More mass graves are discovered in Iraqi and Syrian territory formerly held by the mass murderers known as Islamic State, and the news no longer shocks anyone. Nor does the fact that most Christians who have not yet fled the region, along with other minorities, live in constant terror of more atrocities and executions.
After the horrors of the Holocaust, we were supposed to live by the credo “Never Forget,” a phrase meant to apply both to past mass killings and to preventing similar actions in the future, whatever the body counts.
That future is now, and we are not living up to that pledge. We are not even close.
To its credit, the Associated Press has scrupulously documented the findings in Iraq and Syria so far; 72 mass graves containing an estimated 5,200 to 15,000 human remains have been mapped. Many of the victims were Yazidis, members of the ethnic Kurdish religious minority who were targeted by Islamic State for extinction or enslavement. As the AP report points out, its estimates are only for the known mass graves. Many more may yet be discovered.
Yet even this chilling story is unlikely to get much traction in a news environment dominated by the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump presidential contest, Apple’s tax problems in Ireland and an American football player’s decision not to stand for the playing of the national anthem.
Contrast today’s indifference with the shock most people felt as Allied troops liberated German concentration camps at the end of World War Two. To be sure, the numbers of victims then and now were of a completely different order of magnitude, but the fundamental brutality involved in both was eerily similar.
U.S. Army Lieutenant William J. Cowling, a member of the 42nd Infantry Division that entered Dachau and liberated the approximately 32,000 survivors in the main camp, wrote in horror to his parents about finding train cars full of corpses: “Most of them naked and all of them skin and bones. … Many of the bodies had bullet holes in the back of their heads. It made us sick to our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clench our fists. I couldn’t even talk.”
Soon the victorious Allies did much more than clench their fists. They held trials for the top Nazi leaders, and at least some of them were held responsible for the hellish conditions in the camps. It was far from a perfect scorecard: Once the Cold War started, the victors largely lost interest in pushing for justice — and countless murderers returned to civilian life without facing any consequences.
But a small dedicated band of Nazi hunters refused to forget. They laid the groundwork for more trials, which have continued right up till today. The principle of “Never Forget” may have faded, but when it comes to past horrors, it has not disappeared.
The real problem is with today’s horrors — and with our inability to focus on any of them for more than one news cycle. This is not simply a product of the Internet age. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, published in 1979, the Czech émigré writer Milan Kundera wrote about the headlines of that decade: “The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of [Salvador] Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh … and so on and so forth until everyone lets everything be forgotten.”
Kundera also mentioned the Cambodian genocide. Since then any number of places—Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur—have been added to the list of places that are synonymous with mass murder.
The contrary view is expressed by the powerful words of the Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, now inscribed on the monument in Gdansk shipyard that honors the workers who were killed by the Communist regime during the 1970 protests there:
You who wronged a simple man,
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.
Sadly, though, Kundera’s more pessimistic vision appears to be winning out. The words, the deeds and the dates all blur together, the victims all too often forgotten even after their remains are discovered — mute testimony to the world’s indifference
A former Newsweek foreign correspondent and editor, Andrew Nagorski is the author of The Nazi Hunters, which was released on May 10. The opinions expressed are his own.