We're supposed to learn lessons from history, but the lessons we learn depend on who's writing the history - and who's reading it.
With the help of a few of our friends, we rid the world of a psychotic madman who used torture, rape and poison gas to dispatch his enemies, and critics mock us for calling him "evil." We have yet to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - the weapons that everyone agrees were once there because he used them - and our sunshine friends in Europe can't see the moral purpose in the enterprise. They dismiss Saddam as just another monster coughed up by nature, a monster that we should have, or could have, ignored. The more these critics learn of his heinous crimes, the less they see how much his crimes mattered.
David Gelernter calls this phenomenon the "Holocaust Shrug." It's the head-in-the-sand defense for doing nothing. "The world's indifference to the Coalition's achievement resembles its long-running, well-established lack of interest in Hitler's crimes," he writes in The Weekly Standard. "I don't claim that Saddam resembles Hitler; I do claim that the world's indifference to Saddam resembles its indifference to Hitler."
Comparisons to Hitler are often foolish and exaggerated because they lack proportion. But they can also illuminate. I was astonished to find on my recent visit to Germany many young men and women who don't understand this analogy to Hitler at all. Or who say they don't. These young Germans rush to excoriate the indifference the world showed toward Jewish suffering after Nazi atrocities were documented beyond skepticism, but they can't see that our elimination of the evil Saddam is something that anyone should applaud.
Young people in Germany are the conscience of the Holocaust. They want everything their grandparents' generation did described in their books, exhibited in their museums and denounced on their public monuments. Attention must be paid, and they're paying it. But they applaud their government's passivity in the war in Iraq and can't see the moral parallel to their indifference to the Hitlerian evil of Saddam.
The history of the civilized world's reaction to Third Reich horrors is a history of glib rationalizations for toning down criticism of Germany's anti-Semitism as the 1930s moved inexorably toward the Holocaust. Prominent members of the Roosevelt administration argued that admitting European Jews to a safe haven in America would only exacerbate anti-Semitism, thwarting the larger reasons for entering the war. Not only did such thinking underestimate the American people, but it played into the anti-Semitism fueling the machinery of war.
The poison gas that Saddam rained down on the Kurds was not as widely used as the Zyklon B at Auschwitz, but to each innocent man, woman and child who was murdered the effect was the same. We smugly criticize those who claimed not to know what was going on as the Holocaust unfolded, as if that was an excuse for indifference. But where is the appreciation for what the coalition did - and is doing - in Iraq? No one can say he does not know what went on there.
The money that certain nations of the West paid for Saddam's oil financed his terror as surely as trade with Nazi Germany before World War II financed Hitler's evil apparatus of genocide. The scandal of United Nations humanitarian aid finding its way into Saddam's pockets is only now unfolding. Saddam's terror squads, like the Gestapo a half-century ago, dragged innocent men, women and children from their homes, secure in the knowledge that nobody in the West would care enough to do anything about it.
Sadly, the critics of the war who are obsessed with moral questions try to make George W. Bush the villain of the piece. Europeans love to hate us, especially when America stands up for principle. A book, "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World," is a screed now popular on the Continent, and has been published in 10 other countries. Mark Hertsgaard, an embittered American journalist, is a literary hero (if not exactly a lion) all over Europe for portraying George W. as a naive, bumbling cowboy who shoots from the hip, governing a nation of the fat and the privileged (the Europeans think we all look like Michael Moore and Al Franken), prosperous for having exploited slaves and Red Indians.
But he, like so many frustrated critics of America, asks the question that proves a point but not the point he thinks he makes: "If America is as flawed as detractors say, if it is a self-centered gluttonous bully with a racist past and a soul-less center," he wonders, "why are millions of people from around the world willing to do nearly anything to immigrate here?"
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