Saturday, February 20, 2010

Holocaust Museum: "Those Nazi Bastards!"

The mantra of the museum is "Think about what you saw." I couldn't STOP thinking about it . . . .

When I was in Washington D.C. this week for a screening of "The Response," I spent a morning at the United States Holocaust Museum. The experience washed over me in waves, as layers of experience were peeled away and new ones exposed.

Strangely, whenever I see old footage of Germany in the '20s and '30s, I think of being a small child. When I was very young, I used to wake up early in the morning and go turn on the TV and watch Biography. I was imprinted with old newsreel footage of Weimar Germany and the coming of Hitler; seeing those images always transports me back to the safety of my childhood living room.

The next thing that happens is that I experience a glimmer of recognition of the German lifestyle, and remember my own upbringing in the Lutheran church, with its strong German roots. This reminds me of the intellectual problem that I have always struggled with, "How was it possible that this cultured middle class culture -- so much like ours -- could have . . . ?" (I call that a "Danny Goldhagen moment.")

Then that gives way to the feeling of despair, stimulated by one or the other of the particularly brutal concentration camp images.

There is an easy resolution of these feelings. It is to condemn these events to the never-to-be-repeated past and say, "Those Nazi bastards!"

This trip was a little different, however, because "The Response" and Guantanamo were in the front of my mind.

"Think about what you saw . . . . "

On Tuesday, over and over I saw images that were not just similar to but hauntingly identical to ones we are seeing today. For instance, one of the images that is a centerpiece of the Holocaust Museum's depiction of the reliance on brutality and intimidation during the Holocaust is this one:

All I could think of was the repeated use of similar tactics by the U.S. military against prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo:

The U.S. military makes deliberate use of dogs to terrorize and psychologically break down detainees. How many of us make the connection between this and the Nazi love of arousing fear?

Another way of arousing fear that the Holocaust Museum emphasizes: before someone is actually killed, they are forced to cringe in uncertainty and fear as much as possible: "What does this mean? Where are they taking us? They're going to kill us, aren't they?" The murders of the Holocaust were multiplied by the sadism inherent in the days and months and years that people spent wondering "Am I about to be killed?"

Compare this with the following account of Guantanamo by Andy Worthington:

[Detainees] were absolutely terrified the first few weeks in Cuba. Shafiq Rasul explained, "During the whole time that we were in Guantanamo, we were at a high level of fear. When we first got there the level was sky-high. At the beginning we were terrifed that we might be killed at any minute. The guards would say to us, 'we could kill you at any time.' They would say, 'the world doesn't know you're here, nobody knows you're here, all they know is that you're missing and we could kill you and no one would know.'" . . . [I]n many Arab countries orange jumpsuits were "a sign that someone is about to be put to death." (Andy Worthington, The Guantanamo Files, p. 131-2)

Unfortunately, the similarities go on and on. Think about what I saw? I can't STOP thinking about it . . . .

Related posts

As Sankari explained, when people everywhere unite to fight back against the illegitimate prosecution and persecution of Muslims, they are making an important contribution to the leading edge of resistance against the racist and political repression that affects the African-American community as well as all people of color, with harsh treatment dealt out to undocumented people, LGBT people, women, Muslims, and people involved in the labor, peace, and solidarity movements; and when Muslims join in the broad movement against racist and political repression that affects all these groups, they are contributing to the resistance against prosecution and persecution of Muslims.

(See GUANTANAMO: "Is that who we are?" )

My most prominent memory of my first viewing of the Guantanamo film, The Response, is of one of the stars of the film -- Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek fame -- participating in a panel after the screening. I was blown away when she said, "I did this because our civil liberties in our country have been gravely damaged and we all need to contribute to repairing them."

(See Understanding What Guantanamo Means)

I wonder if, years from now, we will be thinking back to today and feeling surprise at how little we thought about some of the developments in our world, and in our country, and how we talked about them even less. Someday will I have to explain to my kids, or to my kids' kids, why it was that "people just weren't talking about it" . . . ?

(See Why Weren't People Talking About It? )