Staring into the Abyss – Why Tragedy Brings out the Worst in Us

It’s easy to be a saint in paradise – Avery Brooks

It is truly disturbing that crisis and tragedy often give rise to the uglier, more animalistic side of human nature. For every tale of heroism in the face of adversity it seems there are countless more stories of selfishness, savagery, and wickedness. Real world examples of this can be seen in the aftermath of the Second World War during the trials of Nazi collaborators. Large numbers of persons were all too willing to side with the Nazi regimes that overthrew previous governments in occupied territories, often obtaining positions of status by exposing Jews and other “undesirables,” sending masses of their countrymen to their deaths. On the other hand, the abuses suffered by the allied governments didn’t encourage discriminating in who they punished after the war. Often revenge motivating their decisions as much as justice. Woman accused of fraternizing with German soldiers were often abused, imprisoned, and ostracized from their communities while Russian POW’s liberated by the Red Army were often accused of cowardice and fraternization. Many of them would be saved by their countrymen only to be executed or sentenced to forced labor camps. Although the events in Zone One are no doubt more traumatic than even a world war, Colson Whitehead’s novel is littered with example of cruelty and indifference towards ones fellow man, even as the worst of the Plague has ended and the hope of rebuilding civilization remains alive.

There are several obvious examples of this behavior. The treatment towards the dead (those that stay down anyway) is particularly disrespectful. In the absence of rules and regulations forbidding the behavior, the dead found in high buildings and tall places were simply thrown down to the street, rendered broken and unrecognizable from the fall. Who they had been in life, what they did, and who they had loved were irrelevant. Now they were just a cold body to be collected and incinerated; fuel to power the future of the living. (Whitehead, 75) Worse still, the cruel practice was not stopped by feelings of regret or moral dilemma, but by a desire to preserve windows for future occupants. In the cold and pragmatic calculations dictating mankind’s survival, the dead were not people to respect but obstacles to be removed and obliterated. (Whitehead, 76) The treatment by the sweeper teams towards the stragglers, those rendered immobile yet harmless by the disease, is even more disgusting. There may be no hope of return for these wretched souls, but no one deserves to have their bodies mutilated, tortured and abused for the amusement of others. Some sweepers, like Gary, have turned this grotesque practice into an art form, even attempting to manufacture a device he calls “the Lasso” to capture active dead, the zombie skels that still hunt mankind. Although not directly stated, it can be assumed he intends to entertain himself with more active participants. (Whitehead, 78)

Why it is that dismal situation serves to motivate the darker aspects of the human psyche. Does the prevalence of evil numb us to our own morality, tricking us into believing that our own transgressions will be lost in the miasma? Perhaps that is what makes evil so threatening. It insidiously converts man to its cause without us realizing it, allowing itself to build off our suffering until our own actions seem without consequence. The fall of civilization to the zombie plague opened Pandora’s Box, giving mankind the sense of loss necessary to drop its moral shield and allow selfishness and cruelty to seep out. As always, I’m curious about what you all think and I would love to talk about it either in class or via blog responses.

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