Friday, September 19, 2014

When They Come Again

"First they came..." is a poem derived from a speech by pastor Martin Niemöller. We see it today as an indictment of those who stood by while the Nazis rounded up various groups and took them away to the concentration camps, and as a cautionary warning of the perils of being silent in the face of a clear injustice being done.

But in an early version of the speech, given in 1946, pastor Niemöller raises a point, that while not poetic, is nevertheless important.

Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. - I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it's right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn't it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]?
He follows this up with another important point:
We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.
It's become fashionable to think that when "evil" triumphs because enough "good people" do nothing, the fundamental problem is that being a "good person" isn't enough to prevent people from being cowards. But the first quote of Niemöller's I presented reminds us - in almost all cases of injustice being perpetrated against a group, the silence of members of the group that perpetrated it is also self-interested. When Japanese-American citizens were interred in World War II, people may have very well be afraid to speak out. But they also saw themselves as safer with possible fifth columnists locked up and people in the areas that the Japanese-Americans had been forced to vacate saw, and in several cases availed themselves of, an opportunity to better their material condition through taking the property of the interned.

This tendency didn't end with the Second World War - people are still motivated to look the other way when it may benefit them to do so. And so when people fear that recent injustices, like the second-class citizenship of women or Native Americans, will rear their heads again, they aren't necessarily worried that a majority of White men will actively support such measures. Only that, secure in the belief that no-one will ever come for them, they'll remain silent and simply accept the advantages offered them.

No comments: