The Wellsprings of Violence
by Richard Weiner
February 17, 2013
Good morning, everyone, and welcome. It’s a pleasure to have the chance to speak to you . . . and particularly on a subject that is so relevant to the world we live in today – the causes and manifestations of violence.
Wherever we turn these days, we hear about violence. Gun violence. War violence. Child abuse. Torture. You name it. So today, let’s take a closer look at what motivates violence . . . and if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to start by sharing my history . . . my journey from a childhood filled with violence . . . from victimhood to ultimate reconciliation and forgiveness.
We all have a history. We’ve all faced challenges of one kind or another, and for many that is especially true during the current economic crisis. In one way or another, life is a struggle for us all.
Apart from our personal challenges, we are confronted by challenges to our nation. Ever since 9/11, we live in a state of fear of what we identify as terrorism. How do we respond to that? Should we learn to live in fear for the rest of our lives?
This morning, I want to raise some questions . . . to take a look at the concept of “terrorism” – how we use that term almost reflexively, how we define it, and how so often we choose to ignore its causes.
So, here’s the dictionary definition of terrorism: a systematic use of terror (inducing intense fear, panic, alarm, etc.) as a means of coercion.
OK, so when a suicide bomber blows himself up and kills dozens of innocent bystanders in the process, that’s clearly terrorism. When atrocities are perpetrated by Al-Quaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups, again, there is no doubt that those constitute terrorism. Those are easy.
What is harder is to apply the term “terrorism” to our own behavior. Because our natural tendency is to avoid using that term when it relates to our actions. In the words of Scripture, it’s easier to see the mote in the eye of others, but not the beam in our own. So, for example, when our drone attacks kill civilians, do we call that “terrorism”, or simply “collateral damage”? When the CIA arranges the assassination of a foreign leader who resists the economic exploitation of his country, is that “terrorism”, or simply “a preemptive strike”? And what about preventive detention, waterboarding, feral dogs, sleep deprivation? Aren’t those “intended to induce fear, panic or alarm”?
This is not mere semantics. Words do matter. We learned that in George Orwell’s “1984.” When I was a child, Joseph Göbbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was the master of “the big lie,” which, if repeated often enough, is accepted as truth. That’s the principle behind advertising, isn’t it. Göbbels’ lies happened to be about Jews, whom he called “our misfortune.” When someone said, “But Herr Göbbels, after all, aren’t Jews also human beings?” he replied, “Yes, and the louse is also an animal.” And as those lies were droned into the ears of the German people day after day, year after year, they became accepted as incontrovertible truth.
Our response to what we call “terror” has been to morph gradually into what might be called a “security state.” We have grown accustomed to airport searches, to “preventive” occupations, to assassinations of foreign leaders, and to arbitrary incarcerations of individuals merely suspected of connections with terrorism. And many of us have learned to hold our noses . . . and to accept these measures as the alleged price of preserving our security and – paradoxically — our freedoms.
I know how that works. I remember how it worked in Nazi Germany. The silent acquiescence to draconian measures. The gradual metamorphosis into a police state. I lived through that, and I want us to make sure that we learn from history, so that we are not – as the saying goes – doomed to repeat it.
So this may be a good time to review part of that history . . . the events of my childhood.
I was born in Wittenberg, a beautiful medieval town in central Germany . . . the town where Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. I was almost six when the Nazis came to power, in 1933. And from that moment on, life began to change for us.
Germany had suffered a humiliating defeat in World War I . . . and the Nazis promised to restore the country’s self-respect. And one way they did this was to find scapegoats – first the Communists, then the Labor Unions, then the Jews – and to blame them for the country’s misfortunes. They did this day after day . . . in propaganda broadcasts . . . in hate sheet newspapers . . . and in verbal abuse. The very word “Jew” (Jude) became an insult.
Well, as we know, the blaming soon turned into action. First came the racial laws . . . restricting Jewish social and economic freedoms . . . forbidding our access to public places . . . “Jews unwanted” stickers on all the store windows . . . the “Aryanization” of Jewish businesses.
In 1937, I was admitted to the Gymnasium (the local Latin school) under the new racial quota system . . . as the only Jew. My father talked to the principal ahead of time to make sure he would guarantee my safety.
