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Who Me?

As a notorious abuser of children is put away in Pennsylvania, many turn their rage towards those who must have known kids were being hurt, but who did little or nothing to help. It is at this stage in a horrific scandal where we might become more introspective than judgmental.

Yes, people in high positions looked the other way. Yes, if they perjured themselves in the process, they should be prosecuted.

And yes, many people might wonder why they didn't do more.

It is only natural to lash out at those who might have rescued kids from the horrors of abuse, but did not.

At the same time, each of us should examine why we, if put in the same situation, probably wouldn't have done anything either.

An example: I think most people today have convinced themselves they would not have gone along with the extermination of millions in Europe under the Nazis.

We comfort ourselves by thinking we would have known better, we would have spoken out, we would have sheltered our Jewish neighbors, we wouldn't have looked the other way.


After a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1990, I was shaken for two weeks.

Auschwitz was a concentration camp. Today, it looks pastoral: Pretty brick buildings which were, before World War II, barracks for Polish troops.

Prisoners in Aushwitz were tortured, experimented upon, worked to death, raped, shot and killed — but they at least stood a slim chance.

But Birkenau, just across the field, was a death camp.

As the trains unloaded from a dead-end rail which still exists, “doctors” sorted out the healthiest 5% of the prisoners for work duty.

The remaining 95% of the Jews, Poles, Gypsies, dissidents and other undesirables were dead in the gas chambers roughly 20 minutes after arrival.

As we stood in the green field next to the rail track near what remained of the crematory ovens, we were told to scratch loose some soil from the sod below.

Every handful of the rich soil was filled with human bone fragments, the ashes of the millions who died there, spread about like so much fertilizer.

Disturbing stuff.

But what was most disturbing was the troubling conviction I developed over the next couple of weeks as I thought about what I saw.

I kept asking myself, what would I have done?

What would I have done if I had been nearby, suspecting that the trainloads of people going towards the camp weren't long for this world?

What would I have done if I had been assigned to work in the camp, an assignment so dreaded by Nazi soldiers that most volunteered for certain death on the Eastern Front rather than serve in the camps?

What would I have done if assigned to round-up the out-of-favor minorities in the cities of Eastern Europe, sort of knowing but not really knowing that their fate would not be kind?

After thinking long and hard, I realized that the only honest answer to those questions was that I likely would have done nothing at all.

Absolutely nothing.

I now believe it is utter arrogance to sit in my recliner and luxuriate in outrage at people who are put to moral tests I have yet to endure.

Winston Churchill was a tough cookie who furiously upheld his moral convictions.

Yet, when it came time to criticize the leaders of Eastern Europe who, as World War II gathered steam, had to choose: either give in to Stalin, or to give in to Hitler, Churchill got off his high horse.

In his memoirs, Churchill made it clear that he felt fortunate never to have been put in a situation where the correct moral choice meant instant death, for he wouldn't know how he would have responded.

As he memorialized the men in power who capitulated, Churchill was careful to say that those hapless leaders were forced by events into an impossible dilemma.

They paid with their lives either way.

We live in a time where a substantial minority of our leaders, from politicians to bankers to coaches to preachers, exhibit craven moral cowardice even when not threatened by death if they do the right thing.

It is discouraging.

However, it does no good to sit in one's recliner and condemn those who fail to speak out in situations we've never had to face.

Instead, we best look in the mirror and ask, what human pain, what evil, what injustice, what corruption have I overlooked today just for the sake of preserving the peace?

One Comment

  1. Louise July 10, 2012

    Extremely well written. Thank you, Eric. Often we judge others instead of seeing where we are this ourselves.

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