I was almost inexpressibly saddened to read the comments made today by President Obama at a Holocaust Days of Remembrance ceremony, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. In a mostly lyrical and affecting speech, I might have missed the significance of a key passage if not for the sharp ears of Commentary blogger Abe Greenwald, whose piece on the Obama appearance highlighted it, in the context of Obama’s willingness to engage with the national leaders of Venezuela, where Jews are under increasing attack from the major concentration of Hizballah in the Americas, and of Iran, where the elected leader advocates Holocaust denial.
The relevant passage reads as follows (my emphasis):
Today, and every day, we have an opportunity, as well as an obligation, to confront these scourges — to fight the impulse to turn the channel when we see images that disturb us, or wrap ourselves in the false comfort that others’ sufferings are not our own. Instead we have the opportunity to make a habit of empathy; to recognize ourselves in each other; to commit ourselves to resisting injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take…
The sadness here comes not from there being anything wrong with urging people to empathy, to recognizing ourselves in each other, and to committing ourselves to resisting injustice, intolerance, and indifference. Rather, the melancholy derives from the focus on these habits of mind as “the” bulwarks against genocide.
The only genocide in history that was ever stopped in its tracks was the Holocaust of the Jews – and that was done by armed force, applied for the purpose of defeating Germany when she was waging war on Europe and the United States. The original “genocide,” that of Armenians by the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, was not stopped by intervention, or anything other than the death or flight of the Armenian victims. The same can be said of the starvation and slaughter of some 60-80 million peasants and ethnic minorities in the Communist revolutions in Russia and China, as well as the murderous career of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, and the slaughter of non-Muslims in Darfur by the Bashir government of Sudan (which latter, indeed, has yet to end).
Deep concern by others about the victims of these genocides, and tremendous empathy with them, have existed in every case. Contrary to the premise posed by Obama’s speech, “silence” has not reigned regarding them. They were all in the news in Western nations at the time they were occurring, and every one of them was denounced by politicians and pundits in the free countries of the world. Obama spoke today of how then-General Dwight Eisenhower required local Germans to tour Buchenwald after it was liberated, and how he required his own soldiers to tour it, and invited reporters and politicians to come and observe what had been going on there. These were wise and necessary measures, and we may always commend Eisenhower for taking them, as a means of ensuring that the horrific reality of Hitler’s “Final Solution” might never be forgotten or dismissed.
But it was not Eisenhower’s “speaking out” campaign on the ghastly death camps that ended the genocide – it was the military defeat of the Wehrmacht, and of Germany, and her people’s will, through years of aerial bombardment in which the Allies took towering losses, years of a bloody and terrible defense and counterattack by Soviet forces from the East, and years of a grueling, two-pronged frontal land assault by the Allies from the West. Empathy and resistance sneaked thousands of European Jews to safety, outside the reach of the Third Reich; but millions of Jews had been slain within it, before force of arms finally made the genocide stop, by decapitating its source.
No such outside force intervened in the slaughter of Ukrainian kulaks by the revolutionary Soviets in the 1920s. Yet there was much empathy, and the West was well aware it was happening. Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, and millions of rural peasants in China had empathizers and political champions during the Communist slaughters that characterized many of the Mao years – but no armed intervention to deliver them. The eyes of the world focused quite accurately on the homicidal brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the killing fields of Cambodia, and I remember in the late 1970s the same Western demonstrations on behalf of Cambodian victims that we have seen for the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the people of Darfur – the same courageous efforts of private charities, of missionaries and doctors, to get help to them, the same denunciations and demands for intervention, and for an accounting, by Western politicians and pundits.
But the only thing that has actually worked, to stop a genocide before its perpetrators simply wore themselves out, or all the victims were dead or gone, has been armed force. We would do well to remember that. It is an unpopular reality, perhaps, but incontrovertible. Obama made a brief acknowledgment of the WWII veterans who were present at the Holocaust Remembrance ceremony today. But too few people today, including him, really understand that an idea of summary, effective armed force – one that many now regard as increasingly outmoded – executed by these old soldiers as civic duty, rather than as an act of empathy or resistance, saved more Jewish lives from Hitler’s death machine than all the charity, empathy, and resistance mounted against all the world’s genocides combined.
The complacency of the safe can be a fearful thing. Obama is right to praise the ordinary citizens of Europe who risked their lives to hide Jews and help them flee – but, superb as their example is, and admirable as they are, they only got Jews away from the Holocaust. They did not stop it; and in fact, nothing of that kind has ever stopped a genocide. Armed force did. That we live in world in which our leaders don’t even think of acknowledging that, should give us pause, and make us wonder if we could do it again – if we would even understand how to go about it.
Obama’s speech also formed a poignant juxtaposition with the other events of the last several days, during which his administration publicly released legal memos written for George W. Bush on the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) used on terrorist detainees. Obama appeared at the CIA to assure employees there that he did not intend to seek prosecution of anyone for actions taken in accordance with that legal guidance. But he reversed himself the next day, stating to the media that he would keep the door open on the possibility of prosecutions: if not of CIA interrogators, then of more senior Bush administration officials. Attorney General Eric Holder also affirmed before Congress that prosecutions would not be ruled out.
The salient point in all this is that there is not, in fact, a prosecutable offense being either alleged or demonstrated. Whether we agree or disagree with the use of EITs, and whether we call some or all of them torture or not, the central fact is that if anything Bush or his officials did was punishable under law, they would already be indicted. Nothing that they did is defined as a crime in the United States Code; and there is, therefore, no basis on which to prefer charges, place evidence, indict them, or bring them to trial.
