Overcoming Systemic Evil
“How Finkelstein Broke the Trauma Bond and Beat the Holocaust” by Lawrence Swaim is difficult to read, detailing as it does some of the most horrific episodes of brutality and evil in the wars and armed conflicts of recent history. It is however ultimately encouraging, because, it tells the story of people who have bravely told the truth and found the way to maintain their humanity in the face of evil and serve the greater good. The trauma bond in the title refers to that quirk in the human psyche whereby victims of torture or brutality may identify with those who hold power over them and then go on to vent their pain through aggression toward others.
The chapter that gives the book its name is about Norman Finkelstein, the son of two Holocaust survivors, who wrote his PhD thesis on exposing the untruths in a book written to morally justify the expulsion of the Palestinians from their villages during the establishment of the state of Israel. Later published as a book, Finkelstein’s work earned him the enmity of the Israel lobby and indirectly resulted in his being blacklisted from academia despite being recognized as a gifted researcher and teacher.
There is a chapter about Eric Lomax, whose story about ultimately forgiving his Japanese torturer was made into a movie with Colin Firth called “The Railway Man.” Another chapter talks about the work of Gerry Adams and his brave decision to seek a political solution to the Irish troubles that had cost so many lives over 30 years.
Iris Chang was a Chinese American whose grandparents and parents were present in Nangking during the Japanese invasion and exceptionally brutal treatment and massacre of its citizens. Known as the Rape of Nanking, the history of these events had been suppressed, presumably due to the US desire to foster good relations with Japan and avoid embarrassing revelations. While the other stories in the book were about freeing oneself from the effects of the trauma, in this case Iris was working on behalf of an entire community to give voice to a story that had been silenced because of political pressures. Iris was driven to write several highly regarded books on the subject, at considerable cost to her delicate mental state, and interviewing survivors of the massacre for her last one may have contributed to her suicide.
Another particularly moving chapter for me was the story of Noam Chayut, an Israeli author and former soldier who was moved to become one of the founders Breaking the Silence – www.breakingthesilence.org.il – an organization of Israeli soldiers dedicated to talking about their experiences serving in the occupied territories, and exposing to the Israeli public the reality of everyday life for the Palestinians who live there.
What ties these and all the other chapters together is the author’s thesis that two things are necessary to break the trauma bond and successfully combat systemic evil: one is to acknowledge the truth about a situation and speak of it to others, and the other is to take some kind of positive action for the greater good. This brings to mind the quotation from Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Throughout the book are examples of how even good men may be drawn into complicity with terrible acts. When brutality becomes commonplace and winning at any cost is the only criterion of right action, the moral compass loses direction. There are far too many resonances with present day events, and one can only hope that Swaim’s call is more that of a rooster at dawn than a canary in the coal mine.
“How Finkelstein Broke the Trauma Bond and Beat the Holocaust” would have benefited from some drastic pruning and copy editing. Its length is rather off-putting, which is a pity because it does provide valuable perspectives and sobering food for thought.
–Reviewed by Miriam Knight