Julia Dahl writes about crime and crim­i­nal jus­tice for CBSNews​.com. She was born and raised in Fres­no, Calif. and now lives in Brook­lyn, NY. Her debut nov­el, Invis­i­ble City (Mino­taur Books), will be pub­lished on May 6th. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

For the past 10 years I have devot­ed my pro­fes­sion­al life – and my imag­i­na­tion – to things most peo­ple would rather not think about. I have writ­ten about teenagers stab­bing their par­ents to death; about rapists gone unpun­ished; about the high rate of sui­cide among police offi­cers and sol­diers; about mass shoot­ings and chil­dren gone miss­ing and bod­ies uniden­ti­fied for years.

Some­times, peo­ple ask me why this is the path – or in jour­nal­ism-speak, the beat” – I’ve cho­sen. Usu­al­ly, I shrug and smile and say some­thing to end the con­ver­sa­tion: I guess I must be miss­ing a chip.”

But the truth is more complicated.

As Jews, we learn about evil ear­ly. The Holo­caust is per­son­al. We hear the sto­ries and we know that if we had been born just a lit­tle ear­li­er, in the place where our grand­par­ents lived, we too would have been the vic­tims of this great crime. And as a poten­tial vic­tim, I couldn’t help but think: who are the peo­ple who did this? Why? What did it feel like to be pushed onto a train at gun­point? How did all those Nazi offi­cers, born human just like me, turn into killing machines? We’ll nev­er real­ly know, I sup­pose, but as I grew up, they were ques­tions that gnawed at me.

And then, my fresh­man year in col­lege I took a course called Suf­fer­ing and Sal­va­tion.” The pri­ma­ry focus of the semes­ter was to exam­ine this ques­tion: How can God exist, and be both good and all-pow­er­ful, with so much evil in the world? We read St. Augus­tine and the Book of Job; Let­ters from a Birm­ing­ham Jail, Albert Camus, William Sty­ron and Elie Wiesel.

One day in class, the pro­fes­sor screened a series of films depict­ing the death camps. I’d nev­er seen such graph­ic images: naked, skele­tal bod­ies being cart­ed on wheel­bar­rows to mass graves. Piles of peo­ple in show­er rooms built for mur­der. It was har­row­ing, but the pro­fes­sor chal­lenged us not to look away. If they had to endure it, she said, the least you can do is bear witness.

As a crime reporter, I bear wit­ness to a lot of evil. And not just the things that are easy to point to and call evil. I see evil in the sys­tem that impris­ons and exe­cutes inno­cent peo­ple too poor to afford decent coun­sel; evil in the teenagers locked in soli­tary con­fine­ment; evil in the thou­sands of rape kits lan­guish­ing in police stor­age across the coun­try; evil in the hate-filled man who takes a gun to Jew­ish insti­tu­tions and guns down three people. 

Crime is what we call the evil we do to each oth­er. This evil must be wit­nessed, and it must be chron­i­cled. We must be made to see the ugli­ness in our­selves. As John Stein­beck so per­fect­ly put it in his Nobel Prize accep­tance speech: The ancient com­mis­sion of the writer has not changed. He is charged with expos­ing our many griev­ous faults and fail­ures, with dredg­ing up to the light our dark and dan­ger­ous dreams for the pur­pose of improvement.”

Read more about Julia Dahl here.

Relat­ed Content:

Julia Dahl is a jour­nal­ist spe­cial­iz­ing in crime and crim­i­nal jus­tice. She has worked as a reporter for CBSNews​.com and the New York Post, and her fea­ture arti­cles have appeared in Men­tal Floss, Salon, the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review, and many oth­ers. She was born in Fres­no, Cal­i­for­nia to a Luther­an father and Jew­ish moth­er and now lives in Brooklyn.