Martin Niemöller is not a name that the average person will recognize immediately. His words, on the other hand, have been ingrained in minds for decades, acting as a haunting reminder of when hatred goes unchecked.
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller spoke this in an entirely different lifetime, in the midst of World War II, when Nazism was infecting all of Eastern European society. This was when the entire world sat complacent as humanity’s worst committed a mass genocide so awful that it became synonymous for death. But humans have progressed so much since then; the pure hatred that consumed that generation will never be allowed to rise once more.
On June 17, 2015, nine people were shot and killed at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Each flip of a channel on television produced searing images of sobbing families, neighbors, and witnesses. The historically black church is one of the nation’s oldest, built in a century where African Americans turned to their faith for solace and strength to continue living in persecution and chains. Politicians and leaders promised it would never happen again, so we did not speak out.
On November 5, 2017, twenty five people were shot and killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. This time, hints of anger permeated through the routine news coverage. Children were transformed from Sunday service attendees to victims of gun violence, the type that disregards age or background. For a second, the country held its breath in anticipation of reform, but then quickly realized that hope was futile. Days dragged on, until eventually, no mention of the church remained in the United States’ collective memory. We forgot, so we did not speak out.
On October 27, 2018, eleven people were shot and killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Quickly, analysts and commentators pointed out the parallels to history that made a reappearance in the deadly shooting. Variations of “Antisemitism on the Rise in the U.S. Again?” headlined article after article, bold font and all. In order for Antisemitism to be on the rise, there needs to be a period at which it was nearly extinct. That time period does not exist.
On October 28, 2018, somewhere in the country, someone registered the pattern, the circles that America runs in. Someone snapped out of the daze that clouds the country, and finally understood how exactly the world sat and watched the Holocaust like prime time TV, because here it is, happening again. The same exact mindset that was unfathomable to consider when reading the history books is flourishing once more.
We have reached the last line of Niemöller’s poem, but we must not let it end the way its written. Now is the time to speak out, to advocate for those who are targeted by senseless violence, to rally behind those who need help today. We cannot afford to forget another mass shooting; blood is spilling each day we remain silent.
When they come for me, I will be prepared to fight and speak for all I have seen die at the hand of a gun.
Picture Credits: US Embassy via Flickr