What you’d’ve done is what you’re doing

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Today we remember six million Jews butchered by nationalism, extremism, an insanity of industrial scapegoating that also took people with disabilities, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyone who didn’t fit Hitler’s jigsaw of crazed mythmaking.

And so the Holocaust now lives in our collective psyche, totemic names like Frank and Schindler and Auschwitz representing years of horror, a time in which the world broke, language spasmed, birthing showers that weren’t showers and humans made non-human by the stroke of a pen. We see it as a black and white world in more ways than one, maybe because the horror is too much to take otherwise. “It can’t happen here,” we say, a mantra to cast it all into the abyss, a relic of a unique historical breakdown. Maybe that’s why so many people are keen to say it never happened, maybe erasure makes the demons and the victims and the survivors of the past look a little less like us.

We’ve all asked ourselves what we’d do under those circumstances, whether we’d run or fight, whether we’d collaborate or resist, whether we’d hide someone in the basement or simply call the secret police. Some of us even have the privilege to pretend we could mind our own business.

But while the Holocaust was a long time ago now, we’re not divorced from it; what we would have done then is what we’re doing now. It’s how we respond to antisemitism. It’s how we talk about Muslims or immigrants. It’s how we react to gay men in Chechnya being rounded up by the government.

These things happen now. Those people in the pictures aren’t us, but their soundtrack rhymes with ours. You could end up in a camp. You could be an informer. You can join in a whole new Krystallnacht, you can resist.

Or, if you’re lucky, you can pretend it’s none of your business. That’s an option for some of us. No-one’s knocking on our door yet.

But there’s always someone knocking somewhere. “Never Again” can be a mantra, a prayer, a lie, but most of all, above everything else, Never Again is a duty.

All The Never Agains

As a Brit, I first learned of Executive Order 9066 through George Takei’s autobiography. Best known as Sulu from the original Star Trek, George grew up in one of the Japanese-American internment camps established across the US in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. It’s a warning from both history and memory rooted in the imprisonment of people still alive today; this isn’t black-and-white images of something that happened ten generations ago, it’s the lived experience of someone I follow on Twitter.

That’s a lesson that never gets old: all the ‘never agains’ we talk about aren’t that far away; the locations change, and the focus, and the words and the images on the propaganda posters, but the underlying fear and prejudice remain constant. Because fear gives us motivation and prejudice gives us targets, and suddenly ‘never again’ is being replayed once more. We’ll vote for imprisonment and internment, we’ll cheer on deportations, we’ll read the dehumanising editorials in the newspapers. We don’t sleepwalk into the darkness, we dance with it.

EO9066 was aimed at neighbours, not enemy combatants. So was the Holocaust. So was the Rwandan massacre, so are the attacks on Royhinga in Myanmar, so are the ways in which we talk about Muslims in the West. When we say “Never Again” we vow not to turn on the people next door, we vow not to turn on our brothers and sisters. And yet too often those vows are broken. Maybe they’re in the process of being broken right now.

In times in which this is a recurring truth we have to make a conscious choice over how we live. We live in a world of Never Agains, creeping around the edges of our societies and our discourse, and we have to draw a line against them. The borders we have to protect are spiritual, psychological, they’re the borders between us and our own darkness, between our neighbours and internment camps, they’re the lines we refuse to cross lest we turn into monsters.

It’s our side of our walls we have to protect. Walls can hide a multitude of horrors, the horrors of our own hands. It’s easier than we’d think to become a picture in a meme that an activist in the future uses to say Never Again.

That picture could be our neighbour.

That picture could be us.

The camps and the exiles and the violence are never far away.

The Never Agains are always in our hands.