Beliefnet
I have learned from a friend about the pitfall of moral exquisiteness. By moral exquisiteness, I mean the sort of moral reasoning that has become so refined, so attentive to every aspect of every case, so sensitive to every standpoint in every situation, that all moral friction is dispelled, and every moral question is settled, and the individual is left with a pleasing sensation of his own clarity, his own rectitude. A diligent conscience can be also complacent; it can be complacent about its diligence. Professors of moral philosophy sometimes offend me in this way, when they seem like virtuosos of virtue.

But the disappointing friend of whom I am speaking is not a professor of moral philosophy. He is, in fact, a moral hero. And now he has baffled me with an exercise in moral casuistry about an evil that requires nothing fancy for its proper understanding, an evil that is so shocking precisely because it is so simple. The evil to which I refer is the fevered murder of the Jews of Jedwabne by the Poles of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941. With the appearance of Jan T. Gross's crushing book "Neighbors," this obscenity has been rescued from oblivion, not least in Poland, where oblivion suited many people just fine. The New York Times asked Adam Michnik for his thoughts about the crime in Jedwabne, and about the tender subject of Poles and Jews. He obliged, alas. "As I write this text," he explained in his piece, "I am weighing words carefully."

Oh, how carefully! A howl would have done quite well. Instead my friend has produced a contorted moral calculation that is more a document of the problem than a discussion of the problem.

There are the usual Polish apologetics. Michnik begins by reminding his readers that the Poles were also victims: "Not a single Polish family was spared by Hitler and Stalin." (Gross efficiently retires this line of argument in a chapter called "Is It Possible to Be Simultaneously a Victim and a Victimizer?") And Michnik repairs also to the Poles who rescued Jews during the war. He cites the forest of Polish trees at the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, as if a stroll along that shattering lane should lighten anybody's load. "Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?" Michnik asks.

Well, yes, they do, because there were many more of them. (I write this as the grateful son of a Jewish woman who was saved by Poles.) The mention of the righteous is a way of changing the subject, if the subject is the unrighteous. It is designed to leave no guilt uncomplicated, no shame unqualified, no sorrow unalloyed.

Michnik's example of Polish decency toward the Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland is grotesque. He cites an appeal by a well-known Polish writer in August 1942. "The dying Jews are surrounded by Pilates washing their hands," she stirringly wrote. "This silence cannot be tolerated any longer." And she continued: "Our feelings toward the Jews haven't changed. We still consider them the political, economic, and ideological enemies of Poland.... [But] the knowledge of these feelings doesn't relieve us of the duty of condemning the crime. We don't want to be Pilates."

This "extraordinary appeal," Michnik explains, "illustrates the paradox of Polish attitudes toward the Jews. The anti-Semitic tradition compels the Poles to perceive the Jews as aliens while the Polish heroic tradition compels them to save them."

But I do not see a paradox in this writer's language. I see a poison in it, and a piety that lives very comfortably with a poison. The Poles were not Pilates, because the Jews were not Jesus, though they were suffering also from the cross. If these were the philosophical and emotional grounds for "Polish heroism" on behalf of the Jews in Poland, it is no wonder that such heroism was rare.

"I don't believe in collective guilt or collective responsibility or any other responsibility except the moral one," Michnik continues. "And therefore I ponder what exactly is my individual responsibility and my own guilt." This is the voice of an ethically scrupulous man. But then things go awry. "Certainly I cannot be responsible for that crowd of murderers who set the barn in Jedwabne on fire."

Certainly; but it is a little demagogic to suggest that anybody is imputing such responsibility to him, or to any other person who was not in Jedwabne on that day of hell. "When I hear a call to admit my Polish guilt, I feel hurt the same way the citizens of Jedwabne feel when they are interrogated by reporters from around the world." There is a strange nativist quality to that last phrase; but it is my friend's hurt feelings that disturb me. I think that they require a closer look at the notion of collective responsibility.

It is not true that the moral life is lived only individually, even if acts of good or evil are the work of individuals acting together or alone. Individuals belong to groups, and it is a cost or a benefit of their belonging that they are morally implicated by their groups, which are moral agents, too. One can oppose the misdeeds of one's group, but one cannot secede from it, I mean not neatly after the fact.

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