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In Indonesia and America: Agents of Barbarism

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League


At first glance it seems despicably profane to associate the evil murderous rampage of the unidentified sniper terrorizing metropolitan Washington and the monstrous terror bombing in Bali, Indonesia with the courageous literate humanity Imre Kertesz, this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, has practiced all his life.
And I do not.


Rather, I mention them to contrast these killers’ profound brutality with the outstanding quality Kertesz’ novels and essays are said to make so compellingly clear.
That is, as the Nobel Prize jury’s proclamation stated, Kertesz’ work "upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."
As we contemplate with horror the catastrophe in Bali and, here in America, the sniper’s taking of another life, let us understand that this is the connection: the wrenching juxtaposition of good and evil—the innocent victims and the cowardly calculating killers whose inhumanity has transformed them into evil spirits in human form.
Both these tragedies symbolize so much of human history—on the one hand, the great capacity of some human beings to commit evil, and, on the other, the great capacity of some human beings to live lives of great, simple dignity.
Kertesz, a Hungarian-born Jew, witnessed and survived two of the most destructive examples of the barbaric arbitrariness of history. As a teenager, he was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Afterward, he lived in Hungary during the entire time of its domination by the Soviet Union.
But, although he lived in an environment where government demanded a rigid, stifling conformity, Kertesz expressed in his novels and essays a relentless resistance to unjust social and political conformity.
Surely, it is no accident of history that he and his ideas, largely unknown in the West until now, come to our attention at this most dangerous moment.
Many in the world were lulled by the estimable progress civilization has made in many fields since World War II into thinking that humankind had largely rid itself of its chilling capacity for the greatest cruelty the Nazis had taken to the depths of depravity. However, we know now that the carnage of the 1990s in the Balkans and Guatemala and Rwanda and Oklahoma City and so many others places around the world demonstrates yet again how thin the veneer of civilization remains.
The barbaric arbitrariness of history took the lives of hundreds of thousands in the last decade, as a half-century earlier it had taken the lives of millions.
What, one asks now, reeling with grief, have those who have perished at the hands of the killers in Bali and in metropolitan Washington done to deserve this cruel fate?
This is the same question my colleagues at the Wall Street headquarters of the National Urban League asked thirteen months ago, as the World Trade Center complex fell to earth less than a mile from our doorstep and the Pentagon exploded in fatal flames. Then, thousands of lives were taken in moments by a cabal of men of bottomless evil. And it is the question that loomed large in my mind little more than a week ago when I kept a speaking engagement in the Washington suburb of Bowie, Maryland—where the sniper had shot and wounded a 13-year-old boy.
This is the same question that was asked about those who perished in the death camps sixty years ago. It is the same question that is asked about the victims whenever and wherever the human capacity for large-scale evil can have its way: What did they do to deserve this cruel fate? Why them?
The answer, of course, is that they did not deserve such a fate, but it befell them nonetheless.
That fact—of cruel fate overtaking the innocent—is the oldest of human stories. This is the barbaric arbitrariness of history. It will not end with the capture of the evildoers in Bali and in the Washington suburbs.
The much more difficult task for we who survive these episodes of the barbaric arbitrariness of history is to go on with our faith in humanity intact.
The way to do that, I think, is to keep in mind the successes of people like Imre Kertesz in resisting, in whatever ways they can, the evils and evildoers of history from extinguishing the fragility—that is to say, the beauty of spirit—that so many individuals uphold as the most enduring characteristic of the human experience.

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