Sunday, June 13, 2004

reagan & bitburg & victims

Atrios highlights Reagan's 1985 visit to Kolmeshohe Cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, in this post. Personally, considering all the questionable choices Reagan made in his life, this one's way down the list for me. But the memory and the outrage expressed by Reagan critics has made me think.

Throughout most of my life I admit I've carried a smidgen of prejudice against Germans. I'd read quite a lot about World War ll even as a school kid and, like most, had found the whole episode sickeningly reprehensible. And frankly one of the aspects that most disgusted me was the way the German people themselves inducted the Nazis into power and let the whole thing happen.

Then September 11 hit, and in the days and weeks following I started hearing the most amazing rhetoric coming out of my countrymen's mouths. It wasn't just the fact that people were rushing to agree to outrageous civil liberty restrictions on the off chance it might keep them safe--it was also the entire aggressive "watch what you say and watch what you do" mentality. And pretty quickly I started glimpsing how a country of people--anxious, uninformed, frightened people--could turn their head, say thank god it's not me, and find themselves living in a fascist state. Because it truly did come close to happening here; go see a little movie called "Person of Interest" and then tell me otherwise. Actually, I'm not sure we've completely averted the danger.

I was one of the many Seattleites who spent a significant amount of time marching the streets of our city last year. I'm one of the thousands who finally anted up for an ACLU membership after 9/11. But have I really done all I can to avert the unthinkable? Have I been out there defending our local accused, such as James Ujaama, a community leader turned apparent Al-Qaeda convert? After all, the thought of defending someone who supports the perpetrators of 9/11 is a pretty sickening prospect. Writing about Ujaama, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin says, "So, whom do you stand by: your country or an individual who you've known all your life -- but who may not be what he seems to be?" (go read the entire column, it's a perfect example of the kind of frightened and frightening rhetoric we've been abused with these past 3 years). I can't help wondering how the people of the White Rose (Germany's underground resistance) finally made that crucial decision to actively work against their own government. Today we look back at those people and hail their courage and conviction. Today, we look at our own activists and demonstrators--people not working against the country so much as trying to educate and inform it--and call them terrorists.

It's one thing to understand the people, who were mostly, I suppose, just trying to survive in a hostile environment. But what about the soldiers? The so-called evil, vicious, stormtroopers who raped and pillaged most of Europe in their quest for genetic purity? Can there be any way to understand them?

I think of our own troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. We claim to support them in spite of the fact that they've committed what may in the future described as despicable acts. (In the future our Iraq adventure may well be described as a brazen co-opting of an oil-rich region for our own gain, an act that cost thousands of Arab lives and fomented even greater unrest throughout the region.) And why? In part, those of us liberals who truly do support the soldiers in Iraq do so because, at least to some extent, we understand their choices, whether or not we agree with or condone them. We get that they acted out of fear--like so many have--but more than that, out of a crushing sense of responsibility, not just for their families, but, as soldiers, for their entire country.

I can be angry with them for giving their trust to people who are untrustworthy, for believing and acting on propaganda that was designed for the primary purpose of getting them to act in a certain way. But I can understand it.

In 1939, Hitler whipped up anti-Poland sentiment by claiming that hundreds of thousands of Poles were massed on the border, poised to swoop into Germany. It wasn't true, of course, and we might shake our heads that anyone could seriously believe such an easily verifiable fact. In 1990, President GHW Bush claimed that there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqis poised on the border to Saudi Arabia, one of his primary arguments used to justify deploying 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and subsequently engaging Iraqi troops in Kuwait. When some fairly conclusive proof (in the form of satellite photos) came to light just prior to the start of Desert Storm, the reporter who broke the story couldn't get it picked up nationally. The reporter, Jean Heller, commented later: "I think part of the reason the story was ignored was that it was published too close to the start of the war. Second, and more importantly, I do not think people wanted to hear that we might have been deceived." In 2002 and 2003, President GW Bush claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein had already demonstrated his animosity toward the US and his willingness to take terrorist action. Both claims were virtually impossible to disprove, but were far from being proved true, although there was an established organization actively searching for WMDs. In spite of this, the majority of our country chose to believe the Bush Administration and support the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

So I hear Reagan's comments at Bitburg (and here's a fuller quote): "...Those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." And I can't help thinking, whatever Reagan's intent was behind his words, that he got it just about right. We are all victims of a few hateful people.