“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”
Last week while reading through the latest reports of Russia’s continuing atrocities against Ukraine, I found myself suddenly bursting with indignation, yelling at my laptop as if I were 10 years old and made aware for the first time that the world can be a horrible place in which horrible things happen to undeserving people.
Many nations of the world are ‘doing something.’ Many things, actually, costing many dollars. But a powerful and potentially world-altering question lurks under those commitments: Is it enough?
Muttering obscenities about Vladimir Putin, indulging the thought that I would happily strangle him with my bare hands had I the opportunity, I was struck yet again by how incredulous it is that one nation (one man, actually) can simply decide to eliminate another nation, kill a good portion of its population and destroy many of its cities in an effort to wipe out its government, its identity, its entire way of life, taking it into its own country as if the once independent country had never existed.
“It’s friggin’ 2022!” I shouted to no one, taken aback by my vehemence. “How can this be?”
That second question, I’m pretty sure, was only partly directed to the heavens.
Spring is flat out blooming in Durham, the iris running riot, roses not far behind, and with them, the marauding weeds, driving me to my knees in stout but tiresome defense. Armed with a screwdriver and the thumb-forefinger combo of the “pincer grasp” that is referenced in a very different venue by military tacticians, I root the enemy out from its dug-in positions where their troops mass and proliferate with every intention of overwhelming me and demanding surrender.
The jokiness of military imagery combined with the aesthetic of a relatively weed-free garden usually works to get me through weed-pulling season (which seems to last all year these days, but whatever…) with enough lightness of heart to warrant the back and neck discomfort it always entails.
But military imagery is on a different footing in this season of horrible war, and one must tread lightly through its minefields, both real and metaphoric.
Not only that, but the very act of weeding itself, requiring intense focus and flexion of small muscles to dislodge a nascent plant that is often no bigger than a ladybug, activates the absurdist part of pretty much anyone with a semblance of self-reflection, I suspect. Our sardonic inner critic ascends the stage, dripping with disdain and casting doubt on our very reason for being: “Really, you’re spending hours separating tiny plants from other plants while people are dodging bombs, enduring gang rape, and watching their country get reduced to rubble in Ukraine?”
In his 1958 memoir, “Night,” writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel chronicled a harrowing year imprisoned with his father in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps run by Nazi Germany during World War II. He was 15 when he, his parents and three sisters were forced from their middle class home in what was then Hungary, corralled into a Jewish ghetto and soon sent to Auschwitz, where his mother and one sister were quickly exterminated and Wiesel managed to land in a prison work detail with his father.
Among the horrors the religiously observant Wiesel witnessed were regular hangings of inmates after some disturbance or sabotage in the camp prompted Germans to retaliate with wanton cruelty. One day, among three hanging victims assembled in front of the entire camp was a young, angel-faced boy.
When German soldiers kicked the three chairs out from under the victims, the adults quickly expired, but the boy was too light to sufficiently strain the rope. Wiesel wrote:
“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard (a) man asking:
‘Where is God now?’
“And I heard a voice within me answer him:
Where is He? Here he is—He is hanging here on these gallows…”
Wiesel spent the rest of his long life (he died in 2016, after writing some 40 more books) grappling with the awful implications of evil in a world that his God of the Hebrew Bible had proclaimed on each of his seven-day labor of creation as “good.”
He remained a devout Jew through the course of his life, but the question of “Where is God?” in the face of unspeakable evil never stopped haunting him.
Speaking at the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in April, 1995, he said as much:
“…For me, a man who grew up in a religion, the Jewish religion, a man who his entire life thought that God is everywhere, how is it that man’s silence was matched by God’s? Oh, I don’t believe there are answers. There are no answers. And this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark. If there is a response, it is a response in responsibility.”
That sense of responsibility never stopped spurring Wiesel to action as a tireless peace activist, a kind of conscience of the world and keeper of its soul. At that same museum observance, he lauded then-President Clinton and America’s commitment to memorialize the holocaust, but then turned to him and implored:
“Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been to the former Yugoslavia. Last fall. I cannot sleep since; what have I seen! We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything, must be done.”
He was referring to the Bosnian War that pitted Bosnia and its ally Croatia against Serbia in an extraordinarily brutal conflict that included ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate attacks on cities and civilian populations, and systematic rape as a weapon of war.
If that all sounds familiar…
In a video speech to the United Nations earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured above) made a characteristically impassioned appeal to the U.N. Security Council, alternately begging and challenging the world’s supposed peacekeeping body to get after the business of its charter post-haste.