When the teacher entered the class room, we jumped to our feet, clicked our heels, and yelled Heil Hitler. On national holidays, my classmates attended school in their brown shirted uniforms . . . with the swastika armbands. We lined up in military formation in the school yard . . . the colors were presented . . . and my classmates sang Nazi songs. I just stood there in silence, feeling like an outcast.
One day Hitler came through town . . . the teacher took us to a downtown street corner where he drove by in an open car . . . my classmates went into hysterics . . . they waved their paper flags and yelled Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Unforgettable.
During recess in the school yard, no one wanted to be called a “Jew lover”, so I was totally isolated . . . some of the tougher guys would yell insults at me . . . pelt me with pebbles . . . and stuff obscene notes in my pockets . . . and there was no one to protect me or to complain to. Quite the contrary.
And then, on November 9, 1938, on Crystal Night, the so-called “Night of Broken Glass”, all this came to a head. It was the beginning of the Holocaust – the date when anti-Jewish violence burst out into the open.
My father was arrested that morning, and that evening I watched in mortal terror as our home was destroyed by a bunch of local youths indoctrinated with the hatred of Jews. One of them swung an axe over my head and yelled “Your time has come.” I learned more about race hatred that night than I will ever forget.
Next morning, on the main street, we found all the Jewish shop windows smashed. And we learned that all the Jewish men had been shipped off to the Buchenwald concentration camp in a cattle car. All over Germany, Jewish homes and businesses had been destroyed, and synagogues set on fire. And according to the latest edict, the killing of Jews was no longer a crime.
My beloved grandparents, with whom I used to spend summer vacations, had already been deported to Poland, and would soon be murdered in a death camp.
One of my classmates came by to tell me I had been expelled from the Gymnasium – no surprise there. And then my best friend told me that he could no longer afford to be seen with me. Our apartment was confiscated, and we shared a so-called “Jewish apartment” with another mother and son.
Since Jews were now fair game for hunters, we were under virtual house arrest . . . and sneaked out to buy food only after dark. I received an identity card with a big red letter J, for easy identification, and a new middle name – Israel. And our German citizenship was revoked.
And then, three months later . . . my cousin and I were able to leave the country with the famous child rescue operation, the Kindertransport. We stayed in London with an aunt and uncle, and a few months later my father was released from concentration camp and our parents were able to join us. A year later – the war had started by then — our American visas finally came through, and we sailed across the Atlantic during the height of the U-boat campaign. When we reached New York harbor and caught sight of the Statue of Liberty, everyone on deck began to cry. We had reached the safety of the Promised Land.
My reason for sharing this story with you is to show how it eventually led me to my life mission: to help create a world of peace and harmony, by advocating reconciliation among both individuals and nations.
This did not happen overnight. Decades had to pass before I understood that my childhood experiences had a silver lining — a gift of deepened insight . . . and a capacity for compassion . . . and ultimate forgiveness.
In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I returned for the first time to Wittenberg, the town I thought I had left forever 51 years earlier. My son Mike, who was then in college, went with me.
The town looked like a time capsule. Because it dates from the Middle Ages . . . founded in the 13th century . . . it had not been bombed during the Second World War. We drove past the old market place, where the farmers still came twice a week to sell their produce . . . and it seemed like yesterday . . . nothing seemed to have changed . . . except that the houses looked rundown and shabby after 45 years of Soviet occupation.
We visited my old school, the Gymnasium . . . and in the school yard, with its tall chestnut trees, I told my son how I had always dreaded recess. “Come on, dad,” he replied, “let’s take a memorial lap around the school yard.” And so we did, and that short run was transformational — one of those rare moments when the past becomes just that . . . the past.
Next day, the mayor of Wittenberg received us in the beautiful Renaissance town hall, and gave me a medal commemorating the fate of the Wittenberg Jews, many of whom had been murdered. And then we spent a few days with my childhood friend Wolfgang and his wife, and I began to learn what had become of my former classmates during World War II. Most of them had been drafted when they turned 15 . . . and many had been killed or permanently injured.
For the first time, I began to realize how much suffering the Nazis had inflicted not only on the Jews, but on the entire German population. And with that realization, I started to see my former persecutors not as evil, but as human beings, as individuals who had been swept up in mass hysteria . . . and who had acted out the script that had been provided for them. It was the start of my journey of reconciliation . . . but only the start.
