love, hate, death
The NY Times ran a feature today on the killing of Johanna Justin-Jinich, a student at Wesleyan University who appears to have been murdered by a 29 year-old man who stalked her after they met at an NYU summer course two years ago. The shooter fired seven point-blank shots at a bookstore cafe where Johanna worked, suggesting it had been planned carefully in advance. The alleged killer is described as "apparently disturbed, a man with shaky relationships and a malevolence toward Jews;" the story further indicates that he directed 38 harassing e-mails and numerous telephone calls at his eventual victim, which were reported to New York City police but not further pursued.
One obvious question is why somebody who hated Jews would become obsessed with a young Jewish woman to the point of following her to Connecticut and then killing her. (Ms. Justin-Jinich is described as Jewish by descent although not religiously inclined; it is possible the three "J's" in her name accentuated her Jewishness.) The story thus raises once again the bizarre interplay between racial/religious hatred and sexual attraction, an issue many would prefer not to discuss but which is hard to avoid on facts like these.
In his book "The War of the World," the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson raises a provocative question: why was the Holocaust conceived and executed at precisely the point in time when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was on the rise in Germany and nearby countries? Why, for that matter, did Japanese soldiers rape thousands of Chinese women in Nanjing, at precisely the time Japanese propagandists were proclaiming the inferiority of the Chinese race? The traditional approach to such incidents is to assume that they are really about power rather than sex (much less love), with the sexual gratification, such as it is, of secondary importance. But what if the actual process begins with a fascination or even obsession with the other--an obsession which is by its nature forbidden and yet difficult to control--and only later leads the perpretrator to kill or humiliate the object of his illicit affections? (Ferguson notes, interestingly, that several high-ranking Nazis appear to have dated Jewish women in their youth, although apparently not Hitler himself.)
One can see why people would avoid such questions, which are embarassing to all concerned, and carry the risk of eroticizing unspeakable horrors. Yet the role of historians is to understand and explain the past, not to sanitize it. At times this may require recognizing the less pleasant side of emotions, including love and sexual desire, in other people. And in ourselves.