Guesst Editorial: Not Again!
by Art Smith
In 1945, after his release from Nazi imprisonment, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller wrote these words:
"They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unions, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one to speak up."
The images of Germany's Nazi era are familiar to most of us: goose-stepping SS men, Hitler ranting before cheering crowds, corpses of emaciated Concentration Camp victims stacked like so much cordwood, and endless film footage of blitzkrieging tanks and soldiers. We watch this on TV documentary channels and say "Gee, that was awful!", as we pick up the remote and change to this week's Reality Show. It all seems unreal, like a bad dream best forgotten.
But it did happen. And it will happen here unless concerned Americans choose to think and act differently than the Germans of 1933. When we think of those responsible for the Nazi experience, we usually see only the leaders who ended up on trial at Nuremberg. Could this be all there is to it? Could a handful of Nazis have taken the entire German nation to ruin? Could the Gestapo alone have suppressed all dissent? Could Government censorship, by itself, have choked off every last attempt at speaking out against the madness?
"Of course not", you're thinking, "it had to have widespread popular support." Yes, it did require popular support, but it needed one more element to make it happen: silence. This Crime of Silence is exactly what Niemoller was talking about. It's easy to think that people were silent out of fear, but fear of arrest alone can't explain it. To understand how the overwhelming majority of Germans allowed the Nazis to take over requires a deeper exploration of human psychology.
In today's America, we're undergoing a mass movement that has creepy similarities to Nazi Germany. For a criminal regime to exist and operate, certain social and psychological processes must be in operation. How do we Americans of today compare to the Germans of 1933? Let's take a look:
Enemies, Internal and External
Throughout WW I, the German Government kept telling its people that victory was at hand, that the next battle would win the War for Germany. This was all the average German was told until
until the surrender of November, 1918. Suddenly, the War was over and Germany was the loser. It seemed incredible to most Germans that they had surrendered just as victory was at hand. There had to be some kind of treachery at work, a sellout from within. Thus was born the “Myth of the Traitor.”
Anti-Semitism was already a major feature of German culture, so Jews were suspected of having some hand in it. The Bolshevik takeover in Russia had just happened and Germans feared a similar event was about to happen to them. We now have a basic recipe for Social Paranoia. In the 1920s Nazi and other right-wing agitators added a long standing anti-Slavic prejudice to the brew and cooked up the “Jewish-Slavic-Communist-Anarchist” villain. Every German nightmare became blended into an ill-defined “Enemy Within” who was clearly in cahoots with Russia, their traditional External Enemy.
The science of Psychology tells us that individuals acting under great stress or fear will see only a limited and narrow set of choices, that the urgency of an emergency situation leads to a bias toward easy answers, decisive action, and strong leaders. When the robber is in your house, or the Enemy at your shore, you’re not in a mood to think carefully about the situation. More likely than not, you will want to solve the problem with a large caliber gun. You’ll also feel much safer if you have a strong, confident leader to do your thinking for you. Perhaps these tendencies are inborn, inherited from our cave dwelling ancestors. Maybe it’s just a cultural idea, passed down through centuries of warfare and ethnic conflict. All that matters is that this is how most people react in an emergency.
The average German was in shock over the outcome of WW I. They thought of themselves as the best nation on earth, that their culture was superior to the other barbaric or weak cultures, that Germans were the best at everything, including War. They were frightened and insecure at the thought of losing their way of life and being a second-rate country. This public mood was the fertile ground that Nazism sprang from. Hitler was strong, willful, and supremely confident. He had no doubts or insecurities, and was just the strong leader the Germans were looking for in their time of crisis. With Hitler at the helm, Germany would finally defeat its enemies and make the World safe for superior German culture.
