TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
April 14, 1999
"Fifty-four years ago, to the day, a young Jewish boy from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains woke up in a place of eternal infamy called Buchenwald. He was finally free, but there was no joy in his heart. He thought there never would be again."
So began the remarks of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel at the Seventh Millennium Evening at the White House Monday night, "The Perils of Indifference: Lessons Learned From a Violent Century."
He went on to describe his reaction to the U.S. troops who freed him from the horrors of the concentration camp: "Liberated a day earlier by American soldiers, he remembers their rage at what they saw. And even if he lives to be a very old man, he will always be grateful to them for that rage and also for their compassion. Though he did not understand their language, their eyes told him what he needed to know: that they too would remember and bear witness."
I asked Elie Wiesel to participate in a Millennium lecture more than a year ago. I never could have imagined then that, this week, as people all over the world mark Yom Hashoah -- the day set aside to remember the Holocaust -- we would be seeing children in Kosovo crowded onto trains, separated from their homes and families, and robbed of their childhoods. How could this be happening again?
The Millennium lecture series is intended to offer us an opportunity to look back on our past and use it as a guide when imagining the future. Our previous evenings have been celebrations of American history, culture and scientific discoveries.
But in order to honor the past, we must learn from it. We must look not just at our noblest achievements but also at our greatest failings. When we choose the path of indifference, we ignore the lessons of the past.
Elie Wiesel understands the horrors that spring from indifference, and he has dedicated his life to bearing witness to them, lest they be repeated. Indifference can be tempting, he warns, even seductive. He senses our reticence and our hesitation: "It can be much easier to look away from victims, to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another's pain and despair."
But, he explains, "Indifference is always the friend of the enemy. For it benefits the aggressor, never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he feels forgotten. The political prisoners in their cells, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. Indifference, then, is not only sin but also punishment."
In 1999, it isn't enough to refuse to commit crimes against humanity. It isn't enough to look deep into our hearts and say we find them free of hatred. We have to do more. Every time we let a religious or racial slur go unchallenged, or an indignity go unanswered, we are making a choice to be indifferent. We are making a choice to ignore history -- a choice that punishes not just us but our children as well.
This is why we are in Kosovo.
If we choose indifference when we see people forced from their homes at gunpoint and loaded onto train cars, we punish not just them but ourselves. If we choose indifference when we see their identity papers confiscated, their very presence blotted from the historical record, we become the friend of the enemy.
The President knows that any military action we take cannot put an end to ancient grudges or heal freshly opened wounds overnight. But our action can make it more likely that people will resolve their differences by force of argument rather than by force of arms and, in so doing, will learn to live together.
When Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he remembered many years before asking his father how the world could have remained silent. And he imagined that same young boy asking him today, "What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?" I would tell him, Elie says, that I have tried to keep memory alive and that I have tried to fight those who would forget.
This is what Elie Wiesel has done. He has taught us never to forget. He has made us listen to the victims of hatred and evil. He has helped us understand the perils of indifference.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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April 29, 1997