One of life's mysteries, for me, is how masses of people can do the incredibly cruel things they do. Individual brutality makes a certain amount of sense in that it's limited to one person. But mass brutality?
I think this subject first came to mind after I read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf and William L. Shirer's
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany.
There was nothing in either book that told me how such a highly civilized and culturally advanced nation as Germany could sink to the level of the Nazis.
"How could that happen?" I wondered.
"What is there about the Germans that allowed them to become the monsters they became? How are they different than the rest of us?"
So I spent a month pondering the question.
The answer I came up with satisfied me then, and it satisfies me still: There is nothing different about the World War II Germans. What happened to them could happen to anyone. It could happen to us. We are no better than them.
As Pogo so famously said (about pollution) on Earth Day in 1971:
"We have met the enemy and he is us."
I'm reminded of all this now because of the way we Americans blindly follow George W. Bush into battle all over the world. We're fighting in Afghanistan for sure, probably in Pakistan, in the Philippines, in Colombia, and soon in Iraq if the signals we're hearing mean anything. I'm sure I've missed other combat zones, and there is good reason to believe we've conducted clandestine operations in Venezuela.
Similarly, our friends and allies in Israel blindly follow the lead of the serial war criminal, Ariel Sharon, by fighting and committing atrocities against their neighbors, the Palestinians.
The formula to become a brutish leader, as Jean-Marie Le Pen proved recently in France, is a two-step process. First, you convince the masses they are in grave danger (Le Pen used immigrants as his boogie man), then you promise to save them.
That's exactly what Hitler did, and it's exactly what Bush and Sharon are doing.
Generally speaking, people who feel fear seem willing to throw away all their morals and principles. If you don't believe that, go to the airport and watch thousands of otherwise proud people line up like sheep to be publicly humiliated in the name of safety.
But not everybody buys into the Save-Me-From-The-Evildoers syndrome. To make that point, let me refer to a remarkable e-mail I got last week.
It's from a Jewish man. I won't name him, because what he said could cause him trouble.
"I am a 'recovering Jew'," he wrote, "one who was born in the U.S. However, through a series of events having mainly to do with (a) being indoctrinated with 'Jewish values' in religious school, and (b) traveling to Europe and seeing the concentration camps and then by overreacting and immigrating to Israel, I came to the conclusion that religion itself is responsible for more suffering than I could ever imagine on my own."
"The absolute fact of the matter is that I could never reconcile the fact that Jews would call themselves special, while everyone else is different. Particularly, I could not understand how these people could claim to speak to The Almighty while declaring everyone else as somehow inferior, in that regard at least."
"I learned that Jews have a glib way of characterizing and stigmatizing other racial groups (as though being Jewish is a race) by referring to blacks as "schwarzes"or gays as "feygales"or non-Jews as "goyim." In short, my U.S. citizenship and belief in equal rights conflicted with Judaism."
"Insofar as Israel is concerned, I wound up on the West Bank in the early '80s, way before the Intifada began. I remember Jews there referring to the Palestinians as vermin and scum. The Jews boasted that the Arabs were there to do the hard labor, like construction and cleaning, for little money. Basically, I could not reconcile the fact that these people who proclaimed their distaste for slavery could in fact be the ones perpetrating it on others."
"I left Israel abruptly after only a few years there. I had met Ariel Sharon personally. He loved to visit the settlement where I lived because that is where his power base is located. His good-old-boy network of Jewish hit men and terrorists who boobie trap Arab cars and do hit-and-run shootouts is located there, and sadly they derive a large portion of their funding from Jewish groups located in the U.S. who receive tax-free status here."
"The beef among Arabs, whether it is Al Queda or Hamas, is that Israel has been labeled a democracy by the U.S., and they have been labeled terrorists. This is not about religion; it is rather about saying what you mean and meaning what you say."
"Sadly, though, the foreign policy of the U.S. is to recognize Israel's right not only to exist but to intimidate the Arabs around them for the sake of putting them on notice that if they ever decide to cut off the oil then Israel will ally itself with the U.S."
"This is a game, and it is sadly a game that has turned Jews into terrorists. Therefore, I decided not to be Jewish, because I refuse to take part in this blood for oil game. I believe in the right of all people to live in peace, and insofar as that is concerned I have taken this position."
What I found most remarkable about this letter is the writer's honesty. Too many American Jews, it seems to me, march in lock step with the hardest of the Israeli hardliners.
It's the fear factor, I believe. They go against their basic decent instincts and support a brutal regime for fear of being criticized or ostracized as traitors. Peer pressure.
You see the same thing with Americans' blind support of Bush's war policies.
"If you're not for us, you're against us," Bush said, immediately making sheep out of otherwise hard-nosed, independent-thinking Americans.
Driven by fear, masses of people can do horrible things. Now is a good time to recall the admonition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Roosevelt's warning was about the Great Depression, but the words are appropriate now. Fear can turn us all into "good Germans." We must resist it. We must not let it turn us into sheep.
Harley Sorensen is a freelancer whose work appears on sfgate.com on Mondays