August 18, 2016, Israel
The Truce by Primo Levi.
Primo Michele Levi was born in Turin, Italy.
On 21 February 1944, Levi and other inmates were transported in twelve cramped cattle trucks to Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Levi (record number 174517) spent eleven months there before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of twenty who left the camps alive. The average life expectancy of a new entrant at the camp was three months.
All too often we hear that we must "understand" the murderer, the serial killer, the terrorist. We must understand their difficult childhood, the trauma they experienced and what led them to this anti-social behavior.
The argument is as follows: if we can understand what went wrong in their lives we can fix it.
To this I say, good luck, hogwash! and Fiddlesticks!
I have lived in the Middle East most of my life, I have lived with Jewish history, I have lived with war and terrorism. I find that very few people outside of our circle truly understand the conflict. To understand another culture you need a doctorate and even then you will not really get it.
To understand South Africa you need not only to study, you need to "feel" it, you need to live it. It is far too easy to come from the outside, take a quick look and declare people racists or what-have-you. No, that is unfair and unfounded.
It takes a long time to understand a culture, a person, a conflict.
You can study it but you can rarely understand it unless you live it.
Primo Levi lived the Holocaust. He was one of the few who can be called a voice for the silent victims. He described only what he personally experienced. He adamantly refused to give judgement on what he had not seen or experienced personally. But his insights are nothing short of brilliant.
He was asked how the Nazis hatred for the Jews can be explained. I too have been asked this question and I have spent much of my life researching that and trying to answer it.
I like Levi's answer. He says it cannot be explained. For to explain it in a way is to justify it. If I can explain something I can understand how it happened. No, he says, he comes short of understanding it.
"Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand it almost to justify" (Primo Levi, The Truce, page 442 in the combined edition)
What is more important and relevant is that not a whole lot is to be gained by understanding. What is more important is to understand how these things happen, how they come about. "We cannot understand it, but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative."
In a nutshell Levi has captured the essence of self defense and Krav Maga. Leave it to the psychologist to try and understand the serial killer and the rapist, of what good is that to us? After every mass shooting the authorities draw incorrect conclusions and blame the wrong parties. Friends and family of the killer speak of a "basically good quiet kid" and "no one saw it coming".
Levi points out that the actions of an individual are impossible to predict. "It is, however, almost impossible to foresee the behavior of an individual, even on a day-to-day basis" (page 444). He goes on to explain this in scientific terms, he is a Doctor of Chemistry. He explains how every choice is followed by others, all multiple, ad infinitum. There are simply too many factors.
Interestingly our experts in Counter Terrorism explained the exact same point to the participants in our Krav Maga Tour and Train Israel Experience. A plan, such as a suicide bombing, involves many people and must involve careful planning; there is the purchasing of materials, the assembly of the parts, the driver, etc. There are many traces. But an individual attack, our instructors explained, cannot be predicted and cannot be avoided. Thus we must be ready and trained. As Levi wrote "We must be on guard".
A modern Israeli counter terrorist, a chemist in Auschwitz, the year is 2016, the year is 1947, Israeli born, Italian born, but truth is truth.
Levi writes that for "well known reasons" one cannot know his own future or that of his neighbor. We cannot predict who will turn to hatred, we cannot even predict our own behavior. But we must prepare. We must study crime, as my dear friend and mentor Prof. Arthur Cohen did. We must study terrorism, we must know from where it can come and we must be prepared.
Understanding is impossible but knowing is imperative.