Genocide, Denial, and Mr. Death

Upon watching Errol Morris’ Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr I came to a fuller understanding of human nature and denial. Although I abhor the use of electric chairs and other forms of capital punishment, I felt particularly alarmed at Leuchter’s ability to fall into the mindset of denial. The movie provides a provocative look at the Holocaust. Through this film we don’t explore the events in Auschwitz as a message of the historic barbarities that took place there, but rather as a reflection of denial. How could Leuchter, with the backing of so much history, fail to recognize the atrocities committed during this time? The answer, as shown through the film, rests with his inexperience. Leuchter finds absurd the idea of the gas chambers, which he believes to be far too perilous for even the perpetrating party, and his lack of general knowledge of chemistry his denial is rooted in disbelief–a self-proclaimed expert on first electric chairs, then lethal injections, and then gas chambers, he rejects any idea that he himself cannot possibly conceive the mechanics of. Interestingly, I also thought the documentary provided a glimpse into human nature; as humans, we often overestimate our own rightness and forget that there exists a world beyond that in our own minds. For instance, Leuchter alleges expertise in various forms of execution but he is not an engineer of any sort nor a chemist, with only a BA in history to back his scientific claims. Yet, he is trapped within his own mind.

As a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors, I have myself come across people who refuse to accept the horrific events of the time. Two years back at Duke, the Coalition for Preserving Memory organized a candle lighting ceremony to remember those who had been victims of the Genocide. A Turkish graduate student emailed to the President of the club a letter expressing his discomfort and offense at the event, claiming that the group was propagating false history about his people. Obviously, the amount of history to support the genocide is extensive yet while it is difficult to understand denial, it’s important to realize perspective and to try and enter the denier’s mindset to understand the other side. And in fact a week after the candle lighting ceremony, which fell on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Armenian Genocide denier Michael Gunter was invited to speak at Duke regarding the “Turkish Armenian Conflict: A Historical Perspective.” As a side note to Duke, while I do think that hearing different perspectives may be an enriching experience, in this case having a denier speak just a week after the Genocide remembrance day was highly inconsiderate especially since the same situation probably would not have occurred as such if it were regarding, say, the Holocaust. The intentions may have been educational, but the timing was poorly coordinated (the event was hosted by the American Turkish Association of North Carolina which is understandable but Duke also could have refused to sponsor the event at such a time).

In my studies, I’ve come to realize that there are two reasons of denial (of course there may be many more, but these are the two I found most intriguing personally): the first rests in social and political repression. While in the case of the Holocaust Germany has since recognized its part and taken responsibility, Turkey has yet to do so in regards to the Armenian Genocide. In fact, it’s gone to great lengths to restrict any mention and education of the 1915 atrocities. Whether under claims that deportations were simply a war-time necessity or that both sides took part in violence or that the horrors were executed under the Ottomans and not modern Turks, the idea that the mass killings of 1.5 million people  as genocide is strictly erased from all accounts of the era. So then how do you even begin to educate a people whose history has been reshaped? The second reason of denial, I believe, is that of utter disbelief as in the case of Leuchter. While those like Ernst Zündel may deny humanitarian infractures like the Holocaust due to internal racism, I think that Leuchter simply could not comprehend the mechanics of the gas chambers and other mechanisms used to perform executions. To reiterate my earlier point, Leuchter fails, like many people around the world, to think laterally about technology and experiences beyond his own practice and is instead caught up in his own restricted mind. Film, then, almost takes on this responsibility to educate both on actual history but also the nature of humans. On the full screen we are exposed to these perspectives that empower us to tackle issues on a personal and global level.

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