A couple of weeks ago, regular letter-writer Terry Barber accused me of being an apologist for Islam. I’m not. I comment on the claims he makes partly because Press regulator Ipso expects facts in letters to be correct, and where claims are made that appear to be factually incorrect — such as that the majority of migrants fleeing to Europe are men — I feel obliged to offer a factual correction.
But mainly I comment on his claims because I disagree with the tarring of a group with the actions of a few, though Terry does have some good examples to turn to — Saudi Arabia can be an affront to Western values, and ISIL is a serious threat.
I don’t dispute Terry’s right to write in with his views. We can hardly all bang on about “Je Suis Charlie”, then suppress comment from those with whom we disagree.
Freedom of speech only applies when it’s views you find disturbing. But should the editor of a local newspaper be getting involved with arguments with a reader on the letters pages?
This week I visited, courtesy of the Holocaust Education Trust, the Auschwitz camps where the Germans murdered more than 1m Jews and others (including Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally ill and the handicapped). The trip was aimed at sixth formers, whom the trust hopes will become its ambassadors and “shine a light” where needed.
The trust’s educators had one main aim in the trip — to re-humanise both the victims and the murderers.
The victims were removed of all humanity before death. They had their freedom, their possessions, their clothes, their body hair and their names stolen, and then any control of their daily lives. They ultimately had their lives removed. They became nothing but numbered work units.
The same was true after death: they were turned to dust and no record of their final resting place was kept. They were dehumanised again, with no stone recording their lives and no individual graves.
The Nazis justified this by classing all these people as less than human — Slavs were insects, and the lowest rank of human life. Jews were not even human.
The Holocaust Education Trust stresses that while the numbers killed were vast, each was an individual, with the same feelings and thoughts we have today. More touching than the famous collections of hair and spectacles at Auschwitz was the collection of family snapshots, showing people doing all the things we do with our families now.
We see this same dehumanisation of outsiders today, whether it’s people calling migrants rats and vermin, David Cameron using the phrase “a bunch of migrants”, or even Terry classing all Muslims as wife-beating jihadists.
But the Holocaust Education Trust also re-humanises the murderers. The Nazis who casually killed Jews for trivial offences — like shooting a man through the head because he stopped working to stretch his back — or sent them to the gas chambers were decent family men who went home at night to tuck their kids up in bed and hold hands with their wives. They were not a monolithic block of people called Nazis; they were like us. They doubtless have the same snapshots of family life as their Jewish victims.
As far as the current migrant crisis goes, it is not yet genocide (though we have stood by and watched genocides in Rwanda and Kosovo). It is obvious what re-humanising migrants means — they are all individuals, fleeing a country that in many ways has dehumanised them as much as the Nazis.
But who are the oppressors we can re-humanise in this case? It seems obvious that the answer is us, you and me.
People being vile about migrants on social media are not just “on Facebook”, they are individuals. You are reading them not just “on Facebook” (or in the mainstream media) but as individuals.
People are entitled to hold views and entitled to express them in public. But it is our duty to counter them by shining a light on inaccuracies, lies, distortions and outright racism. Be polite — this is not yet a genocide — but the Holocaust only occurred because tens of thousands of people saw only their small part of it and did nothing, whether it was the Greek stationmaster who sent his countrymen from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz or the man who signed off the camp guards’ wage slips.
As the impassioned rabbi who addressed us at the end of the Auschwitz visit said, the only way to prevent genocides is to stand up and counter people who advance arguments that dehumanise — “shine a light into the darkness”.