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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Never Again: Tragedy, Self-Righteousness, and Evil

Never Again: Tragedy, Self-Righteousness, and Evils
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

When a nation or community suffers a significant tragedy, one of the more common reactions is for the survivors to dedicate themselves to the cause of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again. Great and unnecessary fires lead to new laws designed to prevent fires and save lives. Large numbers of deaths from tainted food lead to new regulations designed to keep the food safer.

This reaction seems to be even stronger when the cause of the tragedy is deliberate rather than accidental. A war that shocks the conscience in how many are brutally killed becomes the "war to end all wars" as people dedicate themselves to peace. The mass slaughter of unarmed civilians because of their religion, race, or ethnicity leads to new international norms on human rights and war crimes.

Unfortunately, not every "never again" response is created equal. For some, the slogan reflects a commitment to ensuring that something similar never happens again to anyone else; for others, though, it reflects a commitment to ensuring that something similar never happens again to one's own group — whatever the cost might be to others who have the misfortune of getting in the way.

In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mahmood Mamdani writes:

Before 9/11, I thought that tragedy had the potential to connect us with humanity in ways that prosperity does not. I thought that if prosperity tends to isolate, tragedy must connect. Now I realize that this is not always the case. One unfortunate response to tragedy is a self-righteousness about one's own condition, a seeking proof of one's special place in the world, even in victimhood.

One afternoon, I shared these thoughts with a new colleague, the Israeli vice chancellor of the Budapest-based Central European University. When he told me that he was a survivor of Auschwitz, I asked him what lesson he had drawn from this great crime. He explained that, like all victims of Auschwitz, he, too, had said, “Never again.”

In time, though, he had come to realize that this phrase lent itself to two markedly different conclusions: one was the never again should this happen to my people; the other that it should never again happen to any people. Between thee two interpretations, I suggest nothing less than our common survival is at stake.

It’s arguable that the policies of the Israeli government tend towards the former interpretation. Israel’s primary reason for existence is to protect Jews by providing them a safe haven where they can live without persecution, regardless of what occurs elsewhere around the world. Given how much persecution and violence Jews have experienced all around the world and for so many centuries, that’s really not unreasonable. It's also not unreasonable for Jews to not entirely trust their safety to other nations, not even those with a fairly positive record — like the United States in recent years.

This commitment to protect the Jews has not, however, been accompanied by an equally strong commitment to protect humanity as a whole — the phrase “never again” applies to Jews, but it’s not at all clear that it applies to anyone else. This distinction seems to allow Israel to treat Palestinians in manner that they would never countenance happening to Jews elsewhere on the planet. Israel's justified interest in protecting the rights and safety of Jews is thus pursued even at the expense of the rights and safety of others.

This attitude is not at all limited to Israel — they are perhaps a more concentrated example of the problem, but they are not alone. America, too, seems to have adopted that former interpretation in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In particular, America adopted the rhetoric of victimhood, self-righteousness, and exceptionalism that dismisses the concerns of all others for things like justice, human rights, or equality. Americans regularly express a strong desire to protect the nation from another terrorist attack even if this means violating all basic standards of moral decency, legality, and justice. Not even the privacy and rights of American citizens is too much to sacrifice on the altar of "Never Again."

Of course people will be concerned first and foremost with themselves, their family, their community, and their nation. If Israelis are focused more on protecting Jews than Palestinians, or Americans are focused more on protecting Americans than Syrians, we shouldn't be surprised. As Mamdani notes, though, our common survival will ultimately depend upon our ability to broaden our perspective ever wider. The more we can think about others’ welfare alongside our own, the less likely we will end up at each others’ throats. Just because a person's first instinct is to think first of their fellow tribesmen at the expense of outsiders doesn't mean we should allow such feelings to control our political ideology.

This poster originally carried the headline "This Was Good Earth" and encouraged people to buy war bonds in order to ensure that more of the same would not happen again.

I'm afraid that this will be my last sermon for a little bit. I was originally going to have to take a break for two weeks, but a recent and tragic death in the family will probably mean a hiatus for three weeks. If I can manage to create something I will, but I can't make any guarantees.


  1. Anonymous5:58 AM

    While abuses of human rights are not excusable wherever they happen, it should be noted that Palestinians living inside Israel have a higher standard of living and enjoy greater civil rights than Palestinians living in other Middle East countries, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are represented by a terror organization dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, with most of the Arab states still in a declared state of war against Israel. The safety and security of the Jewish people in Israel is, sadly, not only a historic issue, it is a contemporary one, and the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is as much a function of their being pawns of Arab governments who have benefited from the despair of the Palestinians, and their own flawed leaders, as it is from the conflict with Israel. Arafat's rejection of the Camp David overture, followed by the start of the intifada, showed Israel that violence was still the choice of the Palestinian leadership over peace, and until that changes (with the Palestinians and Arab states choosing peace instead of violence) it is unfair to suggest that Israel's priorities are misplaced.

  2. Anonymous9:14 AM

    "it should be noted that Palestinians living inside Israel have a higher standard of living and enjoy greater civil rights than Palestinians living in other Middle East countries"...

    Like all other inhabitants of the state of Israel (I suppose you also exclude the Palestinian territories, when you write outside Israel, otherwise your statement is not correct), the Palestinian inhabitants have a higher standard of living then in other ME countries or in the Palestinian territories). And yes, they should have significantly better civil rights than Palestinians living in other ME countries: after all, it was their own country before it was unilaterally declared the state of Israel and the Palestinians living in other countries are all refugees.

    "the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is as much a function of their being pawns of Arab governments". If Israel makes peace with either the Palestinians or the Arab countries or both this situation does not exist anymore.

    "Arafat's rejection of the Camp David overture". Now tell me which steps of Camp david have been carried out by the Israeli government?

    Please do not point to one side exclusively, when it is clear that both sides are to bame! A call for peace to the Arabs should at least be accompanied by a call for peace to Israel as well.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.