When Good People Stand Silently By
EACH autumn, as regularly - though, alas, not as quietly - as the leaves turn, small bands of men and women from many corners of the world rally on First Avenue opposite the United Nations during the annual Assembly session. They protest on one burning issue or another. There are rarely more than a hundred, but their bullhorns are deafening. Doubly unnerving, the messages are garbled by a succession of echoes across the avenue. Echo No. 1 originates on the fa,cade of the UN Secretariat. No. 2 bounces back from the United States Mission, the Boys Club of America, and the UN Plaza Hotel. No. 3 is the final return from the Secretariat. What gets lost in the cacophony is spelled out on hand-painted posters.
The backdrop of their gathering place is the ``Isaiah Wall.'' There the words of the prophet (``And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more'') are carved in stone. A winding staircase leads past the inscription up to 43rd Street. The spot is also called Ralph J. Bunche Park, Peace Park, Shcharansky Steps, and Raul Wallenberg Walk. The lamppost bearing the name signs has all of three feet of space left for future naming ceremonies.
My problem is that I live above it all, 18 floors up. I'm so directly above the ``park'' that were I to turn terrorist by emptying a carton of aged eggs out my north window to bear witness of my protest - a thought that has flitted across my mind more than once after hours of crushing auditory stress - they would explode right on the upper stair landing.
To be truthful, there have been occasions when the sounds - and even the silence - were intelligible, calming, and deeply moving. For instance, during the appearances of demonstrators for world peace who stood on the steps holding flickering candles and singing softly.
One warm September night a saffron-robed Buddhist monk sat on a mat in the lotus position, gently working a small drum. The beat, two seconds apart, continued till dawn; then it was joined by the twitter of birds. The least noisy demonstrators were from the Society of Friends. They stood holding small posters wordlessly, after the manner of pre-Vatican II Trappists. Oh silence! Oh civility!
But as I sit here pounding my computer keyboard and being pounded by the bullhorn decibels, something forces my thought back in time. I am in my hometown, Bremen, Germany. It's 50 years ago, November, 1938. I am 14 years old and I am watching, with a sinking feeling, a straggling formation of confused, frightened-looking men in civilian clothes being herded down Obernstrasse, the main street, by jeering brownshirts. The street is littered with the glass from smashed store windows. The smell of the smoke from the burned synagogue a few blocks away lingers. Kristallnacht morning.
I have wondered a hundred times: What would have happened if thousands of us Germans had rallied? If in every city with a burned-out synagogue we had shouted over giant loudspeakers our outrage at this crime against our fellow citizens? Would it have been politically feasible to have us arrested? Would the multiplication of pogrom into genocide have been prevented? Would massive support of our people for the regime have been shaken beyond repair? Might Hitler have fallen before World War II began?
What, I ask myself, what if those shouting men and women down there are doing for their own faraway country what we, half a century ago, failed to do for ours - and for the rest of humanity?
Somehow, suddenly, in the face of that question, the roar of outrage seems no longer so unbearable or, for that matter, so uncivil.