The vandals responsible for defacing the Port Washington Police Athletic League’s (PAL) clubhouse deserve vehement remonstrance. Last week, we heard such condemnation loud and clear: Rob Elkins, the executive director of PAL, referred to the act as “mindless destruction” and “100 percent intolerable”; and two esteemed public servants of the Town of North Hempstead “emphatically condemned” the act. Leaving aside law enforcement, how else can a community heal such a wound?
While reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the political theorist Hannah Arendt noticed that members of the Third Reich were surprisingly dull and not as radical as she expected personified evil to be. In coining the phrase “banality of evil,” Arendt exposed a truly insidious quality of evil: that is, it can spread to people who are not necessarily evil to their core. While some perpetrators are very mindful in their acts of hate, others are rather mindless. It seems to me we should be asking the following twofold question: Why was the shame silenced in these vandals and how can we make it roar?
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, defines shame “as a certain kind of fear of a bad reputation.” We too often hastily discuss shame as an emotion that has no place in our society, an emotion that can only lead to pain and anguish. But shame, when properly harnessed, helps steer us away from vice and toward virtue. In youth, shame leaves its most lasting impression when experienced firsthand; and by adulthood, it is hoped, shame can be experienced prospectively, so as to instill an aversion toward shameful behavior.
Ideally, even the thought of utilizing a swastika as either a means of self-empowerment or vengeance would be so abhorrent that one would never go through with it. However, when such a shameful act is committed, one question that arises is whether the surrounding community can forgive that person. It is this possibility of forgiveness that gives shame its redemptive value. Without the chance of forgiveness, shame may drown one in despair.
Perhaps our best tool to discourage such behavior, as Elkins suggested, is education. We should encourage parents and teachers to educate our youth about the meaning behind the swastika. For example, this past January, the Port Washington Public Library hosted the Holocaust Survivor Photography Exhibit, bookended by two moving events wherein family members of holocaust survivors discussed the courageous spirit of their ever-resilient loved ones. Events such as these put on full display those heroes worthy of our admiration and those villains worthy of our abhorrence. Hearing such stories also makes the history visceral in a way pure statistics, no matter how horrific, can never do. Of course, the difficulty lies in getting those who most need to hear these stories there in the first place, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.
Perhaps knowledge about the horrors committed under the Third Reich, coupled with accounts from those that experienced it, could sow the seed of shame that is often necessary for a conscience to bloom. But shame’s redemptive value relies on the notion that forgiveness may be earned. So if these vandals realize just how shameful their behavior was, and make amends, perhaps then, and only then, may they be forgiven, both by the community and by themselves.
Paul D. Schreiber Class of 2010 Commencement Speaker