Impunity, Functional Equivalent of Genocide: Collapse of Social Institutions

The horrific refugee problem we see today, so reminiscent of population movements during World War II, next to the Holocaust itself in the historical annals of Crimes Against Humanity, and to which it was then related, remains in our times below the moral radar screen as though somehow inevitable, beyond solution, something that just happens. That is how jaded the world has become. Human flotsam, period; humanity, as the central organizing principle of life, stinks in the nostrils of nations preoccupied with other things to do. This is what I mean by the collapse of social institutions, with no guiding hand (where in all of this, e.g., is the UN or some suitable alternative if such were possible?) to prevent the humanitarian crater where a power vacuum reigns and the bottom has dropped out of global responsibility for the lives and dignity of people.

Events (i.e., human suffering) have already gone beyond what self-proclaimed civilization would allow, raising questions about whether or not there is a moral order shaping, defining, underpinning the international political system and its capacity for ensuring, or at least working toward, social justice and even human sustainability. Children and their mother drown, trucks sealed tight become mass graves, ordinary people, their belongings on their backs, pushing baby carriages, marching/walking along railroad tracks—from a descriptive point of view, prelude to World War III? Perhaps not. The world can contain (somewhat) volatility, but does a lousy job at removing the causes of human misery, indeed seems to require such a condition as validation of power and national sovereignty.

Why do present-day actors, starting with alliances, nations, social movements, and corporate units of the great chain of capitalistic being, finally, individuals in their asocial behavior, have and enjoy the capacity to act with impunity—no effective whistles blown, the smugglers of human traffic (impersonalization as seldom seen in recent years) serving as a microcosm of the whole. The world is out of whack, or so we leave matters at that in our collective flight from social responsibility. And still the people come, children clutching parents, no apparent mechanism for welcome, settlement, citizenship. As I describe the Middle East and Europe here, I totally forget the human drama at home, the anti-immigrant feeling if not political hysteria, talk of thousand-mile fences, etc. (Trump did not create but is riding the wave of US xenophobia and ethnocentrism, world diseases the affluent nations practice on their victims.)

Her/his name is Million: the plight of the refugee qua world historical figure revealing both the moral emptiness of global arrangements (including what defines national aspirations–from hegemony and militarism to material striving at others’ expense)—to the wretchedness of social conditions driving people from their homes and source of livelihood. In this epochal societal collapse it is not just capitalism’s doing—or if it is, socialist countries nevertheless have thus far not offered safe havens to the masses. Russia and China stand as idly by as do countries in the West. Marx was more right than he believed in perhaps his darkest moments: the human being is a commodity cheapened to the last cent. There is enough blame for this happening to pass around.

My own personal take, inflammatory or jaundiced as it may be, starts in the current social crisis with Israel as the epicenter of the Middle East, its own conduct, but also as stalking horse for ensuring American predominance of the region. Had Zionism after World War II sought to respect the rights of the indigenous population of Palestine, had it distilled the Holocaust experience of Evil as mandate for Jewish emancipation directed to the freedom of all peoples, and led by its moral example, in building a Zion open to all, solicitous of the well-being of all, founded in a transcendent brotherhood/sisterhood of love and compassion, all of which was humanly possible, I contend that none of the post-Exodus history would have happened, up to and including no conceivable basis for a Gazan travesty, let alone the rise of ISIS. Yes, blowback, although I find the term simplistic. Dignity invites reciprocal dignity. What Israel did over the decades was ethnic cleansing of thoroughgoing proportions. This sent shockwaves through the region.

But Israel alone—and yet it never acted alone, always having American military power watching its back, and steadily aided by apartheid South Africa in the development of its nuclear arsenal—cannot be held responsible for the totality of turmoil bringing us to the present. US power politics in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, extending in a still wider arc to Iraq, etc., its military bases in Saudi Arabia, its sought-after control of the Mediterranean and Southern Europe (going back to the Marshall Plan of 1947), these are not negligible factors—to which must be added the militarization of oil, its supply, its control, a tidy package of imperialism, with or without a consideration of Israel, but mostly with—in seeking out the disruptive factors in the Middle East.

From the epicenter to the prevailing circumference, the refugee fills in the historical space. A scene worthy of Torah lamentations—and that, lest I am charged with anti-Semitism—is the point: Zionism as the killer of the dream, militarism as worship of the New Golden Calf, God, to the believer, now in punishment mode, the destruction of the Second Temple redux, misbehavior on a grand scale with respect to the Palestinian people. Yes, Chosen People, but only when deserved, only when being within God’s grace, and only when respect is accorded to others. The Jewish State has violated the principles of Judaism, and, in its hubris, expects His protection, forgiveness, and deliverance. (As we approach the High Holydays, it is fitting that Isaiah knew better in this week’s Haftorah selection.) But not to get sidetracked, my two points are: the causal chain began with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and second, the utter vacuity of the (nonexistent) moral conscience of the international order. The UN has proven itself the toothless tiger, or rather pussy cat. Socialist countries could also have done better. But I reserve my scorn for the US and EU as selfish, self-satisfied nations, incapable of human feeling.

