A grim holiday reminder of why we've got to live together

December 09, 2007|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

A few words before I go.

First off: Happy holidays. Merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy Hanukkah.

Barring something unforeseen, we won't talk again until the New Year. Your humble correspondent is taking a few mental health days.

It probably isn't your idea of an ideal holiday spot, but I plan to spend one of those days at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It's something I do most years around this time, though I find it difficult to explain why.

I guess if trees strung with light, malls crowded with shoppers and Christmas music filling the air impart a sense of festivity and rightness with the world, the shadowed halls of this monument to human hatred, human hubris and human resilience impart something I find equally valuable this time of year.

Call it a centeredness. Call it a somberness. Call it a sacredness.

If the holidays are about deliverance, those hours spent among the shoes of dead Jews and manifestoes of mass murder are a stark reminder of what we need deliverance from. Our own meanness. Our own smallness. The petty cruelties whispered into us by the worst angels of our nature.

Some of you will know that I had a very interesting spring and early summer. I wrote a column some people disliked, and it led to harassment and death threats from self-styled neo-Nazis under the tired delusion that paleness of skin equals mental, moral or physical superiority. It was a striking, stinking reminder of the seemingly bottomless potential for sheer stupidity that lives within each of us. And by that I mean each of us.

As Sly and the Family Stone once memorably sang, "There is a yellow one that won't accept the black one that won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one."

That's as succinct an encapsulation of the human condition as you'll ever hear.

To walk in the Holocaust Museum is to be reminded of the logical, inevitable result of that refusal to accept, that insistence upon declaring that some racial, sexual, religious or cultural fraction of us must live outside the circle of human compassion. After all, there was nothing terribly new about what the Nazis did. Their sole innovation was to institutionalize hatred and mechanize murder so that 11 million people - 6 million of them Jews - could be most efficiently put to death.

But this idea that some of us are less than the rest of us, that some of us are roaches, vermin, viruses, parasites, infestations, beasts or subhumans to whom one owes no duty of human decency or commiseration, didn't start with the Nazis. It is as old as Cain. As widespread as the common cold.

Yet we don't learn. We never learn. Dead Jews become dead Rwandans become dead Serbs become dead Darfurians, yet still some of us mouth pious hatreds with a smug certitude and offhand arrogance accessible only to the deeply, profoundly and utterly wrong.

I'm reminded of an older white lady who called me once to thank me for a column decrying some racial insult. She had a grandmother voice, a voice that sounded like cookies in the oven smell, and she wanted me to know she admired black people, supported black people. Then she added in a conspiratorial whisper, "It's the Jew boys I can't stand." Because everybody is sure his or her own hatreds are just.

We've got to live together.

Sly Stone sang that, too, in his song.

If that seems, almost 40 years later, a faded hope, it is, nevertheless, a hope, and one you clutch instinctively as shrunken Jews stare out from photos on a wall, across a gulf of 60 years.

A reminder.

A warning.

A testimony.

And meantime, somewhere far away, the trees are filled with light, the air is laced with hymns of joy.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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