “epiphany” in a World War I hospital, instructing him of a divine calling to decimate the Jewish people? Others blame rumored sexual deficiencies and perversions.

The explanations people arrive at are ultimately a product of their fundamental beliefs. For instance, any explanation of Hitler has ramifications on religious convictions. Is Hitler one of “God’s children”? If there is a god, how could there be Hitler?

Some people, like Shoah director Claude Lanzmann, feel vehemently that Hitler can’t be explained and any attempt to explain his actions is an offense to his victims.

All right, I realize this isn’t a book review. But as I read about the Colorado shootings, Rosenbaum’s thesis seemed incredibly salient. Explaining this incident is nearly as difficult as explaining Hitler. How do you account for two, seemingly “normal” kids planning an elaborate attack on their high school, maniacally terrorizing their victims? How could this happen? Or, as the mainstream media demands, who is to blame?

Many explanations are being put forth. Maybe it was the Naziphile, “Goth” sub-culture that nurtured their psychopathic fantasies. Or perhaps it was the gory computer games, which obscured the line between illusion and reality. Obviously their mental health is in question, but were they insane or merely “troubled”? And then there is the family factor; did these parents raise killers?

Maybe if I were smarter I could come up with some trenchant analysis that would make sense of the many popular explanations for this tragedy. Unfortunately, as you can see, I don’t have much to add in this respect.

However, Rosenbaum’s analysis of explanations also raises the question of what it means that we are even trying to make sense of something so inexplicable. Now, granted, there is some sort of innate human desire to organize the world in neat little cubbyholes. We need to impose order on the universe. It is human nature to ask why. But I would like to think that this particular question – how two kids could act witEh such malice – has no answer. There is something disconcerting about the idea that we could live in a world in which such an atrocity could be explained.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be asking why. Nor am I suggesting that these inquiries aren’t useful or necessary. If there are measures, such as gun control, that could be taken to prevent another such tragedy, by all means we should root out contributing factors and try to eliminate them.

My point is that some things, like Hitler and the Colorado shootings, are inexplicable. It is important to ask why, but we can’t get too fixated on discovering some all-encompassing conclusion.

While it is disturbing to live in a world where such unimaginable horrors do occur, wouldn’t it be worse to live in a world in which these horrors made sense?