In 1997 I returned to Wittenberg for an alumni reunion at my old school. This time, I would be meeting my former classmates, and that really scared me. How would they feel about seeing me again? Would they feel guilty about the way they had treated me way back then? Maybe some of them were still anti-Semites. I thought about all that, but in the end I decided to take the risk.
And this time, in the grand auditorium of the Gymnasium, I was seated in the front row with the honored guests. The principal introduced me, along with the Minister of Education and other dignitaries. She described me as a man who was forced to leave the school “long ago under difficult circumstances (everyone understood what that meant) . . . and who had come all the way from America to show that he still cared about the school. At the mention of my name, the entire audience burst into applause. I sat there, gripping the arms of my chair . . . and trying hard to hold back the tears.
That night, there was a class dinner. A couple of dozen of my former classmates showed up, most of them with their wives. Among them were professors, doctors, lawyers like myself. We took turns sharing what had become of us since we left school. When my turn came, I told them what it was like to be the only Jew in the Gymnasium during the Nazi years . . . and particularly about having been persecuted in the school yard. Everyone fell silent. I saw a few tears in men’s eyes.
At the end of the evening, as we were putting on our coats, one of the men – a short fellow named Horst — came up to me. He seemed acutely embarrassed. And then he blurted out, “Richard, I need to tell you something . . . I was one of the ringleaders . . . and I want to ask for your forgiveness.”
I had waited all my life for these words. And when they came, I burst into tears, and so did Horst. We embraced, and all that had passed between us so many years before melted away in an instant.
The moment was so healing for me – for both of us – that it remains one of the turning points of my life. After I returned to America, I decided to pass on to others the gift I had received. And so began my workshop, The Power of Forgiveness, in which I share how healing it is for us – for all of us — to let go of our hatred and resentment of others. No matter how terrible were the things that were done to us, it is within our power to forgive and to let go of the burden of resentment and anger we have been carrying.
I have returned to Wittenberg every year or two since then. It now feels safe for me to do so. I have been repeatedly interviewed by the German press, and have had several articles published in an historical annual. My name has been entered in the Golden Book of the city, and two years ago, on the 20th anniversary of German reunification, the citizenship which I lost as a child was restored to me before hundreds of guests . . . I became the only living honorary citizen of my old hometown. The wheel had come full circle.
So what relevance might my story have for our lives today?
The question of why people hate us and want to harm us has been posed many times since 9/11. Among the answers I often hear is that we are hated out of envy of our standard of living. If only! I suggest that this answer obscures far more profound causes of — if not hatred, then at least deep resentment and anger. For the first time, through modern technology, people in Third World countries can see with their own eyes how we in the West live, and experience resentment at the contrast with their own — often abject – poverty. For us, the Crusades may be half forgotten ancient history . . . but, when George W. Bush described our incursion into Iraq as a “crusade”, Arabs were reminded that it was they who once were called “infidels”, and slaughtered accordingly. We in the West may have forgotten the Spanish conquistadors, but Latin Americans remember who drained their territory of its silver and gold, and left poverty and submission in their wake. We may tell ourselves that ending colonialism after World War II liberated the peoples of Africa and Asia . . . but they know that the economic exploitation of their countries continues to this day, with the collusion of despotic leaders whom it has often served us to install or even to provide with arms.
And if and when they don’t remember, those same leaders are only too ready to tell them whom to blame for the abject conditions under which many of them live.
And given that awareness, is it really so surprising that the accumulated sense of injustice and suppressed rage is now being released, hatred against the West is rampant, particularly in the Arab world, and young men without a future are being seduced into becoming suicide bombers?
Or is this a case of chickens coming home to roost?
And what has been our response to the acting out of this explosive rage? Predictably, in both Europe and in this country, the Muslim has become an object of fear, of suspicion, and of projections of the worst kind. For some, Muslims have become the ”Jews” of our time. Just recall the uproar when a community center was to be built by a Muslim developer a few blocks from Ground Zero. And then ask yourself: what’s your gut reaction when you see a woman with a head scarf, or a swarthy man with a turban and a full beard . . . going through airport security? Do even you have to remind yourself not to default to stereotyping?
I know from my own experience what it is like to be singled out for special scrutiny, to be considered guilty until proven innocent. And when I see minority men and women singled out in this way – I cringe. And no doubt most of you do as well.
