Humanizing Inhuman Humanity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the movie Judgement at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy’s character makes tis comment:

“If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe…”

This is true, and why I am continuing what I wrote yesterday today.

Yesterday I wrote about the dangers of ignoring what evils that people are capable of committing or standing by and let happen. For me it was a painful article to write as a historian and ethicist who knows history and can see the same kinds of attitudes that allowed the commission of vast and heinous crimes that beggar the imagination, being posted on social media, on blogs, and by political and religious leaders on a daily basis.

But I am sure that many if not most people seldom give what is happening a second look. Even people who read about the crimes of the Nazis, Stalin, or other genocidal regimes find the perpetrators to be beyond understanding, as if they were monsters, or had no human character. In a way that is comforting, because if they were somehow not like us, then we could never become like them.

But if we are to understand what happened Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or any other place where mass murder and genocide were a daily occurrence, where dissenters, political opponents, and minorities were whisked off to prison, concentration camps, and gulags in the middle of the night, never to be seen or heard from again; we must understand the perpetrators as well as the bystanders who allowed things to happen.

If we fail to do this, if we yield to the temptation to deny the humanity of the perpetrators, to deny that they were human and had access to ethics and morality as we do is to as Timothy Snyder says, “is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”

Snyder argues that “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them…” They had a faith in their leaders or their ideology, they were devoted to their cause. In the case of the Germans, their “devotion and faith did not make them good…, but they do make them human, Like everyone else, they had access to ethical thinking, even if their own was dreadfully misguided.”

The danger that we face today is that when people in our country speak in the language of the Nazis or other totalitarians, when we see the acts committed against religious, ethnic and other minorities, when we hear the language of genocide being used, we tend to treat those doing such things as barbarians or animals, and not human beings like us, and we rob them of their humanity. If we do this we help set the conditions for what happened under Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and in so many other places to happen again.

Holocaust Historian Yehuda Bauer noted:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” 

Until Tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under ethics, History, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Deadly Illusion: Ignorance, Myth, and Alternative Reality

ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

My longtime readers know that I write about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany a lot. Likewise I also write about other historical events and periods where the worst of humanity is on display. This is not because I am negative or due to some morbid fascination with such events, but because as a historian I see them as a warning because the one constant in history is humanity. While history may not repeat itself, it does as Mark Twain noted, often rhyme, the fact is that human nature and human beings have tended to act similarly to their ancestors more often than not during times of social, economic, or political upheaval distress and crisis.

Timothy Snyder notes that “The European history of the twentieth century shows that societies can break, democracies fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands…”

I tell my students this all the time whether I am teaching ethics or history. Economic theories, technology, and so many other ways in which we do life change, but ultimately human nature remains pretty constant. So when I write about these topics it is with that in mind. Historian Gerhard Weinberg wrote:

“It’s very, very important for people to get a sense of what the potentialities of people really are, what the dangers of ignorance can be. It is in this context, that a supposedly advanced society risks descending into the sewer, that the Holocaust is a warning to people who think of themselves as an advanced, modern society.”

Ignorance of history, ignorance of reality, and denial of facts are deadly to the individual and fatal to the society that allows itself to become ignorant and to believe in an illusion of knowledge based on myth and unreality. This deadly illusion based on ignorance and knowledge that is not knowledge allows people and societies to embrace deadly ideologies without thinking. When that happens ordinary people, law abiding people, people who go to church, can commit great atrocities or stand by in silent agreement.

When I hear people who support some of most inhuman of President Trump’s policies makes statements about “I can’t wait for the liberal genocide to begin,” or tell Jews and Muslims to leave the country, who talk of racial and ethnic minorities as if they were less than human than I do in fact worry that it can happen here. When I see Mosques burned, synagogues defaced with Nazi graffiti, Jewish centers targeted by callers making bomb threats, churches of ethnic and minority congregations vandalized, LGBTQ people being discriminated against and sometimes physically attacked, I know it can happen here.

When I see these things happening I am reminded of Spencer Tracy’s monologue at the end of the film Judgment at Nuremberg. The words are chilling because they are so true. Despots and dictators, and authoritarian leaders, cannot commit great acts of violence without a part of the population that is willing to carry out their orders and the majority who for whatever reason acquiesce and stand by silently.

“Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination…”

We cannot allow ourselves to live in ignorance and pretend that these things cannot happen here. To do this we have to have to go to a dark place. We have to decide to understand what brings people to commit such actions. We have to understand what allows people to stand by and say nothing. We have to understand what goes through the mind or those who make the conscious choice to know nothing when the evidence stares them in the face, and those who feign ignorance to attempt to keep a clean conscience. Burt Lancaster’s character in Judgment at Nuremberg remarked:

“My counsel says we were not aware of the extermination of the millions. He would give you the excuse: We were only aware of the extermination of the hundreds. Does that make us any the less guilty? Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know, it was because we didn’t want to know.”

