I’ve long been a fan of Errol Morris’s documentaries The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War — and not just because they both have beautiful musical scores by Philip Glass! — but now, having just seen Mr. Death, I realize the ways in which all these films are about self-deception.
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988) is the story of an obviously innocent man convicted of murder in a death penalty case. But, even when contronted by compelling evidence to the contrary, the police and the prosecutors cannot bring themselves to admit that they could even possiby be wrong. They have absolute self-certainty that they have convicted the right man.
The Fog of War (Morris, 2003) is also about uncertainty, but at least the person involved can admit he might have make mistakes. The movie is about Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who ran the Vietnam War. McNamara says:
“We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: ‘the fog of war.’ What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily. Wilson said: ‘We won the war to end all wars.’ I’m not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We’re not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn’t that we aren’t rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.”
But then McNamara can’t admit that he himself actually made any mistakes. Discussing a Quaker protester who burned himself alive outside the Pentagon, McNamara says he agrees with the protester’s belief that “humans must stop killing other humans” and claims to be “a senstive human being” just as much as the protester was. But then he goes on to say that the Vietnam protests (and, given the context, this must include the Quaker’s self-immolation) had no effect on his thinking about war.
Basically McNamara is claiming throughout the film that he made the best decisions he could have made given what he knew at the time. He admits that human reason is so limited that mistakes are inevitable, but he sees no warrant in this fact for restraint. And so he ends up looking not much more rational than the police in The Thin Blue Line.
Mr. Death (Morris, 1999) puts yet another twist on ths theme. Fred Leuchter was an engineer who specialized in building execution equipment. You kind of like him during the first half of the movie, because he is presented as a compassionate man who takes seriously the dignity of human beings, even those being put to death. Leuchter says “I am a proponent of capital punishment. I am certainly not a proponent of capital torture. We must always remember and we must never forget, the fact that the person being executed is a human being.” So he consults with prison death rows in order to help them make their execution equipement more humane.
But one of the questions raised early in the film is whether working on executions effects the character of the executioner. Leuchter says he is pretty much the only person in the world who has chosen to become an expert in building execution equipment even though his work on electric chairs something
“any competent engineer could do. The difference is that it’s not a major market. A lot of people are not interested and are morally opposed to working on execution equipment. They think its somehow going to change them.”
Leuchter’s implication here is that he has not in fact been changed by his work. Yet the film brings into question this belief in the second half of the film which follows the story of Leuchter’s involvement with holocaust deniers. As the only living “expert” on gas chambers, a holocaust denier asked him to confirm whether gas chambers could have been used to kill Jews at Auschwitz. Based partly on a faulty testing methodology, and partly on assuming that the Nazi’s would have had the same understanding of efficiency as he has, Leuchter decides that the Nazi concentration camps couldn’t have had any gas chambers.
Is it possible that Leuchter’s work with executions has desensitzed him to evil and given him a bizaare sympathy with Nazi’s? Leuchter himself admits that he is not an expert in gas chambers. He sees the absurdity in being hired to work on them:
“The reasoning here is that I built helmets for electric chairs, so now I could build lethal injection machines. I now build lethal injection machines, so I’m now competent to build a gallows. And since I’m building gallows, I’m also competent to work on gas chambers because I’ve done all of the other three.”
But he eventually becomes convinced that he really is an expert in gas chambers and knows more about them than the Nazi’s did! Like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, Mr. Death is a study of self-deception. Leuchter did have good, humane motives for “improving” execution equipment, but he seems to have some subconcious guilt about it, and he then tries to justify his work on executions by using his “expertise” to make a revolutionary historical discovery.
“I was appalled to learn that much of what I was taught in school about twentieth century history and World War II was a myth, if not a lie. I was first amazed, then annoyed, and then aware that the myth of the Holocaust was dead.”
Only if he can prove something of this magnitude will Leuchter justify spending his life helping to kill people on death row. So he talks himself into being absolutely certain of an obvious falsity. It’s the power of self-deception.