Wiesel Words -- History's Lessons Within Today's Context (Kosovo vs. Iraq)

History teaches us many things, inspiring hope and confidence, pride, honor and a sense of continuity. It also denotes and demarcs the failings and faults of humanity, the very depths of despair and depravity that evoke images and memories we shrink away from in a combination of fear, loathing and embarrassing denial that the blood of those caught up in such events might still flow through our veins and those of our children.

Recent history is as much a teacher as past, and sometimes the fresher the lesson the more we can glean from it, before the dust of centuries obscures it or the selfish whims and fancies of others alter our record in efforts to change it.

Recently, I came across remarks made during the Bill Clinton Presidency1 that stirred memories long forgotten by me -- or, perhaps not so much "forgotten" as misplaced and obscured by recent events. Nonetheless, the remarks were sobering -- not only did they evoke comparative images drawing analogies to the current place and time, and the actions of the current President and Congress, but these remarks also served to remind me of the blatant hypocrisy of the Republicans in Congress (those who, at the time of the Clinton actions in Kosovo, stood firmly against it yet now unfailingly support the actions in Iraq from inception thru completion).

And the remarks also served to dredge up questions as to the effectiveness of former President Clinton as a spokesman for his wife's candidacy, as well as the potential hypocrisy of all Presidential hopefuls with regard to the question of why aren't they leading us NOW and ending the criminal Iraq fiasco, the illegal wiretapping and putting the kibosh on the telco amnesty provisions?

I drew a complete blank attempting to answer those questions, so I therefore abdicate to you, the reader, to determine what the answers are or to get the candidates to answer them for me. Read on for the sections of the Millenium Evening remarks that particularly stirred my mind to question and compare, and share your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you.

:: ::

The evening's remarks began with Mrs. (now Senator) Clinton:

"...for those of us who have ever read those writings, especially “Night,” we can never forget the description of the horrors inflicted on him as a young boy—a boy of great religious convictions who tells us his God was murdered. A boy of 14 who is forced to ask, “Was I awake? How could it be possible for them to burn children and for the world to remain silent?”"

The instant image that flew to mind from the not-so-distant recesses of my memory was the image contained with the diary Melting the Flesh off Children by Hunter of DailyKos. It's an image -- and a reference -- that I find myself making often, and I've referenced it several times in works over the intervening time since Hunter first posted that piece.

In the world of today, it isn't the Iraqis who are burning the flesh off children. It's us. Or at least it was us; one can hope and pray that it is no longer, but with bombing campaigns over areas presumed to be "insurgent strongholds" -- how many children are still being blown up or burned?

...why are we there again?

"...honoring our past and learning from it means looking not just at our noblest achievements, but at our greatest failings; not just at what makes us proud, but at those darkest impulses that have marred this century."

During the current Presidency of George W. Bush, I can list many failings:

  1. Failing to impeach and remove the President for lying us into war,
  2. Failing to impeach and remove the President for reallocating funds from the work in Afghanistan toward the planning and preparation of the illegal Iraq invasion and occupation,
  3. Failing to impeach and remove the President and Vice President for their roles in obstructing the 9/11 commission,
  4. Failing to impeach and remove the Vice President for the illicit Energy Task Force meetings, where they -- in early January of 2001 -- were dividing up Iraq's oil reserves among major oil corporations in anticipation of an invasion of Iraq,
  5. Failing to impeach and remove the President and Vice President for their roles in the exposure and propagation of an undercover agent's identity, and their participation in actively obscuring the investigation of it,
  6. Failing to impeach and remove the President and Vice President for their activities in initiating not one, not two, but several (between 3 and 5, conservatively) illegal wiretapping programs that blatantly violated FISA and the rights of US citizens to privacy in their domestic communications -- again, long BEFORE 9/11,
  7. Failing to impeach and remove the President and Vice President for the improper, illegal and unconstitutional expansion of Presidential power under the faux "Unitary Executive" theory and through the weasel-wording and stretched misapplication of the President's role as "Commander in Chief" of the armed forces,
  8. Failing to impeach and remove the President for his purposeful prevarication and dissembly regarding his approval of torture techniques such as waterboarding, after he explicitly referenced the brutally reworked re-definition of the term to exclude waterboarding from the DoJ's official definition -- this, of course, in spite of previous United States rulings to the contrary...

The list goes on.

The list should never have exceeded the first point.

Congress should have removed the key obstructors to investigations and accountability by the third.

I can list at least thirteen other major points, and I know that's not even near a complete list.

Senator Clinton -- "learning from our past" means not repeating it, but it doesn't mean that we need to establish a precedent for abuse so complete so as to forever mar the history books with evidence of our inaction in the face of blatant criminality.

