IN DARKNESS WAITING: EVIL IS DEHUMANIZATION

[My foreword to my novel IN DARKNESS WAITING, for its new edition, seems relevant to our times. And to humanity's perennial dilemma, its persistent question: What is the Nature of Evil?]

Foreword to IN DARKNESS WAITING: The “Director’s Cut”

This edition of In Darkness Waiting has been re-edited. I updated it a little, cut some youthful excess, tinkered with a few sentences and trimmed some slow bits. But it’s essentially the same book, and it definitely has the same theme. It’s a hard-charging horror story—I suspect it would be difficult to find a horror novel with a scene more extreme than the climax of this book—but its subtext is what is most important to me.

Paradoxically, some books seem more relevant as time goes on. Or perhaps their relevance is simply brought into prominence by resonant times. In Darkness Waiting seems to me to be one of those books. Before there was any thought of reprinting IDW, I found myself referring to it, more than once, while writing some recent online opinion pieces. I was writing about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, as well as the abuse of women and “unbelievers” by Fundamentalist Muslims. How can people stone a woman to death because someone raped her? They do. How can American soldiers gleefully torment and beat and humiliate their prisoners, most of whom had nothing to do with terrorism? They did. When an atrocity comes about, it starts inside the perpetrators. Something happens, in them—a process whereby they dehumanize their victims. Well before the act, the atrocity has begun psychologically—and neurologically.

People are not innately monstrous. Most people can be quite compassionate, sympathetic, in the right circumstances. Yet somehow they can also switch that compassion off—some unknown trigger comes along, and it’s switched off, within them, like switching off a light. As I mention in IDW, Nazis guarding concentration camps tossed bread to hungry, snow-bound birds, feeling genuinely sorry for them, while a few feet away children starved to death, watching enviously as the birds eat crumbs. How can they calmly accept taking part in starving those children, and then feed the birds? Many of these monsters had wives and children they loved. What is the mechanism of the repression of normal human empathy?

There are many examples of dehumanization from American history. In the book The Plutonium Files by Pulitzer Prize winner Eileen Welsome, we learn that in the 1940s thousands of powerless Americans–blacks, institutionalized children, the poor, prisoners, soldiers— were deliberately exposed to plutonium, often in injections, as part of experiments essentially designed to find ways to protect the experimenters from deadly radiation. The researchers worked for the government, on military grants (all done in secret), to try to find ways to protect the developers of nuclear weapons from radiation. So they injected radioactive particles into people; they gave hundreds of children radioactive iron particles, spoonfed to them in oat meal, and then, quite dispassionately, they monitored the health of experimental subjects–eventually, their deterioration–in this effort to protect their own kind. They dehumanized their subjects for the sake of their own survival; to find ways to protect them, the researchers, and people like them, from radiation, at the expense of powerless Americans–who were never told what was happening to them. President Clinton appointed a committee to look into these allegations, and the committee reported its shocking conclusions on the very day that the OJ Simpson trial concluded–perhaps so that the story would be buried in the press, as in fact it was.

In my online piece I wrote: I again call for scientific research into the psychological and neurological mechanism of dehumanization. We need to realize that it’s integral to human behavior–and only through understanding it can we find ways to overcome it.

It is perhaps significant that the original title of this novel was Insect Inside. If we are not careful to make conscious choices, we become insects, inside.

In Darkness Waiting is an entertainment. If you like horror, I think there’s a good chance you’ll find it damned entertaining. (Or should that be “entertainment for the damned”?) But it’s also about something that honestly troubles me. It’s also about real life. Yes: all-too-real life. I gave the phenomenon a name in the book. E.S.S.: Empathy Suppression Syndrome. That clinical label was a strategy to promote the notion that we need to engage in a whole new level of what Gurdjieff and the Buddhists call “self-observation.” We need to observe ourselves as a species, with new objectivity, or we’ll never understand the nature of evil.

And if we don’t understand it, we have no hope of standing against it.

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