Monday, August 23, 2010

Victimization and vengeance

The moments in American political history when one voice broke with decorum to denounce the truly reprehensible are so memorable precisely because they are so rare: Joseph Welch confronting Joseph McCarthy with "have you no sense of decency, sir?"; FDR calling Senator Burton Wheeler's snide comparison of Lend-Lease to New Deal farm programs ("it will plow under every fourth American boy," Wheeler sneered) "the rottenest thing that has been said in public life in my generation."

The lukewarm defenses of the proposed Islamic community center in New York City against the truly despicable demagoguery of the past few weeks cry out for comparison to those other moments. The utterances of Newt Gingrich, for one — comparing the "ground zero mosque" (which is neither a mosque nor at ground zero) to Nazis desecrating the Holocaust Museum or accusing Obama of "pandering to radical Islam" after the President offered the daring proposition that "Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country" — are certainly good candidates for "the rottenest thing" said in our generation. Gingrich, Palin, and the predictable chorus line of Fox News "commentators" have been fanning even uglier talk, notably the line ricocheting around the right-wing blogosphere that the Cordoba Center would be a "victory shrine" to those who "attacked us."

Never mind even the baldness of the lies (as Frank Rich noted in yesterday's New York Times, the Cordoba Center's board is full of Christians and Jews, and the imam spearheading the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is such an Islamic radical that he delivered a moving eulogy at the memorial service for Daniel Pearl at which he declared "I am a Jew . . . I am a Christian") — where is the politician who will call this right-wing demagoguery what it is: a vileness of a kind that throughout history has been the recourse of the most despicable regimes and totalitarianisms that America has always stood against. The mindset that can willfully equate every member of one racial or religious group with the actions of a few who share that racial or religious identity is the mindset that literally spawned the greatest evils of our age.

Meanwhile we have had to content ourselves with the small satisfaction provided by the reliable hypocrisy that demagogues always offer to cheer us up. Catching moralists with their pants down is a never-fail source of joy even on the solemnest occasions, and the prize this time surely goes to Bernard Kerik, who joined the chorus of phony outrage over desecration of the "sacred ground" of the World Trade Center site in a Twitter message he somehow managed to have delivered from his current home, the Federal prison at Cumberland, Maryland.

Kerik, for those who may have forgotten, is the former New York Police Commissioner and protege of Rudy Giuliani whom Bush named to be the first head of the Department of Homeland Security — until his detour to Western Maryland, where he is now enjoying four years at taxpayer expense for tax fraud and other felonies arising from an earlier conviction in state court for having accepted $165,000 in free renovations to his apartment from a company with mob connections. In the months following the 9/11 attack, Kerik displayed his own personal reverence for the hallowed precincts of Ground Zero by using an apartment directly overlooking the site (originally donated to the city so exhausted rescue workers would have a place to rest) as a place to bonk right-wing book publisher Judith Regan.

But there's a problem that goes much deeper than simple hypocrisy and inconsistency with the entire notion of reverence for a place where we became victims of an act of war. When I was writing my book Air Power, one fact I came across took my breath away as much as I thought I knew about World War II, and it still does every time I encounter it anew. In eight months of air raids over Britain from September 1940 to spring 1941, German bombers killed 40,000 British civilians, seriously injured 50,000 others, demolished hundreds of thousands of houses and damaged millions more. Leonard Woolf, in his extraordinary memoirs, describes the haunting silence the morning after an especially heavy German bombing that seemed to have left half of London in ruins; vast piles of rubble in the streets blocking traffic everywhere; almost no one moving about; losing his way again and again as he tried to walk across town to his office, unable to find a single familiar landmark other than the dome of St. Paul's now and then appearing in view.

It is hard in this age of endless memorialization to even express this view without sounding callous: but Londoners did not turn their entire city into a "hallowed ground" or a shrine for the dead or a monument to British victimhood. They rebuilt, they went on, they rightly saw that the truest memorial to the dead was to show the Nazis that their city would rise again as if the Nazis had never existed on the face of the earth. I have always felt a deep discomfort similarly with the entire holocaust-memorial and holocaust-study industry. As a Jew, I hate the idea that the defining fact of my people's entire history should be what the fucking Nazis did to us.

There is a great Spanish proverb: olvidar la injuria es la mejor venganza: to forget an insult is the greatest revenge.