To all our members of Congress -- WHY are these crimes still being debated or ignored? SUBPOENA power, remember? Censure...? ...strongly worded letters are the least bit of action you can take, and will be reflected upon by historians as evidence that Congress knew of the crimes and their potential severity and impact.

We've already seen the evidence of known lies, now in database form, pertaining to the WH's actions on the run-up to Iraq alone.

What's stopping us from getting any satisfactory and effective action from Congress? ...and no, folks -- that's not rhetorical. I want a real friggin' answer, not some political pablum.

We know that the Nazis were able to pursue their crimes against humanity precisely because they were able to limit the circle of those defined as humans. The mentally ill, the infirm, gypsies, Jews—all were identified as lives unworthy of life. And this process of dehumanizing comes from the darkest regions of the human soul, where people first withdraw understanding, then empathy, and finally personhood. Now, this phenomenon of indifference, this human capacity for evil we know too well is not unique to that time and place in Nazi Germany."

Godwinism, sort of, and not without cause.

...why are we in Iraq?

"...I can remember sitting in a room in Tuzla, shortly after the Dayton Peace Accords, talking to a group of Bosnians. They were Serbs and Croats and Muslims, although I could not tell the difference. They explained how men and boys were put into camps and executed; how women were raped; how children were turned into orphans.

One of the people I was talking to said, you know, when it started in my village, I went to one of my neighbors and I asked, we’ve known each other; we’ve been at each other’s weddings, we’ve attended the funerals of our loved ones together. Why is this happening? And the response she was given from that old friend was, well, we read in the newspaper that if we didn’t do this to you, you would do it to us. It was the message of hatred that Milosevic and his allies were communicating in order to turn Bosnia into a killing field."

Fear.

Fear-mongering.

"Terra."

Dehumanizing, finger-pointing, divisiveness.

...Republicanism, in the mold of the "American-style" conservative.

"...What are we to do today, when leaders hijack holy traditions, even history; not to lift people closer to God or their own human potential, but to push them further apart? What do we do about those who try to constrict the circle of human dignity by convincing us that our differences—race and religion, gender, ethnicity and tribal origin—are more important than our common humanity? If this violent century teaches us anything, it is that whenever the dignity of one is threatened, the dignity of all is threatened as well; and none can or should remain silent."

And again -- Republicanism, in the mold of the "American-style" conservative.

Our current crop of Republican candidates appears to want to foster (fester?) this; is this what our nation is now all about?

I think not.

...and why are we in Iraq again...?

"...In 1999, it isn’t enough to refuse to commit crimes of hatred, stereotyping one another, going along with the crowd. It isn’t enough to look deep into our own hearts and say we find them free of hatred. We have to do more. Every time we let a religious or racial slur go unchallenged or an indignity go unanswered, we are making a choice to be indifferent, a choice to constrict the circle of human dignity; a choice, I believe, to ignore history at our children’s peril."

"Ignore history at our children's peril" -- great words. True, too.

...so, why are we not fighting against the unconstitutional premises of "unitary executives" and "authority as commander in chief" and Republican obstructionism?

Why are we even allowing propositions like H.Res 888 to be submitted to the floor, nevermind considered?

:: ::

Here, now, start the words of Elie Wiesel:

In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, have done something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor—never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees—not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil."

Ladies and Gentlemen of Congress, your inaction is effectively an indifference to the usurpation of Congressional power and responsibility.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, your inability to write and reveal the inaccuracies of the double standards and double talk is a form of inaction and indifference to the roiling darkness that now overwhelms our nation.

In the place that I come from, society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders. During the darkest of times, inside the ghettoes and death camps—and I’m glad that Mrs. Clinton mentioned that we are now commemorating that event, that period, that we are now in the Days of Remembrance—but then, we felt abandoned, forgotten. All of us did.

And our only miserable consolation was that we believed that Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets; that the leaders of the free world did not know what was going on behind those black gates and barbed wire; that they had no knowledge of the war against the Jews that Hitler’s armies and their accomplices waged as part of the war against the Allies.

If they knew, we thought, surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction. They would have bombed the railways leading to Birkenau, just the railways, just once.

And now we knew, we learned, we discovered that the Pentagon knew, the State Department knew. And the illustrious occupant of the White House then, who was a great leader...

Things are even worse now.

We know that the WH has been lying to us on many counts.

We know that the State Department has been complicit.

We know that Congress can take a stand, unified as citizens and as legislators -- not party-only partisans -- to stop the crimes that our rogue Executive Branch is performing with the aid of high-placed cronies in the Justice Department.

...but there are high-level people in Congress who are standing against their brothers and sisters, who are enabling the perpetuation of these crimes and inconsistencies.

