For a long time now I’ve been haunted by photographs of lynchings, taken a hundred years ago or less in the South. Crowds of men and boys pose, looking at the camera, smiling, while a black body swings from a tree behind them. Hannah Arendt famously referred to the banality of evil, but when I look at these photos I don’t see banality, but bon homie. Here are men who are using murder to build social community, who are aligning their own sense of belonging to cruelty. And who have brought their children along, thinking that this is something they should teach.
This is what really shocks – the faces of the boys in the crowd. They don’t wear cruel expressions. In a different context, one would look at them and smile, seeing fresh enthusiasm and joy. All the things one would hope for children are present here, only twisted and corrupted. And all the terror that a parent feels on behalf of his or her child is also here, in the black man hanging by his neck. Who can imagine seeing one’s child reviled, terrorized, and killed, and then seeing smiling faces, rejoicing in his death, so proud of it that they want to document the moment.