This week, grim ceremonies marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where the Nazis murdered 1.5 million people. These remembrances of horror provoked extensive commentary, summed up in a single agonizing question: How could this have happened?
Answers -- some simplistic, others more nuanced -- were offered by various pundits and scholars: It was one man's madness; it was the result of unique historical circumstances; it was the inevitable byproduct of a totalitarian system, and so on. Implicit in these comments was the comforting notion that such deliberate mass atrocity is possible only under a tyrannical regime, led by brutal dictators, "madmen" like Hitler, Stalin and Saddam; it could never happen in a democracy, where a free people exercise its electoral will, and strong civic structures curb the excesses of state power. Indeed, in his "fire sermon" at the inauguration, U.S. president George W. Bush claimed that democracy is a divine system, created by God Himself. It could therefore never be an instrument of evil.
Does this stance correspond to reality, to history? To get at the deeper truth, perhaps the question we should ask is not, "How did Auschwitz happen?" but rather, "What exactly happened at Auschwitz?"
Well, here's what happened: Government leaders ordered the murder and torture of innocent people in the defense of "the Homeland" and the superior "moral values" of their culture. They produced copious justifications for their actions, including legal rulings from top government attorneys, while concealing the actual operational details from public knowledge in the name of "national security." When faced with undeniable evidence of atrocity, they blamed "bad apples" in the lower ranks.
Suddenly, viewed in this light, Auschwitz doesn't seem so strange, so otherworldly, so removed from us. For we have seen all of these things come to pass today, perpetrated by the world's greatest democracy, by elected leaders whose initially dubious hold on power has just been ratified by the free vote of a free people. We have seen these democratic leaders launch a war of aggression on false pretenses -- a deliberate action which they knew would lead to mass murder.
We know this war has killed at least 100,000 innocent people, according to a scientific study by the respected medical journal The Lancet. The overwhelming majority of these 100,000 have been killed by direct military action of the U.S.-U.K. coalition, most of them long after "major combat operations" ended, The Lancet reports. (It's fascinating to watch the Bushists quibble over this number -- "The death count's not really that high, it wasn't deliberate, it was collateral damage, it's anti-American propaganda," etc. -- like Holocaust revisionists disputing the reality of Auschwitz: "It wasn't really 1.5 million, it wasn't deliberate, it was disease, overwork, Jewish propaganda, etc.")
We know that thousands of Iraqis have been imprisoned unjustly; up to 90 percent of all detainees were innocent of any offense, the Red Cross reports. We know that many of these innocents have been tortured, using techniques and guidelines laid down by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and approved by Bush. We know that many people have died from this torture, as the pro-war Times of London reports, not only in Iraq but also in secret CIA prisons around the world, where thousands of people are being held without charges -- and where the administration's tepid restrictions on torture do not apply, as Bush's legal factotum, Alberto Gonzales, admits.
And we know that whenever fragments of truth about this widespread, thoroughgoing program of atrocity do manage to surface from the darkness, Bush and his apologists run for cover and cast the blame on underlings. "This so-called ill treatment and torture in detention centers ... were not, as some assumed, inflicted methodically, but were excesses committed by individual prison guards, their deputies, and men who laid violent hands on the detainees." These words have a familiar ring, echoed almost daily by a Bush official or a right-wing commentator -- but in fact the quote is from Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, as Scott Horton notes in the Los Angeles Times. Horton and other writers also unearthed statements by Nazi leaders and jurists declaring the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" for the "new kind of war" they were fighting against Bolshevik "terrorists" on the Eastern Front -- precise equivalents to the language used by the Bush White House in its "torture memos."