Strength in Humanity Triumphs Over Inhumanity

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 5:00pm

What does it mean to live 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz in a world in deep crisis? What does it mean with all we know about the damage that hatred causes – after all the pain we have gone through – that we are hurtling out of control into an inferno of rage that takes us right back to where we started?  Why are survivors of the Holocaust who walked out of the camps with at least the hope that their own suffering was not in vain, dying disappointed?

Do we know what the next five years holds, the next 10? Like our forebears, are we just waiting to see how it all unfolds in the hope this is all a nightmare from which we awaken? 

As I write this very sentence, a line flashes up on my screen: “7 foreigners, 1 Tunisian dead in shooting attack.”  Another day.  Another attack.  An attack on us all, because whatever lies behind the daily assault, the global malignancy is deep in the tissue of our world, eating us from the inside out. 

We are at war. We are actually at war. On the most obvious level, it is a physical war. We now have to place guards with guns at our houses of worship, our museums of culture and learning, and at children’s primary schools because the enemies of our freedom are using weaponry to destroy our civilization. But that is only a very small part of the war that we are in.  We are mainly at war to defend against the moral, ethical, ideological attack upon our society and civilization.We have to organize, we have to resist, and we have to defy the attempt to pick us apart, because that is what is fully intended.

If we learn anything 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz it is that anti-Semitism when left unchecked results in the genocide of Jewish people. We also learn that everyone is at risk when that happens, and we should always – always –take genocidal ideologues at their word.  

For perhaps the first time ever, we are seeing the globalization of hatred: The shooting in Paris intrinsically interconnected by a fine web to a student being temporarily barred from holding office in a Los Angeles university. Water from the same well.  It is a web that uses the Web to recruit teenagers to fight Jihad.  The shooters, the haters, the liars, the excluders, the executioners want us to believe that no one is safe, anywhere, and that the more who fear it, the weaker we will become.  They feed on the triumph of cowardly acts. They want us to feel helpless. They want us to think they have control. They want us to believe that there is nothing we can do to stop them.  

Muslims in Norway form protective ring outside a synagogue in Oslo on Feb. 21, 2014. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Hakon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix Muslims in Norway form protective ring outside a synagogue in Oslo on Feb. 21, 2014. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Hakon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix

But we can. And we will.

The 53,500 people whose testimony lives in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive stand behind us. Each one of them witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism and genocidal ideology in its most lethal form, and whose bodies and minds bear the physical and psychological scars of unchecked hatred. They are the living voice of conscience of our age. They warn, they reveal, they explain and take us day-by-day, place-by-place, moment-by-moment in intricate detail into the architecture of genocide. Like guides they lead us through the inferno so that we can never say we did not know, because now we do.  This is our time.  This is the time when everything we have been entrusted has to be used.

This is how we are going to go about this: We are going to be stronger, much stronger.

Humility is strength. We are going to go about our work with humility because we do not have all the answers.  Humility is the opposite of cowardice. Cowards are weak. The humble are strong.  When you climb Everest, you approach it with awe, humbled by its potential, but strong in your knowledge that if you respect its force, you may just find the way to conquer it.

Knowledge is strength. We will strengthen knowledge through fundamental research – we are a research university after all – and we are going to leverage that and grow the Center for Advanced Genocide Research to become the academy of genocide research.  As all research scientist know, knowledge is predicated by the questions we ask.

Questions are strength. If you know the question, you can find the answer.  And so we are going to ask more questions. Questions that probe who we are and how we act and how we evaluate the impact of learning.

Learning is strength. The thirst to be curious, to be open to new possibilities, to be challenged intellectually to be a critical thinker is the polar opposite of the genocidal mind. And so we are going encourage learning and enquiry and open minds so that individuals can make their own choices.

Choices lie right at the nexus of strength and weakness. You choose to hate or not, you choose to exclude, to lie, to scream, to shoot, or you choose to participate for good. Being a bystander is a choice; a choice not to contribute, not to take risks, not to participate.

Participation is itself strength.  To say I am a part of this world and I will make my contribution this way, to opt in, not opt out.  That is all we want: more people to participate, to create critical mass. If only 1 or 2 percent of the people we reach move from being observers to participants, we can start to unpick the web of lies. And so we will mobilize more people to participate.

There is strength in numbers. Now we are too few, too scattered, too scared. Partnership is a strength that we will use.  We will work with colleagues and friends across national, religious, and political boundaries who care more about the values of our world as a whole, than their own individual roles in it. This is not about me; it is about us.

And so we are strength. We will opt in, we will participate, we will make choices, we will learn, will question; we use our knowledge, with humility, and be stronger.


Stephen Smith