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We are alike everywhere

Gary Caruso | Friday, September 20, 2013

This week while waiting to cross streets in Berlin, I could not separate myself from envisioning ghosts of the World War II era when my father fought against the Germans. Late one evening under a full moon, I sat on a railing at a corner of Martin Luther Straße trying to absorb my surroundings to better appreciate my visit. I could hear the echoes of crowds cheering Adolf Hitler while soldiers stamped in unison along a parade route. I wondered how Hitler turned my dad, a sergeant in the Fifth Army and II Corps, into a killing machine only to have my father revert back into a decent, civilized and caring man.
History most certainly explains how a dictator could enchant a nation to follow his evil designs. But more importantly, after attending a law enforcement day of training for Homeland Security personnel at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I personally know how to prevent others from repeating such a calamity. The lesson stares at us regardless of whether we wander a Berlin museum or the American Holocaust Museum. History asks us one universal question. “How could law-abiding, dedicated law enforcement officers, within a decade’s time, eventually corrupt their ethical standards enough to walk together in collusion with the Gestapo and persecute certain citizens?”
The answer is straightforward. We become desensitized when we dehumanize others. Once Jews, academics, gays, gypsies and political opponents are no longer societal equals, they become mere cattle to be herded and slaughtered. That desensitization is the root cause that once empowered the Nazi Party. It is a magic potion that still seduces mankind throughout the ages unless it is consciously checked at every turn.
So while sitting in the center of the old Nazi power base, I visualized the destructive aftermath of bombing missions that reduced the very spot where I sat into hollow structural shells and rubble. I imagined the enormous pain many innocents felt in the aftermath, especially those who at heart were not Nazis but did nothing to thwart the Third Reich while sitting quietly in fear. I wondered if such selective complacency in the American political system could eventually nibble at the fringes of political anarchy, especially when various Tea Party favorites continually spout something outrageously silly like “President Obama really hates America” or “Obama is a Muslim.”
While in Berlin, I studied the facial character of an older German woman who reminds me of a friend’s grandmother. Her expressions and mannerisms mirror “Gigi” back home. I looked into the eyes of young men who, but for a generation of time, could have been clothed in a military uniform fighting against my father when he was their same age. I passed younger children who inquisitively roamed while their parents shopped and realized they would not have been together a generation ago. Instead, they would have been separated at youth camps being brainwashed with dehumanizing principles. Today’s faces, sent back to a different era, might all have belonged to ruthless bigots.
Yet here I sat, 70 years after the height of WWII, in a rebuilt, economically viable and freely functioning democracy where students clutch their smartphones while riding a bus – just like back home on my daily commute to work. Businesses offer me cash through an ATM, a myriad of shopping choices, and fast or fine food opportunities, just like home. Currently, the Germans are amid a national election just like last year when we chose our president. Their advertising advocates slogans to tax millionaires, save the environment, better educate their children and maintain economic stability – familiar themes found not only in the United States or Germany, but also in democracies around the globe.
While in Europe, I lost touch with the daily news. Who is the Notre Dame-Michigan State favorite? I mistook a German newscast to report a bomb blast in Washington until I received a trash collection e-mail notice. “Due to street closures from the Navy Yard shootings,” trash would be collected tomorrow. Life – or more appropriately, 12 deaths in this case – continued like it does everywhere with an occasional nutty outburst and tragedy.
My European excursion ultimately reminds me of a 1960s “Twilight Zone” television episode. An apprehensive astronaut, Roddy McDowall, crash-landed on a remote planet. McDowall distrusts aliens, sight-unseen, and is frightened to face them, but his badly wounded partner is more positive. Just before his death, he urges McDowall to be trustful, uttering that people are alike all over, even on another planet.
McDowall eventually relaxes and encounters benevolent aliens – just as his partner had predicted – who replicate his earthly residence down to the minuscule detail for him. Strangely, though, a young alien girl always seems sad when around McDowall. After he enters his new home, a wall slowly slides open, and McDowall sees a sign that reads “Earth Creature in his native habitat.” Realizing that he has become a caged exhibit, McDowall yells towards the heavens to his partner, “You were right! People are alike everywhere!”
We may be alike everywhere, but our respect for and tolerance of individuality prevents us from caging our futures.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.