“When the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage;"
~ Shakespeare, “Henry V”
I want to begin with a personal story. My father called me last year on a sunny, bucolic spring morning. He had a tear-strained croak in his voice. “Today is the 8th of May” he said. “This was the happiest and saddest day of my life.” He did not have to go into a long explanation. His sentiments were shared by many of his generation with whom I grew up.
On that day, almost sixty years ago, millions of survivors of the charnel house of Europe saw the Nazi beast brought to heel….and discovered the depth of destruction and devastation of everything they held dear. Still in uniform, my father made his way to his hometown and came face to face with a shattered world. Physical ruin, unmarked graves and foreigners occupying the homes of friends and family and claiming they had lived there for decades.
How does one get over seeing strangers at your mother’s table with her crisp, white linen laid out before them? The sense of violation had all the intensity of rape. The feeling of despair, all the futility of a silent cry. The searing pain in one’s heart, the weight of the rock toppling Sisyphus from the mountaintop once again. Words fail. Human vocabulary approaches the realm of impotent expression. The heavens themselves seem to challenge us to rage.
That moment in time was the confirmation of an era in which we still live. An era characterized by the failure of faith, the retreat of reason and the humiliation of hope. An era where all the civilized doctrines man swore allegiance to through millennia of struggle crawling out of the jungles of barbarism were betrayed. An era that, with rare exceptions, has been permeated with the odious odours of justice compromised by timidity, honour cheapened through expediency and promise mortgaged to avarice.
It has always been a source of awe to me that my father, and his contemporaries, not only survived, but re-engaged in this world. They are true unsung heroes of our time. For coming out of that preview of hell, after the tears, after the mourning, came the numbing questions. Why should I live? What can I believe? Whom can I trust?
For what was rent asunder in those years were not just the sinews of our flesh, but the very fabrics of our souls. The depraved indulgence in an obscene orgy of blood by one of the most civilized nations on earth put the lie to man’s claim of moral progress. All the old hallmarks of decency were now washed away in a gritty swirl of red. All the old rules thrown to the waste bin of history.
The mind reeled. It did happen here! At this time. In this place. To all people. It could happen anywhere. And it has… time and time again. For the litmus test of mankind’s civility is not how we treat those who are many, or agreeable, or quiescent. But how we treat those who are few, and different and stubborn. The world is still failing that test.
And the failures of man that we witness in our day are rarely the result of spontaneous outbursts of violent passions. As in Wallenberg’s crucible, the evil that men do is planned with precision and executed with penetrating premeditation. The stake that would pierce the heart of man’s struggle to realize age-old transcendent yearnings for redemptive change was sharpened in council rooms apart at Evian and Wannsee, before being rammed home with merciless ferocity and fury at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
I have often thought that if I had lived through that era, and survived, I would have just crawled into a hole and never come out. For in the dead of night when the thin, humid rivulets of fear crawl over us like vermin, the age-old questions still torment. Where was God? Where was man? And most importantly, in Martin Buber’s term, what is the “way of response” to this world?
Raoul Wallenberg knew the way of response. Instinctively and viscerally. His suffering service is the answer to the many today who never ask and do not care. More importantly, it is the example to those who do. In this world of ungracious modernity and suffocating self-absorption filled with false pieties as excuses for inaction, it is vital that his memory and witness be proclaimed harshly and relentlessly not genteelly and obtrusively. For Raoul Wallenberg dared to care.
To care because he shared a common humanity. To care because he was repulsed by hypocrisy and mendacity masquerading as diplomacy and objectivity. To care in order to beat back the malignancies of hate, jealousy and greed. To care in order to satisfy a compulsion to relieve the suffering of human beings. A compulsion as visceral to existence as the air we breathe and the food we need.
The “enlightened” moral relativism of the post-War years that has practiced frightful self-hatred, has been proven bankrupt and foolish. It ignored the reality that exists in the nature of things that without the compass of compassionate conscience and the courage of character to protect right from wrong, one cannot hope to advance the dream of universal humanism. Jacques Maritan’s “…personalité humaine…” just gets bogged down in frivolous philosophical notions that become nothing more than promotions of parochial self-interest. As Thomas Masaryk pointed out, this peculiar species of 20th century man was to be forever haunted by “…suicide, rebellion and death…”
And in the latter part of the 20th century we have been haunted. Haunted by the bloated bodies floating in the Yangtze of Mao’s China. Haunted by the corpses frozen in the wastes of Stalin’s Gulag. Haunted by the betrayal of the free people of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Haunted by the killing fields of Cambodia. Haunted by the bodies rotting in the jungles of Rwanda and in the fetid marshes in the Balkans.
