As a classic, tragic, and deplorable example of this reality we need only look to Hitler's Germany. We know how horrifically it ended with the concentration camps, but do you know how it began? The execution of the Jews did not happen all at once but one step at a time, gradually and purposefully.
It began in 1933 with the burning of books that were written by Jews or books against the Nazi party. On the surface of things, this may not seem like anything too significant (by which I mean that one wouldn't normally think this action would lead to an orchestrated effort to exterminate the Jews), but it proved something to Hitler: If the German people would tolerate this, they would tolerate more and he could go another step further.
So it was that attacks were made - seemingly at random - on Jewish persons and property. The fact that the German people did not immediately defend the Jews proved something to Hitler: If the German people would tolerate this, they would tolerate more and he could go another step further.
So it was that the police and the courts no longer defended the Jews. The fact that this did not overly concern the Germans proved something to Hitler: If the German people would tolerate this, they would tolerate more and he could go another step further.
So it was that Hitler continued in his plans, one incremental step at a time, next holding a boycott of Jewish businesses, then positioning the SA outside Jewish shops, then slaughtering kosher animals, then creating the Department of Racial Hygiene, then excluding Jewish students from certain university exams, then excluding Jews from military service, and on and on it went, including banning Jews from public parks and swimming pools. Little by little the Jews lost their freedom, one step at a time.
In the full view of the German people and, indeed, of the world - what began with the burning of books led, step by deliberate step, to the concentration camps where so many of the Jews were executed because far too many people simply stood by silently and watched it all escalate as they tolerated each step.
Admittedly, this is an extreme example of the principle I started with and other examples perhaps more suitable could be here employed, but extreme examples often serve to best illustrate principles. This same principle has been called by others the "frog in hot water" effect, because a frog does not notice if the temperature of the water he is in is slowly and incrementally increased; not noticing, he will remain in the ever hotter water until he is boiled to death.
Before I continue, let me make a some things abundantly clear:
- I am not equating President Obama with Adolf Hitler;
- I do not think President Obama will launch a persecution of the Jews; and,
- I do not think President Obama will create concentration camps.
That being said, I do think there is an important lesson for us here.
I am greatly troubled by a set of circumstances happening in the United States of America to which the vast majority of Americans seem quite oblivious and all in relation to the partial government shutdown (except for the 8th), all of which I am watching from Rome:
- an elderly couple in Nevada was forced out of their home and cannot return until after the shutdown is lifted;
- World War II veterans have been threatened with arrest if they visit the World War II memorial;
- a portion of the ocean has been closed by the administration;
- one restaurant owner was given 24 hours to vacate his restaurant;
- Catholic priests have been threatened with arrest if they celebrate the Sacraments on military bases (as I previously high-lighted), though this situation seems to be remedied, at least for now (though it still hasn't gone before the Senate or been approved by the President) [it seems contracted clergy are not essential to the military but mechanical bulls apparently are];
- veterans of the Vietnam War were arrested at the Vietnam Wall because they were there reading the names of the fallen after curfew;
- a group of senior citizens who went to see Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park were locked inside the Old Faithful Inn with armed guards outside to prevent them seeing the geyser during the partial government shutdown; and,
- drones, which already fly over some parts of the U.S.A. and other parts of the world, may soon be able to fire on their own without direct human command (which cannot possible end well).
If the American people tolerate all of this, they will tolerate more and yet a further can - and likely will - be taken. And then another, and another, and another, until the liberty which has been a hallmark of the United States of America will be no more. To be sure, the gradual removal of freedom cannot be attributed solely to any one person and to think so is a grave mistake.
What is more: a large rally in favor of immigration reform was held yesterday on the Washington Mall at which eight members of Congress were arrested, despite the fact the same national park is closed.
[UPDATE 2: Yesterday (October 14, 2013) it was reported that Catholic services at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base have been forbidden during the partial government shutdown, but that Protestant services are allowed to continue. If this isn't a clear sign of anti-Catholicism, I don't know what is.]
While I acknowledge that the last of these is not be directly tied to the ones preceding, it is not unreasonable to be a little concerned. Likewise, taken individually, each of numbers 1 through 7 may not seem terribly significant, but taken together they certainly serve to indicate what I suspect is just a beginning test to see what the American people will tolerate.
Step by deliberate step, freedom can slowly - or quickly - be taken away. How much are you willing to tolerate, how many steps are you willing to allow to be taken, how much freedom are you willing to hand over?
When I left for Rome I knew I was leaving the United States at a good time, but I wondered if there would be much left to which I would return. Time will tell.