The speech began with a grisly litany of war crime atrocities his people had been subjected to by the Russian invaders, which would have surely raised painful memories for Elie Wiesel and compelled him, were he still alive, to rise to his feet and implore the Security Council: “We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country!”
It is inarguable that many nations of the world are “doing something.” Many things, actually, costing many dollars. But a powerful and potentially world-altering question lurks under those commitments: Is it enough?
And if it isn’t, and Ukraine falls, and Vladimir Putin succeeds, even at great cost, in claiming ownership of it and proving to the world he could get away with the outright seizure of another sovereign nation at his whim, what then? What next?
“So where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee? There is no security. Although there is a Security Council, (it is) as if nothing happened. So where is the peace that the United Nations was created to guarantee? It is obvious that the key institution of the world, which must ensure the coercion of any aggressors to peace, simply cannot work effectively…Ladies and Gentlemen! I would like to remind you of the first article of the first chapter of the UN Charter. What is the purpose of our organization? To maintain peace. And to force to peace. Now the UN Charter is being violated literally from the first article. And if so, what is the point of all other articles?
A little further on:
“We are dealing with a state that turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill. Which undermines the whole architecture of global security. Which allows evil to go unpunished and spread the world. Destroying everything that can work for peace and security. If this continues, the finale will be that each state will rely only on the power of arms to ensure its security, not on international law, not on international institutions. Then, the UN can simply be dissolved. Ladies and Gentlemen!”
Ladies and gentlemen, indeed. What a less polite Zelensky would have been saying is: “Get off your duffs, people! Quit hemming and hawing! Are you serious about repelling Russian aggression or aren’t you?”
So: what does that mean? Behind the prospect of direct UN or America & allies intervention with troops lies the specter of the situation spiraling rapidly out of control and prompting a nuclear war.
Yet America and many allies have been deeply involved all along in supplying Ukraine with weapons and economic aid, and Putin has already made noises that such assistance skirts with being excessive in his eyes. (This is what happens when a bully is allowed to set the terms of engagement from the get-go, with Biden taking pains to state the U.S. would not be committing troops after Putin had launched a verbal howitzer suggesting he was just crazed enough to lob a nuke our way if we did.)
Do we take that possibility with such seriousness that we will continue to tip-toe around Putin and commit less than we are capable of to save Ukraine, and, by extension, multiple other Eastern European nations within Russia’s shadow? And that is not even to mention an attentively watching China with designs on Taiwan, and North Korea casting a longing eye toward its southern counterpart.
Or do we, short of sending in American troops, double and triple our assistance and do the same with the speed of our delivery, treating the saving of Ukraine as the paramount issue of our time?
That option is where I have landed. It is too crucial to the welfare of the entire free world to do any less, and whatever risk such stepped-up support entails, it is ultimately less than the risk of evil winning this day.
In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel warned the world for what surely felt to him like the 10,000th time:
“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe…As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”
There’s little doubt that Volodymyr Zelensky and Elie Wiesel would be fast friends and spiritual-political comrades were the latter alive today. They make a formidable pair as the conscience of our time, urgent voices with warnings the entire free world would do well to heed.
Meanwhile, spring remains in Durham and all the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, affording us its sunshine, its breezes, its days at ocean and river and lake. And time on our knees, tending to weeds (if we so choose).
In an Oprah Magazine interview in 2000, Wiesel was asked, “What does it take to be normal again, after having your humanity stripped away by the Nazis?”
“What is abnormal is that I am normal,” he replied. “That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life—that is what is abnormal.”
That feat—of reclaiming all that is life, of daring again to live in hope and being willing to fight ferociously against tyranny to maintain hope within oneself and help others do the same—seems worthy of a toast on this day and every day of this beleaguered, beautiful, maddening and mystifying world.
It’s the perfect rejoinder and warning to the oppressors who—let us never forget—will forever threaten the free world.
Full the full text of the most recent 2006 translation of “Night” by the author’s wife Marion, with an expansive introduction by the author, see: https://tinyurl.com/2p95t7pp
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Tear-stained statue by Mait Jüriado, Talinn, Estonia https://www.flickr.com/photos/mait/
Auschwitz shoes from historical archives https://discovercracow.com/auschwitz-photos/
Iris flower and stone mandala by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Wiesel by World Economic Forum https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/
Zelensky by Just Clicks With a Camera https://www.flickr.com/photos/153352659@N03/