Under the Hitler regime…the most important thing that I learned…was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence. — Joachim Prinz, Rabbi of Berlin, exiled in 1937 to the United States, from his speech August 28, 1963, Washington, DC
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. — Voltaire
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day on 27 Nisan (Jewish calendar), and this year on April 8 (Gregorian calendar), several images resound in my consciousness.
Shortly following their high school graduation in Southern California, two 18-year-old young men, best friends since childhood, drove to a casino just crossing the Nevada line where they intended to play video games before returning home the next day.
After engaging in the games for a while, one of the friends, Jeremy Strohmeyer, walked toward the restrooms. Seeing that he entered the Women’s room, the other young man, David Cash, walked in to see what Jeremy was doing. He noticed that Jeremy was playfully throwing wadded paper towels at a young black girl, who seemed at first to have enjoyed the attention.
But then the scene turned violent. Strohmeyer grabbed 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson, placed his hand over her mouth, and spirited her into a toilet stall as Cash watched by the sinks. He entered an adjacent stall and mounted the toilet edge allowing him to peer down as he saw Jeremy continuing to muffle the girl’s screams and hearing as he warned Sherrice to keep quiet or he would kill her.
Not wanting to get involved, Cash returned to playing video games. He did not attempt to stop his friend from attacking the young girl. He did not seek help or call law enforcement officials. He calmly played games and waited the 20 minutes it took for Jeremy to return. David asked Jeremy what had happened.
“I killed her,” Jeremy asserted with a certain serenity in his tone on that summer evening in 1997. Soon thereafter, the two friends coolly entered nearby casinos where they enjoyed mechanical rides and continued to play video games until it was time for them to return home.
With the assistance of the video security system implanted at the casino, Strohmeyer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted to life imprisonment for rape and murder. Cash on the other hand, was never indicted because inaction was not a crime in Nevada at the time.
In response to the case and the lack of charges against Cash, Richard Perkins, Speaker of the Nevada Assembly, sponsored the Sherrice Iverson bill requiring Nevadans to notify law enforcement if they witness violent acts committed against a child. The law took effect in 1999, and a similar measure passed in California one year later.
Questioned on a CBS “60 Minutes” segment, “The Bad Samaritan,” in 1999 that if given a chance, would he do things differently, Cash said, “I don’t feel there is much I could have done differently.” Asked a similar question during an interview on a Los Angeles radio station, Cash gave a similar reply and added:
“How much am I supposed to sit down and cry about this….The simple fact remains that I did not know this little girl. I do not know starving children in Panama. I do not know people dying of disease in Egypt.”
The Long Beach Press-Telegram quoted Cash as saying that he wanted to sell his story to the media. One movie company already had offered him $21,000, and he added. “I’m no idiot,” he declared. “I’ll (expletive) get my money out of this.”
In not taking action to intervene on behalf of Sherrice Iverson, David Cash colluded in her death. “Enabler” is the term given to those who fail to act to help abusers. “Passive bystander” or “bad Samaritan” is the name for people who are conscious of bad actions developing around them but fail to intervene.
Though I have studied the Holocaust and other genocides, until I discovered this case, I always had the gnawing and seemingly unanswerable question pulling at me, “How could these incidents have taken place throughout the ages”?
David Cash taught me that mass murders happen on the macro level when people on the individual and collective levels let them happen, when witnesses — so-called “bystanders” — do little or nothing to intervene. When people either allow their fear or reluctance to “get involved” to supersede their empathy.
Empathy, that special and majestic human quality, has always been a vital life force of our humanness. As we understand in psychology, unless there is developmental delay, infants demonstrate the rudimentary beginnings of empathy whenever they recognize that another is upset, and they show signs of being upset themselves. Very early in their lives, infants develop the capacity to crawl in the diapers of others even though their own diapers don’t need changing.
