When Didn't They Know It, and What About You?

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You remember watching all those "Nazi holocaust" films, most of which focused on the question of the moral culpability of the German people. "Why didn’t these people do something? Couldn’t they see what was going on all around them? How can they pretend they didn’t know what the Nazi regime was doing?" Implicit in such questions has been a condemnation of most Hitler-era Germans for not standing up to say "no!" to this vicious regime. A Jewish friend of mine went so far as to tell me, a couple years ago, that he thought every adult German from those years should have been tried for complicity in the murder of millions of people.

I have never been an advocate of "collective guilt." But then, I have never been an advocate of collectivism of any sort. Even in lynch gangs, riots, voting, or other forms of mob behavior, individuals still bear the responsibility for their actions. You and I are responsible for what we do, not because some statute, or religious or philosophical doctrine tells us we are, but because we are free to make choices and to act upon those choices. I am responsible for what I do in the same sense that a tornado can be said to have been responsible for destroying Smith’s barn.

This raises the question of whether any of us has an obligation to act with respect to others? "Obligation" and "responsibility" are words that tend to be used interchangeably in our culture, but the former is prospective in nature, while the latter is retrospective. Thus, I may be said to have an "obligation" to perform contracts to which I have agreed and, upon having so performed, it can be said that I was "responsible" in my actions.

Returning to the Nazi Germany example, did any of the German people have an obligation to at least speak out against Hitler’s vicious practices? And even if they had no obligation to do so, why did so few undertake such a course? There would certainly have been great risks associated with doing so, potential costs that probably did more to account for the silence of most Germans than did some alleged venal or heinous trait in their character. We need not engage in abstract speculation nor visit elderly Rhinelanders to explore this question. We have a ready laboratory in our midst – comprised of most of our friends and relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and members of the media — to whom this question can be addressed. The same issues that were placed before the German people in 1933 are now before us, and our grandchildren may one day implore us to explain our silence in the face of a vicious tyranny.

It will do you no good to plead the statist’s claim that the current totalitarian structures and unilateral war against the entire world were occasioned by events of September 11th. Just as Adolf Hitler was able to convert the burning of the Reichstag into the raison d’etre for his military campaigns and domestic police-state, George Bush has been exploiting the World Trade Center attacks to advance a political agenda that goes far beyond the brutalities of early September. The neoconservatives — the "neocon-men" of this coup — have engaged themselves in a tireless campaign, fueled by self-righteous absolutism, to fashion upon Americans a police-state transcending the one put together by Abraham Lincoln.

Secret trials by military tribunals, from which there would be no right of appeal; the close monitoring of telephone and Internet communications, banking and medical records, and credit card purchases; the power of an imperial president, usurped from Congress, to declare war on whomever it fits his momentary fancy to attack; the threatening of those who dissent from Mr. Bush’s policies; the creation of a "Homeland Security" cabinet post — whose very name recalls a preoccupation with "der Fatherland"; and an increasing irrelevance of Congress in the development of government policy — other than to rubber-stamp Mr. Bush’s proposals; fails to arouse much interest from most Americans. Does all of this not show you how easy it is, when our minds are not focused, for demagogues to mobilize our "dark side" for vicious ends?

There is scarcely a pip being squeaked anywhere in the major media over any of this. Having exhausted their intellectual capital on the Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy scandals, they have done very little questioning of these statist programs. Television news and commentaries are replete with retired military officers, pro-government "think-tank" careerists, and flag-waving journalists whose entire discourse centers around such peripheral matters as when to attack Iraq, how many troops to send to which countries, or whether those accused of "terrorist" acts should have any legal "rights" accorded them! Try turning on any of these programs, or peruse any of the major newspapers, and see if Noam Chomsky, or Alexander Cockburn, or Lew Rockwell, or Joe Sobran, or Lewis Lapham, or David Theroux, or Gore Vidal, or any other focused critics of this well-organized sociopathology ever appear. The major media has served as little more than the cheering section for this exercise, a role that confirms, as Chomsky and others have long noted, their incestuous relationship with the political establishment.

