The photographs to the left are part of a photo essay titled “Potency” by Nina Maria Kleivan. Its intent is to question how innocent children become pinicles of evil. The photographer is the daughter of a a member of the Norweigian WWII resistance who eventually was captured and placed in a German concentration camp. As a child her anger at what her father suffered was so intense that she carried around the name of one of her father’s prison guards in hopes of one day killing him. As a new mother she was struck by the innocence of children and then by the seeming innocence of dictators. “When all you see is a picture, Stalin could’ve been anyone’s kind grandfather. You can’t see the millions of people on his conscience or what a paranoid, dreadful human being he was.” she tells HaAretz.
Evil doesn’t always “look evil”. We come to associate the dress of Hilter or Mussilini or Idi Amin or Sadaam Huessein with evil because of a life long chain of choices. Those choices lead to personal actions and even world events that define a person. The actions and their outcomes, not the clothes make a dictator or a rapist.
Yet when we as a society finally acknowledge evil, we tend to look at the outside. The characteristic dress of the perpetrator becomes the symbol of evil and the process by which evil comes to be is lost. We forget that any of us, making the a certain chain of choices in a certain social context could be perpetrators of evil. In Klevian’s words to HaAretz:
We all begin life the same. We all have every opportunity ahead of us. To do good, or inexplicable evil. You need to be conscious that your actions have consequences that impact on your fellow human beings. The people I let my daughter portray didn’t give a damn about the human cost, the casualties, their thoughts caused. The responsibility is yours alone. You can’t throw it away – as a parent, as human beings – and say that you just followed orders.
Klevian raises important questions: where does evil come from? How does innocence become a symbol of evil? Unfortunately, much of the on-line debate has centered on whether a mother should or should not dress her child up in the clothes of dictators. When all one sees is a picture of a baby, it appears that all one sees is the baby. The child succeeds as a symbol of innocence, but fails as a symbol of choice.
We lose the tension between the grandfatherly picture of Stalin and the mass graves of the Stalinist purges carried out on his direct command. The clothes of an adult Hilter or Milosevic represent their choices because adults are actors in control of their life. Infants do not choose their clothes. At best their clothes represent the choices of their parents and the influence those parents will eventually have over the child’s life.
So is this an essay on the role of a parent in shaping a child’s moral identity? No, because at some point children become adults. They become moral agents in their own right and responsible for their own choices. The evil that so apalls us is the product of adult choices. Evil parents don’t always raise evil kids. In fact, childhood experiences of evil can bring out the best in human beings rather than the worst.
Dressing the child in the clothes of despot also fails as a symbol of the danger of following commands. Childhood in fact represents the one stage in life where following commands may lead to more rather than less morality. Most of society sees a child’s ability to follow commands as an essential step in moral training and development. How many times does a child share food or toys because their mother or father insisted that they do? Some children are naturally generous and outgoing. Others need to be encouraged.
Furthermore, the despots portrayed in Klevian’s photos were the ones who issued the commands. They were in full control of their moral agency and chose to use it to draw lines between friend and foe. All who supported them lived. All who opposed them were candidates for death. Of course they looked like kindly grandfathers. To the people they saw as friends, they were.