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What Will You Say Then?

ve8QAd   |   April 01, 2006

One afternoon I took a trip to a suburb of Munich. I was struck by what a pretty town it was: quiet streets with an abundance of trees and rosebushes, well-kept homes, lawns and gardens carefully tended by their owners. After a three-quarter mile stroll I turned a corner onto a large area where one might expect to find a community college, but there is the Dachau Concentration Camp.

There is no need for me to describe the camp in detail; we all know the shudder that comes over us at the photographs of the barbed-wire, the guard towers, the abnormally large eyes of the inmates, and of course those sinister but functional brick buildings at the “business end” of the installation. After two hours, I walked back from the camp shuddering at what I had just seen. Before I had been to Dachau, I imagined that every concentration camp (and the rest of the Nazi machinery for dealing with the “Jewish Question”) was located out of sight of the citizenry, way off in frozen, desolate, remote areas of unused farmland. The uniquely disturbing aspect of Dachau, one which still gives me occasional nightmares, is the fact that it was so obviously, so undeniably there in the middle of a perfectly ordinary suburb. As I passed the 60- and 70-year-old Dachau townsfolk quietly weeding and pruning in their back yards, I had an urge to hoist them up by the straps of their overalls and shout: “Why didn’’t you see? Why didn’’t you do something?”

Most of the townsfolk were not spectacularly wicked human beings, yet the crimes within the camp took place not only because a few people perpetrated evil, but because the majority tolerated it. And the tragically bitter irony is that the security and orderliness of small town life — the very thing which might have made it the last place to locate a concentration camp —helped rather than hindered this toleration of evil. Disruption, not wickedness, is the threat which is chiefly intolerable to peaceful community life, and it was precisely this normality, the “banality” of this evil, which made it tolerable to the housewives and upright businessmen of Dachau. The camp did have a horrible purpose; and most good citizens would have wished it away, yet the fact is that no fire and brimstone rained down from heaven. The sun rose and set as usual, young people got married, old folks died, babies were born, children sent to school; and for these law-abiding citizens, the business of ordinary life seemed much more insistent and demanding than any crime. One murder is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.

I want to suggest that the experience of Dachau teaches us that the single biggest obstacle we face is the normality of the abortion industry, its success in becoming an accepted part of our lives. One abortion is a tragedy; a million-and-a-half is another statistic. Unpleasant, yes, but part of the everyday business all the same.

It’s worthy of reflection that, for every college student in America today, a local abortion clinic has been a constant from the time of his first memories, as much a part of city real estate as a branch bank or a 7-11.

What clue does an 18-year-old have that something is radically wrong here? For example, because the very mention of the words “concentration camp” makes our flesh crawl, I think we forget that this expression was once a euphemism — a minor masterpiece of bureaucratic newspeak. The word was intended to soothe, not to terrify, originally suggesting nothing more than a relocation of displaced persons. By the same token, the language of “reproductive health center” is deliberately designed to obscure the reality; it allows us to pretend that nothing disruptive is happening inside these buildings. The language doesn’t really deceive, but it somehow gives permission to those who want to keep up the charade, to make believe that these people are in the business of healing the sick. What the young person learns from this use of language is that there are some truths which ought not to be spoken, that some lies are necessary to citizenship and propriety.

C.S. Lewis said, “”Let sleeping worms lie.”” It was, you stay off my conscience; I’’ll stay off your incinerators. Today, it’’s leave my security and normality alone; ‘I’ll leave your suction machines intact. You keep to your discreet professional buildings; I’’ll stay quiet in my living room. The one thing which neither party to the contract wants is that someone should call a spade a spade.

Forty years from now, perhaps, a young woman will keep a rather gruesome appointment with history by going to the Abortion Remembrance Museum in your city. We can feel the knot in her stomach as she passes through the doorway, the same doorway through which every business day—week after week, month after month, year after year—10 to 30 human beings entered, and only 5 to 15 came out alive. We can see her shake her head with stunned disbelief.

We can imagine this young woman, after leaving the clinic (even the word “clinic” makes her shudder), going for a long, rambling hike to walk off her shock. Picture yourselves forty years from now — in advanced old age, puffing down your driveway near the “clinic” to put the trash out when this woman walks by. Imagine the look in her eye as she pauses in front of your house. Imagine the question, “what did you do?” which she desperately needs to ask you. And what answer, in all honesty, from your heart of hearts, would you give her? Would you be proud? …or not?

Adapted from an article by Rev. Paul Mankowski, S. J., July 1991

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