It is one thing to empathize with the victims of past genocides and crimes against humanity. It is easy to say never again; but it is not possible to prevent them without going to the dark place of trying to understand the perpetrators and bystanders. As Timothy Snyder notes:

“It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.” 

I will continue this tomorrow, until then,

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under ethics, history, holocaust, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

A Budget is a Moral Document

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short couple of thoughts to start the week concerning the budget proposal of President Trump. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “Dollars and guns are no substitutes for brains and will power,” and this budget is long on dollars and guns but well short of brains and power.

I’m not going to spend long on this today as the budget proposal itself is probably dead in the water having invoked the ire of both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But apart from that the budget proposal shows the moral bankruptcy of this administration. The fact that when confronted by Tucker Carlson on Fox News about the effects that killing the Affordable Care Act would have on his supporters across the country, the President basically shrugged his gave a “so what” kind of answer.

Likewise, his budget proposal, which actually raises Federal spending takes the axe to America’s diplomacy and soft power, its concern for public health and disease prevention, its neglect of crumbling infrastructure, its concern for the preservation and advancement of education and culture, and its outright condemnation of the poor and the elderly in order to fund a military buildup without enunciating a clear national strategy in order to justify it.

When I read through the proposals in the budget I was convinced of its fundamental immorality and I thought of Eisenhower’s oft quoted remarks in his Chance for Peace Speech of 1953.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Obviously the costs have to be adjusted for inflation, but the truth is that an arms buildup in absence of a clearly defined threat, is nothing more than an immoral policy that promises only war and death poverty and ignorance, disease and suffering. I am going to go back to that speech later this week because it is important to place all of this in its moral and political context.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

4 Comments

Filed under ethics, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

“No More Dangerous Thing for a Democracy…”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some times when my education and experience as a historian and ethicist. Last week was one of those times as I watched Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump raise the specter of preventive war on the Korean peninsula. Combined with the evisceration of the State Department and other levers of “soft power” in the Trump budget proposal and the President’s near total commitment to military force as the preferred option in foreign policy it makes me believe that we will be in a substantial and potentially devastating war in terms of lives, treasure, and moral standing, if not in Korea, somewhere else in the world within the next couple of years.

I do seriously hope that I am wrong, but I do not see patience, prudence, or wisdom as strengths of the Trump Presidency in either domestic or foreign policy. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: “There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war,” but it appears that this is the foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Preventive war is also something called aggressive war, because the target of it has not committed an act of war before it is attacked. This was the policy of Nazi Germany for which its leaders were convicted at Nuremberg. Former Senator Ron Paul noted, “Another term for preventive war is aggressive war – starting wars because someday somebody might do something to us. That is not part of the American tradition.” As such most people have no understanding how the crime of preventive or wars of aggression poison and ultimately kill a democracy.

People also forget that once the Pandora’s Box of war is opened that nothing is certain but death, destruction, and the seeds of more war. Winston Churchill noted, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

In terms of the destructiveness of such a war, including as Churchill noted the unforeseen effects of it President Dwight D. Eisenhower said:

A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today. How could you have one if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled, the transportation systems destroyed, sanitation implements and systems all gone? That isn’t preventive war; that is war.

I’ll leave it at that.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under History, Korean Conflicts, News and current events, Political Commentary

Committing Suicide out of Fear of Death: The Possibility of Preventive War on the Korean Peninsula

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Prussia and Germany once noted that “preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” Sadly, most Americans, do not seem to understand this, nor the distinctions of what is and is not permissible and how preventive war is different from the concept of pre-emptive actions.

While in Korea this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, most likely acting on behest of President Trump spoke of the real possibility that the United States could embark on a preventive war against North Korea. Tillerson said: “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” and “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.” He also said “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” 

Now let me be clear, the military option is always on the table when dealing with North Korea, but that military option has always been focused on deterrence and the ability to deter, defend, and respond to any North Korean military action, not by the open threat of preventive war. The latter is something that could well push the paranoid regime of Kim Jung Un into actual military action, rather than the provocative actions they make in defiance of the United Nations most of the world. However, that threshold, which successive American administrations have not crossed since the Korean Armistice of 1954 has been crossed.

