A few years ago, the University of Utah Law Review published my article “The Bystander During the Holocaust.” This essay spoke of the millions of victims tortured, enslaved and murdered by the Nazi killing machine during World War II.
Beyond the victims, perpetrators and the selfless who risked their lives to protest, my discussion focused on the bystanders. These were the men and women who stood by, in denial, deaf to the cries and blind to the fate of the persecuted. In their passivity and obedience, the bystanders carry the moral weight of inaction. Their silence encouraged the predators and even gave them cover. They bear responsibility.
As the philosopher John Stuart Mill noted: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” I concluded, “There are no innocent bystanders.”
Such observations are not tied to time or place. History offers guidance that these ideals bind us to act in the face of injustice. They demand, as members of a community, that we come to the aid of victims and insure their rights.
This is especially true in the United States today. We pride ourselves on our constitutional form of government. We parade our rights and demand that they be respected. As we the people, this means that all members of our society must have the same protections that we expect for ourselves.
Remember our cherished freedoms. The Bill of Rights guarantees the freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” It also promises Americans “to be secure in their persons … against unreasonable searches and seizures…” This is our birthright as Americans.
Is it any wonder that patriots have now taken to the streets because they love this nation? Is it any wonder that they believe so deeply in their cause? Like the 1960s, which saw mass mobilizations in support of civil rights and against war, young men and women are marching to right wrongs and transform the American reality into the American dream. They realize that we must confront racial prejudice and discrimination without hesitation. Failure to act, they insist, threatens our core values and beliefs. This is the plea of those who believe in our country. This is the hope of those who will inherit the future.
How can we stand by, passively, in the face of the emergency that surrounds us? The rights of some are crushed, even on to death. Peaceful protesters are gassed and beaten in the exercise of their God-given rights.
How will history judge us? Did we simply turn away from the disturbing images? Did we trumpet the episodes of unrelated looting and condemn all protest? Did we take comfort in the words and actions of those who harassed demonstrators and cloaked repression in calls for law and order? Will we allow ourselves to be deceived once more?
Will we claim to be just innocent bystanders? Or, will we remember what truly makes this nation great? That is, women and men committed to protecting the weak, neglected and the abused in our community.
The young are calling us to a rededication of this “sweet land of liberty.” I believe that we have little choice. This crisis is an opportunity to heal the raw and open wounds that have never healed. Silence is not possible. Standing by is not an option.
Heed the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Robert A. Goldberg, Salt Lake City, is a professor of history at the University of Utah and formerly director of the U.'s Tanner Center for the Humanities.