We have failed spectacularly and often. We failed because we would not act on what we learned in that horrible era. We failed because we thought by feeding the crocodiles they would eat us last. We failed because we paid no heed to history and forgot Mazzini’s warning to Savoy that “Si voi non fatte, altro farrano; et contro voi et sensza voi. If you don’t act, others will, and without you and against you.”
The primordial lesson of the twentieth century was not that independent pre-emptive response against evil would unleash anarchic bloodbaths--to the contrary-- failure to respond, and worse, attempts to appease--would allow time for barbarous dictators to arm themselves to the teeth and embroil the world in whirlwinds of devastation heretofore unimaginable. The road to Auschwitz began in Munich.
As we face today’s dire challenges we realize we need an army of Wallenbergs. People ready to assume individual responsibility. Each drawing strength from the sure knowledge that one man can make a difference. That though we may be a society of laws and not of men, when bad men make bad laws and when unprincipled officials compromise good ones, we must follow Gandhi’s counsel and act quickly to arrest, “…the evil that staggers drunkenly from wrong to wrong in order to preserve its own immortality…”
For today, as before, the consequence of our failure will be dire. Dire to the devastated of Darfur which many governments including, sadly, our own, refuse to call genocide even after our demonstrations and petitions. Dire to the millions dying of AIDS in Africa equal to the Tsunami deaths every week. Dire to the enslaved millions living under oppressive regimes providing cheap labor for Faustian alliances between state and industrial interests.
We can make a difference. As Emerson wrote, “One man-resolute-abiding by truth-rallies a majority.”
Many of you may not know but thirty years ago Montreal led the world in fighting for the freedom of Soviet dissidents. We formed the first committees for Soviet Jewry. Many of us still wear the bracelets of the prisoners of conscience we worked to free. And several years after our start two brave men stood up in the Congress of the United States and spoke truth to power. When Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik passed their Jackson-Vanik Amendment that tied Soviet trade credits to freedom, it was the beginning of the end for that tyranny. Before the Helsinki Final Act and before President Reagan there was the power of one. The power of tenacious commitment to justice that we commemorate here today.
What are the lessons for Canada? Laurier once said that Canada answers to a higher destiny. That destiny, and our national identity, was not forged from the compromises of public trust bred behind the closed doors of Parliamentary committees and corporate boardrooms. Nor by the prejudices of social orthodoxy that dominate focus groups.
This nation, conceived in economic enterprise by European monarchs of centuries past, came to maturity in the bloody trenches of Vimy Ridge and on the cliffs of Dieppe and in the sands of Normandy and through the bitter winters of Korea and under the scorching sun of the Sinai and over the stormy seas of the Atlantic
Our progress as a people has always been predicated on a resolve to shoulder our share of the burden in the survival and success of liberty. It has always been a struggle, tempered by service and sacrifice, to assure the victory of universality over particularity. It was our proudest boast.
Yet for too long, these past few decades, we have been ambivalent and apathetic toward the insolence and inaction of authority. We are thirty-fourth in the world in peacekeeping, by any measure you wish, behind even Bangladesh. We have reduced our military capacity to laughable levels of low limitation and narrow circumstance. We leased Russian planes to transport our troops to Sri Lanka. We want to raise a new brigade but in order to fund it want to reduce the air and maritime assets to transport it. We have a problem calling evil by its proper name. We were the last country to categorize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. We waffled on Sudan because of the involvement in that savage land by a Canadian oil company.
We’ve become a nation of patsies falling for any manipulation. As we did when the Kahdr family, admitted accomplices of bin-Ladin, returned here to claim their “right” to free medical care. Or when then Finance Minister Paul Martin ignored security advice and attended a Toronto dinner put on by a front for the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka a terrorist group so vicious that, according to Stewart Bell, it has carried out some 200 suicide bombings of its own. And again when we pandered to Khaddafi, the butcher of Lockerbie, in exchange for a few oil leases and a hydro project.
We have not stood with those who believe that all people must be helped to exact their full share from the bounty of life's possibilities. We have been "salon liberals". It is time we shed our pallid affects that cower behind the false piety that the struggle for social justice stops at our borders. Our failure of resolve cannot continue without restraint of consequence.
All we hear are excuses for failed states’ right to be wrong. Allegiance to concepts such as multi-lateralism and political equivalency that put Canada, among other embarrassments, in the ludicrous position of voting with Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970’s. Wallenberg would have cringed at these hyphenated appellations. He would never have worshipped at the altars of these Gods that failed.
