It’s a difficult lesson to take in, but it’s one that made itself apparent in the close of last year and the dawn of this new one. There exists a point where language no longer possesses any power – where all the weaknesses of words and literature are painfully exposed; where the pen is no longer mightier than the sword. We reach this point when the sentences that drift out from our mouths become completely disconnected from our actions. What does a word become then? Not even a lie, because lies perform functions. Words become motes of dust, floating, existing only to fill the space.
After Rwanda, after Srebrenica, we shook our heads and said Never Again. Why? Because in the aftermath of a staggering tragedy, there is silence, and silence wills us to say something. The best thing to say, and the most reassuring thing to say, is that we gained at least something from the horror – an understanding, an experience, a series of established warning signs that would allow us to avoid this happening again. This means that the next time, the traps will be familiar to us, and we will know when to turn around and say, “I’ve seen this before, and I know where it ends. We can’t repeat it.”
Last month, the world watched Never Again stagger to its knees alongside the citizens of Aleppo in Syria. It was horrified, but the horror was qualified by a shrugging of the shoulders. This was inevitable, it said. Awful, yes, but there was no way for us to stop it. This was a lie. It was a lie we told ourselves to keep from having to admit that Never Again was a lie all along, too. The world should have stopped it, but we didn’t. And now, as we sit in our homes, another brutal reminder of the futility of Never Again is creeping towards us.
Have you heard of semantic satiation, or jamais vu? It’s that strange experience where you repeat a word like ‘body’ so many times that it temporarily becomes a string of sounds that you don’t recognise, an odd collection of letters that doesn’t make any sense. It can happen with phrases too. Here’s an extract from the statement Donald Trump made on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this month:
“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.”
There it is towards the end: “never again”. This time, it referred to the darkest and most despicable event in modern human history. And yet, on the same day that he released this statement, Trump signed an executive order banning anybody arriving from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. This sweeping demonstration of discrimination, ignorance, intolerance and monumental stupidity was precisely the type of event that preceded the Holocaust.
You could be appalled that he did this the same day as he released a statement saying Never Again, or you could accept what the phrase has become. It is now ‘just something you say’. This is all Trump understands it to be. It sounds right, and therefore it should go in. It doesn’t mean anything. The words are motes of dust.
The same applies to Theresa May, who seems to have decided that a trade deal and a ‘special relationship’ are more important than Never Again. She hasn’t condemned this disgusting, terrifying act, saying simply that she “does not agree” with it. As such, she will be complicit in whatever happens next, as we prepare to discover what that is.
We need to accept that the words Never Again no longer carry any weight. Let Never Again become an action rather than a phrase. Let it become something we shout as we protest on the street, or something we think to ourselves as we donate or volunteer in support of the many charities and organisations that can, and do, make an enormous difference. From now on, if you truly believe in Never Again, you will have to fight for it.