In college, I took a course that covered a wide selection of Thomas Merton’s writings, one essay in particular, “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” I have not forgotten. Published in 1964, Merton reflects on the events of the Eichmann Trial and the declaration by a psychiatrist that Adolf Eichmann was deemed “sane.” Now over half a century later, his meditation on sanity echoes soundly in cultural and political halls.
The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.
It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missile, and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will he suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will he obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake. …
And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?
Merton’s question is poignant in a time where children sit in cages separated from their parents. The sanity of our time seems questionable when it is commonplace for families to have to choose between affording food to eat or medications to live. Our societal sanity appears weak when affinity to firearms and ammunition is stronger than our affinity to the countless bodies lying dead filled with lead. Our culturally sanity seems moot when athletes, business elites, and YouTube models are praised for their exorbitant wealth while working class teachers, union members, and employees in numerous other industries are deemed lazy and selfish for struggling to make ends meets. Our political sanity seems ripe when an individual could be elected president after threatening to shoot someone dead in the center of a street, or slinging vile insults to anyone who might question his authority, or claiming with a laugh about the joy of sexually assaulting someone.
Yes, over 50 years later, the words of a dead monk, seem ripped from the headlines. Our nation’s sanity is solid as we have aligned our sanity with high-profit margins, corporate hedge-funds, and greed.
Donald Trump is sane. Those senators and congressional representatives who supported his candidacy and cabinet, these too were the sane ones. Those super PACs, Koch Brothers, Cambridge Analytica data miners, who researched intrusively personal methods of advertising; who strategized, redistricted, and selected their own voters; who funded lobbyists and interest groups: these are not the crazy people, they are the sane people.
On the other hand, you will probably find pacifists, children speaking against gun violence, teachers demanding better wages and school conditions, patients crying for free and reduced healthcare costs, activists occupying outside of immigrant detention centers, women begging for less regulations of their genitals, and environmentalists pressing for cleaner air and healthier water, are all a little crazy.
Like Merton, I am beginning to realize that sanity is no longer a value. Sanity now is a reflection of the status quo and willingness to reside with what remains. Sanity implies a willingness to remain careless, soulless, and unconcerned for our neighbor. Sanity governs a stupidity that accepts, at face-value, a news report without questioning or researching its validity. Sanity implies a warped justification for an individual whose language is so reprehensible that one wouldn’t dare repeat it themself. Sanity is unwavering support for someone who viscerally attacks and insults some of our strongest and most trusted allies. Sanity is not recognizing that the very thing you are supporting is the very thing undermining your way of life.
“Perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally ‘sane.'”
All quotations were taken from the essay entitled “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann” published in Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton. You can find the entire essay here.