To those who would point to the overwhelming response to the victims of the Tsunami disaster as evidence of positive change, I would urge caution in their enthusiam.
G.K. Chesterton once observed that “Charity, when manifested only as a defense against the incomprehensible, provides nothing more than a form of absolution without confession.” As commendable as the current outpouring of sympathy for the Tsunami victims may be, it reeks of a race to absolution. Absolution for the sins of silence we have committed. The silence of voices always mute when faced with the evils that men do rather than the harm that nature inflicts.
Wrapping ourselves in cloaks of charity will not absolve us of our complicity in impotent acquiescence to the daily torrent of state-sponsored deceptions and institutional betrayals. It’s too easy. And it’s too transparent.
Too many of us empathize with the victims of human fate, but not enough with the victims of human hate. We react only when it costs us nothing in terms of confronting governments, organizations and corporations. When there is no threat to our personal “bottom lines”.
We retreat from reason in the face of the onslaught of media Tsunamis. Whatever images and opinions flood us from television and magazines we readily accept as reality. Whatever sound bites we are fed by politicians we digest as quickly as any fast food. It is nothing less than a failure of faith in the possibilities of our own capacities and a betrayal of the conscience of our character.
Just several years Canada helped sponsor the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). That Commission recommended the enforcement of a new doctrine in the international order. What it called the “responsibility to protect”. Wallenberg would have liked that phrase. He lived it.
Canada endorsed it. Two Prime Ministers embraced it. Yet we have yet to act on it. The reason is that despite ample and obvious opportunities it’s too tough. It involves more than just mouthing platitudes, holding multicultural love-ins and writing cheques. It means assuming our own share of a burden we are urging on others. And that just does not seem to be the “Canadian Way” anymore.
We never miss an opportunity to tell the world how caring and wonderful we are. In reality all we have done is build up what Churchill called a “…bodyguard of lies…” to protect our self-satisfied complacency. We like to think of ourselves as global humanitarians. Always claiming convincing moral authority yet never acting with authentic moral legitimacy. The reason we can’t recognize our own lethargic apathy is that we’re sitting on it.
It’s time we walked the walk and not just talked the talk. It’s time to put some steel into our sentiment and confront the failures of man as passionately as we react to the frights of nature.
Ici au Québec nous comprenons peut-être mieux que personne. Nous avons une patrimoine politique progressiste et humaniste nonpareil.
C’est ici que Louis-Joseph Papineau réussit dans les luttes politiques et militaires pour une plus grande liberté pour tous, qui ont permis l’émancipation totale des citoyens juifs dès 1832, vingt-cinq ans plus tôt qu’en Grande-Bretagne. C’est au Québec que Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine a réussi de haute lutte à lancer une première expérience de gouvernement responsable. C’est cette culture qui a inspiré à Sir Wilfrid Laurier une vision mondialiste inclusive du 20e siècle.
C’est ici que des leaders syndicaux québécois, appuyés par des syndicalistes d’origine italienne et juive, ont créé à travers les années 30, 40 et 50 un jurisdiction politique qui peut se vanter d’avoir le plus important pourcentage de travailleurs syndiqués de l’Occident. Le Québec est le creuset qui a formé des héros de la trempe de Jean Marchand et Pierre Elliot-Trudeau, ceux-là même qui ont renversé le pouvoir d’une droite revancharde et d’un clergé rétrograde.
Notre mémoire et notre vécu collectifs nous rappellent toutefois que la liberté est fragile et requiert une constante vigilance. Une vigilance qui, dans un monde de communication et de destruction instantanées, doit nous inciter à serrer les rangs autour de ceux qui, dans le monde entier, repoussent le crépuscule de la terreur. Les nations libres sont des îlots épars dans une turbulente mer de tyrannie et le combat de l’une est le combat de toutes. Elle est un défi constant à notre force de caractère et au courage de nos convictions.
Those who choose the path of inaction and lethargic smugness will one day have to make peace with their own consciences for lulling so many into the crippling complacency caused by a fear of the future, a mistrust of the present and the invocation of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed. Wallenberg understood this. As perilous as his course was he knew that all felt shrouded in the dark mists of despair. All were staring into a bottomless abyss hoping for courage. And if we were to have any chance at redemption, even through the horror, we needed to heed the lesson of Aeschylus that though our pain will “…fall drop by drop upon the heart until through the awful grace of God we attain wisdom…” that wisdom had to be translated into action.
