Are we responsible for the crimes that our ancestors committed? Are Germans who were born after World War II responsible for the holocaust, the British living today for the atrocities of British colonialism, and young white Americans for pre-civil war African-American slavery? We are probably inclined to deny any responsibility in these cases. Why, after all, should we think ourselves responsible for what our ancestors did? It is not us who did those things. It is them. We did not participate, and in fact we strongly object to what they did. But what if we benefited from those crimes? Would that change anything? If yes, why exactly? Or what if the actual perpetrator of the crime in question were not some long-dead fellow countrymen, but one’s own father or grandfather? Would we in that case feel, and be, more responsible? What if the actions that we consider shameful or evil did not occur in our country’s past, but in the present? When Israeli troops kill Palestinian children, are all Israelis responsible, only those who support and approve of those actions, or only those who actively participate in the decision or the act? (Or none, because it’s all completely justified.)Say someone is accused of a crime that they committed when they were younger. They admit to the crime, but deny that it was them who committed it, on the grounds that they are “a different person now” and that you cannot hold them responsible for what their younger self did. I can distance myself from my own past just as I can distance myself from my country’s past (or present). Perhaps it’s not quite as easy, but it’s possible. It is not in any way irrational or absurd not to acknowledge my own past, to refuse to own it. It is simply a question of how we want to define ourselves, with whom and with what we identify. But for that very same reason I can also say, yes, that was me, and yes, those people were my people. I can define (or find) myself as one of them and them as a part of me. Germans did this. I am German. Therefore I did this. In itself the logic may be fallacious, but it is not fallacious in the moral context. Responsibility must always be owned before it exists and there are no natural or logical limits to what we can own.
I was recently struck by a remark that Primo Levi makes in his book The Periodic Table. It is a passage in which he tells us how he felt after being rescued from the concentration camp: “But I had returned from captivity three months before and was living badly. The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me; I felt closer to the dead than to the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings, and many of my friends, and a woman who was dear to my heart.”
I find this remarkable because it is the victim who here identifies with the perpetrator. Levi is ashamed for being a human in a world in which humans do such terrible things to people like him. This is the greatest possible extension of responsibility, the most generous owning of responsibility. Humans did this. I am human. I did this. Looking at things that way certainly requires an unusual ethical commitment, but it is not absurd. The underlying logic may even be said to have its roots in a metaphysical insight: that the appearance of individual existence, of an existential separation between things, and, perhaps more importantly, between people, is merely an illusion, that the true nature of things is in a fact captured in the Tat twam asi of the Upanishads, in the realisation that “this is you”.