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Monday, April 16, 2007

Garden of Colours

First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left
to speak up for me.

Poem originally attributed to ex-Nazi sympathiser Pastor Martin Niemöller

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel and abroad. In Israel, the entire country pauses for a siren blared mid-morning in honour of the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis during World War II.

In addition to Jews, Hitler targeted homosexuals, the Roma people and those that generally fell outside of his "aryan race" distortion. Homosexuals, for example, were forced to wear pink triangles and were sent to death camps where thousands of them perished.

Last Tuesday, Serbia's war crimes court jailed four Serb paramilitaries who were filmed as they shot dead six captured young Bosnian Muslims. The murders took place during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in July 1995. On the video, paramilitaries are heard taunting the youths about their virginity before shooting them in the back as they lay in a ditch.

It was a taunt that for some reason reminded me of the terrible smile of Lynndie England, captured forever on a photograph with Hayder Sabbar Abd, his fingers laced on top of his head, naked and hooded, his genitals pixilated for public consumption. Private Lynndie England, an American soldier, was crouched next to the Iraqi prisoner pointing at his genitals and flashing the camera the "thumbs up" sign, her mischievous smile captured forever.

So often we expect such acts from men. From women we expect compassion. But it seems that discriminatory inhumanity does not discriminate when it comes to gender. Futhermore, how soldiers may act in times of war is not for me to say. In England's case, it is possible she justified her actions as a protector of America, punishing those who in her eyes would destroy her country.

But what I keep returning to is England's smile and the taunts of the Serbian paramilitaries as they shoot down the first flush of youth that will never taste the pleasures of life.

Perhaps they were acting under orders or the influence of others; perhaps there is an amount of peer pressure. But you can't disguise the smile. She's not faking the smile. It's her smile that makes me shiver; it's the taunts of the Serbian killers that make me cringe, proof of the absolute knowledge of their actions. It overwhelms me with the evidence of the things people will do to each other, given a little bit of power.

These actions are not one of triumph over the enemy. It's nothing more than the smile of a playground bully.

And Hitler was the biggest one of them all.

From a Distance

Yet, these people are from our race, our human race; human at their core, terrifyingly inhuman in their deeds.

Most of you reading this now feel that we would do anything to distance ourselves from Lynndie England and her smile. I could never be her, and I could never do what she did, we think to ourselves.

Whether we want to believe it or not, a landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things.

The 1971 study at Stanford University created a simulated prison in the basement of one of the campus buildings, in which 24 students were assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks. Within days the "guards" had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners' heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts.

Possibly I'm fooling myself, but I could list to you all the reasons why I, in England's shoes, would not become equally corrupted. Not a thin string of circumstance wherein each human can be inhuman, though of course the potential is always there, but through the benefit of education regarding the knowledge of identity.

We need to know who we are; that we are of and from each other. Ultimately whether we come from Market Basing or Morocco, we contain in our diverse bodies the same spirit striving for communication in all its forms.

This is the greatest tool with which a sane person can hold on to morality and decency, even in times of great hardship or turmoil.

Our Identity: One Garden of Many Colours

If there is one central theme that runs through my writings it is this: communication is what we are here for. Human beings were made to communicate. In everything we do, we strive to communicate. We communicate with our external world by living through the five senses, and we communicate with our inner worlds by communication of the spirit.

Historical studies, as a social necessity, is nothing if not communication. The essential elements of reflection and analysis of a historian is to communicate with our past in order to speak to our future.

If we do not learn from our mistakes, our recent human history speaks nothing to our future as a race that can cohabit our world in peace.

To live in peace we have to change our perceptions in how we view our differences, whether it be external, cultural, racial or religious. For example, in the emails I receive, there is still a small body of well-wishers writing to me with a very narrow and stereotypical view of what my Turkishness brings to me. I get questions that want me to rely on my "Turkish mind set", I get asked if I believe in the rights of women, or if I like certain races.

My racial identity is my flavour, my taste - let me push the description further - it is the spice of me. But it is not my substance. My substance is human. And if my outlook can be changed by education and depending on where I live, then that isn't my substance either. That's just salad dressing. My ingredients are still the same.

To put it another way - the way my mother told me when I was a young child - the world is a garden with flowers of every colour. How drab the garden would be if all flowers were the same colour. We will like the smell of some, enjoy the appearance of others. Some we may want to pluck out, some we may not want in our patch of earth, but each flower is still at its core a flower that is dependent on the sun, rain and soil for sustenance. Each can die by a single movement of the hand.

And so too, can we. Our differences merely add to us, they do not distract from our humanity. So, with this knowledge, could I do what Hitler did?

Why would I fear or even need to tolerate diversity, if my whole being celebrates it as something that makes the place we live in beautiful? There is no need to tolerate something we are educated to love. Moreover, diversity and difference is not a barrier to communication, it is a prime opportunity for it; it's a chance to learn and grow.

This is what we must communicate to future generations.

Otherwise our garden will become one of no colour at all.

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