After years of political struggle, Hitler was finally given the office of Chancellor of Germany. This was an important victory for the Nazis, but not the absolute power Hitler craved. Then, less than a month later the Riechstag was burned to a blackened hulk. The fire was apparently started by a half-crazed Communist, most likely set up by the Nazis themselves. Actual guilt was irrelevant; the immediate perception was that it was an act of Communist Terrorism. (Yes, the Nazis did use the term Terrorist to describe their enemies, real and imagined.) The German public was in a state of shock, fear, and rage. Hitler demanded, and was immediately granted, an “Enabling Act” to suspend the Constitution and give him unbounded power to save the country from its enemies. He immediately set to work with enthusiasm and vigor by rounding up thousands of Communists and sending them to concentration camps. Germany, as a nation and a people, had taken a turn toward Fascism that led to repression, War, and mass murder.
Does any of this sound familiar? In the 1970s Americans suddenly faced an “Energy Crisis”. Stingy Arabs decided to withhold “our” oil and forced us into gas lines and a 55 mph speed limit. We eventually got used to higher gas prices and even repealed the unreasonable speed limit, but the Evil Arab became a fixture of American culture. They tried to blow up the World Trade Center in the 90s, but only killed a few people and left the buildings standing. Then came September 11, when a handful of hijackers with box cutters exploited an air travel security hole and finally succeed in reducing the WTC to rubble, killing thousands in the process. The American public was in a state of shock, fear, and rage. President Bush demanded, and was immediately granted, the Patriot Act to suspend portions of the Constitution and give him nearly unbounded power to save the country from its enemies. He immediately set to work with enthusiasm and vigor by rounding up thousands of Arabs and sending them to a camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Yes, I know it’s not exactly the same. We’re not trying to exterminate an entire race with gas chambers; we’re just killing a few tens of thousands of Arabs who happen to get in the way of our bombs. Arabs are External Enemies, not just because they live far away, but because their culture is usually very different from ours. They speak a strange language, write in funny squiggles, and have an alien religion.
But we also have Internal Enemies: Gays and drug users. Gays are a minority; most people just don’t have the same feelings about their own sex as Gays do. Their very existence can make people uncomfortable. The Right Wing Christian element in America is convinced that Homosexuality is a sin, a perversion that offends God and Humanity. And worse, the Gay phenomenon is viewed as a kind of contagious disease that can spread to our children. This flies in the face of more enlightened thinking that holds Gayness to be a natural thing that also occurs in various animal species. The idea that a Gay couple might want to have the societal and legal advantages of marriage triggers a hysterical reaction of the most virulent kind. The Religious Right must have an unconscious fear that Gays will seize enough political power to force us all to have our homes redecorated and pass laws requiring us to wear only fashionably coordinated colors.
The other Internal Enemy is the drug user. Medical Marijuana users are hounded and persecuted by the DEA in utter disregard of State Propositions allowing such use. Pot smokers are denied, through drug testing, employment in Government and major corporations despite the complete lack of any evidence that Pot use means a lazy or unsafe employee. The persecution of Pot smokers has a tragic and deadly consequence: our young people know we’ve lied to them about the imagined dangers of Marijuana, so they don’t believe our warnings about Ecstasy and end up in the Emergency Room or Morgue.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind - Making Silence Easy
One of Hitler’s first moves was to establish Concentration Camps. Starting with Dachau, the system eventually included 23 major and a hundred smaller camps in Nazi-occupied Europe. These camps were physically isolated from the German public, usually located in remote areas. Once someone was sent to a camp, they disappeared from view and were never heard from again. Within a few months of taking power, the Nazis had sent thousands of Communists and Social Democrats to the camps. This constituted the bulk of any political opposition to the Nazis. Eventually, Gypsies, Gays, Jews, and individual dissidents were removed from public life and sent to the camps. Germans began to feel safer and more comfortable as the “unpleasant riff-raff” of their society just quietly “went away.”
Our American Camp System is more modest, but just as remote: Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If it hadn’t been for soldiers with digital cameras, we would still be in the dark about torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib. We also have the most extensive system of State and Federal prisons in the World. Our per capita prison population is now the highest on this Planet, exceeding even that of Russia. The total number of people incarcerated is now well in excess of 2 million. Of those, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 are jailed for simple possession of Marijuana alone, no guns, no violence, no selling to school kids, just being caught with a plant material. Unlike Nazi Germany, most Americans have access to detailed knowledge of what’s going on. Germans could at least attempt the lame excuse that they didn’t know; Americans have no such excuse. In what way are we better than the Nazis?
