Recently, President Reagan wore two hearing aids. At his press conference a couple of days later, he wore just one, but his problem that night clearly was not physical. He simply has a hard time hearing the cries of victims.
No matter what he was asked, the president sided instantly with authority and blamed victims for their own plight -- even their own deaths. Asked about the killings of blacks in South Africa, the president referred to the police as "the law and order side" and asserted that "there's an element" that "want(s) trouble in the streets, and this is what's going on." Oh!
But in reality "what's going on" is persistent racial oppression. The president made no mention of that nor did he condemn a system in which the white minority rules the black majority by force and in which the victims, for some reason, seem always to be black. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that "some elements" want to change things violently. What's surprising is that it's only some elements and not all those who didn't have the luck to be born white.
The president showed a similar inability to identify with victims when he all but declared the Holocaust era over. Asked why he's not going to visit the death camp at Dachau when he goes to Germany in May, Reagan said he was "commemorating the end" of the war and had no intention of "reawakening the memories and so forth and passions of the time. . . ." Besides, the president added, very few Germans alive today can even remember the war "and certainly none of them who were adults and participating in anyway. . . . They have a feeling, a guilt feeling that's been imposed on them, and I just think it's unnecessary."
There is a lot about that statement that's just plain wrong -- including the president's assertion that Germany is a nation of amnesiacs and that its entire World War II generation has died off. He, in fact, is proof that the World War II generation, at least in this country, is very much alive -- just try changing veterans benefits if you doubt it.
Aside from that, there's no reason to suggest that to honor the dead is to persecute the living. One thing does not necessarily have anything to do with the other. The Holocaust, after all, is probably the central event of the 20th century, an event so terrible that it dwarfs such parochial categories as German guilt -- imposed or, even, earned. Instead it imposes a universal obligation: to never forget. There is no putting it behind us. Anything in the past is always in the future.
As he sometimes does, the president took away what he had previously given. In the past, he has been moving and supportive when it comes to efforts to commemorate the Holocaust. In the past, he has said the right thing about apartheid, and he did so, by implication, at his press conference. But his one moment of approximate passion came not when human life was being discussed, but when he was asked if he would even raise taxes. And "take the heat off the backs of those who don't want to cut spending"? Not on your life.
There is something profoundly wrong about this performance -- even in the way the president seemed not to be able to blame Israel for the killing of two journalists, even to his inability to rally to the cause of a free, objective press. Those who question authority -- the press, South African blacks -- and those who are weak are beyond the reach of the president's empathy. He seems to have no higher cause than the preservation of wealth and a revulsion to taxes. Only then is he unambiguously indignant. A government that abuses human rights, just as long as it is anti-communist, rates less moral indignation than one that raises taxes.
Nothing is simple -- certainly not America's relations with either Germany or South Africa. But victims sometimes wind up victims because someone has decided that it's inconvenient to take up their cause. This was the case with Germany and the Jews, and it is now the case with this administration when it comes to South Africa. The president hears only what he wants to hear -- the concerns of an ally, the strategic importance of South Africa. In a White House sealed from the realities of this world, the cries of victims go unheard.