“Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these different situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, ‘How will he be in Sobibor?'”
If anything is my motto in life, it’s probably this. No one is good or bad, nice or evil. We are all potentially compassionate, potentially self-giving, potentially cruel, potentially cold. And once we try to qualify that (“Well, we’re not all potentially sociopaths!” or pedophiles, abusers, dog kickers, corrupt politicians, etc.), we begin to lie to ourselves.
As the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn learned, while in a Stalinist hard labour camp in the 1950s: “The dividing line between good and evil passes not between warring parties, ideologies, armies, but runs through the heart of each individual and flickers ceaselessly to and fro.”
Richard Beck (at Exper. Theology) adds:
“[W]e have to admit that we are extraordinarily vulnerable to evil. Our ‘virtue’ is so very fragile. … Sitting here, right now, my self-assessment is that I’d never be a sadist in the death camps. I’m better than that. But I’ve not fully encountered myself.”
I have a pretty easy time imagining myself as a death camp sadist. What I can’t imagine myself doing is killing other mammals, dogs or elephants, e.g., but I take it on faith that I would do that, or something equally unimaginable, under the right circumstances.