Saturday, June 27, 2020

Taking the Extremists Seriously

Back in 1975, I was a new student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I wandered through the library, enthralled by the huge number of books. Guided by my interest in Japan, I ended up in the World War Two history section. I found a book by Otto D. Tolischus, Through Japanese Eyes. Written during the war, the book used the words of the leaders of the Japanese Empire to show that they were every bit as bad as the Nazis and deserved no better treatment from us after their inevitable defeat.

But I also found a book entitled, Are Germans Human? I am quite sure I saw this book, though I can find no online record of it. The author answered his own question: “Are Germans human? Probably not.” His reasoning was that Nazi leaders could spend the day committing mass killings, then go home at night and speak lovingly to their caged birds. Could a single human contain such different feelings at the same time?

The frightening thing is that, yes, people can be good at one time and bad another. Germans today are very peaceful and polite, and even during Nazi times most Germans were not true, converted Nazis. But enough of them were that they produced the greatest evil in history. Moreover, the same individual human being can be loving at one moment and bloodthirsty the next.

The brief conclusion I want to draw, following on the last two entries, is that we should not assume that extreme right-wing people are, despite what they say, actually very nice people and could not possibly rise up and damage or destroy society. Paul Harvey would not have been violent, nor would James Miller. But today, thousands of right-wingers openly display threats of violence. We see them wear camouflage, mask their faces, and bring their weapons to protests. We think they could not possibly turn their guns against the rest of us. While this may be true, we must remember that the slightest perceived insult might cause otherwise nice rednecks to take the actions that they say they are ready to take. Even if only, say, ten percent of right-wing extremists become violent, America might be so severely disrupted that it cannot survive in a hostile world.

My point is simple. We should not dismiss the extremists by saying, “Oh, they wouldn’t actually use those weapons.”

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