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On a Western World in the grip of Misremembering and Hypocrisy
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-09-14 12:38:15
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The late Tony Judt coined the expression “misremembering” by which he meant that while it is fine to commemorate the Holocaust with conferences, memorials, monuments, museums galore, year after year, if the commemoration is not followed by a meaningful moral analysis of the lessons learned from such a horrific event, if we duly commemorate but then dwell merely on the political, the economic, the military, the purely utilitarian considerations of the event forgetting the much more important moral considerations, then the whole commemorative exercise turns into a sham ultimately dishonoring the very memory of the Holocaust.

Emmanuel Levinas, on the other hand, wrote a powerful challenge to the Western ethical tradition (see Ovi http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/1691) without much mentioning the event of the Holocaust. However, it pervades the background of his ethical writings as a powerful formative experience. Lest we forget, that experience included the gassing of millions by chemical weapons duly kept secret from the rest of the world. Hitler made sure that his direct orders to proceed with his so called “final solution” were never put in writing so that they could not be traced back to him and he could deny being their originator of such a despicable crime against humanity, and that moreover he could even deny that he had such weapons (already forbidden by the League of Nations) and was indeed using them. Does all this sound familiar? It is happening before our eyes with another brutal dictator in Syria this time around. A few days ago Assad gave an interview to an American journalist, Charlie Rose, wherein he flatly denies that he has chemical weapons and that he has used them against his own people. If we look the other way, he and all his cronies around the world, will be emboldened to do it again

But to return to history and misremembering, a pacifist, a man of peace, the Prime Minister of England, Arthur Neville Chamberlain, the so called umbrella man, a year before World War II, when rumors of war pervaded Europe and after the aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia, went to Germany to confer and appease the bully who concluded that the West would not oppose the other invasions he was contemplating, that of Poland and Russia and eventually the Western world and the world as a whole. Which is the say, the bully having been appeased, and the piper having not been paid, meant ultimately that he had to be paid later on with much more loss of blood and treasure. This has been called a false analogy by some pundits, but it is indeed valid in its sheer simplicity. It means that once one draws the line with a bully, one has to confront him the very first time he violates it, not later when he has been emboldened and it may turn out to be too late and much more expensive, if not impossible.

So, I will refrain in this piece from making the case for pacifism or for a vengeful and paranoid reaction unworthy indeed of a superpower out to solve intractable diplomatic and political conundrums with violence, hoping against hope that its president at least remains a pacifist. After all, even a superpower needs friends to reassure it that it is not being unjustly judged and condemned, that paranoia is a mental sickness and that moreover, vengefulness and violence has never constituted a solution to a wrong, for two wrong remain two wrongs, they never cancel each other out.

What I intend to do, rather, is to simply remember here the times when chemical weapons were used and tolerated after World War I, after they had been banned by most nations of the world. I will not engage in apportioning blame and final historical judgments based on utilitarian political considerations. I leave that to more capable historians. For it seems to me that the reason the remembering is important before proceeding with a moral arguments (already made in Ovi, see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/10336) is that without it, as a misremembering, the moral argument will be flawed and even smell of hypocrisy.

As already mentioned, Hitler used chemical weapons to gas millions of Jews and other “undesirables.” Most of his henchmen were put on trial after the war and found guilty and sentenced to death. But after the war, even aside from considering the use of two nuclear bombs dropped on Japanese civilians, there was extensive use of a nerve gas called napalm in Vietnam where not only soldiers but civilians were accidentally hit. Later on a brutal dictator named Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people and then against Iran while the US looked the other way and in fact had friendly relations with the dictator. There is even a picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with him as special envoy. He or his boss Ronald Reagan never chided the dictator for the use of chemical weapons and in fact supplied him with them for use against Iran. Also important to remember that the former Soviet Union supplied the one thousand tons of chemical weapons that Assad has presently in his arsenal. Have we somehow forgotten all that? For if we have, then our moral case against bullies and the advocacy of a justified war to prevent future catastrophes and obscenities against children and innocent civilians is also misguided, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, the moral obscenity of gassing children needs to be confronted as a moral imperative, one way or the other, at the risk of becoming a moral pigmy and a coward. The issue is how do we confront it. Does one do it the way a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King would, via non violence and diplomacy with war as a last resort and the threat of war as an incentive to the bully to come to the table, or does one do it via paranoia and vengefulness?

In any case, it is a fact that a terrible crime has been committed, once again, and to redress it properly as the moral outrage that it is, we as a civilization (Western, so called) need to remember, to acknowledge and take a modicum of responsibility and do amends for all the other similar crimes committed with chemical weapons and wmd. Which is to say, we need to look deeply into ourselves first and examine our own conscience, with no anger and no paranoia, and I mean on both sides of the Atlantic. Misremembering and pious pronouncements and hypocritical commemorations simply will not do, for as the saying goes, it behooves us “to put up or shut up.”    


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