25 April 2006

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It reminds us that when politics don't work, the costs can be unthinkably high. The Holocaust killed more people than live in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana combined. There is no safety net. For better or for worse, our democratic system of government vests politicians and lawyers with responsibility for preventing the horrors that men and women can inflict upon each other.

The system that made it happen was designed to encourage people to feel little responsibility for their actions and to look the other way, so that their knowledge they feared they might receive would not morally obligate them to act to stop what might be happening. Only a small minority of decision makers (men like Colorado Senator Wayne Allard) are openly willing to vote to condone and permit torture and other heinous tyrannies. But, far more people (almost all Republicans, for example) are willing to set up systems where preventing those insults to our nation's humanity are someone else's responsibility and to shield themselves and the legal system from the obligation to stop inhumanity from continuing, especially when those hurt are people unlike themselves or anyone they know. Yet, this can be just as insidious in its results. The German parliament didn't vote to kill all of the Jews, it simply gave Hitler, a man capable of ordering that, the power to do so and then looked the other way, because he brought them results that his predecessors had not. He made them feel that they were somebody, that they were moving forward, that their nation worked again, after a long period of chaos and the failure of politicians to solve their problems.

The responsibility to make the political system work is a personal one of everyone who is or could be involved in it. While our system is designed to keep most people, most of the time, from getting close to the dangerous edge, Weimar Germany didn't become Nazi Germany because its constitution was written by a bunch of dolts. Indeed, it was believed to be a model of Western Democracy at the time. It happened because people, outside Germany, who imposed the terms of the Treaty of Versaille, and inside Germany, who set national policy to respond to the pressures Germany was facing, failed to make society work. The people in positions of power made mistakes, and so did the voters who put them in positions of power. Hitler rose to power in a country that was in dire straights. Hitler was placed in power in Germany not from the head of an Army, but by a panicked parliament. Only then did he acquire the Army with which he conquered so much of the rest of the European continent. If the players in the political and legal systems lack the will to stop tyranny then, at some urgent moment, we may fall prey to it. No constitution can prevent a large enough group of people in power from circumventing its goals. Governments can't act unless a large number of bright and powerful people agree to let it happen, and the masses put those people in power. But, a nation of frightened sheep will end up being led by wolves. Apathy and fear are a dangerous pair.

The holocaust is also is reminder that there can be just wars. If the United States had joined the Allies in the war effort a couple of years later, there would have been no such thing as a holocaust survivor. If the United States had joined the Allies a little sooner, many of those killed might have escaped their fates. Some governments are truly so horrible that violence is justified to prevent the greater evil that they can perpetrate if allowed to remain in power. We have ignored Third World genocides too many times when we had the power to prevent them, but not the will to do so.

But, in the same vein, it is worth recalling that often wars are won or lost based on who joins the fight on whose side, as much as they are by how well battles are fought. Alienating potential allies is a threat to national security. Building strong alliances can win wars, or even prevent them. Britain wasn't able to survive and defeat the Nazis on its own. Only with Russian and U.S. help was the Third Reich defeated.

Today is not a day to celebrate. It is a day to remember and ask ourselves what we can do to prevent our world's next great tragedies from taking place. It is our responsibility.

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