In the spring of 1939, Gestapo agents entered the apartment in Essen, Germany where my grandparents, father and uncle were living.
Unannounced and anonymous, they dragged my grandfather, a veteran who had lost much of his hearing and the full use of his right arm fighting for Germany in World War One, from his home.
They returned him weeks later, badly bruised and beaten.
He had committed no crime.
Like Jews across the country, our family had endured an increasingly tenuous and dangerous existence after Adolf Hitler had assumed power, six years earlier. But this brutal incident somehow shattered my grandfather’s illusion — held despite years of steadily mounting evidence, the 1937 departure of his youngest brother, and his wife’s urging — that somehow the Nazi government was an aberration, that the rest of the citizenry would come to its senses and the community in which our family had lived for at least 150 years would again be safe and welcoming.
Finally, he decided, it was time to go.
With the help of one of my grandmother’s cousins, he organised for my father and uncle to leave for England on the Kindertransport, a British-sponsored government mission that provided sanctuary to about 10,000 Jewish children from Central Europe. Dad and Uncle Ralph stayed there for about 14 months, before, very fortunately, reuniting with my grandparents in the United States in late 1940. Dad went on to serve our country in the army while in the early stages of a highly contributory and decorated career as a cardiac anaesthetist, mentor and leader.
A partial legacy of this family story has been my sense of democracy not as a set of rules, responsibilities and promises recorded on paper, but as a living, breathing entity that must be given strength in each generation. As something that neither inevitably advances nor is delivered from our chosen leaders, but is the product of ongoing, collective effort by all.
This is precisely why I feel compelled to speak out about the recent events in Portland, Oregon, a city that has been the site of ongoing protest since George Floyd’s murder in late May at the knee of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. This past week Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that federal law enforcement officers have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland and detain protesters. Personal accounts and multiple videos posted online show officers driving up to people, detaining individuals with no explanation about why they are being arrested, and driving off, according to National Public Radio.
On Friday, NPR also reported that Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli acknowledged that federal agents had used unmarked vehicles to pick up people in Portland, but said it was done to keep officers safe and away from crowds and to move detainees to a “safe location for questioning”.
Shocking in its brazenness, this violation of First Amendment rights echoes the tactics and techniques used on my grandfather more than 80 years ago.
Trump has since praised the troops in Portland, saying they’ve done “a fantastic job,” and announced that he’s considering sending in DHS agents to deal with protests and unrest in Democratic-controlled cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland.
I want to be clear what I’m saying.
There are similarities between the America First eagle for Trump’s re-election campaign and the infamous Nazi war eagle, between Trump and Hitler’s use of misinformation to discredit media and opponents characterised as far-left radicals who want to destroy the country, and in their rhetoric of inclusion for some and exclusion for many.
But Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. The Republican Party is not the Nazi party. The DHS agents are not the Gestapo. And we in the United States in 2020 are not Germany in the late 1930s.
At the same time, studying the past can help us identify critical junctures where the decisions we make and the stands we take have serious consequences now and in the future.
This is one of those times.
It’s occurring at a point when our democracy is weakened compared with even four years ago. Despite more than 240 years of laws and precedent and norms and peaceful transitions of power, it has been eroded by the systematic body blows administered by the Trump Administration and accepted almost unquestioningly by the Republican Party. It’s been diminished by the stripping of executive oversight.
This damage has been heightened by the intersecting crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout that has seen more than 40 million people file unemployment claims.
I called Dad the other day. Now 86 years old, he said what happened in Portland was alarming.
He’s right. The stakes are real. Not just for Portland or Chicago or New York or Detroit or anywhere else Trump has promised to send federal agents, but for our entire country.
The time is now. We look away from what we are confronting at our peril.
The choice, still and for an uncertain period in the future, is ours. DM
More was spent buying Central Park than in the purchase of Alaska.