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The Need to Punish

The Political Consequences of Identifying with the Aggressor

By Arno Gruen 
Translated from the original German by Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum.
Presented at Martti Siirala's 80th Birthday Seminar, 30th November 2002, Helsinki,
Finlandia Hall

This paper is based on, "Der Fremde in uns" (The stranger within us), published by
Klett-Cotta (Stuttgart), which received the "Geschwister-Scholl-Preis" in 2001.) It
also appeared in slightly different form in
The Journal of Psychohistory, Vol 27, No.
2, Fall 1999.


We live in a world in which we are becoming increasingly dependent on one another and yet at the same time are turning more and more against one another. Why are people hostile to what connects them, to what they have in common - their humanity? Milovan Djilas, Tito's comrade in the partisan war against the Nazis and later one of his most severe critics, describes in his autobiographical report, Land Without Justice, the cruelty of a male world in which humaneness is scorned as weakness. Once after the war a Montenegrin Yugoslav named Sekula met a Turkish Moslem on the road from Bijelo Polje to Mojkovac:
"They had never seen or heard of each other before. That particular road was always dangerous, thickly wooded, and perfect for ambushes. The Moslem was happy that he was in the company of a Montenegrin. Sekula, too, felt more secure being with a Turk, just in case Turkish guerrillas should be around. The Moslem was obviously a peace loving family man. On the way they offered one another tobacco and chatted in friendly fashion. Travelling together through the wild, the men grew close to one another. Sekula later declared that he felt no hatred, no hatred whatever for this man. The fellow would have been just like anyone else, said Sekula, if he had not been a Turk. This inability to feel hatred made him feel guilty. And yet, as he said, Turks are people too."
"It was a summer day, and the heat was overpowering. However, because the whole region was covered by a thick forest and the road skirted a little stream, it was cool and pleasant. The two travellers sat, finally, to have a bite to eat and to rest in the fresh coolness by the brook. Sekula boasted to the Moslem of what a fine pistol he had, and showed it to him. The Moslem looked at it, praised the weapon, and asked Sekula if it was loaded. Sekula replied that it was - and at that moment it occurred to him that he could kill the Turk simply by moving a finger. Still, he had made no firm resolve to do this. He pointed the pistol at the Moslem, straight between his eyes, and said, "Yes, it is loaded, and I could kill you now." Blinking before the muzzle and laughing, the Moslem begged Sekula to turn the gun away, because it could go off. Sekuja realized quite clearly, in a flash, that he must kill his fellow traveller. He simply would not be able to bear the shame and the pangs of conscience if he let this Turk go now. And he fired, as though by accident, between the smiling eyes of that man."
When Sekula told the story later, he claimed that at the moment when he jokingly aimed the pistol at the Moslem's forehead he had no intention of killing him. Djilas writes: "And then, his finger seemed to pull by itself something erupted inside, something with which he was born and which he was utterly incapable of holding back." That must have been the moment when Sekula felt so close to the Turk that he was overcome with shame. As absurd as it sounds, he did what he did not out of hatred but its opposite: he killed this "stranger" because he could not hate him. This made him feel ashamed and guilty because the friendliness and good will he sensed in himself turned into a feeling of weakness. It was this feeling he had to kill. When he killed "the Other," he killed humanity in himself

Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo "butcher of Lyon" who tortured a French resistance fighter to death, said in an interview with Neal Ascherson (1983): "As I interrogated Jean Moulin, I felt that he was myself" In other words, what the butcher did to his victim he did in a certain sense to himself. My point is this: hatred of the foreigner always has something to do with self hatred. If we want to understand why people torment and humiliate others, we must first deal with what we despise in ourselves, for the enemy we believe we see in the other person must originally exist inside. We want to silence this part of us by destroying the stranger who, because he resembles us, reminds us of it. That is the only way we can distance ourselves from what has become foreign to us in ourselves. That is the only way we can maintain our self-esteem and feel as if we are holding our heads high.