A clue as to how all of this was going to unfold was offered by President Bush shortly after September 11th. The American response was labeled "Operation Enduring Freedom." When politicians start speaking of "freedom," it means that greater restrictions are about to be imposed on our lives, just as stated intentions of "peace" mean that war is about to be declared. In much the same way, legislation designated as "fair" tells us that someone is going to have their liberties curtailed, or appeals to "justice" will generate a redistribution of violence. One must understand that politicians and state functionaries always corrupt the meaning of language. When I was a youngster, World War II was conducted by the "War Department." But after the war, when the political establishment embarked upon a crusade to take over the world, that agency’s name was changed to the "Defense Department."

As Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft — for whom the sentiments of individual liberty are about as alien as vegetarianism is to a hungry lion — speak of "freedom," be assured that more government agents are being put in place to spy upon and control your life. Of course, most Americans have been conditioned to accept the view that "freedom" is a condition defined by the state; that as long as one is obedient to governmental authority, they will stay out of trouble. By this definition, "freedom" has always existed everywhere: one was "free," in 1938, to stand on a street corner in Germany and praise Hitler, or to laud Stalin on the streets of Moscow (particularly as the Soviet’s Constitution, modeled after the Americans, protected such rights!).

Lest you dismiss my words as hyperbole, let me direct your attention to a most revealing book, written by Milton Mayer, titled They Thought They Were Free. In the late 1940s, Mayer went to Germany and got to know a number of German people quite well, actually living with some. These people had not been government officials or Nazi party leaders, but just the ordinary men and women who do the productive work in any society. He eventually began asking them questions about what it was like to have lived under the Nazi police state, to have endured tyrannical practices. Their virtually unanimous responses, as indicated by the title of the book, were that there had been no loss of freedom in Germany that, indeed, they had considered themselves "free" at all times!

Our experience with Nazi holocaust films may cause us to shake our heads in disbelief over such revelations — after all, Nazism has come to symbolize as heinous a form of tyranny as we can imagine. But how different is our mindset from that of the Germans who, in 1933, watched as their police state was rapidly put into place and who, fifteen years later, could not imagine that anything untoward had taken place?

We have watched as foreign citizens have been transported to a military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be indefinitely detained by an American government that doesn’t even hold out the hope of a trial to determine the justification for their incarceration. Now we are watching an American citizen being charged as a "combatant" and held at a military base in New Jersey on grounds about which even U.S. government officials have expressed uncertainty and denied the likelihood of a trial. Who will be next? Will the censoring spirit of White House spokesman Ari Fleischer — who warned us all that we had better watch what we say — pervade the entire political establishment, criminalizing not only open dissent, but the failure to become enthusiasts for whatever policy Mr. Bush wishes to announce?

The same question is before you as most of us have placed before the German contemporaries of Hitler: what didn’t you know, and why didn’t you know it? Why were you not aware of the implicit nature of the system being constructed before your very eyes? Why did you not object?

As we watch our neighbors being dragged off to distant military bases to be held, without public trials, for untold periods of time, let us recall earlier regimes that transported people to isolated government facilities, for which little protest was heard. Let us also recall the poignant words of the German Pastor Martin Niemoller, which have particular meaning today:

In Germany 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 unionists, 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 no one was left to speak up.

Far too many of us fail to see our interconnectedness with one another; of how an attack upon the lives and liberties of others is an attack upon the social bonds that not only make society possible, but express our very humanity. What you and I have in common with each other and with everyone else on this planet is a need to mutually protect one another’s individuality. All political systems thrive on collectivism, but liberty is dependent upon a shared love and respect for the inviolability of one another.

In years to come, when Americans have managed to put an end to their collective insanity and rediscover what it is like to live in peace and freedom with one another in a society capable of producing life-sustaining values, you may be asked by your grandchild: "what was it like back then, living under a police state? What did you do?" How will you answer her?

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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