Supposing that this is acknowledged by the critics of the Bush administration’s interrogation practices, and assuming they do want to prohibit such actions in the future, the “rule of law” way ahead is obvious: change the law. If they are serious about accountably prohibiting something, the honest method is to define it in law and make it a crime. Of course, our Constitution does not permit ex post facto use of the law, to punish people for things that were not crimes when they did them. So this accountable method of putting their money where their mouths are is not a means for his critics of punishing George W. Bush, or his administration officials.
Instead of seeking to change the law, or acknowledging that there is no basis for prosecution, Mr. Holder, and Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and other senior Democrats, have spoken in vague but threatening terms of “investigations” and “truth commissions” – the purpose of which cannot be anything other than to revel before the public in revelations that are useful for demagoguery and mob incitement, but that cannot, by the rule of law, result in prosecutions for actual crimes. If, like the independent counsel investigation of the Valerie Plame affair, they were to produce years of backbreaking legal fees for Bush administration officials, and perhaps an indictment – even a conviction or two – for “perjury,” manufactured from conflicting memories of events by different witnesses, that might well satisfy the urge of Bush’s political enemies to harass, embarrass, impoverish, and inconvenience his associates.
But a polity that tolerates inflicting this kind of damage to the lives and livelihoods of citizens, when they are not guilty of any crimes that are defined in law, is precisely the kind of polity that fosters actionable anti-Semitism: that sits still for fellow citizens being demonized, for anything from a stereotypical idea of their facial characteristics to mythological theories about their penchant for conspiracies against the public weal. A polity in which the national leader is prepared to harass his political opponents for things that were not, and are still not, actual crimes, is a polity that is already prepared to post signs on park benches telling Jews to keep off, and to force Jews to wear Stars of David on their clothing. Indeed, a polity that is ready to confiscate the lawfully-contracted compensation of employees because they work in finance, on Wall Street, is a polity that has no further mental adjustments to make, to approve pillaging the businesses and bank accounts of fellow citizens because they are Jews.
How many Americans remember the major themes Hitler employed in his bid for political power for the Nazi Party? Two of the key concepts he harped on were that a cabal of Jews had “stabbed Germany in the back” to inflict an unfair and needless humiliation on her at the end of WWI; and that Jews worked through the Socialist or Communist International – whichever one was currently seen by the public as most culpable in keeping Germany disorderly, disunited, and weak. The face of blunt reality changes hardly at all over time: these demonizing, unprovable, non-crime “criminal” allegations were no more absurd, in the context of public knowledge and common sense in Germany in 1932, than similar wild and overheated allegations against the Bush administration are in America in 2009. Hitler sought political power by exploiting exactly the same kind of exaggerated, groundless fear of conspiracy, and of vices darkly imputed to whole segments of the population, that characterizes so much of Bush’s left-wing opposition.
Like respect for the efficacy of armed force, insistence on the rule of law, and rejection of the torch-and-pitchfork mob mentality behind political lynchings and “truth commissions,” is an old-fashioned virtue of Western political rationalism. A complacent society, unmolested – at least from without – for decades, can come to take the rule of law lightly, and imagine that it can be infringed and subverted without putting all our civil liberties in peril. But this is a fool’s hallucination: the experimental supposition of the youthful zealot. It also, however, seems to occupy a place in the political thinking of our current president.
The rule of law was conspicuously non-functional in Hitler’s long campaign to use the force of the state to attack Jews. No citizen should be subject to any sanction of the state on the basis of allegations about him that do not even relate to defined and prosecutable crimes – but the Jews of Hitler’s Germany were. This vicious pattern did not differ in principle from the idea behind subjecting George W. Bush or Dick Cheney to theatrical mob fury with “truth commissions”; it differed only in intensity and detail. In both cases, it is a matter of using the force and resources of the state against citizens who cannot, by empirical evidence or the substance of the law, be honestly and accountably indicted for any crime.
President Obama’s moral ground was shaky today, for urging us not to demonize each other, and so to avert future genocides. The process of political demonization to which his recent actions have opened the door, in the case of his duly elected predecessor, is the same one by which Hitler incited Germans against the Jews, and other socialist revolutionaries of the last century incited populations against classes, minorities, and even simply individuals.
Obama urged us in this speech to cultivate a habit of empathy. But empathy has not nearly the power to protect minorities that the rule of law does, when we all have the same respect for it. My God instructs me to do more than have empathy with Jews – or Muslims, or Buddhists, Confucianists, Taoists, Baha’is, or agnostics or atheists: His command is that I love them as I love myself. But it is not the state’s job to inquire into that. The state’s job is to protect them, and me, equally, no matter how we feel about each other.
We may or may not ever have a world in which everyone has empathy for his fellows. But we can affirm, through our law and our observance of it, that regardless of any condition of empathy or lack thereof, no one should be subjected to the consequences of criminal prosecution – including loss of property, loss of life, incarceration, the costs of defending himself against agents of the government, and identification to the public as a miscreant – unless he is actually, by due and constitutional process of law, determined to be a criminal.
Failure to enforce this very basic concept of the rule of law was a key enabler of the appalling, tacit approval of the Holocaust by the polity of the Third Reich. If Barack Obama would ensure against another one, he should start by insisting, carefully and accountably, and by deeds even more than words, on the rule of law under his own administration. The door to using the state’s power to harass its citizens instead of protecting them is very easy to open, and very hard to close. Obama’s shoulder has so far seemed to be pushing it from the wrong side – and there is no more important time than a week dedicated to Holocaust remembrance to point that out.