He understood that the courage to begin redemptive change was to be drawn from the well of redemptive rage. That in this world a conscious conscience must be in a constant state of rage. The imperative, if need be, to live in what Camus called permanent rebellion against God and Man. And it was because of that rage that they would live.
Wallenberg’s testament, and that of the survivors, is a living one to this day. A testament to a vision of a world pledged to a commonweal of co-operation that rejects the doctrines of divine rights to exploitation. A world true to an enlightened self-interest of compassion not to the indulgence of self-aggrandizing contempt. A world where when there are wrongs we try to right them; when there is suffering we try to heal it and when there is injustice we try to stop it.
Not for any notions of an idealized humanity or personal saintliness. Those lay buried in the ashes of Europe. But for the very pragmatic relief of human beings. To try and turn this vale of tears of a world into a valley of tenderness. It was simply a saner way to live. That was to be mankind’s second chance.
Each of us in every generation can have that second chance. But in the words of Malraux we must become “…les gens engagés…” It won’t happen without us. As Edmund Burke warned, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Wallenberg understood that justice is not in heaven nor beyond the sea but in our hearts to dream and in our hands to forge. We can all become Prometheus Unbound and sail out of our snug harbours to attack the raging tides of evil that assault us today.
For today’s barbarism rises from the same depths as Wallenberg witnessed sixty years ago. A brutality driven by ancient dogmas wrapped in new cloaks of the old tyrannies inspiring the same bloodlust. It uses death to paralyze the free to obsequious obediance to an agenda of hate. As we face these modern horrors we become acutely aware that the past may become prologue and all of mankind’s fleeting encounters with reason and progress may be forlorn once again.
In this modern age of instant communication, and instant destruction, what affects one affects all. The reality is that we are truly a family of man. We are all mortal. We all cherish our future. And pain caused to the least amongst us diminishes us all.
And even while remembering the fragility of humanity, the distortions of power, and the failed enthusiasms of any given moment, we need to “…rage against the dying of the light and not go gently into that good night…” And for all the pain, reject any acknowledgement of surrender; refuse to wallow in pity; repel the demands of fey and feckless political leaders who would have us acquiesce in our own self-abnegation and never cede victory to those of shriveled spirit and hostile heart.
This is what we owe all the Wallenbergs. This is the least we owe to the spirit of January 17th and May 8th, 1945. For Wallenberg is not dead. None of them are. They live on in the words of the anti-Hitler student resistance song “Die Gedanken Sind Frei- My Thoughts Freely Flower”: “Und sperrt man mich ein in finsteren Kerker, das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke; denn meine Gedanken zerreissen die Schranken und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei. And if tyrants take me and throw me in prison, My thoughts will burst free like blossoms in season. Foundations will crumble, structures will tumble, And free men will cry: Die Gedanken sind frei!”
It is time for Canadians to act in the righteous anger of those words and in the example of Raoul Wallenberg’s life. Our nation’s pride and purpose was never compromised or cudgelled by mountains of munitions and it should never be paralyzed or prejudiced by weakness of will.
Paul Valery once wrote that ‘La liberté est l'épreuve la plus dure que nous pouvons infliger sur un gens. Savoir comment être libre n'est pas donné à tous les hommes et toutes les nations également.’ Freedom is always conditional. Conditional on eternal vigilance. Conditional on our fidelity to the ideal that the sovereignty of the individual shall always hold supremacy over the corporate and collective demands of the state. If we breach this condition, servitude will be both the consequence of our crime and the punishment of our guilt.
Those societies that entrenched, as “foundational principles”, respect for the sanctity of the individual, ipso facto protected the rights of collectivities. The reverse has never been true. One group’s “collective rights” is another’s “right to kill”.
As Pierre-Elliot Trudeau said so often “It is no small matter to know whether we are going to live in a society in which individual rights take precedence over collective rights. For when the collective takes precedence over the individual, we cannot claim to be truly free.” The worth of a single individual burned brightly in Wallenberg’s heart. He was not one of those whom George Bernard Shaw derided when he wrote “Many men despise liberty because it demands responsibility.” Wallenberg embraced responsibility. Would that the nations of his time had felt the same.
If we do not keep faith with this memory and this witness; if we ever forget the imperative of redemptive rage; if we stop daring to care, then we will have betrayed the hope of the Partisans that “Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho- Upon us yet will dawn the day we hold so dear”. And when the false prophets cry “Peace! Peace!” there will be none left, as Pastor Martin Niemoller learned, to shout back “There is no peace!” And then we will have nothing more than the poignant plea of Chaim Nachman Bialik, “…bakshi rahamim allai…heaven have mercy on us…” to comfort us with our own redemption.