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.
- Essays: On the Holocaust
- Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press
- Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil, and the Holocaust edited by David Patterson and John K. Roth
- Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil and the Optics of Thoughtlessness by Valerie Hartouni