The very problem

One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.

— Thomas Schelling

Chesterton’s Fence

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

— Chesterton


The relation of an author to his work is only one out of many, and once you accept the idea that one thing to which a man stands related shares in his guilt, you will presently extend it to others; begin by banning his poems not because you object to them but because you object to him, and you will end, as the Nazis did, by slaughtering his wife and children.

— Auden


In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we told ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.


An insult

(From Dark Star by Alan Furst):

He shook his head sorrowfully. “And in the end, when it’s our turn, and somebody else is doing what has to be done, somebody else who doesn’t ask to see the sense of it, the discipline of the executioner, then all we can say is za cbtoì—why? What for? ” Kuscinas laughed. “A sorry little question,” he said. “For myself, I don’t mean to ask it.”

That night, Szara couldn’t sleep. He lay in his bunk and smoked, the man across from him mumbling restlessly in his dreams. Szara knew the history of that question, Za cbtoì. Rumor attributed its initial use to the Old Bolshevik Yacov Lifschutz, a deputy people’s commissar. His final word. Szara remembered him as a little man with wild eyebrows, the obligatory goatee, and a twinkling glance. Shuffling down the tile corridor in the basement of the Lubyanka—you got it on the way, nobody ever reached the end of that corridor—he stopped for a moment and turned to his executioner, an officer he happened to have known in childhood, and said, “Za chto?”

Along with the purge, the phrase spread everywhere; it was scrawled on the walls of cells, carved in the wooden benches of the Stolypin wagons that hauled prisoners away, scratched into planks in transit camps. Almost always the first words spoken to the police who came in the night, then again the first words of a man or a woman entering a crowded cell. “But why? Why?”

We are all alike, Szara thought. We don’t offer excuses or alibis, we don’t fight with the police, we don’t look for compassion, we don’t even plead. We are the people who called ourselves “dead men on furlough;” we always expected to die—in the revolution, the civil war. All we ask, rational men that we are, is to see the sense of the thing, its meaning. Then we’ll go. Just an explanation. Too much to ask?


The savagery of the purge, Szara knew, gave them every reason to believe there was, must be, a reason. When a certain NKVD officer was taken away, his wife wept. So she was accused of resisting arrest. Such events, common, daily, implied a scheme, an underlying plan. They wanted only to be let in on it—certainly their own deaths bought them the right to an answer—and then they’d simply let the rest of it happen. What was one more trickle of blood on a stone floor to those who’d seen it flow in streams across the dusty streets of a nation? The only insult was ignorance, a thing they’d never tolerated, a thing they couldn’t bear now.

In time, the cult of Za chto began to evolve a theory. Particularly with the events of June 1937, when the only remaining alternative to the rule of the dictator was ripped to shreds. That June came the turn of the Red Army and, when the smoke cleared, it was seen to be headless, though still walking around. Marshal Tukachevsky, acknowledged as Russia’s greatest soldier, was joined in his disappearance by two of four remaining marshals, fourteen of sixteen military commanders, eight of eight admirals, sixty of sixty-seven corps commanders, on and on and on. All eleven vice-commissars of defense, seventy-five of the eighty members of the Supreme Military Soviet. All of this, they reasoned; the shootings, the icebound mining camps, an army virtually destroyed by its own country— could have only one intention: Stalin simply sought to remove any potential opposition to his own rule. That was the way of tyrants: first eliminate enemies, then friends. This was an exercise in consolidation. On a rather grand scale, ultimately counted in millions— but what was Russia if not a grand scale?

What was Russia, if not a place where one could say, down through the centuries, times and men are evil, and so we bleed. This, for some, concluded the matter. The Old Bolsheviks, the Chekists, the officer corps of the Red Army—these people were the revolution but now had to be sacrificed so that the Great Leader could stand unthreatened and supreme. Russia’s back was broken, her spirit drained, but at least for most the question had been answered and they could get on with the trivial business of execution with acceptance and understanding. A final gesture on behalf of the party.

But they were wrong, it wasn’t quite that simple.

There were some who understood that, not many, only a few, and soon enough they died and, in time, so did their executioners, and, later, theirs.