Friday, February 24, 2006

When Good Men Do Nothing

UNC Law Professor and Japanese Internment expert Eric Muller tells a fascinating and revealing story of the immediate aftermath of WWII. I reprint the relevant part here:
He [a former Nazi party bill collector] asked me whether I had known anybody connected with the West Coast deportation. When I said "no," he asked me what I had done about it. When I said "Nothing," he said, triumphantly, "There. You learned about all these things openly, through your government and your press. We did not learn through ours. As in your case, nothing was required of us--in our case, not even knowledge. You knew about things you thought were wrong -- you did think it was wrong, didn't you, Herr Professor?" "Yes." "So. You did nothing. So it is everywhere." When I protested that the Japanese-descended Americans had not been treated like the Jews, he said, "And if they had been -- what then? Do you not se that the idea of doing something or doing nothing is in either case the same?"

On the one hand, not doing anything in the face of a moderate injustice is not as bad as not doing anything in the face of a serious injustice, which in turn is not as bad as doing nothing during a grave injustice. On the other hand, the rationalizing procedures we use to justify our inaction remain roughly the same throughout. So when we let moderate injustices slide by, it is highly indicative that we would do the same even if the sin committed were far more shocking.

In other words, the average American's indifference toward Japanese Internment is not, morally, equivilant to German indifference toward the Holocaust. But it is strong evidence that, if our policy toward the Japanese was one of extermination rather than internment, we'd have not protested then either.

I'm not even sure I believe that. I think values count for something, and I think that America has a sufficiently strong tradition (at least by 1942) of not sanctioning random killing in its own borders such that such a move would not be tolerated. But yet, counter-examples abound--lynch mobs, genocide of Native Americans, even the fire-bombing of Dresden or the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki all indicate that our respect for the human life of non-combatant "others" was severely deficient.

Food for thought, anyway.

3 comments:

Al Capone said...

Just hold it. I as a German (eventhough born in 1965) would like to point out that there's a big difference between organizing a genocide (and almost everybody in Germany knew that, or do you think you can make disappear more than six million people and nobody notices) and some cruelties. That almost nobody knew about it is the big lie this generation of Germans used to save themselves from the questions of their children, asking there parents what they did during WWII and especially what they knew of the concentration camps.

jack said...

We're of course forgetting how little the US did to stop the Holocaust. True, the public at large didn't know about it but a significant portion of people within the government did and intentionally suppressed that information.

In anycase I'm not sure that the US government of the time is a lot more innocent than the German people. American at least could have done something, I'm not so sure theres a lot individual Germans could have done.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there is a clear cut line, but rather a huge number of variables.

The fact that some publicly ask this question is a good sign.

I myself decided it was institutions and traditions more than the moral goodness of people when I became aware that 70% of the public were "not disturbed" by Calley's actions and that in an experiment the large majority would push a dial that allegedly gave shocks past the point marked danger and through screams if instructed to do so by an authority figure.

Hitler had to get rid of 3 or 4 chiefs of staff befor he found one who would agree to his schemes. He destroyed other institutions and checks. So far though not as robust as we like I think these exist. The challenges be establishment figures including many retired generals on the war and many FBI agents and US attorneys on Republican corruption indicate individuals whose principles are higher than what would seem their most "natural" partisan alignment.

But the odds of being like the Germans does go up when we smugly answer the question in the negative.