The Republic of T.

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Monstrous, Yes. But a Monster?

The Josef/Elisabeth Fritzl story I mentioned in the previous post is becoming something like a horrific automobile accident. At first you don’t want to look, and then when you do you can’t tear your eyes away. There seems to be no end of news stories about it, and as I’ve been reading them it’s occurred to me how easy it is to forget what we’re looking at and what we’re not.

I’m not a lawyer, but if I were and I had Josef Fritzl for a client, I’d advise him to stop talking. I’d muzzle him if I could. But Fritzl can’t stop talking, and no one seems to be able to stop him either.

One one hand he says that his treatment (I struggle to find a word to do it justice) of his daughter was the result of an addiction that “got out of control.” One the other hand, he says he really cared for his “secret family.” Then he says he must have been crazy. While I don’t think someone truly insane could have planned and sustained that kind of captivity for 24 years (besides, the care he took to hid his “secret family” suggests he knew just how wrong it was), I kind of agree with him on one thing.

Call him what you want, but don’t call him a monster.

Austrian Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and fathered her seven children, said he was no “monster” and he could have killed her and her children had he wanted to, according to his lawyer.

“I am not a monster,” Austrian daily Oesterreich quoted Fritzl as saying in comments relayed by his lawyer Rudolf Mayer. Fritzl also criticised media coverage of his case as “totally one-sided”.

In 1984, the now 73-year-old lured daughter Elisabeth into a basement in his home in the eastern Austrian town of Amstetten, drugged her and locked her up. He claimed she had disappeared to join a sect.

Three of Elisabeth’s children were raised by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie after he pretended his daughter had left them on his doorstep with a letter saying she could not care for them.

The other three children remained locked up in the windowless basement with their mother. A seventh child died shortly after birth.

My reason, though, differs from him. I think it’s too easy to label him a monster.

Reading Fritzl’s comments reminded me of my reaction to watching Downfall, a film version of Adlof Hitler’s last days in the Fuhrer Bunker at the end of WWII one of the criticims of the movie was its portrayal of Hitler as a human being who could be charming an affectionate as easily as he could be brutal and monstrous; he could bounce a child on his knee one minute, and a minute later order a suspected traitor shot.

I came to watch Downfall when a documentary showed up in my Netflix queue — Blind Spot, the interview with Hitler’s secretary. I was struck by her description of Hitler as personable, even in the midst of overseeing a genocide. That led me to Downfall, and the criticism it got for portraying Hitler as human being.

Of course, he was. But it is easier to think of him as a “monster” and to separate him from us, from the rest of humanit, so that he has nothing to do with us and we have nothing to do with him.

As the philosopher Terence said, “I am a human being, so nothing human is alien to me.” But we want to believe that Fritlz’s crimes — as with Hitler’s, or any other infamous criminal — are so divorced from humanity that human beings like ourselves are incapable of committing them. Those who can, and do, must be something other than human.

In looking for the Terence quote, I came across this bit of widsom from Peacebang.

Let’s get this straight right now. There is no human being who is “totally incapable” of any heinous crime that might be beyond the pale of your personal imagination, Susan Yu or any of you other Up With People types out there.

The sooner we all embrace the philosopher’s dictum that “Nothing human is alien to me,” the better.

When we get over, give up and move on from our eternal willingness to be shocked! appalled! ohmahgodded! and made incredulous that anyone could do such a thing, we’ll move that much closer to maturity as a species, and can stop rubbernecking the multiple horrors of the world and actually do something about them.

Repeat after me: “Nobody is totally incapable of doing anything. Nobody is totally incapable of doing anything.”

His acts were monstrous, yes. but Josef Fritzl is no monster. He’s a human being, just like you and me. And that is what makes him, and others like him, truly frightening.

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