At Large

The Cost of Hollow Words

President Bush's historic aside and Yad Vashem.

By 1.21.08

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President Bush's recently completed sojourn in the Middle East was of the variety that tends to leave the viewer speechless...or at least, wordless. His continued embrace of the failed Road Map approach to solving the Palestinian problem draws a shrug. His notion that there is some point in negotiating with Mohammed Abbas, who only controls half of the autonomous Palestinian territory, gets a wince. His declaration that he anticipates a final deal before the end of his term prompts a roll of the eyes. His use of the word "occupation" to describe Israel's holding the West Bank, won in a defensive war, evokes a grimace. His truckling to Saudi Arabia to plead for lower oil prices elicits a scowl. What is there to say?

Yet there were a few words uttered on that trip -- a scant few words, a masterpiece of laconic understatement, a Coolidgean exercise in pungent brevity, words uttered by the President himself -- that rendered this sojourn memorable, even historic. Standing at the Yad Vashem museum of the Holocaust on the outskirts of Jerusalem, looking at aerial photographs of the Auschwitz crematoria taken by U.S. Air Force pilots in 1944, Bush turned to Condoleezza Rice and said: "We should have bombed it."

This admission was immediately paired up with a similar assessment offered by George McGovern in an interview not long ago. McGovern was one of those American pilots who flew over Auschwitz to bomb oil rigs five miles away. He told his questioner: "God forgive us this tragic miscalculation." So this awareness is now bipartisan, an important adjective to append to historical verities in today's culture.

Learning truth is always of value, even when it is a mere abstract scanned through the prism of hindsight. More valuable still is when lessons can be gleaned to affect real-life, real-world, real-time decisions. Is there something to be learned from our excessive reticence in times past?

The official reasons for not bombing the crematoria were shifting and flimsy at best. Too many resources to expend for targets without strategic importance. The real reason, deep down, was that saving Jews made for bureaucratic annoyance. If they get out of there they have to come here, which means all kinds of paperwork, more headaches for every branch of government. Other countries despised Jews, but our entrenched paper-pushers looked at them as bums who called for too much bumf. How many people have given their lives in history because one guy wanted their blood and the other guy didn't want their boots tracking mud on his carpet? On one side the banality of evil, on the other side the evil of banality.

The more obvious message for our own times is that apathy is as much the enemy as antipathy. The various excuses for inaction buy the time the bad actors need to wreak their destruction. The price of conscience, no less than liberty, is eternal vigilance. The innocent need protection, and the "protector of Israel cannot nap, cannot slumber." The genocide in Rwanda happened while Bill Clinton dithered, and by the time he decided he should have done something about it, it was over. He actually managed to look like a nice guy by apologizing for standing by, but that was scant comfort for the slain, piled in faceless heaps.

There is a subtler message here as well, one that is being overlooked by President Bush and today's bureaucrats. Those nations whose leaders and citizens are audacious enough to announce their intent to destroy another people should be taken at their word. At this very moment, the same Palestinians who are being championed by the President's team as viable negotiation partners are officially pledged to the elimination of the state of Israel from the map. The Iranians, just a bit further up the road, are even louder in promising to bring about that end.

If the blundering, purblind policy of pretending the Palestinians are a civilized entity potentially amenable to a two-state solution eventually leads to the annihilation of Israel, the new Genocide Museum will be set up in Washington D.C. alongside the Holocaust Museum. A beautiful scale model of the state, prior to its decimation, will stand facing the entranceway. On Genocide Memorial Day of 2058, President George Bush IV may well stand right there, flanked by his advisors, looking at the aerial reconnaissance photographs of the Iranian nuclear facilities, taken by our satellites checking on the oil fields.

"We should have bombed it."

This was a meaningful, poignant statement by an American President. Let us pray that it never be echoed by a successor retrospectively examining some atrocity we enabled by our apathy.

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator. He also writes for Human Events.

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Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.