Ross Douthat, continuing his discussion of Steven Pinker’s book about how violence has radically decreased in our historical era, observes that in some ways, we have not become better, only better at concealing our brutality from ourselves:
So we regard public executions as an anachronistic barbarity, to say nothing of flogging, the stocks, and other pre-modern forms of punishment. But we’re kept safe from crime by a penal system that locks lawbreakers away in a self-enclosed world pervaded by hidden cruelties and unacknowledged forms of torture. We have a growing distaste for cruelty to animals, manifest in polls, pop culture, foxhunting bans, you name it. But the vegetarian minority notwithstanding, our daily meals come from factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses where animals are treated in ways that would make our gorges rise if we ever actually confronted them. And more provocatively, of course, there’s the case of infanticide: Common in premodern societies, abhorred in our more civilized age … unless, of course, you count the million-plus abortions in America every year, perhaps the most common and the most concealed form of violence that our society accepts.
This calls to mind crazy Father Smith’s ranty sermon at the end of Walker Percy’s “The Thanatos Syndrome”:
“I observed some of you. But do you know what you are doing? I observe a benevolent feeling here. There is also a tenderness. At the bedside of some children this morning I observed you shed tears. On television.
“Do you know where tenderness leads? Tenderness leads to the gas chambers.”
“These are strange times. There are now two kinds of people. This has never happened before. One are decent, tenderhearted, unbelieving, philanthropic people. The other are some preachers who tell the truth about the Lord but are themselves often rascals if not thieves.
“What a generation! Believing thieves and decent unbelievers!
“The Great Depriver’s finest hour!
“Not a guilty face here!
“Everyone here is creaming in his drawers from tenderness!”
“But beware, tender hearts!
“Don’t you know where tenderness leads?” Silence. “To the gas chambers.”
“Never in the history of the world have there been so many civilized tenderhearted souls as have lived in this century.
“Never in the history of the world have so many people been killed.
“More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together.”