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Neighbors or Killers?

On a hot summer day in 1941 the Jews of the Polish village of Jedwabne were slaughtered by their neighbors. The Polish villagers used crude tools – axes, pitchforks, knives, iron bars and nail-studded clubs -- to beat, torture and maim their victims, and finally drove those still alive into a wooden barn, soaked it with kerosene and set it afire. While some villagers rounded up scattered Jewish babies and children and pitchforked them into the burning barn, the town band played loudly to drown out the screams of the victims.

Although the German army had recently taken the territory around Jedwabne from the Soviets, there were no German troops in the village on that day, and no evidence that the Germans incited the massacre.

The story of Jedwabne is told in Neighbors, a 2001 book by Jan T. Gross. The very title of the book recognizes the incongruity that neighbors – people who lived side by side, worked together and knew each others' names – should carry out such terrible acts of brutality.

More than 60 years ago humanity recoiled from the Holocaust and vowed that "never again" should such unspeakable horrors happen on the face of the earth. Yet today there are daily reports of spree killings, drone killings, ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial detentions, torture, religious butchery, terrorist attacks, and civil wars.

Why? What causes or allows neighbors to slaughter, torture and harm one another? We Americans argue endlessly about the causes of violence, propose that for "security" we need either personal handguns, or strict gun control laws; we demand vengeful punishments for minor offenses, and spend billions on wars and weapons of personal or mass destruction, all the while devising convoluted but unsatisfactory explanations about why people kill one another.

In the wake of the recent shootings in Colorado, New York Times columnist David Brooks, (in "More Treatment Programs", July 23, 2012,) says that the origins of spree killings are in the heads of the killers, not in the societies in which they take place. That may be true, but doesn’t go very far: the tools of killing, as well as the consequences of killings, are in the society and its economy and culture, not confined to the misshapen mind that deploys them.

Brooks’ remedy is social vigilance, all of us noticing when a "relative or neighbor is going off the rails" and getting that person into treatment. In other words, we should suspect everyone, monitor our neighbors and turn in anyone who looks or acts funny.

Michael Moore notes, in "It’s the Guns – But We All Know, It's Not Really the Guns" (Common Dreams, July 25, 2012) that we are proud of our prowess at killing, but let ourselves be motivated and manipulated by fear. His prescription is personal courage and resolve to end the slaughter. That’s a necessary, but probably not sufficient, step toward reducing the killing.

Neither Brooks nor Moore addresses the selling of a culture of fear for political or commercial power. We have Republicans selling fear of poor people and taxes; some Democrats are selling fear of terrorism and loss of military power; the NRA only wants to sell guns. On this larger stage, it looks to me like men with money and power are trying at every turn to feed our fears and destroy the conviviality, mutual trust and neighborliness that should keep us from hurting one another.

We’re letting TV ads funded by Superpacs persuade us that our neighbors are trying to take advantage of us; we’re letting politicians and the media nourish our fears of others and persuade us that we must fear undesirable people – blacks, immigrants, gays, Muslims, the poor – and keep them from enjoying our rights and privileges. There are widespread pressures to enact voter ID laws.


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The voter ID law in Ohio now forces a neighbor and friend of 30 years who serves as a poll-worker for my precinct to demand that I show an ID to prove who I am when I go to vote. If she doesn’t ask she can be prosecuted; if I don’t co-operate I can’t vote. We try to laugh it off, but we both know it diminishes the trust and conviviality that makes our community strong and democracy work. It bases our relationship on fear rather than trust, respect and friendship.

Somehow I doubt that suspecting, spying and snitching on our neighbors is a solution, or even very different from the fear-driven feelings and reasoning of gun-rights supporters. It reveals the same underlying reasoning: "my neighbor can’t be trusted and must be feared, therefore ...I need a gun" or "therefore ... I need to turn him in to the authorities."

We’ll never know what triggered the massacre at Jedwabne, but a century of ongoing carnage has made it clear that modern humans are quite capable of killing their neighbors.

Still, most of us don't. Maybe it's time to ask "Why do people respect and trust one another, and practice compassion and cooperation? What prevents violence and keeps people, individually or collectively, from killing each other?"

There are some rather tattered explanations floating around about preventing war: ‘Democracies don't go to war with other democracies' or ‘Nations with McDonalds’ don't start wars'. These are glib, largely unprovable statements, yet they are not without sense. People who govern themselves, or have a standard of living high enough to enjoy fast-food usually have more to lose than gain from going to war.

I'd like to float a similar simplistic statement about mass killers: People who know and trust their neighbors and are engaged in their communities are less likely to slaughter their neighbors.

Millions of Americans are engaged every day in community activities – food banks and homeless shelters, churches, environmental clean-ups, civic, humanitarian and cultural boards and commissions, educational, arts, or sports activities, tutoring and mentoring

Does all this engagement prevent acts of fear and violence against neighbors? Does it make us more compassionate and kindly? Maybe. Do we serve others because we have compassion or learn compassion by serving? It probably doesn't matter. What does matter is that we practice neighborliness, and it makes the world a better – and probably a safer – place for all people.

But if we don’t stop fearing and blaming others, muster some trust and respect for our neighbors, and generate some confidence in ourselves instead of in weapons and wars, we’re doomed to endless wars and slaughters.

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

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