I have to say that I have an issue with that popular saying attributed to Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller that begins with, “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.”
I don’t have a problem with the sentiment expressed. It’s just that there’s a hole in it. It ought to begin with, “First they came for the cripples and I did not speak out because I was not a cripple.“
It would be nice if we could update Niemoller’s words for the sake of historical accuracy and inclusion. I know that’s difficult because first, he never mentioned cripples in his original statement; and second, he’s dead. But maybe his estate could grant permission to put words in his mouth, posthumously, just this once.
Because the “they” in this saying are, of course, Hitler and his Nazis. And they refined their extermination techniques by first practicing on snuffing out cripples. In 1939, Hitler launched a program called T4, named after the address of the Berlin headquarters for the program, Tiergartenstrasse 4. At this headquarters, a team of “medical experts” reviewed the records of all the institutionalized cripples in Germany and sent about 200,000 of them off on a field trip to take a shower. Except the rounded-up cripples didn’t know it was a one-way trip. The so-called group shower facilities were really gas chambers.
For a government to get away with treating a group of its citizens so shabbily, it must rationalize such behavior with a steady diet of propaganda. The victims must be dehumanized. The rest of the citizens have to feel that the victims pose some sort of threat to them and thus, wiping them out becomes an act of self-defense.
The T4 propaganda made cripples out to be a major threat due to the enormity of their dead weight. They were depicted as “useless eaters” living “burdensome lives.”
I don’t think such a blatantly hateful marketing approach would work today. Cripples have come a long way since 1939 in some countries. People see us out and about on the streets all the time. We’re not as scary as we used to be. Getting the uncrippled majority to buy in to a cripple-cleansing program like T4 today would require a much more humane exercise in dehumanization, steeped in that more subtle form of contempt known as pity.
Pity is a funny thing — funny as in peculiar. Pity sounds like something everybody would want, yet nobody wants it. Dictionary.com defines pity as “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another …” Everybody wants others to have sympathy for their misfortune, right? So why then does everybody say they don’t want to be an object of pity? I don’t know, but I can tell you the reason I don’t want anybody’s damn pity is because in order for someone to pity me, they have to see me as pitiful. Dictionary.com defines pitiful as “evoking or deserving contempt by smallness, poor quality, etc.”
That’s why pity is a hot potato nobody wants. If someone gives you the gift of their pity, that means they see the quality of your life as disturbingly poor. And oh boy, that can be used to justify a whole lot of mistreatment.
Look how well pity is used to sell cripple euthanasia. How about all those celebrated movies where an uncrippled actor plays the role of a cripple who wants someone to help him or her die because living as a cripple is so relentlessly horrible? In the end, the uncrippled loved one is a hero for pulling the trigger, and the cripple is a hero for dying. And the uncrippled actors get Oscar nominations.
It’s like a ghoulish Make-A-Wish. And none of it would be possible without pity. Without pity to sanctify it, mercy killing is an oxymoron. But I digress.
It would be nice to update Niemoller’s words, but I don’t think it will happen because I don’t think cripples could reach a consensus on what to call ourselves. Many would insist on saying, “First they came for disabled people.” But then others would demand people-first language: “First they came for people with disabilities.” Others would hold out for, “First they came for the physically challenged” or “differently-abled.” And I’m sure there would be a contingent pushing for, “First they came for those with special needs.”
So I guess Niemöller is off the hook for now.