Jewish World Review April 26, 1999 /10 Iyar 5759
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As a young man, I had a summer job as messenger in the Pentagon, where General George C. Marshall subscribed to that same magazine. But General Marshall never received his copy until after I had read through the issue.
Among the many bad things that we all do, this may not rank very high. But it was enough to generate guilt that survived for nearly half a century -- as it should. Every time I have read about General Marshall's role in World War II or his later career as Secretary of State and author of "the Marshall Plan," I have thought about that magazine.
It was not my magazine, even to delay for a few hours. None of the fashionable cop-outs of today were acceptable back then -- thank heavens. I was just plain wrong and knew it.
Guilt is a bad feeling for the individual, but vitally important for society. Those who cannot think beyond "me" and "now" just want to get rid of guilt, and there are shrinks and non-judgmental education to help them do that. But remembering guilt has kept many of us from succumbing to temptations to do far worse things than some of the trivialities we felt guilty about.
If hanging on to a magazine that I should have delivered promptly caused me this much hassle, why let myself in for more of the same by doing some of the other things I could have done in later years, when I was in higher positions, with more opportunities to do wrong things with worse consequences?
Guilt, like physical pain, serves a purpose. There are rare individuals who feel no pain from things that would have the rest of us in agony. It might seem that being pain-free would be a great blessing, but it turns out to be a curse to these people.
Those who do not feel pain must have medical check-ups far more often than the rest of us. Some have been rushed from their doctor's office to the hospital with appendicitis or other life-threatening conditions that they did not realize they had.
Even for normal people, conditions like high blood pressure are especially dangerous because we feel no symptoms right up to the moment of a fatal stroke.
Guilt is the pain that saves us -- and society -- from many dangers. In particular times with particular people, it can be overdone, as everything human can be. But the attempt to banish it completely is recklessly shallow and short-sighted.
What happens when we don't have guilt? Horrifying stories of children who shoot their classmates at school -- like the current tragedy in Colorado -- are often blamed on guns, on "society" or on other scapegoats. Seldom, if ever, does anyone consider the possibility that the guilt-free, non-judgmental attitudes taught in the school itself may have contributed to such tragedies.
Guilt is an inescapable consequence of personal responsibility. Like other aspects of personal responsibility, it is deplored by those who set the standards of political correctness today. The only kind of guilt that is acceptable to them is collective guilt -- guilt as part of "society," guilt for what long-dead ancestors did, guilt for everything except what you yourself did.
Like many of the other glib and shallow ideas of our times, collective guilt first came into its own back in the 1960s. Somehow we were all responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was considered Deep Stuff to say things like that, however little sense it made.
Collective guilt is politically useful for extracting money from the government or special favors or exemptions from others. So what if it won't stand up under logical scrutiny? Its purpose is not truth but power.
Before it was banished by the intelligentsia, guilt did yeoman service for society. Some people who had literally gotten away with murder, and were not even suspected by anyone, nevertheless came forth to confess or sometimes took their own lives, leaving a note behind admitting their guilt.
No society can monitor all its members all the time. Guilt forces them to monitor themselves. It is far more effective than police and courts, which have all they can do to cope with those in whom all morality has been extinguished.
There is nothing I can do today about General Marshall's magazine. But the
memory of it keeps me in bounds better than any distant policeman or
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