Consider the evidence in Rick Lyman’s New York Times article, “Treatment of Migrants Evokes Memories of Europe’s Darkest Hour,” Sept. 4, illustrating the European setting. (Discussion of the US, to follow, treats the longer term context.) In Budapest, a crowded train station, armed police surrounding the refugees, who are herded into trains, lied to, told they were being taken to the Austrian border, and instead a nearby detention camp that a Human Rights Watch official described as a concentration camp. Echoes of World War II, as also, in the Czech Republic, refugees were hustled off a train where police “wrote identification numbers on their hands with indelible markers, stopping only when someone pointed out that this was more than a little like the tattoos the Nazis put on concentration camp inmates.” Europe was preparing a warm greeting: “Razor-wire fences rise along national borders in Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and France. Many political leaders stoke rising nationalism by portraying the migrants as dangerous outsiders whose foreign cultures and Muslim religion could overwhelm cherished traditional ways.” (Transposed to America, the picture would be not unfamiliar.)

Robert Frolich, chief rabbi of Hungary: “’It was horrifying when I saw those images of people putting numbers on people’s arms. It reminded me of Auschwitz. And then putting people on a train with armed guards to take them to a camp where they are closed in? Of course there are echoes of the Holocaust.’” The areas involved are the very ones which saw the persecution, what observers see as astonishing historical amnesia. Lyman writes: “Europeans are facing one of the Continent’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, yet many seem blind to images that recall that blackest time in their history.” The reporter denies the genocidal aspects of the events, yet, he points out, “at the same time, the images may reveal a deeper truth about Europe and its seeming unpreparedness for a crisis so long in the making: While extolling the virtues of human rights and humanism, it remains, in many parts, a place resistant to immigration and diversity.”

Historical forgetfulness? Hypocrisy? Opportunism? Europe has Holocaust memorials in practically every city, Budapest, one of the “most revered memorials… a series of shoes perched along the Danube riverfront… refer[ring] to the World War II massacre of Jews by fascists who forced to take off their shoes and shot them, letting their bodies fall into the river.” Nonetheless, we forget, or turn away–Babar Baloch, of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stating: “’And this memorial, that you cannot walk past without pausing to contemplate, this beautiful memorial, is in the same city where many of these other things are happening now. It’s mind-boggling.’” Yes, mind-boggling, and yet the UN and the world sit on their manicured hands and do nothing. Hungary, in fact, goes one better. Friday (Sept.4) its Parliament passed legislation revising refugee laws that would “allow the creation of so-called transit zones along the Serbian border,” confining refugees to these zones, “which must be within 60 meters of the border (about 200 feet), until their cases are resolved, and those cases would have to be decided within eight days, with just three more for possible appeals.” Then, deportation if so decided. Next week a second set of laws is expected, “giving greater authority to the police and the military, including the right to enter any home to search for migrants who might be hiding there.”

I would not want to neglect America in this tragic historical narrative. As what I take to be the number one purveyor of violence in the world, the US bears some responsibility for the casual treatment of death and inurement to human suffering as manifested in this refugee crisis. Drone assassinations, war, intervention, covert action, financial manipulation, as in the banking debacle and use of derivatives (one does not need a gun or a bomb to cause human misery) breathe an atmosphere of cynicism, with silent cues of approval, suspended over our friends and allies in Europe. After all, Putin, reported today, is messing around in Syria. Refugees, in the popular mind, Europe and America, are nonproductive drones whose sole goal is to get on welfare. (A goodly number of the refugees are college educated, and if nothing else, show courage and determination beyond the ordinary. I think Angela Merkel almost alone realizes this.) But if this US complicity seems too indirect, we have the more concrete reality of America’s role of interference in the Middle East which helped release fratricidal bloodshed, regime change, switching sides to fit a short-term conception of American national self-interest.

Simply, the US global posture has no room for thinking about refugees. If the Europeans can’t handle the problem so much the better, renewing their dependence on America and stifling any criticism of US geopolitical strategy vis-à-vis Russia and China. Too, there is oil to be considered, and investment, and boycotts of putative enemies, and uncompromising defense of Israel, and the list keeps growing, all dependent to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the issue) on a weaker, compliant Europe, particularly in providing legitimating cover for what are essentially unilateral acts of power. What happens in Budapest, Prague, or Vienna, if not in iron-clad specificity to American national security interests (and the refugees are expendable in that regard) is of no consequence. Other children and their mothers may drown, miles-long processions along the main rail lines in the march to elsewhere, more reminders of World War II, where some of the practices were first tried and perfected, and with America increasingly the spitting image of Europe in attitude if not yet in practice, why should our leaders and public be involved or concerned. After all, this is Football Saturday as I write. After all, China is ripe for conquest, after Russia is put in its place. After all, don’t we have a refugee problem presently storming the gates of the Great Southwest? After all, haven’t we brought enough freedom and democracy to the world, at the sacrifice of every American? They’re all losers, we’re the winners.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at