That being said the North Korean nuclear threat and ability to strike distant targets is growing and may reach a point that it could hit the United States. The question is, when, or if, the North Korean threat justifies either a pre-emptive military strike or launching a preventive war. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq the United States used the supposed threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda to justify a preventive war against Iraq to eliminate the threat and overthrow Saddam Hussein. That war has been shown to be both in violation of the standards of the Just War Theory and international law concerning preventive war.

Michael Walzer, the foremost expert on Just War Theory today wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

Now, what acts are to count, what acts do count as threats sufficiently serious to justify war? It is not possible to put together a list, because state action, like human action generally, takes on significance from its context. But there are some negative points worth making. The boastful ranting to which political leaders are often prone isn’t in itself threatening; injury must be “offered” in some material sense as well. Nor does the kind of military preparation that is a feature of the classic arms race count as a threat, unless it violates some formally or tacitly agreed-upon limit. What the lawyers call “hostile acts short of war,” even if these involve violence, are not too quickly to be taken as signs of an intent to make war; they may represent an essay in restraint, an offer to quarrel within limits. Finally, provocations are not the same as threats. “Injury and provocation” are commonly linked by Scholastic writers as the two causes of just war. But the Schoolmen were too accepting of contemporary notions about the honor of states and, more importantly, of sovereigns. The moral significance of such ideas is dubious at best. Insults are not occasions for wars, any more than they are (these days) occasions for duels.

For the rest, military alliances, mobilizations, troop movements, border incursions, naval blockade~-all these, with or without verbal menace, sometimes count and sometimes do not count as sufficient indications of hostile intent. But it is, at least, these sorts of actions with which we are concerned. We move along the anticipation spectrum in search, as it were, of enemies: not possible or potential enemies, not merely present ill-wishers, but states and nations that are already, to use a phrase I shall use again with reference to the distinction of combatants and noncombatants, engaged in harming us (and who have already harmed us, by their threats, even if they have not yet inflicted any physical injury). And this search, though it carries us beyond preventive war, clearly brings us up short of Webster’s pre-emption. The line between legitimate and illegitimate first strikes is not going to be drawn at the point of imminent attack but at the point of sufficient threat. That phrase is necessarily vague. I mean it to cover three things: a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk. The argument may be made more clear if I compare these criteria to Vattel’s. Instead of previous signs of rapacity and ambition, current and particular signs are required; instead of an “augmentation of power,” actual preparation for war; instead of the refusal of future securities, the intensification of present dangers. Preventive war looks to the past and future, Webster’s reflex action to the immediate moment, while the idea of being under a threat focuses on what we had best call simply the present. I cannot specify a time span; it is a span within which one can still make choices, and within which it is possible to feel straitened.

I know that is a lot to digest, but the fact of the matter it takes a lot to justify pre-emptive military strikes, or a preventive war, and that in doing so we have not simply to look to the present moment but to the past and the as yet unwritten future. President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that “Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.” But now, it is being talked about, and as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, Kim Jong Un will raise the ante, and then question will be, then what?

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, Korean Conflicts, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Son of Erin

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like any American whose family on both the paternal and maternal sides has been in this country since well before the American Revolution, I am kind of a genetic mutt. However, it seems that most of my DNA is Irish, the rest being from Scotland, England, Wales, and the Iberian Peninsula, so basically, I’m Celtic. Most of my Irish seems to come from my mom’s side of the family with Travis’s who came from the Old Country and eventually settled in Illinois. My favorite uncle when I was a kid was my uncle Ted. He was as Irish as they come, and according to my mom uncle Ted help begin my great love of beer when I was just a babe.

I have come rather belatedly to the conclusion that I am a son of Erin. In addition to my love of a good beer, when I look at my temperament I see the Irish come through in my readiness to fight, my love of laughter, and my occasional melancholy. I love Irish songs like The Minstrel Boy and Garryowen as well as songs that were made famous by Irish soldiers like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.

 

On my dad’s side I descend from Scottish nobility, not that it matters in this country. But when I was younger I found it a source of pride, especially the military tradition that came with it, and for that matter I still am, but I have become more cognizant of my Irish heritage. This is a heritage that I plan on doing research on in the near future.

As much as the Irish are a part of the rich tapestry that make up America, and the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day has become a fest that most Americans revel in, the Irish were not welcomed with open arms. They were poor, Roman Catholic immigrants, fleeing persecution and famine in the Old Country. The tradition Irish song, The Wearing of the Green includes this verse:

I’ve heard a whisper of a country
That lies beyond the sea,
Where rich and poor stand equal
In the light of freedom’s day.