Though empathy is a part of the human condition, through the process of socialization, others often teach us to inhibit our empathetic natures with messages like “Don’t cry,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Mind your own business,” “It’s not your concern.” We learn the stereotypes of the individuals and groups our society has “minoritized” and “othered.” We learn who to scapegoat for the problems within our neighborhoods, states, nations, world.
Through it all, that precious life-affirming flame of empathy can wither and flicker. For some, it dies entirely. And as the blaze recedes, the bullies, the demagogues, the tyrants take over filling the void where our humanness once prevailed. And then we have lost something very precious.
David Cash represents an extreme in the termination of empathy on the individual micro level, resulting not only in the possibly preventable rape and murder of a young girl, but the death of his own soul. And when the demise of empathy comes from powerful leaders, the consequences, on the macro level, become exponentially deeper, toxic, and tragic.
With the imminent outbreak of war on the European continent, by 1939 two legislators in the U.S. Congress, Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-MA) proposed an emergency bill, which, if passed, would have increased the immigration quoted by allowing an additional 20,000 Jewish children under the age of 14 (10,000 in 1939, and another 10,000 in 1940) from Nazi Germany to come to the United States.
Though the bill was roundly supported by religious and labor organizations, conservative and isolationist groups mounted wide-scale campaigns to prevent its passage.
Public opinion polls (Wagner-Rogers Act) at the time showed that 83% of U.S. residents opposed any increases in immigration. Though First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, implored her husband to advance the bill, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt failed to publicly support it. In fact, Laura Delano Houghteling, the president’s cousin and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, James L. Houghteling, sternly warned:
“20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
The bill never came up for a full vote in the Congress, and it died, along with most of the children it could have saved.
Also in 1939, on May 13, 937 Germans and other citizens from Eastern European nations, mostly all Jews fleeing Nazi brutality, booked passage on the German transatlantic ocean liner, St. Louis, from the port of Hamburg bound for Havana, Cuba. Most passengers had applied for U.S. visas, and they planned to wait in Cuba on their previously approved landing permits and temporary transit visas until U.S. officials accepted them into the U.S.
Even before embarking from Germany, the passengers became the source of bitter political cross-partisan rivalries in Cuba as several conservative politicians and newspapers demanded the immediate cessation of its policy of admitting Jewish refugees on its land. The Cuban government, therefore, reneged on its offer to honor the passengers’ landing permits when the St. Louis entered Cuban waters.
Faced with this unforeseen development, the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, turned the St. Louis toward the Florida coast of the United States in hopes that U.S. government officials would allow passengers entry on refugee status by processing their visa applications.
Unfortunately, though, the political wars transpiring in Cuba on the plight of Jewish refugees were even more intense in the United States. Within the United States, President Roosevelt succumbed to conservative political pressure by following his immigration officials’ decision to deny haven to the ship’s passengers.
The captain had no other choice than to turn his ship around back toward Europe. On route, knowing that returning to Germany meant certain death for his passengers, he negotiated with several governments, whereby Great Britain allowed entry of 288, the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium took 214, and France took 224.
By the end of the war, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that all but one in Great Britain survived, approximately half of the remainder on the continent, 278, survived the Holocaust, and 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France.
From Bystanders to Upstanders
Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take action. In these times as a viral pandemic ravages humanity across the planet and hate crimes rise, there are steps (actions) we can take to lessen its impact.
Which side are we on? This question brings to mind the civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver’s call to action: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Today as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”
This post is republished on Medium.
The Good Men Project gives people the insights, tools, and skills to survive, prosper and thrive in today’s changing world. A world that is changing faster than most people can keep up with that change. A world where jobs are changing, gender roles are changing, and stereotypes are being upended. A world that is growing more diverse and inclusive. A world where working towards equality will become a core competence. We’ve built a community of millions of people from around the globe who believe in this path forward. Thanks for joining The Good Men Project.
Support us on Patreon and we will support you and your writing! Tools to improve your writing and platform-building skills, a community to get you connected, and access to our editors and publisher. Your support will help us build a better, more inclusive world for all.
Photo credit: iStock