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A touch of humanity

BY profession, I am a historian. Within my chosen field, I have studied aspects of the human experience which do not lend themselves to looking kindly upon human nature. I have studied the Nazi era of German history and, at times, have focused most specifically on the Holocaust. Most recently, I have devoted several years to the study of terrorism. It is hard to spend hour after hour reading and thinking about man's inhumanity to his fellowman without concluding that people are far more evil than good. This impression is often reinforced by reading the daily newspaper and watching the nightly news on television. Beirut bombings, El Salvadorean death-squad killings, and highly publicized accounts of the crimes of the latest death-row prisoner to be executed all contribute to a picture of violence and gloom which affects all of us.

The other day these musings were brought home by the minor private incident of having my wallet stolen. What initially leaped into my mind was a vague statistic of the number of people who would be the victims of crime this year. Feeling extremely depressed, I headed for the Boston & Maine commuter train to contend with the hassle of not having my monthly railroad ticket which had been in my wallet. As I walked up to the conductor whom I have seen many times over the years I have ridden the train, I wondered whether I should say anything to him or simply take out the money I had borrowed and buy a daily ticket. I decided to tell him that my wallet had been stolen with my commuter ticket in it and asked if there was anything that I could do. He said, ''You can ride with me ,'' and gave me a seat stub used to indicate that a ticket has been seen or collected. It was a small touch of humanity but meaningful to me, and it shook me out of my gloom. There are kind and generous people in the world who care about others.

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From minor courtesies to acts of enormous self-sacrifice, history and daily life contain goodness as well as evil. Adolf Hitler was a monster responsible for the deaths of countless millions, but he lost the war at least in part because millions offered their lives and limbs to stop him. Helmut Kohl, current chancellor of the German Federal Republic, recently bore the anger and resentment of some of Hitler's victims and their descendants because he chose to visit Israel as a gesture to memorialize the Holocaust victims and to indicate that Germany today is in another moral universe from the one of Hitler and the Nazis. While terrorists plant their bombs, diplomats negotiate to resolve differences peacefully and ordinary citizens march for peace. While many of us may be the victims of crime, the strong and vicious do not control the streets; and many give their time and energy to help and protect the weak and the vulnerable.

There are great dangers that face people in our world today from nuclear holocaust to terrorist attacks. Many are hungry, cold, and ill. However, as a historian, I know that most people in the world are better off than they have ever been. Women, blacks, Jews, those living in poverty, or those who are physically or mentally handicapped, whatever the present frustrations, limitations, and injustices, should not want to exchange today for any other past era. This assessment of our relative progress is not a message of complacency for there are enough problems and suffering in the world to keep us all working constantly to try to help. However, concentration on the misery and evil and on the pessimism and gloom that result is often a prescription for paralysis.

For my part, I will try to remember the train conductor and Helmut Kohl when I think about the wallet thief and Hitler. Seeing human experience in its historical sweep and daily life in the acts of kindness one encounters provides a basis for hope and a spur for positive action.

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