I have always found certain parts of history deeply depressing. The depravity that our race has displayed on a wide scale can be totally disheartening. Murder, rape and torture are all so foreign to most of us Stanford students, and yet they are on some level illustrative of our collective nature. Viktor Frankl’s tale of suffering at Auschwitz is a true testament to the darkness of the human heart, it is the encapsulation of our capacity for evil—as I said it is truly depressing.
Throughout our own lifetimes we have lived through comparable atrocities and demonstrations of this seldom-acknowledged part of our selves. The Rwandan genocide, September 11, and Guantanamo Bay all are different shades of the same black paint inherent in every human. It is a terrifying lesson, but one that history teaches over and over again.
People commit great atrocities under a multitude of banners. There has always been evil in the world, and it is impossible to underestimate how prevalent it has been. Thinking about the torture of the Indians in early New England or the political dissidents in the Soviet Gulag is a constant reminder to never ignore man’s potential for evil. And man is capable of not just evil but chaos: The systematic decapitations during the French revolution taught us that we can go from civilization to anarchy in a matter of months, and that people walking on the streets can turn into murderers even quicker.
Although it is satisfying to draw distinctions between the past and the present on the basis of historical context, such an approach would mean missing a fundamental human reality. There is virtually no difference between me and those executors of the darker parts of our history except that I was not subjected to the same situational factors that they were.
Stanley Milgram’s experiment empirically and psychologically demonstrated how anyone can turn into a torturer in a matter of hours with a couple of situational adjustments. We are, especially at a young age, fickle and situational creatures. Once I began to ignore the superficial distinction between me and the actors of hate, I realized how terrifying history really is.
It is funny that all of these realizations should have come to me in Paris. The same Paris that has been the stage for many of mankind’s darkest moments: the slaughter of the Hugenots in 1572 at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the guillotine in the 1790s and the capitulation to the Nazis in the 1940s are just a few of its most notable scenes in history.
Yet these scenes are humorously ironic because Paris is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its unparalleled architecture, artistic charm and historical importance make it a lasting symbol of human history. It is a constant reminder that the human heart is capable of explosive beauty, perfection, simplicity and elegance.
Paris is a historical anti-thesis. It exists on the same earth as genocide, on the same land as starvation, hatred and despair. Its statues and buildings are made up of the same atoms as those that constituted the knives of countless murderers.
Paris is a beautiful city. It is beautiful because it is a standing symbol that our lives need not be fickle and that our presence need not be characterized by the trends of our day — that we can all create beauty that transcends paradigm and ordinary lives. It is an interesting note that if Hitler had had his way, Paris would have been blown up before the liberation; Hitler’s general in Paris eventually gave the order to save the city. I like to think that Hitler was intimidated by it.
As Stanford students, we are fortunate enough not to be complicit in any of the great trends that have scarred our history. Moreover, we have access to some of the most brilliant minds and resources on the planet, and we are bound by our ambition and imagination. You have the extraordinary opportunity to build Paris.
Contact Anthony Ghosn at email@example.com.