Altamont, Auschwitz, Bethlehem, and My Lai — The Challenge of Contemplating the Dark Side

Altamont, Auschwitz, Bethlehem, and My Lai — The Challenge of Contemplating the Dark Side December 6, 2019

1969 was quite a year, and so in 2019 we’ve had plenty of “50th Anniversary” moments: marking the fiftieth anniversary of the first humans on the moon, of the Woodstock Festival, and of the Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road. It was the year that Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Sesame Street premiered on television, and some movies from this year included Midnight CowboyButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five were among the books published in 1969. So it was a remarkable year, and there’s plenty for us to commemorate now, fifty years later.

But there was a dark side to 1969. The Vietnam War was raging on, and student unrest was simmering in America (which would boil over the following spring with the Kent State shootings). It was the year of the Tate-Labianca murders, with the Manson Family becoming the first highly visible sign that the peace and love generation had its own violent, dangerous shadow side. And then, on December 6 — fifty years ago today — came Altamont.

The Shadow Side of Woodstock

This morning, the Washington Post published a lengthy feature profiling the free concert at the Altamont Speedway, east of San Francisco. It was meant to be a “West Coast Woodstock,” featuring bands like the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. But with over 300,000 people showing up for the free concert, almost no logistical infrastructure to handle a crowd that size and “security” provided by the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Gang (!), it turned out to be the “Anti-Woodstock” — and since the Stones were being filmed, the violence and chaos that culminated in the murder of a man in the audience was all recorded, showing up in the documentary Gimme Shelter.

With the exception of the Rolling Stones, all the bands that were scheduled to play at Altamonte (Grateful Dead never played; spooked by the violent energy in the crowd, they simply refused to perform) were part of the California hippie scene; most of the bands had played at Woodstock, and they all represented the “peace and love” ethos of the counterculture of the time. They branded themselves as the sane alternative to the insanity going on in southeast Asia. And yet, their free concert devolved into violence.

In the bitter words of a song John Lennon would record the following year, “The Dream is Over.”

I love the hippie music of the late sixties, but it’s sobering to consider that Woodstock and Altamont were less than four months apart. It seems that the groovy anti-war idealism of the ’60s counterculture had a pretty short shelf-life. It’s important to remember that the violence of both the Manson Family and Altamont had racist overtones (the man killed at Altamont was African-American; his white killer was acquitted after claiming he acted in self defense). Apparently, the songs and poetry of hippie peace and love were not enough to confront the dark underbelly of racism and privilege, which — sorry to say — remains a problem in our society today.

Echoes of Altamont

As I read the Washington Post article, with its detailed exposition of everything that went wrong on that day — at what was supposed to be a happy, free concert — I found myself thinking of several other moments in time that reveal the depth of the human shadow: the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus; the concentration camps of Auschwitz; the massacre of villagers at My Lai, Vietnam; and the caging of children along the U.S./Mexico border in our own time.

The slaughter of the innocents is to the nativity what Altamont was to Woodstock. I don’t like contemplating either of them, but they both need to be reckoned with, at least from a contemplative perspective. Granted, the slaughter of the innocents as recorded in Matthew 2:16 is mythological. But it’s hardly the only example of wanton killing of innocent people by soldiers — indeed, it was thinking about the Holy Innocents that reminded me of the My Lai Massacre.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni (c. 1430-1495)

The My Lai massacre took place in March 1968 but become public knowledge in November 1969, just days before Altamont. It was during an operation in Vietnam (where American soldiers were attempting to defeat the Viet Cong, the communist organization that U.S. Troops were fighting). In a classic example of “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” somewhere between 300 and 500 civilians were killed that day, including women and children; many of the women raped prior to being executed. This was all done supposedly in the interest of neutralizing a communist threat. But even if most of the My Lai villagers really were part of (or sympathetic to) the Viet Cong, would that justify the brutality? Of course not.

It was a slaughter of the innocents, in our lifetime. I remember My Lai, I remember the controversy surrounding the trial of Lt. William Calley, the only person convicted for this war crime. What I don’t recall (but learned from a Google search just now) was that the public was actually sympathetic to his defense that he was just “following orders” — the dark side of obedience. And I didn’t realize that the man who ordered him to commit the atrocities was acquitted of any wrongdoing, thanks to being defended by a high-powered lawyer.

It all stinks. Looking back, I realize that my own commitment to nonviolence and justice, to resisting militarism, probably began when as an 8-year boy my conscience was troubled by My Lai. Ironically, though, I walked away from the military culture my father represented, into the world of the hippies and the Grateful Dead: the world of Woodstock, but also of Altamont.

Contemplating These Infamous Moments

I never was part of the military, but I think everyone should ask ourselves some hard questions. If I were a soldier at My Lai, would I have just “followed orders” and killed the civilians? If I were a soldier in King Herod’s army, would I have obeyed a command to kill baby boys?

Or would I have found the courage to stand up for what is right? Of course, I prefer to think that I would do the right thing, and I hope everyone reading these words would be just as clear in your convictions. But I am also humble enough to realize that so many of the people who commit atrocities — think of the German citizens who staffed concentration camps like Auschwitz — have been “normal” and “good” people, upstanding members of their communities. It’s the nature of evil that it thrives in dysfunctional systems. Whether it’s a rock concert that is badly managed, or a rogue military operation, or a policy of incarcerating undocumented immigrants in a way that separates families and leaves children in cages.

In 1969 Richard Nixon was president, and just a few years later he would resign in disgrace to avoid impeachment. Today, we are facing another impeachment process; if we include Nixon’s, this makes the fourth incidence of impeachment in our nation’s almost 250 years. Three of those have occurred in the last 50 years. I wonder what that signifies?

Depending on who you talk to, the current impeachment process is a necessary effort to hold a corrupt leader accountable — or, a politically motivated effort to attack that same leader on (pardon the pun) Trumped-up charges. What confounds me is how both of these narratives seem to be almost totally at odds with each other, yet depending on whether you get your news from Fox or CNN, you are likely to believe in one and dismiss the other out of hand.

So what does all this have to do with contemplation?

What does it mean to be a contemplative in a world where innocent people get murdered by soldiers? Or concertgoers experience violence that could have been prevented? What does it mean to navigate morality and ethics in a world where refugee populations have reached crisis proportions, and some governments respond by closing their borders or treating those who seek entry like common criminals?

Back to the story of the Holy Innocents. Even though this story was most certainly a kind of folk-tale, it carries plenty of spiritual meaning that is worth exploring. Systematic forces of evil react violently in response to an unjust king’s fearful hold on power. But in the midst of that, we have a story of quiet heroism, as Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to protect their son — becoming refugees themselves in the process.

So when we find ourselves in the midst of evil, even systemic evil over which we have little or no control, there may still be the possibility of making moral choices. Our actions can still make a difference, even if we can’t stem the tide of the evil. After all, Joseph’s actions saved Jesus’ life, and paved the way for Jesus to literally change history.

I think we need to sit with the paradox of this baby — the incarnation of Love — being born in the midst of such dark violence and fear. How can we invite that baby, that incarnation of Love, into our darkest and most fearful places? Into our partisan politics, and our mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, our racism, our classism, our culture of bullying and violence, our complicity? And when we do so, are we really willing to let that baby change us, from the inside out? I hope so.


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