Necessity, the Bad Mother
By now you’re thinking, “But we had to do something! I saw the WTC collapse on TV; do you want more Americans to die?”. To answer this requires an examination of what motivates people to commit an act of Terrorism. What fuels the anti-American hatred that now seems to be a fixture of the Arab world? It’s not the visible figures such as Bin Laden; they’re just wannabe dictators cashing in on an existing pool of rage. You won’t see Osama killing himself in a suicide attack; for that you need individuals willing to sacrifice themselves for a particular cause. That cause is Palestine. Ancient rivalries, conflicts, and oppressions have, over the years, become focused on a Palestinian Homeland. Generations of Arabs have grown up in an atmosphere of repression and rootlessness. This breeds a feeling of complete powerlessness, a sense that no matter what you do or how extreme you get, injustice still prevails. This is the raw material of Terrorism. All it takes is manipulative politicians and religious leaders to forge this material into human weapons.
What started out as a specific agenda has evolved into a blind rage at American civilization; the World Trade Center became a symbol, a focal point, for this rage. The suicide pilots of 9/11 weren’t thinking clearly; if they had been, they would have realized that they were doing more harm than good for their cause. Americans aren’t thinking clearly either; if they were, they would realize that attacking Afghanistan and Iraq is doing more harm than good. Our invasions and occupations have increased anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab realm and made us look like aggressive thugs to the rest of the world.
In the atmosphere of American rage after 9/11, no one gave any thought to a political solution. Americans wanted action and they wanted it now. There was a total disregard for the consequences of that action, and a complete blindness to any political alternative. It was the “Enemy at the Gates,” just shoot ‘em all and let Allah sort ‘em out. Like the Germans of 1933, Americans of 2001 wanted a strong leader to save them from their enemies. And, like the Germans, they got what they asked for.
It didn’t work in Germany and it won’t work here.
The Silence of the Comfort Zone
It all seems so simple: first Evil Arabs destroyed the WTC and killed a lot of innocent Americans, then Bush started kicking Arab butt in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now we’ve had no more burning office buildings in American cities. It must be working, right? And there’s more, those perverted Homosexuals are kept in their place and the dangerous drugheads are being rounded up and removed from our sight. We can sit with remote in hand and watch all the football, professional wrestling, and Reality Shows we want without exercising our brains. Life is good once more. The gas for our SUVs is still flowing. We’re a proud nation again, with our brave soldiers planting the Stars and Stripes in remote lands. We can relax in the knowledge that we and our children are safe from Terrorists, Gay contamination, and Drug Pushers.
The Germans of the 1930s were in a similar Comfort Zone. If you have even the slightest knowledge of history, you know what the results of that mind set were: suffering and death on an unimaginable scale. We’re not that far along yet; we’ve only bombed a few thousand Arabs, tortured some “detainees,” and oppressed or jailed some of our fellow Americans.
This all comes down to personal values. For many of us Americans, the death, suffering, and oppression of others is not a trivial thing. To ignore or deny the consequences of our National Policies requires an almost deliberate blindness, a selfish preoccupation with one’s own comfort, and an unwillingness to think about complex issues. American Liberals are no help; they’re too focused on party politics and seem to think that if we can just elect another charismatic John Kennedy, that somehow America will magically transform itself into a kindlier, gentler nation. Change of this magnitude can not come from the top; only individuals, acting in their own personal sphere of influence will be able to make a difference. The first, last, and only thing that’s going to have any effect is for concerned people to shatter the silence, to speak out to their friends, family, and associates. This is risky action, and can lead to alienation of friends, family friction, and maybe loss of one’s job. History has harshly judged the Germans of the 1930s, and rightfully so. How will History judge the Americans of the early 21st century?
This Rant is © Copyright 2004 by Art W. Smith. Permission is granted to freely publish and distribute provided it remains complete and unaltered in any way, including this notice.