And pretend that he just doesn't see
The moral imperative to take a stand when bigotry rears its ugly head and not turn a blind eye
NOTE: International Holocaust Remembrance Day was observed on January 27th. This day is held annually to remind us of the horrors of inhumanity and hatred when taken to an extreme and to commemorate the millions of innocent lives that were lost. Implicit in the remembrance is the moral imperative to take a stand when bigotry rears its ugly head rather turn a blind eye.
As a way of marking the occasion and its importance, I’m re-publishing this column written in September 2019. It dealt with two events that occurred at the time—the deportation of Iraqi nationals living in metro Detroit and a mass shooting of Latinos in El Paso, Texas—and my connecting them to a passage in a memoir I’d read that dealt with Nazi Germany.
It was another of my attempts to use history as a means to better explain the present. Of course, I’m hardly alone in employing this strategy.
Well, those events from 2019 are now history. But, as they say, “the beat goes on.” Current news reports tell us of a rise in anti-Semitism, Asian-Americans being targeted, and discrimination aimed at the LBGTQ community.
The imperative remains.
* * *
“Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn't see?” is one of the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s famous ballad Blowing in the Wind.
While not as poetic, you could add… “How many times can a man rationalize it away?” Or better yet… “How many times can a man blame the victim for their plight?”
A lot of turning away, rationalizing, and blaming the victim was apparently occurring in Europe on the eve of World War II in regard to what was happening inside Nazi Germany to Jews, political opponents, and so-called “undesirables.”
Still, while I’m not an expert on this slice of history, from what I’ve read it would be unfair to portray all Germans or those in neighboring countries as “looking the other way.” There were courageous voices who raised objections, and chroniclers who reported on what was happening.
But a government devoted to tyranny; willing to utilize terror, torture, imprisonment and even execution to maintain its power; and in possession of an organized, armed force primed to back its dictates and policies… well, such a regime can usually instill adequate fear to silence most critics and, in doing so, embolden their supporters.
In doing all of that, as the Nazi government did after it came to power, what seems wrong, immoral, and abhorrent, by repetition and a corrosion of the senses, gradually takes on a sheen of normalcy.
When the Germans annexed neighboring Austria in 1938, the ante was upped. Hitler claimed that this neighboring nation, being mainly German, should be part of his Third Reich. No one could know that soon Czechoslovakia would be next; it’s takeover aided and abetted by Britain and France whose leaders acquiesced to his demands in the name of peace. Or that he’d soon invade Poland, thus (finally) forcing the hand of those two nations and bringing on another world war.
Those of us who’ve watched The Sound of Music over the years have some knowledge of what happened in Austria—and that not all of its citizens (or at least not Captain von Trapp) embraced this new situation. But the von Trapp family was able to escape. Others also took flight.
Tragically, not everyone was so fortunate. Or prudent. Or possessed the means to do so.
* * *
Journalism is often called “the first draft of history.” In the haste of reporting a story, despite all of the efforts at verification and fact checking, mistakes are made and what was thought to be accurate, upon further examination or in the unfolding of events is not always the case.
Journalism also doesn’t have the advantage of hindsight, being that it’s a here-and-now endeavor, or the luxury of mulling over a situation at great length and providing all manner of nuances.
Reporters and commentators, most of them anyway, do the best they can to inform the reading, viewing, or listening public. For the most part, they do a commendable job.
One of those skilled at doing this was the late C.Z. Sulzberger who had a long and distinguished tenure as a foreign correspondent and then as columnist specializing in foreign affairs with the New York Times. Born in 1912, he had a career that lasted over four decades.
No doubt his family connections helped him secure the position with the Times, given that his uncle and then his cousin were publishers of the newspaper. But a talent for reporting and an engaging prose were his calling card.
He began his newspaper career at age 21 and, before joining the Times in 1939, worked for the Pittsburgh Press, the United Press and the London Evening Standard.
I’ve been reading his memoir Seven Continents and Forty Years, published in 1977. I bought it for a dollar at a book sale many years ago, read parts of it soon after the purchase, and then put it on the shelf with the rest of my modest library.
Looking for something to read a couple of weeks ago, I decided to re-visit book. A fortuitous choice. There’s a reason we read history—or should. It can offer guidance to present-day events and situations.
Here are a few excerpts from the opening pages of Sulzberger’s chronicle.
“London was my base until just before the Munich Agreement in October 1938, when Britain and France paved the dreary road to their own decline. I had heard so much about fascism without myself experiencing its ghastliness that I decided to inspect is morbid laboratory. I chose Austria. North American Newspaper Alliance gave me credentials, agreeing to accept articles, and Lord Beaverbrook’s London Evening Standard hired me as a piece-rate correspondent.
