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Cost of moral apathy.

I came across an interesting phrase the other day. Moral blankness.

The phrase was used to explain Fred and Rosemary West and why their crimes went undetected for so long.

For over twenty years, their house at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester stood foursquare above its dreadful secrets. There were countless opportunities for knowing. Not knowing everything, of course, but knowing enough to notify police.

All sorts of people must have known that this was a very sick household. Evidence abounded and neither Fred nor Rosemary West attempted to hide their depraved lifestyle. Fred West's friends also know him to be a lawless individual, a man who hated "Nosey Parkers" and so hated any kind of authority that he relished stealing everything he could get his hands on. Not because he couldn't pay but because it was his way of thumbing his nose at the system.

Many people also witnessed Rose losing her temper with her children, beating them black and blue even in the supermarket and sitting around her house watching porn videos. Neighbours were also well aware of her life as a prostitute and the mysterious disappearances of several lodgers and two of her daughters.

For more than two decades, the chaos, the degradation and the moral blankness of the West household was on display for everyone to see, says Gordon Burn, author of Happy Like Murderers, a new book on the Wests.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, however. For one man's crimes to flourish, he needs conspirators to help him or to look the other way.

For the West atrocities to continue unabated, many must have pushed their suspicions to the backs of their minds, reasons Burn, as he grapples with the `why' of this horrific case. "Nobody wanted to keep those memories. Nobody wanted to take a long, hard, unflinching look. So nobody saw."

Can this be right? Can it be that we deal with the discovery of such horror by employing the same strategies by which these horrors went unsuspected for so long?

Moral blankness takes many forms. Apart from the psychopathology of criminals themselves, the most common is "I don't want to know." Which means "If I don't know anything, then I don't have to do anything." The second most common is "If I look the other way and tell myself that what seems to be going on can't be all that bad, then I won't have to do anything"

In the prophetic film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, director Fritz Lang envisions a government which appears civic-minded on the surface but in actuality, rules by crime and terror, transforming Germany into a "Dominion of Crime" in which all opponents are gassed. The film was first screened in January 1933, the month that Adolf Hitler became chancellor. Goebbels praised Lang's skill as a director but banned it nevertheless. Later that year, the director fled to Hollywood where they make films like Wag the Dog, the prescient story of an American president who starts a war to divert attention from his affair with a White House intern.

Oh, but Bill Clinton is different, you say. What's a little sex got to do with Nazis or the Wests?

It's this: to overlook moral turpitude is a dangerous, even foolhardy, game.

The polls tell us that the American people think President Clinton is doing a good job. So a little hanky-panky, a little lying and a little deceit is no big deal; it's merely the price Americans have to pay. Besides, everybody does it so why should we condemn a president for doing what our neighbours do?

Moral blankness again.

It is not forgiveness Americans are offering their president; nor does it appear to be true forgiveness he is seeking. Instead, what we are witnessing is blanket acceptance of misbehaviour as if it doesn't matter. Which is not only a superficial response but an extraordinarily lazy one as well.

History teaches many lessons, but the most important is this: to ignore superficial immorality is perilous because what lies underneath is invariably ghastlier than anyone suspects.

"They should have all survived," Burns says of the Wests' victims. "They died because no one pieced the Wests together, no one got on their trail, no one faced the facts."

Like all true criminals, the Wests, and anyone else of their ilk, knew enough to conceal their activities so that they could continue unchecked and unopposed.

"We live our lives ignorant of the lives of others, so ignorant that we can't even pick up the most screaming warnings of danger when we stumble across them," Burns concludes.

Worse, when finally faced with the truth, we stubbornly persist in doing nothing, believing we have nothing in common with such monsters, that they are beyond our comprehension and that their crimes have nothing to do with us. As if personal and national failure to take moral account will not inevitably end in moral bankruptcy, chaos, poverty and death. As if our reluctance to "judge" or act on the evidence of our senses makes us blameless, good guys. As if we are not our brother's keeper.

Moral blankness indeed.

Paula Adamick is a regular columnist for Catholic Insight; she writes from London, England.
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Author:Adamick, Paula
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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