Don’t misunderstand me: we have come a long way in this country. When I served in the U.S. Army in the 1940’s, there were no blacks in my platoon; integration at the battalion level had only just begun.
And in 1959, over a decade later, when I arrived in Washington, blacks still had to sit in theater balconies.
Today, all that has changed . . . at least for most of us. We see racially mixed and same sex couples walk down the street hand in hand and barely give them a second glance. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has become history. And yet, can we deny that, in many parts of our country, suspicion and hatred of blacks and Latinos, of gays and lesbians, is still alive and well? And so long as that is the case, so long as hatemongers are free to spread their toxic messages, fear and suspicion – and, yes, incitements to violence — continue to roil just beneath the surface of American life.
I have no doubt that all of us here this morning are women and men of good will. So, assuming that I’m “preaching to the choir”, what’s my message?
If there is one thing we ignore at our peril, it is the risk we take in accepting hate speech as a price we pay for an open society. Yes, tolerance of those with whom we disagree is a critical part of our democracy. But when that tolerance extends to those who incite others to demonize, to insult and even to prosecute others for their beliefs — all in the name of national security — we endanger our society in unpredictable ways. It is tantamount to “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” It is intended to create fear and panic. And so it clearly meets the definition of “terrorism.”
Hate speech is like a ticking time bomb. When the Nazis first appeared on the scene, when they beat up Jews on the streets and threw stink bombs in crowded theaters, most people regarded them as an annoying nuisance. And when they seized power, and began to pass the infamous “Nuremberg racial laws,” they did so in small stages, to “test the waters.” By then, we Jews were frightened, but we told ourselves that the Nazis were too radical to last, that they would surely be voted out at the next election.
Famous last words.
Some of you may remember the prescient words of Pastor Niemöller, the minister who spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps until he was liberated at the end of World War II. Here’s what he said:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
We are all prone to manipulation if only it is done with sufficient finesse. Our consumer society is evidence of that. The famous Orson Welles radio program of the 1940’s, “Invasion from Mars,” caused thousands of people to panic over a supposed landing of aliens in the New Jersey meadows. Sounds incredible now, but it actually happened.
These days, we hear a lot about America’s gun culture. We are devastated when children are shot. I listened to memorial services for the victims of the shootings – in Norway and in Connecticut — and I was struck by the fact that – in the face of both of these devastating tragedies — I heard not a word about revenge. Instead, the focus was on the killer as a human being, as a man who acted out of fear-motivated rage . . . and on the causes of violence, the belief systems that motivate hatred and demonization of others.
No one is born with the intent to kill. In the words of a song from South Pacific, “you’ve got to be taught to hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught . . .” And when rage has been suppressed for a long time – as in the Middle East — the teaching of hatred, and the incitement to revenge, comes easy. We need to understand that. Yes, we must defend ourselves from those who come to do us harm . . . but, unless we recognize the source of their rage, we cannot “hear” them . . . we cannot address their grievances in a manner that someday . . . someday . . . may turn the tide of violence.
There always have been – and there always will be – those who cynically incite others to violence in order to achieve their ends. Absolute safety is an illusion. But that does not mean that we are powerless. We can’t eliminate hatred . . . but what we can do is to try to understand the source of that hatred . . . and refrain from confusing self-preservation with vengefulness.
Lest we forget: a potential killer lurks inside every human being. Under sufficient pressure . . . and with sufficient incitement . . . that killer can leap from thought to action. For some, the trigger may be political or economic oppression and exploitation . . . for others, a sense of humiliation and powerlessness. And once we are sufficiently triggered, anything becomes possible . . . even violence . . . especially against strangers on whom we can project our worst fantasies and fears.
In the end, we are the brothers and sisters of all who walk this earth . . . yes, even of those we choose to call “terrorists.” And in these troubled times especially, we must make every effort to gain the trust of those who have long been humiliated and exploited – both by us in the West, and by their own despotic rulers. And a first step for gaining that trust is for us to acknowledge what has been perpetrated in our own names. Before we can move beyond the endless wars, occupations and 24/7 security, we need to make sure we have cleaned up our act.
And when we have done our best to accomplish that, we need to forgive . . . to forgive ourselves . . . and finally . . . to be forgiven.
As the French say, “tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” (to understand all is to forgive all). Easy to say, hard to do. But ultimately, the only way to move from endless confrontation to the acceptance of our common humanity.
I bless you all.