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Original Poster: National Archives
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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.