When I was in elementary school, I forget now which grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and that led me to read more about World War II and Hitler. I can’t imagine what I read– a girl in school– but I do remember that I wrote a little essay or a book report on the subject. It concluded with the line, “But that could not happen here.”
When I got my paper back, my teacher had written only one comment in red pen in the margin. “Why not?”
Everything else about that time is fuzzy. I don’t remember the teacher’s face, what classroom I was in, or what the assignment had been. I do remember the comment. It shook my childhood sense of certainty because I didn’t have an answer.
It might be the first time in my life that I was startled out of a lazy way of thinking. It was easy enough, in school, to assume that bad things that happened in other places and times happened because of flaws that we–in our great democracy– had overcome.
“Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” -Frances Fitzgerald, American Myth, American Reality
The moral of the story of World War II was that we had been on the right side. The moral was that we were not like them. If someone tried to stir up such deadly passions we would see it. We would stop it. Our system would not allow it to happen.
I grew up in the north, in a suburban school, where the children of Detroit’s “white flight” were raised. We learned about slavery and the civil war, and the moral of the story was that we had been on the right side. We were not like the people who held slaves. We fought against it. If something like that happened in our midst, we would recognize it. We would be the ones to stand up against it.
It all seemed easy.
We each want to believe that had we been in Germany as the Nazis came to power, that we would be among those who stood against it, not those who joined, cheered it on or in a time of great peril said nothing. In The Sound of Music, we would be like Captain von Trapp, who is willing to give up everything for his principles, and not like young Rolf, who feels manly and important in his new role as Nazi soldier.
I do not mean to focus my argument on Hitler. There have been episodes throughout history and around the world of fear being stoked, and blame being placed on the outsiders or the enemy within, with violent consequences. Before the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called “cockroaches.”
In our own country we remember the Salem witch trials as an example of hysteria and injustice. Even though it happened here, we feel far from it. We usually go away thinking, “How wonderful that we are no longer superstitious like that.”
Us vs. Them. Humans vs. Witches, People vs. Animals. The ones who need to be protected, and the monsters among us who need to be destroyed.
Are we to believe that we are so well-governed, so good, so moral, so rational, that we are singularly immune to these forces?
It should not be controversial to say that seeing an American leader standing in front of a crowd, leading them to chant that a group of people are “animals” is frightening. We’ve seen where this sort of thing can lead.
It should not be controversial.
We’ve been desensitized by degrees. Birtherism’s racism was subtext. The Wall was symbolic. People can be blind to subtext, it can be denied.
Do you remember when members of the GOP were shocked and stunned by candidate Trump’s suggestion of a Muslim ban, and how forcefully people like Paul Ryan spoke against it?
That was when he was confident that Republicans agreed with him. He did not think this stance was controversial. And then the Muslim-ban-candidate became the party’s nominee and the assertive speeches about how this was not what we stand for evaporated.
Once we accepted that the Muslim ban was not beyond the pale, it opened the door to accept more and more. “Good people on both sides of the Nazi rally” comes and goes.
And so it hardly raises an eyebrow when President of the United States stands at a rally and paints a picture of dangerous monsters turning our cities into “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating.” Nor does the suggestion that anyone who questions his rhetoric is on the side of chaotic, marauding evil, an enemy to be defeated too.
We’re all in this together? Humbug.
Eventually it seems unremarkable to see the Attorney General announcing a policy of separating children from their parents at the border, even though somewhere in the back of your mind, there may be a vague sense that things like this have happened before. What are you thinking of? That scene from Rabbit Proof Fence?
In Australia the indigenous children taken from their parents were called “the Stolen Generations.” But we don’t need to look so far away. Indigenous children were taken from their families right here in United States.
Is there a similar logic at work today?
In his speech announcing his run for president, Trump said Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” The recording of that quote is so familiar now that you can hear its cadence, like a familiar song. “Some, I assume, are good people.” Whether you oppose or agree, there it is, an earworm. It frames the debate.
Under these terms, taking babies from their mothers makes sense, doesn’t it? Aren’t we just protecting the innocents from the criminals? Aren’t they better off? Why should they stay with the drug dealers and rapists just because, as a friend of mine put it, the children’s mother happens to have “popped them out.”
There is only one way to say it: This way of thinking is wrong.
Jack Holmes, in Esquire wrote:
But perhaps the most unnerving portion [of Trump’s recent rally] was the call and response, where the president’s supporters dutifully followed him down the road of calling other human beings “animals.” They did so gleefully, as they once engaged in back-and-forths about The Wall and how Mexico Is Going to Pay For It…It was a sign that the faithful are taking to the new tactics with a dark enthusiasm…
It is painfully obvious that this president has no problem singling out the very worst among undocumented immigrants and holding them up as representative of the group. He wants MS-13, and Kate Steinle’s killer, and all the other worst elements to be the face of the undocumented population. It’s all he talks about, until the only image that appears in his supporters’ minds when they hear the term “illegal immigrant” is someone of a certain complexion who has committed a violent crime. Does it still seem worth debating whom, exactly, Trump is calling an “animal”?
Perhaps, in the short term, he’s merely hoping to boost Republican midterm turnout through the raw power of fear. The risk, however, is that this spills into the kind of fervor that leads people to do terrible things—things they might hesitate to do to a person, but not to an animal.
President: They’re not human beings. They’re not human beings.
The crowd boos.
President: And this is why we call the blood-thirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name I used last week. What was the name?
The Crowd cheers: Animals!
This is wrong. This is wrong.