November 10, 2016

The Whispering Enemy

In 1944 Budapest, a woman walked down the street disguised as a peasant. She was part of a wealthy Jewish family that was now hiding from the Nazis. On the street she was recognized by an acquaintance she and her husband had socialized with at glitzy government affairs. Upon being asked if there was anything she could do to help the family, the acquaintance brushed the woman off. And as they parted, she whispered to the Jewish woman, "Now it's our turn."

The incident is recorded in Marianne Szegedy-Maszak's family memoir I Kiss Your Hand Many Times. Among the many horrible stories recounted from her family's past, I found this one the most distressing. It is a reminder of the fissures that lie beneath the surface of even well-functioning communities.

These fissures were evident in the Rwandan genocide as well.  Hutu villagers who had lived and worked peacefully beside their Tutsi neighbors for years turned on them and literally hacked them to death with machetes—hard, vigorous work to hack to death 1 million people over three months. Many of these Hutus were compelled by the military hierarchy to do so on pain of death themselves, but some took to it with enthusiasm after being exposed to a wave of hate radio in the preceding months. Radio was an influential medium in Rwanda, and hosts called the Tutsis "cockroaches" and proclaimed God required them to rid the earth of the Tutsi evil.

The role of local newspapers in Nazi Germany was similar: to inflame or unleash hatred among the citizenry. A book I worked on once on this very topic told of a old Christian woman who had gone to the funeral of her best friend, a Jewish neighbor. Another neighbor wrote a letter to their local newspaper denouncing the woman's attendance at the funeral of a Jew. To which the Christian best friend responded, in perhaps my favorite historical quotation, "Are you drunk?"

These are the moments that come to mind as I begin to process the political events of the last months. One moment of the campaign coverage stands out to me: a video of one of Donald Trump's many campaign rallies. The rally has ended and attendees are leaving the auditorium. One reporter's camera is rolling as an older man in jeans and a red cap walks by. He looks to be in his 60s, maybe 70s. His hair is white, but he has one of those good, solid midwestern faces: nice-looking, like someone who'd be a fantastic grandpa. But he turns to the journalists gathered there and launches into a vile, hateful tirade against the journalists. Letting out an intense emotional hatred for people who had done, essentially, nothing at all to him.

One reason this election season has been so depressing is that it revealed the veiled hatred so many of us have toward one another. Tee-shirts that read "One rope, one tree, one journalist, some assembly required." Statements about "draining the swamp" that are all too reminiscent of previous references to "vermin" and "cockroaches." People writing that Hillary Clinton is "evil, EVIL—she wants to destroy America," inflamed by the emergence of a powerful alt-right media. A Republican official stating that if Trump doesn't win, he's going to pick up his musket. To do what with, exactly? He won't say explicitly, but what do muskets do other than kill?

Some black writers have commented that what white liberals are feeling today is what other minorities feel all the time. And I know that liberals have indulged in hateful rhetoric not just toward the candidate but toward fellow citizens. I appreciate that we have been sheltered, and also that these trends have not yet consumed us. But at one time the neighbors of Rwanda greeted each other warmly each morning. And Hungarian acquaintances dined in shared luxury. And a German woman and her Jewish best friend laughed and chatted as they hung the laundry together in a land not yet torn by war.

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