No doubt tattooing the wrists of concentration camp inmates seemed like a good idea at the time, with no especial ulterior motive beyond the obvious: to keep tabs on those waiting to be murdered. It is history that provides perspective: history and the horrors that those marked had to endure.
The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. Which is why we should be extra-vigilant now, in a week when so many archetypal images have re-surfaced, casting shadows of an age we thought long past.
For while there are those, the far right in every country, who would willingly lead us backward, they are outnumbered many times over by the jobsworths, the empathy-lacking bureaucrats who cannot see the significance of what they do: cannot understand that symbols send messages, and insensitively applying rules designed for gentler times can loudly shout a troubling brutality on the part of the institutions and countries they represent.
The mark of inhumanity
Seeing these pictures, i cried.
I have no doubt the police thought they were acting from the best of motives. In Auschwitz, too, there was a certain inexorable logic to tattoos. First, they marked prisoners with indelible ink: then they had them sew numbers into their clothes. In the end, though, they resorted to tattooing because clothes were removed after death, making individual identification impractical.
Logical, see. Although contrary to popular belief, this approach was only taken in Auschwitz and, for a while, in Birkenau.
Rules are rules
Then there was that train departing Budapest, jam-packed with refugees given no information as to where they were being taken. Journalists who had the temerity to ask awkward questions were ejected from the scene. Why?
Because rules, as a spokesman for the Hungarian government explained very awkwardly on the BBC later that night. These people – refugees and journalists alike – had failed to abide by the rules. So they should not be surprised if they were treated with less than ordinary courtesy. Intriguingly, and half a world away, a similar question asked of the Chinese ambassador elicited a similar response. Why were journalists being locked up? Because rules.
The darkened heart
And there, in a nutshell, is the real problem. Not that we are about to set up extermination camps to which refugees will be shipped off against their will (though the solution is, in the end, likely to involve some camps, hopefully run more along the lines of the Displaced Persons camps set up across Europe in the aftermath of WWII).
It lies in the images and the careless brutality we, as a society, are prepared to mete out to people in desperate need: the coldness in the heart of someone who can deal with other humans who have lost home, country, husband, wife, children – and demand that before they deserve our proper attention they read our rules and conform.
This is not Fascism. It is not even, necessarily, politics of any sort. But it is the ground from which the former springs: the harbinger of much, much worse to come.