Abe Greenwald, J. E. Dyer, Michael Ledeen and Scott Johnson have all posted important critiques of President Obama’s address last week at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda — each of them going beyond its eloquence to examine some troubling concepts and regrettable omissions.
I want to add — using some borrowed eloquence — a point about a particularly unfortunate aspect of the address: Obama’s definition of “never again.”
Before defining it, the President told the audience that “never again” should be a “call to action,” not “merely an aspiration.” But his own call to action was only an aspirational admonition. After noting that Protestant and Catholic children now go to school together in Northern Ireland, that Hutus and Tutsis live side-by-side “forgiving neighbors who have done the unforgivable,” and that people in 25 countries have “united in common cause” with those suffering in Darfur, the President concluded as follows:
[O]ur fellow citizens of the world [have shown] us how to make the journey from oppression to survival, from witness to resistance and ultimately to reconciliation. That is what we mean when we say “never again.”
The journey to reconciliation is an admirable aspiration, and sometimes an achievable accomplishment, but it is not what we mean when we say “never again.”
The phrase has operational rather than aspirational significance, and it was captured in the remarks at the ceremony of Joel M. Geiderman, Vice Chairman of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council, who compared the failure to confront Hitler’s threats in the past to the danger of ignoring equally plain threats in the present, and then eloquently said this:
So, as I did last year, in the name of the victims [of the Holocaust], I call on the assembled leaders and the rest of the world to assure that no country that threatens such destruction will ever obtain the means to achieve it. Nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressor fanatics cannot be allowed. By my articulating these words to you in this building, in this great hall of freedom, I am reminding all of you that what we do and don’t do matters and will be remembered. It would be far too easy to light twelve candles for twelve million murdered rather than six candles for six million. The harder work is to make sure that that does not happen. No more candles. Not anywhere. Never again.
“Never again” is not something our fellow citizens of the world have shown us how to do, nor is reconciliation an effective remedy for a gathering storm. The phrase is a commitment to stop genocide before it occurs, not to commend reconciliation afterwards.