For me, today is the anniversary of the death of ‘never again’. Twenty-three years ago, approximately 320 miles due south of Auschwitz, the cosmopolitan city of Vukovar fell after a prolonged siege. Hundreds of people (mostly civilians) were taken aside and slaughtered, others were transported to concentration camps where they were tortured for months on end, and tens of thousands were ‘ethnically cleansed’ under the eyes of international observers and journalists. It was just the beginning. By the end of 1992, we were left in no doubt of the existence of concentration camps in Europe. Pictures of what was supposed to happen ‘never again’ were on the front pages of the newspapers and flashing up on our television screens. In 1995, the massacre in the UN ‘safe haven’ of Srebrenica confirmed our moral complicity in the slaughter.
Not quite a quarter of a century later, we are watching another genocide, this time in the Middle East, and the international community seems to have even less resolve (if that’s possible). As President Obama and his cohorts dither, the slaughter continues, mostly unabated. No one can agree who the bad guys are, even though they aren’t shy about their desire to annihilate us, and meanwhile the good guys – innocent civilians – continue to be persecuted and ‘put to the sword’.
I mention these things not as a comparison but as a reminder of how much is at stake when we say the words ‘in memoriam’, or ‘lest we forget’, or ‘never again’.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago when, at the end of a series of university lectures on ethics, Peter Singer asked me and my fellow students to raise our hands if we found moral relativism convincing. Only a small number did so. We felt that relativism didn’t have much of a future, that after the horrors of the Holocaust and Communism (which had recently collapsed) few would adopt the absurd idea that truth is relative. How things have changed.
Of course, the influence of relativism isn’t so blatant as to provoke universal shock and outrage. There is no shortage of people agreeing that the Holocaust was evil, for example. But the Holocaust wasn’t wrong because we agree it was wrong. We shouldn’t need to agree that the slaughter of the Vukovar Hospital patients was wrong. Our abhorrence of past horrors demonstrates again and again that we believe in moral absolutes. If truth is relative, then what we see as the murder of those hospital patients is something else, something less reprehensible, even something justifiable. If truth has to be interpreted, then it is at the mercy of mob rule (also know as democracy). Now, like most people, I generally support democracy; but, when the majority decide that an entire nation or ethnic group doesn’t have the right to exist and may be annihilated, democracy is wrong. This is what we need to understand, that unless truth is absolute the ‘rules’ of right and wrong have no weight whatsoever.
This problem isn’t limited to radicals who pervert the truth for their own ends. When our collective memory forgets crimes of our not-so-distant past we become complacent. When we’d rather not remember those grim events and choose to gloss over them or just pay lip-service, we open the door to moral decline. That’s why it does matter when a head of state or other political leader fails to publicly remember the fallen. That’s why it is important that veterans and their dead brothers in arms are publicly recognised by our leaders, again and again, year after year.
When our leaders put remembrance services on the back burner, we end up with a situation where Iran can be considered as an ally, a terrorist organisation like Hamas can be recognised as the government of a ‘state’, victims of terrorism can be blamed for provoking their attackers, and liberating one’s country can be seen as an act of aggression and called a ‘war crime’.
Remembering the past forces us to make judgements about right and wrong, to uphold the truth without compromise. You can’t remember the Holocaust and remain neutral. There is no place for ‘buts’ when remembering the millions of men, women, and children who were murdered. All we can do is pray and resolve ‘never again’.
You can’t remember the fall of Vukovar twenty-three years ago and not take sides. So today I don’t just remember those who fell and those who remain trapped by the memories of war and suffering. I also remember the folly of forgetting, what happens when we resort to disinterest and appeasement, because ‘never again’ is the voice of conscience. We must never allow it to be silenced. We must, as Churchill put it, “take our stand for freedom”. It is time for recovery and the rebirth of our resolve that such abominations will happen ‘never again’.
…we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road; they should know that we have passed an awful milestone in our history, when the whole equilibrium of Europe has been deranged, and that the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies:
“Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
(Winston Churchill, 5th October 1938, House of Commons)