“…and I took off for Vienna. That city had already been reduced to provincial status as capital of Nazi Germany’s Ostmark. In Vienna I lodged at a hotel in Singerstrasse whose manager greeted me with “Heil Hitler” and the ridiculous salute the Nazis imagined was Roman. Posters bore the Fuhrer’s picture, and libraries were filled with works by him or extolling him. Most stores displayed signs saying “Aryan shop,’ or “this Jew is already in Dachau,” or “This Jew ought to be in Dachau.” I went to St. Stephen’s cathedral and saw a uniformed man grab a young woman from the steps and march her along, followed by a jeering crowd. Inside many people silently prayed.
“The atmosphere of this famous, ancient city combined the less pleasant features of menagerie and charnel house. I have since heard much about the charm and gemutlichket of Austrians and, indeed, often encountered it. But in those days it was absent. I felt enraged as a Jew and disgusted as a human being.”
While in Vienna, Sulzberger bribed an official to gain entry one night to the Jewish section of the city morgue where he saw evidence (by viewing the corpses) that a couple of the Jewish deaths were not suicides as reported by authorities, but that they had instead been beaten to death. “I had never known a man to kill himself by punching out his own eyes,” he wrote.
Sulzberger recounts being surrounded by urns that contained the remains of other Jews, some who had been prisoners at Dachau, and having access to their records on a nearby table. Examining one of these urns, the label on it, and checking the written report, he learned the man had died in the concentration camp at age 27 and “was given a state burial, which meant cremation.”
“With a faint rustling sound, I put back the urn containing his ashes and was struck by how little a man’s body weighed when the problem was scientifically solved,” he wrote.
Before dawn, via a prearranged scratch on the door, he was let out of the morgue and returned to his lodgings.
“Through the translucent night, I walked home,” he recalled. “The city was strangely silent in the absence of those boot tramps that seem to give the Teuton special pleasure. Nevertheless, the smell of fear—a strange, intangible smell—pervaded everything. A needle-sharp cloud slid across the gibbous moon. That day I left by train for Prague, hiding papers and notebooks under my shirt and belt in case of prying customs guards.”
Based on his newspaper reports of what was happening in Central Europe and being a Jew, the reporter soon became a marked man with the Nazis. When they arrived in Czechoslovakia he fled to Yugoslavia. And when they came to that region, he hightailed it to Greece.
We, of course, know what eventually happened and how it all ended—the history, if you will. The allies would prevail, but not before millions more Jews were murdered in the extermination camps. And heard the vow “Never again!”
But these were the memories of a journalist when he was writing the first draft.
* * *
The headlines on a recent front page of the Detroit Free Press read: “16 deported to Iraq as families in Michigan worry” and “Latinos feel new kind of terror: Mass shooting gives shape to dark undercurrent of political rhetoric.”
A subhead above those side-by-side articles stated: “Immigrant communities living in fear.”
In the first article, the lead paragraph, noted: “Sixteen Iraqi nationals—half from metro Detroit—have been deported to Iraq since an April court decision allowed their removal from the U.S. The move has sparked anxiety for some immigrant families, heightened by the recent death in Baghdad of a diabetic deportee from Oakland County.”
The 41-year-old man, Jimmy Al-Daoud, who had lived in the United States since he was a year old, died last month (in early August) after he was deported in June. His attorney, who had tried to halt the extradition, speculated the cause of death “was probably from complications from diabetes.”
He had been born in a refugee camp in Greece in 1978 after his family fled Iraq between the wars. A year later the family was granted refugee status and allowed to come to this country, settling in the Detroit area.
According to news accounts on his death, he had mental health issues, along with suffering from diabetes. His family told the news media that “he had been living on the streets in Baghdad with two other men who had been deported the same day.”
There was also reference to the Iraqi refugee who cut his tether days before deportation and was arrested by ICE agents at his home. He and his family fear that his removal is akin to a death sentence, noting that his brother was killed a few years ago, shortly after being deported. This man had been in the United States since age nine when his family came here in 1994.
In these two cases and others, those who are being deported have committed a crime sometime in their past. While most of them have served their sentences, under current law and the decision by the Trump administration to step up enforcement, they are being sent to a place they’re unfamiliar with and that poses an apparent danger to their lives. They’re also being taken from families and jobs, leaving behind wives and children dependent on them.
I accept that the law has merit for those convicted of violent crimes or who have not been rehabilitated and are repeat offenders—a member of a predatory gang or someone involved in organized crime, for example. However, as is usually the case, the ‘devil is in the details’ and how the law is applied.
Does a petty offense or a crime committed in someone’s past justify removal? Generally, we regard a sentence served as a clean slate, and (I hope) we still embrace the notion that people can rehabilitate themselves. Are these people really a threat to the community or is this a convenient excuse to get rid of people from a targeted nationality?