When they arrived in the United States the found themselves at the bottom of the white man’s world, despised and often violently persecuted by Americans of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” movement. They were accused of being agents of the Pope, and wanting to overthrow Protestant America. As such they had to work hard, and they also stayed together in predominant Irish neighborhoods, and in time they became a political constituency that even non-Irish politicians could not ignore. In a time when other groups of immigrants are discriminated against and demonized, often for their religious beliefs I think that we cannot forget the Irish immigrants, and those who are of Irish descent, those whose ancestors were persecuted in the Old Country as well in this country need to think twice before doing the same to people who are fleeing political and religious persecution as well as war and famine. My Irish heritage has made me feel a closer bond with immigrants than almost anything.

As a historian I want to do that because I wonder if any of my Irish-American ancestors fought with any of the Civil War Irish regiments. I have always been particularly fond of the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac and many times I fly the flag of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry, also known as the 1st Regiment of the Irish Brigade alongside my 34 Star Circle Union Flag outside my house, especially this time of year. The motto of the regiment,  Faugh A Ballagh  (pronounced “Fah-g Ahn BAY-Lick”) means “Clear the way!”

Approximately 150,000 Irish immigrants fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, many hoping that their display of loyalty would put a stop to anti-Irish discrimination, but despite their gallantry and sacrifice on the battlefield it did not. With casualties mounting and the institution of the draft which hit poor people and immigrants the hardest, many Irish staged draft riots in 1863. Eventually the Irish would be accepted, but what happened to them has happened to almost every other group ethnic and religious immigrants who have come to America to be free.

Whenever I go to Gettysburg I stop at the Irish Brigade memorial near the edge of the bloody Wheat Field and speak of its service during the war and the absolution granted to it by its chaplain, Father Corby before it went into battle that hot summer afternoon of July 2nd 1863. Likewise I tell the story of the young Colonel Paddy O’Rorke, the first Irish Catholic to graduate from West Point who died leading his regiment at Little Round Top, not far from where his kinsmen were fighting at the Wheat Field.

So I wish you a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day even as I reflect more on my Irish heritage and raise a pint or two; after all a bird never flew on one wing. Sláinte.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings

The Christian Choice: The Idolatrous Worship of Power or Stand in Favor of the Weak

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the most frightening things to me as a historian who happens of claim to be a Christian is the propensity for the Church and its leaders to be attracted to the worship of power and all of its folly. This has been the case since Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Roman Empire. Leaders of the church in every place and clime as well as almost every denomination have cozied up to rulers in the pursuit of power almost always to the detriment the Church and sometimes their nation. The hierarchies of different churches were in the forefront of the extermination of supposed “heretics,” the persecution of non-state favored religions, the slave trade, the conquest, subjugation, and extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, parts of Asia; they were often the supporters of disastrous wars, and at home used their place of power to wealthy beyond all measure.

Conversely, on the occasions where the Church and its leaders have advocated for the poor, the marginalized, and others who had no earthly power it lead to advances in human rights and liberty. The abolition of slavery in Great Britain was led by William Wilberforce against heated opposition in Parliament and even the Church of England that spanned decades. During the period of the Industrial Revolution, some churches and Christians made a determined effort to end child labor, support workers’ rights, and advocate for the poor, but many others feasted upon the wealth that their rich benefactors lavished upon them and remained silent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African American church leaders helped lead the Civil Rights movement and were joined by some white religious leaders, but many others, including men who were early leaders of the Christian Right opposed the Civil rights movement and used their pulpits to advocate for segregation. Many other just remained silent, just as their forbears had from Constantine one. Silence and the acquiescence to injustice has been a hallmark of the Christian church.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the disastrous effects of the German church’s subservience to the Nazi regime and before that to the Kaiser. He wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

Sophie Scholl (Center)

Bonhoeffer spoke those words in a 1934 sermon, just a bit over a year following the Nazi takeover as Hitler was still consolidating his power and before he and his regime began their war of conquest and extermination. Some German Christians did take the chance to stand up for those oppressed by the Nazis, both in Germany in in the areas the Nazis conquered. Many of those who did would pay for their opposition with either their freedom or their lives, but most of the church was silent. One of the young Christians who opposed the Nazis was Sophie Scholl, a 22 year old student at the University of Munich. She and a number of fellow students formed a group called the White Rose to distribute anti-Nazi materials and to speak out against the crimes of the regime. She wanted those Christians of her day that silence was not an option. She wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

The same is true today in the United States. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians who support the policies of the Trump presidency in order to be at the table of temporal power have cast the church into the pigsty of lies and polices that crush the lives of people who have no power and mock the words of Jesus.

There is a choice to be made by anyone who claims the mantle of Jesus the Christ or claims to follow him. Will we do better than our ancestors or will we to silently slide down the road to perdition?

With that I will end for the day. Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, civil rights, ethics, faith, History, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion