"good Germans" in America

Jasper Johns, "White Flag" (1955) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some day, when we stop shaking in our boots in fear, we'll realize just what evil we have done in the name of September 11. While history doesn't give us much reason to seriously believe that anyone in a position of power will pay for his or her crimes [remember Vietnam], some of us already already know that their victims here and abroad already have, and that they will continue to be paying forever.

But we ourselves should not be able to simply point fingers, now or on some hoped-for day of redemption. A letter to the NYTimes today is a sober reminder that not all of the guilty sit in Washington.

To the Editor:

Re "16 Words, and Counting," by Nicholas D. Kristof, and "Pattern of Corruption," by Paul Krugman (columns, July 15):

Mr. Kristof and Mr. Krugman make strong arguments about the deception tainting the White House, and rightly so.

But there's another party that should not be let off the hook: the American public.

When most of the deception by the Bush administration and the intelligence communities was lauded as truth and reinforced by the media, despite the numerous reports and intelligence stating otherwise, most Americans took the lies at face value, without questioning their validity.

Worse, many Americans chided and dismissed those who called for truth and reason.

True, as Mr. Krugman writes, Iraq "didn't have significant weapons of mass destruction and wasn't supporting Al Qaeda," but that didn't stop many Americans from thinking otherwise.

Those who substituted liberty for a blind patriotism are as much at fault as those who perpetrated deception.

Jersey City, July 16, 2003

I read this to Barry this morning. His immediate retort: "We're 'good Germans.'"

Three months ago Harley Sorensen explained what what a "good German" was.

One of life's mysteries, for me, is how masses of people can do the incredibly cruel things they do. Individual brutality makes a certain amount of sense in that it's limited to one person. But mass brutality?
I think this subject first came to mind after I read Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf and William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany.

There was nothing in either book that told me how such a highly civilized and culturally advanced nation as Germany could sink to the level of the Nazis.

"How could that happen?" I wondered.

"What is there about the Germans that allowed them to become the monsters they became? How are they different than the rest of us?"

So I spent a month pondering the question.

The answer I came up with satisfied me then, and it satisfies me still: There is nothing different about the World War II Germans. What happened to them could happen to anyone. It could happen to us. We are no better than them.

. . .

The formula to become a brutish leader, as Jean-Marie Le Pen proved recently in France, is a two-step process. First, you convince the masses they are in grave danger (Le Pen used immigrants as his boogie man), then you promise to save them.

That's exactly what Hitler did, and it's exactly what Bush and Sharon are doing.

. . . .

It's the fear factor, I believe. They go against their basic decent instincts and support a brutal regime for fear of being criticized or ostracized as traitors. Peer pressure.

You see the same thing with Americans' blind support of Bush's war policies.

"If you're not for us, you're against us," Bush said, immediately making sheep out of otherwise hard-nosed, independent-thinking Americans.

Driven by fear, masses of people can do horrible things. Now is a good time to recall the admonition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said:

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Roosevelt's warning was about the Great Depression, but the words are appropriate now. Fear can turn us all into "good Germans." We must resist it. We must not let it turn us into sheep.

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Published on July 18, 2003 12:21 AM.

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