Why?

The depressing tale of the St. Louis is a case in point. Sixty years ago, its human cargo—maybe 1,000 Jews—was turned back to Nazi Germany. And that happened after the Kristallnacht, after the first state sponsored pogrom, with hundreds of Jewish shops destroyed, synagogues burned, thousands of people put in concentration camps. And that ship, which was already on the shores of the United States, was sent back.

I don’t understand. Roosevelt was a good man, with a heart. He understood those who needed help. Why didn’t he allow these refugees to disembark? A thousand people—in America, a great country, the greatest democracy, the most generous of all new nations in modern history. What happened? I don’t understand. Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?

Why are we allowing the WH to systematically disassemble our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, our national integrity and our economic vitality?

...oh, and why are we in Iraq again?

:: ::

The next section was spoken by then-President Bill Clinton:

How do we avoid indifference to human suffering? How do we muster both the wisdom and the strength to know when to act and whether there are circumstances in which we should not? Why are we in Kosovo?

Those words, now, could be altered to mean "Why are we in Iraq?" and the answers would be lacking; in Iraq, we are the oppressors, the fomenter of anarchy and violence -- we are the magnets for trouble.

We didn't go into Iraq because it posed a threat to our nation. We didn't go into Iraq because it had a dictator far worse than all others on the planet.

We didn't go into Iraq because of a threat of WMDs or to our allies.

We went in because George W. Bush, Richard B. Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfiwitz and others had fully intended to go in long before 9/11 ever occurred.

Where are Bill Clinton's words on this crime, and the multitude of crimes both local and domestic that have sprung from it?

Why have the candidates -- not just Hillary, but ALL of them, Republicans included -- not stood up and simply stopped this crime?

The history of our country for quite a long while had been dominated by a principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations. Indeed, for most of our history we have worn that principle as a badge of honor, for our founders knew intervention as a fundamentally destructive force. George Washington warned us against those “entangling alliances.”

The 20th century, with its two world wars, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Panama, Lebanon, Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo—it changed all that; for good or ill, it changed all that. Our steadily increasing involvement in the rest of the world, not for territorial gain, but for peace and freedom and security, is a fact of recent history.

In the Cold War, it might be argued that on occasion we made a wrong judgment, because we saw the world through communist and non-communist lenses. But no one doubts that we never sought territorial advantage. No one doubts that when we did get involved, we were doing what at least we thought was right for humanity.

Now, at the end of the 20th century, it seems to me we face a great battle of the forces of integration against the forces of disintegration; of globalism versus tribalism; of oppression against empowerment. And this phenomenal explosion of technology might be the servant of either side, or both.

The part I emphasized, above, caught my attention. In it, I see the illegal wiretapping and telecom amnesty quibbling, the reduction of FISA -- born of a need to prevent illegal, unconstitutional Presidential over-reach and to ensure protection of The People -- to naught but a knee-jerk technicality that can be ignored with a nod and wink.

In that phrase, I saw the battening down of hatches in a White House gone "dark" to the eyes of The Public, where "transparency" has turned into opaque, blatant obstruction -- a veil of darkness and secrecy that befits criminal wrongdoings and oppressive rule.

The central irony of our time, it seems to me, is this:

Most of us have this vision of a 21st century world with the triumph of peace and prosperity and personal freedom; with the respect for the integrity of ethnic, racial and religious minorities; within a framework of shared values, shared power, shared plenty; making common cause against disease and environmental degradation across national lines, against terror, organized crime, weapons of mass destruction. This vision, ironically, is threatened by the oldest demon of human society -- our vulnerability to hatred of the other.

In the face of that, we cannot be indifferent, at home or abroad.

Is it ironic, therefore, that former President Clinton -- the man who spoke these words, and who presided over this ceremony, is now embroiled in accusations of playing the race card on the political campaign trail as his wife seeks to occupy the office that he himself once held?

We first have to set an example, as best we can—standing against hate crimes against racial minorities or gays; standing for respect, for diversity. Second, we have to act responsibly, recognizing this unique and, if history is any guide, fleeting position the United States now enjoys, of remarkable military, political and economic influence. We have to do what we can to protect the circle of humanity against those who would divide it by dehumanizing the other.

Yes, precisely.

"We first have to set an example, as best we can..."

I couldn't have said it better myself, Bill.

...Congress? Candidates? Are you listening? ...Can you hear me now???

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Footnotes
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  1. From the PBS website, Millennium Evening with Elie Wiesel, transcript from The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, April 12, 1999, entitled "REMARKS AT MILLENNIUM EVENING / THE PERILS OF INDIFFERENCE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM A VIOLENT CENTURY" -- from The East Room, 7:37 P.M. EDT
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