PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — When Hate Goes Unchecked

In January, I spent two weeks in Uganda, working in refugee camps, doing trauma healing. There I came face to face with the victims of a brutal civil war in South Sudan. I heard stories of rape, murder and torture committed in the name of genocidal, tribal hatred.

In April, I visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia. I saw the skulls of some of the 2 million Cambodian people who were killed during Pol Pot’s reign of terror piled high as a memorial to the senselessness and viciousness of the Khmer Rouge.

I stood by the pit where women were thrown after they were raped and had their throats slit and next to the tree that still had bits of skull, blood and hair of the babies and small children who were bashed against the tree before they were thrown into the same pit.

Children were killed because of the belief that “in order to kill the weed, you must pull it out by the roots.” The Khmer Rouge did not want to leave children alive to exact revenge on their parents, so the whole family was killed.

Just last month I was in Germany. While there I touched the ovens in Buchenwald where Jews, Romas, people with disabilities, gay men and lesbians were reduced to ashes in the Nazi quest for the perfect Aryan nation.

The refugee camps, the killing fields and the ovens mark the end of a genocide but they do not mark its beginning.

A genocide begins when words of hatred are tolerated and accepted.

It happens when speech that demeans, devalues or destroys another culture, race or religion is not challenged, allowing the speaker to believe that there is tacet approval from the one who is listening.

It happens when people laugh at jokes that objectify people and mocks their identity

Slowly, it grows in power and force, as it moves beyond speech into subtle acts of exclusion, growing with force and power when no one pushes back, standing up for what is good and decent, allowing aggressions — both of the micro and macro variety — to go unchallenged.

And slowly but ever so surely, what began as a ripple of of unchallenged words becomes a wave of acts of violence and ultimately the tide is turned in a nation that allows people to see those who are not like them as “the other,” and it ends in refugee camps, killing fields and ovens.

The people of South Sudan, the people of Cambodia and the people of Germany are not morally inferior to the people in this country today. We are all humans, plain and simple. Subject to the same range of emotions and response. What happened there can happen here if we don’t take steps to enforce our laws, live by our stated values and name the growing scourge of xenophobic racism.

The atrocious acts that resulted in every genocide began somewhere. They began when their society accepted seeing those who are “different than me” as less than me. And it continued when those forces of hate gained power and were not condemned.

Right now, we stand at a precipice as both a state and a nation.

North Dakota is second in term of hate crimes, yet there remains a steadfast refusal by its legislature to establish a law against hate crimes. Such a law would allow the state to root out the organized purveyors of hate, but still there is reluctance and justification on the part of our government leaders to address this horrible stain on our state.

In Charlottesville, Va., there are men marching with torches shouting Nazi slogans, emboldened by White House employees who support white nationalism. There are acts of domestic terrorism enacted against peaceful counter protesters as clergy who lead marches of peace are beaten with brass knuckles.

Sadly, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke speaks for a hate-filled core of people who believe with him that “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back, we’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump and that’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back and that’s what we gotta do,”

On one point, I agree with Duke. This does represent a turning point for the people of this country.

Silence is not an option. Claiming that there are two sides to this protest is not an option. Not naming this for what it is — white nationalism rooted in the hatred of the KKK and the Nazi party — is not an option. Not removing from the center of political power advisers who espouse the values of the “alt right” is not an option.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Make no mistake. This is not alt right. This is real hate.

All people of decency, regardless of political orientation, must repudiate this rally and all hate crimes. Silence speaks volumes, and leaders, whether they are religious or civic, who fail to stand up to this are complicit.

Toleration of hate is where it starts, but it’s not where it ends.

In a world where I am faithfully praying that we can find a way to embrace the humanity of everyone and not get stuck in tribal politics, seeing those who don’t agree with us politically as “the enemy,” I know this is not about left and right. It is about right and wrong. And we can’t remain silent.

2 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — When Hate Goes Unchecked”

  • Stanford Edwards August 13, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Thank for writing this brutally honest but but vitally important wake up call to all citizens of our nation. The truths you have expressed frightened and appalled me while at the same time serving as an inspiration that our country and the world can some how overcome the horrible racism and hatred that fuels the horrors you describe.
    I hope you don’t mind but I have forwarded this column you wrote to relatives and friends and also posted it on my Facebook page (MargeandStanford Edwards) with the following introduction/explanation:
    “A powerful voice speaking out against the hatred that has tarnished North Dakota, is currently raging in Charlottesville and is tacitly (and sometimes openly)
    encouraged by the Trump administration. A terrifying reminder of the unimaginably horrific results to human society when these acts of racism and hatred are not stopped…God help us all….”

    Thank you again for writing this column (and the many others about Uganda and other subjects) that have spoken to and moved me deeply.

  • Paula V. Mehmel August 14, 2017 at 11:10 am

    Thank you for your kind words. I am delighted you shared it and truly sad I had to write it.


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