Mass Murder

04/04/2015 03:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2015

I went to bed worried about shipwreck nightmares. I had been reading Dead Wake, Erik Larson's gripping account of the 1915 Lusitania atrocity, in which the Cunard ocean liner, with nearly two thousand passengers and crew aboard, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. One thousand one hundred and ninety-eight people were killed, virtually all of them civilians and many of them women and children. The Germans were elated; until the incident brought America, finally, into the war. Larson's account is at first meticulous, and then harrowing in its detail.

Dead Wake is a compelling read from start to finish, its narrative alternating in point of view between those on the liner, particularly its captain, the crew and captain of the German sub, and the secret office (under a young Winston Churchill) where the British planned the naval strategy that left the great liner completely unprotected in submarine-infested waters--and forbade naval ships from going to the rescue of any torpedoed vessel for fear that German submarines might still be lurking. Many lives might have been saved had a faster rescue ship not been returned to port on the strength of this standing order.

In the light of recent events, though, a broader question came to mind: what does it take for a man to look through his periscope and give the order to torpedo a huge civilian passenger vessel, in the sure knowledge that hundreds of innocent lives will be lost? By the same token, what does it take to fly an airliner, deliberately and at high speed, with one hundred fifty passengers and crew, into the rocky face of a mountain, assuring the death of all aboard? And what does it take for a small group of armed men to invade an undefended college campus and methodically shoot to death one hundred and forty-seven students whose only crime was the religion that they practiced?

I suppose it must take the suspension of the normal functioning of the human heart, an absence of the compassion that allows us to feel for our fellow beings and respect the life they share with us. For whatever reason, whether by military training, by emotional disorder, by religious fanaticism... These things all serve to dehumanize the men who are driven to commit these atrocities, to disconnect them from the empathy that prevents us from doing unto others that which we would not wish to have done unto ourselves.

Aside from its compelling narrative, then, and the universal appeal of a disaster tale, Larson's book invites us to contemplate these questions about war, and the mass murder it has now inevitably become; and about the morality of those who lead us into it, and through it, with necessarily little regard for the individual human lives caught up in it. Horrific events like these should surely teach us how little there is to gain, and how much to lose, in this dreadful theater of death.

Update: I wrote this a few pages before reaching the end of the book, confident in my knowledge of European history. As I discovered in reading to the end of this fine book, that "knowledge" was faulty: I made the mistake that many make, believing that the sinking of the Lusitania led directly to America's entry into World War I...

Well, no. As Larson makes clear, there were another two years of hesitation and denial on the part of both America and its President Woodrow Wilson before joining the allied effort in 1917. It took more torpedoes from German U-boats, the sinking of more American vessels and the loss of more American lives. The incident that finally broke America's resolve to remain neutral was the revelation of a ridiculously miscalculated German outreach for an alliance with our neighbor to the south, in exchange for the proposed return of American lands to Mexico after the war was won.

That did it. Wilson rallied a now wildly aroused Congress, and America stormed across the Atlantic, as it was to do again in World War II. The interesting but unanswerable question, also broached by Larson, is whether British authorities stood by and allowed the sinking of the Lusitania and the loss of all those lives, in order to assure the awakening of the sleeping giant on the far side of the ocean. The same question persists, of course, in relation to Pearl Harbor...

My apologies, anyway, for the mistake. The lesson is never to respond until you've listened carefully to the whole story.