The countryside shines green with growing grain. Roads are smooth if winding, with little traffic. Every farm building seems to speak of prosperity and well-being.
On a hillside, one area stands in contrast. No crops, no cattle, no flower garden around somebody’s house. Instead, a one-of-a-kind structure with such crazy angles you wonder if the architects were drunk when they designed it.
We’re in Germany, at a place called Hinzert. The strange building stands as a memorial to a camp that stood there 1939 – 1945. Known as a “Special Camp,” its announced purpose was education. It tried to “Germanize” all who were sent there: people arrested for not fitting in with Nazi ways.
In reality it was a concentration camp. No extermination ovens, just torture beyond belief. No teachers offering classes – even in German literature and music – much less in science and world history; no discussion groups on cultural diversity … instead, people stripped of their clothing, their names, their personhood. Some were lined up and shot, some were starved, all were treated worse than any farmer would treat his goats or pigs.
To use the term “concentration camp” is to call up the atrocities of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Today’s Hinzert differs from them in one way: whereas they overflow with thousands of visitors every day, on the June day this year when I got to Hinzert, I was the only visitor. The helpful director gave me full attention. He pointed out though the camp was built for 560 inmates, it regularly held 1600 at a time. So one narrow bunk had to hold two men; each with his head at the other’s feet. Altogether, some 13,600 prisoners were sent to this camp.
Outside the building is a burial ground, set up after the war. A gentle rain fell as I walked between the rows of crosses, as if the sky itself continues to weep at the thought of such cruelty, such descent into savagery.
Why did it happen? Rejecting Nazi stock answers, let me try this: “They’re not like us. They don’t talk like us! They don’t think like us!” They’re just – well – different!
With Hinzert still vivid in my memory, news of another massacre crashed into whatever calm the world could manage. This time far from concentration camps, in Orlando Florida, not far from the fabled world of Disney. Thrust into another moment to live in infamy, 49 human beings had their lives cut off in a hailstorm of bullets. The murderer was no time-warped Nazi but the American-born, American-educated son of immigrants.
Was he protesting the gays who gathered in the nightclub known as Pulse? Was he a closet homosexual, secretly struggling against the trauma of coming out? Was he an Islamist reacting against the “perverted” ways of the West? Did he see himself as defending Iraq and Syria against American-led military attacks? Was he focusing his prejudice on Latinos, the group who were special guests at the club that night? Was he mentally disturbed, a person who under ideal circumstances would have had expert help to see him through? In a more sensible society, would he have found it harder to walk into a store and buy an assault weapon?
News media all across the country -- and beyond -- called for things to change.
The Los Angeles Times headlined the event
AN ACT OF TERROR
AND ACT OF HATE
The New York Daily News shouted
The Boston Globe ran this:
So serious an event – the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history – cries out for answers, but so far we have only hunches. And a few clues. Like his father’s comment, that Omar should not killed those people; God himself would punish them. (Did the parental attitude rub off on the son?) Or the stupid statement of a self-styled pastor, “It’s a pity more of them didn’t get killed!” (How much responsibility does society bear when it is first shocked, then quibbles about every American's right to bear arms, then finally shrugs its shoulders and turns to more immediate concerns, like washing the car or grabbing a drink?)
Whatever the final answer, this much seems certain: he was uncomfortable with people who were “different.” I have no evidence that he ever used the words, “Why can’t they be more like us?” but such feelings may have been deep in his psyche.
If so, we can all identify with that. It’s human to like those who are most like us.
But the story does not end there.
Let’s travel now to Toronto, Canada’s largest city. It’s July 3rd, and people are celebrating Gay Pride Day. Parades and floats, music and merriment are everywhere. Coming off Canada Day which marks 149 years as a nation, celebrating a “Fair Country” in which LGBTQ people are accepted and same-sex marriage is not only legal but becoming so common it hardly gets noticed.
Marching in the parade, showing solidarity with gay persons, is the country’s popular Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. In fact, he is joined by Ontario’s Premier, Kathleen Wynne, and Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the official Opposition to Trudeau’s Liberals. They attended a church service together before the march began. Commented a gay Syrian refugee who marched with them (shown with the flag, above), “Never in my wildest dreams …!” Not a shot was fired, not a person was killed or vilified, not a boo recorded.
Why the difference? Why do some persons massacre other human beings for being different, and others embrace diversity, even walking arm in arm with them?
Could it be the difference between focusing on what unites us instead of what separates us? Have some given up asking, through clenched teeth, Why can’t they be more like us – you know, normal? Have these people somehow learned respect?
Bono, U2’s lead singer, once announced “The world needs more Canada.” And President Obama echoed Bono’s words when he addressed the Canadian Parliament during the Three Amigos’ deliberations later in the month.
Whatever your musical tastes or political preference, could Bono and Obama and Trudeau and Mulcair and Wynne actually be pointing us to a safer, better world?
Still, let’s be realistic: Canada’s record is far from clean. Here, in summary, is an important part of the story:
It was another summer day – June 2-this year- when a report known as Truth and Reconciliation hit the headlines.
Focusing on relations between the First Nations – Canada’s original inhabitants – and the mostly European immigrants who now make up the majority of the population – it laid bare the injustice that prevailed from the first contacts to the present moment. Tales of sneaky land grabs, broken treaties, conformity by force.
Residential schools were a special focus. When the government decided that native peoples should – for their own good, of course! – assimilate, it looked for partners in the enterprise. Religious groups, being in closer touch with the people than federal office holders, were a natural choice. So the task of running residential schools was downloaded to churches. In those schools native children could be educated through 24/7 immersion in the ways of the “new,”dominant society.
That meant, of course, pulling them from their homes, even by force. They had to speak English or French, drawing punishment if they lapsed into their first language. They were stripped of their culture. They were often abused. If the process of Canadianization seems eerily like Germanization under Nazis, well, the reality speaks for itself. Some children died and were buried in unmarked graves; others carry psychic scars to this day. We now wonder how those in charge could be so inhuman, but at the time people seemed to justify any means in light of a “high, noble” goal: giving “poor, lesser-breed” youngsters a chance for a better life.
Do you ever find it hard to be an optimist? Bad news can seem so overwhelming! But it may be a sign of hope that we are growing more aware, not only of the evil that exists, but of the need to resist it, when we resolve to take a clear stand for decency toward all people. Down with torturing and killing people because they are “different.” Let’s build bridges, not walls. Let’s welcome the stranger. Borders, whether on a map or in our minds, can be dangerous.
Other people will never be “like us,” – come to think of it, wouldn’t that be pretty boring? In a globalizing world, isn’t it time to learn how to appreciate others and how to get along?