From time to time, horrifying images from the Holocaust death camps pass before my eyes, prompting me to consider the magnitude of the unfathomable cruelty inflicted on an entire race of living, breathing people… grandparents, children… young people… newlyweds… babies.
If I consider that moment in history long enough, it sucks the oxygen right from me. I don’t have the cruelty gene in me. I am unable to force my brain to even go there. I am intrinsically unable to inflict pain or violence on a completely innocent person. Sometimes as I consider what some humans have done to other humans, I seriously wonder if I’m simply not of the same species. Or maybe they’re not.
I was not yet born during World War II, so all of the images and stories from it are in shaded gray photographs and film clips… something that, while growing up, was a thing that happened a long time ago and shall never happen again. And of course, I grew up, and discovered that bigotry, racism and cruelty continue to flow through the collective psyche of our pathetically flawed species like a current of toxic waste.
I was watching some documentary awhile back, forget which one exactly, in which there was a video clip scanning past a group of starving, suffering Jewish women in a concentration camp… their eyes, pleading and pain-stricken… wrenching to look at. But not as painful as the eyes that held nothing at all anymore. Just dull resignation, like candle wicks gone cold. If you don’t convulse in compassion when you see such suffering… again, we are not of the same species.
And then… I suddenly imagined the faces of my Jewish friends in that clip… Sunny or Amy or Beatrice or Sivan or Beth or, or, or… and it was like a roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. Putting the faces of actual beloved women I know, women who have enhanced my life in so many immeasurable ways… imagining that every one of those faces touched other lives in the same way. I can’t even bear it.
The shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue yesterday again prompted me to think of my friends’ faces, male and female, and how any one of those people could have been them, and despair wells in my heart. Putting a personal face on these tragedies ratchets up your empathy. Try it. Think of your own Jewish friends behind hogwire in a death camp or being herded in for a “shower,” or simply attending a family religious ceremony peacefully in their house of worship and then being gunned down by a racist lunatic… that’ll make it sting a little more.
I was pondering all that this morning, thinking of my Jewish friends and how I’d feel if something happened to them, and then it hit me… thinking of familiar faces as victims was easy. But there’s another side to that coin. What about the faces of the perpetrators? Those who shout (or silently think but won’t speak the words) “All Jews Must Die!” Or all Blacks. Or all Liberals. Or, or, or… what if I insert the faces of people I know who hold racist views into the role of Nazi or mass shooter? That’s a whole nuther kind of sting.
Try it. Insert the face of the most racist person you know onto the Pittsburg shooter. You know who they are. They routinely spout racist, hateful things, parrot what they hear on Right Wing TV and radio; marginalize those they irrationally despise as the “other.” Their “other enemy.” The one who steals what they feel they’re entitled to, simply by virtue of the color of their skin or the symbol of their church.
I imagine people I know throwing the switch on the showers or firing their machine guns at emaciated, naked men standing on the precipice of a mass grave in a concentration camp… and laughing. Let me tell you, it’s a mind fuck. Stopping to consider that the murderers and torturers and mass shooters all have familiar faces too, to someone.
There’s the more difficult task. Putting a human face (rather than a monster’s) on those who hate and those who kill, and realizing that they’re around us too. I know people like that. But I don’t view them as friends. I can tolerate a great many things, but I will not tolerate a racist.
I’m not a violent person by nature. I don’t believe in physically lashing out to solve differences. However, words are also weapons. What happened in Pittsburgh has renewed my resolve. I will stab a verbal machete into hateful, divisive words. Not into the people saying them. Just their words, their bigotries, their actions. Stab a machete through those. Every. Single. Time.
Yes, words are weapons. Very powerful ones. But the larger weapon is silence. If you aren’t brave enough to slash hatred with words, at least don’t tolerate it. Walk away from hateful people. Shun them. Cut them out of your life. Let them know it’s not OK and you refuse to tolerate it. Don’t participate in enabling their poisoned souls. If you think about it, shunning a racist is an act of kindness, because silence equals endorsement. It assists that person in remaining psychologically toxic.
Silence. Stab a machete through that. If you have to start there, then start there. A small start is better than no start at all.
“Silence must die.”