Is deportation morally justified for someone who has lived in this country nearly their entire lives—the Dreamers being an example—who are culturally and socially Americans?
And how do we justify sending people to a place, even if it is their or their family’s country of origin, that poses a threat to them due to their Christian religion, or their assistance to our military during the Iraqi wars, or because they’re regarded by militants as an American? It’s one thing to send someone back to Merry Old England and quite another to a dangerous place.
The anxiety, the article explained, is being experienced not only by those facing deportation and their immediate families, but by others in this immigrant community, here legally, who fear the actions are harbingers to additional threats and eventual persecution.
The article also noted that U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, who represents many of those impacted by this policy, sent a letter to President Donald Trump signed by him, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and 39 other House Democrats demanding an end to the deportations.
“Jimmy’s death was an avoidable, unnecessary and predictable tragedy,” said Levin, adding that many others are facing similar life-threatening circumstances in Iraq.
The article on the Latino community was equally disturbing. It states:
“The mass shooting in El Paso (Texas) was one of the deadliest hate crimes in American history against Latinos.
“The suspect reportedly left a manifesto with anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant sentiment.
“Now, the fear among Latino people is palpable.
“Latinos are calling this a turning point. The shooting, they say, has peeled back the hate behind the words they’ve tried to ignore. It has sliced open the racism many grew up learning to navigate.
“The killing of 22 people in a border city has left them fearful of living in their own country: because of the brown color of their skin, because they speak Spanish or because of where they or their families were born.”
The story then profiled several different people, each of them describing “what it is like to live in fear.”
* * *
I don’t equate what happened in Germany and what the Nazis did in the rest of Europe when Hitler and his henchmen were in power to what’s happening in this country, either in Texas and just down the road in Metro Detroit.
We still operate under the due process of the law. We’re still debating policy matters in a democratic fashion, exercising our right of free speech, and the press is still at liberty to do its job. For the most part, reasonable people are still disagreeing reasonably.
That said, governmental policies impact the lives and fortunes of people, and actions have consequences that lead in certain directions and produce certain outcomes—some of those directions and outcomes being unfortunate and of concern.
The ‘fear’ described by C.Z. Sulzberger in his long-ago journalistic report on what he witnessed in Vienna may not equate precising with the ‘fear’ felt by Michigan’s Iraqi community (most of them Chaldean Christians) and by Latinos throughout our nation due to recent events and governmental policies. But fear is fear, and it’s hard not to hear an historical echo.
Slippery slopes do occur, events can spin out-of-control if we are not vigilant, and what seems wrong, immoral, and abhorrent, by repetition and a corrosion of the senses, gradually takes on a sheen of normalcy.
It can begin with the language we use to describe those we disagree with on political, social or religious matters— abandoning benign words in favor of harsh labels meant to dismiss and demean. It can evolve from accepting those who are not precisely like us—those of a different race, nationality, ethnicity, religious, or sexual orientation—to portraying them as a threat.
It can go from needed border protection to stepped up dragnets of immigrant communities to companies creating additional private prisons in anticipation of increased demand. It can go from the ‘rough and tumble’ of policy debates to seeking to curtail the exercise of free expression through threats of legal action or shouting down the opposition. It can go from hard-fought political campaigns to calling an opponent disloyal. It can go from our fellow countrymen living a normal, everyday life of family, work, and social interactions to suddenly living in fear.
What will come of our current events, where they will lead us, and how the story will end up…. A slippery slope? A spinning out-of-control? Or merely another bump in the road—no worse than other bumps that have shaken things up for a bit before the course smooths out again…Well, as they say, time will tell.
For the journalist, there is the job of reporting what’s going; of writing that first draft. For those who also delve into commentary, there’s the hope of explaining the situation as best possible and, in doing so, persuade and influence the situation in a small way.
Of course, there is always the question of “why bother?”
It’s one I often ask myself—as in “why stick your neck out?”
But then I remember that image of the uniformed man grabbing a young woman (presumably a Jew) from the steps of the cathedral, the jeering mob following, and those people inside the church praying silently. I find it a haunting scene.
It must have all happened so fast, the seemingly slight erosion of civilized amenities that became a sudden wash out and, with it, the choice to remain silent, or to rationalize it away, or even blame the victims.
I remember as well of how a young newspaperman chose to leave the safety of his London home, venturing into the lion’s den (that morbid laboratory) and telling what he saw; one of those courageous voices who did not “turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see.”
While the temptation may be strong, neither can we.
Steve Horton is a mid-Michigan journalist and editor-publisher of the ‘Fowlerville News & Views’—a weekly newspaper.