A commentary in my local newspaper the other day caught my attention. It concerned a married couple who had chosen some time ago to adopt an autistic child. They knew the child’s biological mother who, for whatever reason, was forced to place the child in foster care — where the child was terribly abused.
When the couple’s friends learned they were planning to adopt the child, the friends made comments along the lines of “God has a special place for you,” and “You’re young — why do you want to take on so much trouble?” The couple, according to the commentary, found such expressions hurtful and offensive.
In my own life, I know of two recent cases where babies were born with Down’s syndrome and the parents were asked by their physicians whether they wanted life-sustaining treatments withheld from their newborn infants.
What struck me as I read the commentary and reflected on the stories of the two families I personally knew, is that the statements made by their friends, family members or doctors had behind them the best of intentions. This sent a chill through me, and I immediately thought of a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt when she wrote about the trial of Adolf Eichmann: the banality of evil.
Arendt’s thesis was that great evil is not perpetuated solely by fanatics and sociopaths, but by ordinary human beings under certain conditions. The great, recurring and only semi-rhetorical question that is often asked by people of good will about the Holocaust and the crimes of the Nazi regime is, “How could this happen?” Yet many of these same people, who react with justifiable revulsion at what took place in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, think nothing about asking a couple why they want to adopt a disabled and abused child, or whether they would like to be “relieved of the burden” of caring for a child with Down’s.
It is worth remembering that the Holocaust began with the gassing of developmentally and emotionally disabled men, women and children.
Many of these same well-intentioned individuals were silent during the ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia, have kept themselves in the dark about what is taking place in Darfur and don’t join the increasingly active movement against the U.S. military intervention in Iraq which, like Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, was begun under false pretenses. “I am only one person,” they’ll say. “What can I do? What difference can I make?” Too many people said that in Europe seven decades ago, although active and clandestine opposition to the Nazis took place in Germany and throughout the continent, often organized by communists.
The fact is that Germany did not “descend into barbarism,” in the late historian William L. Shirer’s phrase, by suddenly jumping off a cliff into the sea like lemmings. The descent was gradual, and the German people were tested and probed for how much they would accept. And by the time many of them discovered things being done that the average German found abhorrent, it was too late.
Since 2001, the Bush administration and ultra-right have tested and probed. Like all criminal regimes in history, their rhetoric is couched in words of duty, honor and concern. They want to “protect our freedoms,” while taking some of them away. They want to “guard our national security,” while making us less safe around the world. They want to “protect family values,” while destroying families in their drive for greater profits, while instilling self-centeredness, fear and bigotry.
Last November’s midterm elections, as CPUSA National Chair Sam Webb noted recently, marked a change in the political terrain and created new arenas of struggle. Let’s fill those arenas and build a movement that challenges people of good intentions to make a difference in their lives, and the lives of millions of others.
Lawrence Albright is a PWW reader, writer and disability rights advocate in Florida.