Sometimes an image captures the sheer inhumanity we humans are capable of much better than words ever can. For the Holocaust, the 1943 image of a young Jewish boy with his hands held high as the Nazis “liquidated” (to use their horrible word) the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto is forever etched in the mind. Within days, all of the Jews in the photograph perished at Treblinka extermination camp. He has gone down in history simply as the ‘Warsaw Ghetto Boy’, his identity cruelly unknown.
For the horrors of the Vietnam War, it was Phan Thi Kim Phúc, known as ‘Napalm Girl’ – the nine-year old child pictured running naked after being severely burned by a chemical attack.
One need look no further for an image of what Donald Trump has done to America than this week’s heartbreaking image of the drowned bodies of Salvadoran refugee Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez (25) and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, locked in a final embrace as they attempted to cross the river to the US.
As the leaders of the Catholic Church in America said this week: “This image cries to heaven for justice.”
The boy from Warsaw, the girl from Vietnam and the father and daughter should shame us all and remind us of the depths to which humanity can sink when we dehumanise and demonise other people.
Crude rehearsed rhetoric about illegal immigration and the need for secure borders can’t deflect from the fact that a father and daughter are dead. Their only crime? To want what most of us take for granted – a life with hope and opportunities.
Thousands of other children languish in lice-infested “camps” separated from their parents and sleeping on cement floors. What has become of the land of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
Tomi Reichental is a remarkable Dubliner who turned 84 this week. He is a survivor of the Nazi death camp Belsen and moved to Ireland in the 1960s.
He has devoted his time ever since to giving talks in schools and other places about what he experienced. His motivation is simple: “After all the horror, I am doing my best to keep the memory of those lost ones alive. We – you, me, your children, my children – must never forget.”
And yet, forgetfulness is all too easy and we seem unable to learn the lessons that history teaches us.
Let me be clear: Donald Trump is not Hitler, nor is he a Nazi. Such comparisons are as offensive to the Jewish people and others who suffered during the Holocaust as they are inaccurate. The Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews was unparalleled for its scale, ferocity and sheer factory-like horror. No one should ever seek to borrow the language of that unique and dreadful experience to make political charges.
But Donald Trump is a highly sophisticated master manipulator and a man motivated above all by division. His vision of the world is one of “them and us” with no regard whatsoever for the common good or desire to build a more united world.
Mr Trump appeals to the worst in people.
People who follow the Carpenter of Nazareth should have no truck with such a man, and Christians who are enthusiastic Trump supporters undermine the very essence of the faith they claim to care so deeply about.
His administration has pursued some policies that will be welcome by pro-life voters in relation to abortion, but no person who is truly pro-life should see Mr Trump as a fellow traveller. He is not. Anyone who presides over the horrendous cruelty we are currently witnessing at the US-Mexico border is no friend of people who have a rounded vision of human dignity and respect for life in all stages.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that we live in dangerous times and historic amnesia is fuelling further discord and mistrust between people. In the US, the era of ‘America First’ has led many citizens of the greatest country in the world to forget that they are a nation of immigrants made stronger by immigration.
Meanwhile, in Britain the resurgent English nationalism pushing Brexit makes otherwise intelligent people lose their minds and bet everything on an “it’ll be all right on the night” philosophy of governance.
Britain and the US are loosening their ties with their traditional allies in Europe – bonds that were hard won after the horror of two world wars and the Nazi death camps. At the same time, China, Russia and Turkey are vying to bring their less-than-benign influence to bear in a polarised world.
We should all be afraid of this. The rise of isolationist thinking in both the US and Britain is bad news for the world. It is also bad news for those nations – countries that are deeply divided cannot prosper, not in the long-term.
Brexit and Trumpism should also act as a warning of what happens when large numbers of people stop trusting politicians and experts. The “risen people” of Pearse “who shall take what ye would not give”.
We have to understand what gives rise to such phenomenon, but we can never pander to hatred and divisiveness. As a Catholic, I’m proud that the US bishops are the driving force behind so many of the campaigns highlighting Mr Trump’s inhumane policies and standing in solidarity with the victims of his administration.
Truth matters, and whether it’s in the US or Boris Johnson’s cavalier attitude to the facts in Britain, good people can’t be silent and can’t simply roll their eyes. We have to take on the big lies and expose them.
Michael Kelly is editor of ‘The Irish Catholic’ newspaper