Today, being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is a good day to reflect on the preconditions of atrocity.
It would be comforting to look back on that unspeakable horror and disconnect it from our own lives, our own reality. But that would not only be incorrect — it would also be unwise.
Auschwitz was not only about death, it was about “unpersoning” — the systematic process of changing how people are perceived until that they are no longer considered to be people. Once someone is not a person, their life no longer matters.
I remember the precise moment back in 2002, viewing Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist” for the first time, when the full horror of its story hit me. It wasn’t the scenes of explicit atrocity, but rather the moment when two laughing guards in the Warsaw ghetto tormented their suffering captives by shooting at their feet to make them dance.
I remember being struck by the fact that such a moment was only possible because those guards did not perceive their victims as human. And that this idea — that somebody else is less than human — was the root of all the other horrors on view.
I look around me today and I see, wherever I look, the conceit that one human life is worth more than another: White more than black, rich more than poor, straight more than gay, American more than Iraqi, Israeli more than Palestinian, nonimmigrant more than immigrant, Anglo more than Hispanic, the list goes on and on and on.
These beliefs are not innocent conceits. They are the seeds that Adolph Hitler and his cronies worked with. And the slope that descends from belief to action can be very slippery.
This day of remembrance may be a good day to ask yourself whether you are standing on that slippery slope.