I feel privileged to take part in this important program honoring the memory of the American soldiers who liberated some barely surviving victims of the Holocaust from the satanic clutches of the Nazis and their network of labor, concentration and death camps at the end of World War II. We call attention to this dramatic example of heroism and nobility to pay homage to these soldiers and the leadership of the military who designed this project of salvation.
There are at least two reasons that it has significance in 2010. One is its historical importance as a record of honor within the context of profound dishonor. We must have a record of what this army did on orders from its leaders to save whatever remnant there was of the Jewish population and other prisoners in these camps. Call them what you will, in fact they were all, de facto, death camps, dedicated to destruction. We need such records of the past; we need to note that even in the darkest hours of an evil empire, there were those who respected human life and insisted upon saving what remained of it. So that is for the record.
The second and in my mind even more important reason is that we need lessons on the human potential for good—and we need to teach those lessons. We are in another period in history, a period that, by and large, has not paid enough attention to our responsibility for the public good—which I consider to be our most precious right that citizens of democracy can have. We have seen our own examples of brutality—some indeed perpetrated by American soldiers, and some resulting from a new approach to warfare—featuring terrorist attacks and suicide bombings—assaults that are ruthlessly indifferent to the guilt or innocence of the victims. We need to recall and revisit the moral ways to approach “the other” in our own time. And if the acts of the liberators have anything to teach us, let us learn from them.
We have not conquered xenophobia. We must. We are a nation whose strength has been diversity—whose destiny has been prescribed by the transformative impact of freedom on our lives—whose opportunities for upward mobility have abounded—at least for a number of us though hardly true of African Americans and Native Americans. We must strive to make our good fortune the standard and the guiding principle for all people in the 21st century, starting at home in this oldest and richest democracy in the world. We on this planet have never been more interdependent in history—that is both for better and for worse—we are interconnected and interactive and that is our contemporary challenge. We must take that challenge as an opportunity to respect others—to consider ourselves responsible for the public good—writ large. Just remember that we are all others to someone in some ways, but at the same time, we humans are all brothers and sisters. Whatever religious or national or ethnic designation we have, it is the human race that we all belong to—a race that has unique capacities for comprehension, creativity and compassion on the one hand, but alas, for intolerance, brutality and destruction on the other.
We still have a long way to go. We must liberate ourselves from racial, religious and ethnic prejudices. We must try to narrow the gap between haves and have nots. Let’s take the example of the liberators of the prisoners of these camps, as a call to action and be liberators of all those who are imprisoned in poverty, hunger and oppression. Let’s vow to say “never again” to all the perpetrators—across all boundaries—who kill the bodies and souls of others. And let’s do that by being citizens without borders—actively engaged in making the world a better place for all its people.