Then They Came For Me: The Futility of the Neimoller Argument

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.


Apparently, Martin Niemoller, a German theologian and pastor, was an initial supporter of the Nazi party. He did not say the above words until after well after he had been released from a German concentration camp, the second of two where he was incarcerated from 1938-45. He finally saw the light…well after his harassment by the German state. His poem can be summed up hence: we should care about the fate of others, because our fates hang in the balance.

Even though he was eventually targeted by the Nazis, Niemoller is hardly a paragon of virtue, as a quick browse of his wikipage will attest: he was apparently anti-Semitic, and cared mostly to protect his parish of Christians who were mistaken as Jews—rather than to protect Jews themselves. Yet, his argument is trotted out at every cocktail hour and dinner in liberal neighborhoods in America. This utilitarian argument is unfurled to make a plea for why Americans should care about the galloping abridgment of rights that has been occurring since well before September 11, 2001.

But it is not a compelling argument. It is especially unpersuasive for those who have never wondered whether they will live an entire lifetime without having their bodily cavities invaded by some policewoman’s already dirty latex glove.

Indeed, it is a specious argument, especially in view of the following examples:

In November of this year, 26 year old Rezwan Ferdaus was convicted of plotting to attack the Pentagon and Capitol building by making IED detonators. Ferdaus, like Tarek Mehanna before him, and Fahad Hashmi before him, and Mohamed Osman Mohamud before him, and myriad young Muslim men before them, were arrested for “terrorist” plots. They were arrested on very little evidence—in many cases—on hearsay of FBI agents or other unsavory witnesses. Many of them were incarcerated without charges for years, deprived of access to lawyers, family, other people (because they were held in solitary confinement). Many of them were notoriously entrapped by FBI agents. And a number of them—to finally escape the excruciating wait of being held in solitary confinement on trumped-up pretences that they had violated some prison rule—finally pled guilty. i.e., without trials, without public evidence, to charges of plotting to launch terror plots.

It is a repeated phenomenon—occurring all over the US. The most recent surveillance and entrapment projects were lead by the NYPD with the full support and approval of the FBI.

In 2005, 2 female Queens teenagers, unknown to each other, were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Their crime? Tashnuba Hayder and Adamah Bah were separately reporting to the INS at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan. Passing each other, they noticed that they were Muslim (one was in hijab, the other in a niqab), likely greeted each other with “Salaam Aleikum” (we don’t actually know the phrase they used). This aroused the suspicion of the immigration agents who later reported them to the FBI, which proceeded some time later to arrest and interrogate them without their families or lawyers for 7 weeks. Both were released after protest by friends and teachers. However, 16 year old Hayder’s release came at a price: she was required to agree to be deported to Bangladesh. You can barely find the details of their ordeals on-line (I have written about them in detail elsewhere).

Today, thousands of Muslim men and women in the United States must watch their words carefully, be careful about context when expressing political dissent, and be wary of others in religious places of worship—lest they be undercover FBI agents. The danger of being entrapped or arrested is so rampant that Constitutional lawyers give advice to Muslim mothers warning them to keep an eye on their sons so as to avoid the claws of the FBI.

How many white men and women today must be careful about what they say when expressing political dissent? The laws that have been passed in the decade since 9/11 don’t name Muslims. And yet, we know that the populations being watched and targeted are not young white men and women from wealthy suburban families. The US is not targeting Germany or Sweden or France with drone strikes in order to catch terrorists. Young white men with assault rifles are not the subjects of anti-terrorist pre-emptive policing or of FBI surveillance–despite the fact that they are more likely to terrorize six year olds in leafy New England suburbs, young adults in movie theatres in Colorado, or town meetings with US congresswomen in Tuczon, Arizona.

In light of the intent and application of 9-11 laws, the Neimoller argument is a selfish and useless argument. It is used futilely to convince some comfortable, protected segment of the American populace to care about the repeal of rights because it could happen to them one day. Because—god forbid, someday, somewhere, someone who is white—or at least bourgeois (e.g. owning an espresso-machine, luxury car, iPad, Kindle, iPhone and 3 MacBooks, who splurges on ski trips to Aspen and considers Northface shells a wintertime necessity)—might be incarcerated, detained, tortured, have their private phone and email conversations with their extramarital lovers monitored. Or have their bank accounts and charitable contributions monitored to assess whether they’ve contributed to terrorist organizations.

Anti-privacy laws, search laws, pre-emptive policing laws are not being directed against young white American college students. The violations of material support statutes are not being prosecuted against HSBC in the same way that they are being prosecuted against Somali migrants.

The reason to care about the repeal of rights and the production of oppressive laws is because they punish, humiliate, target, dehumanize some other segment of the population: whistleblowers, Muslim men and women, political dissenters, children killed by “accidental” drone strikes, children deliberately targeted and killed by drone strikes, men and women who are rendered to far away places for torture on behalf of the United States government. Not because they might, remotely—somewhere, someday—be used to punish you.

If there are white or non-white wealthy Americans out there who watch the news and are aware of what’s happening to dark black and brown people, to Muslim, Arabs, Syrians, Palestinians, poor women, innocent black and brown children—and they aren’t ALREADY convinced that there is a serious rights abridgement taking place—making the argument that they should care because it could ONE day happen to them is a waste of breath.

They don’t care. If they are not interested in political and legal solidarity, they will not be moved by the pragmatic “we are all in this together fabrication.” Because they are not in it “with us.” The odds are overwhelmingly against their lives being upended (or simply ended) by counter-terrorism laws. Not because they are more innocent. They are no more or less innocent than a Muslim, Arab, Black, South Asian, Latino family—of crime, of violating sanctions, of crime, of terrorism, of illicit activity.

They are not in it “with us” because they are more visibly and folklorically “American.” They are more white. More conservative. More comfortable—economically. They are aware of these aforementioned attributes, and reasonably sure that they will rarely be lumped in “with us” by the American government. And so, they are more at ease with the extralegal rollback of rights, because their activities will not be held against them.

The legal framework of the War on Terror is designed neither to threaten comfortably ensconced Whites or Blacks, nor many quiet upper-class brown folks who take pains to be visibly obedient. It is designed to apply to those who are on the borders, on the margins of society—racially, residentially, economically, or socially. Or for those who might be “comfortable” at some level, but who are teetering close to that edge.

Or for those who are politically uncomfortable or angry with the reprehensible actions of the US government. This is how Syed Hashmi and Tarek Mehanna and Reswan Ferdhaus attracted the attention of the FBI.

Wait, you say. There are plenty of white men (and some white women) who’ve been trapped in the Legal War on Terror: John Walker Lindh, whistleblowers Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, John Kiriakous, Thomas Drake. Lynn Stewart.

The reason we know their names, the reason that their situations are so much more broadly publicized is because the American media and public find their situations to be so fascinating: The idea that counter-terrorism laws could be applied to men or women who are white–strikes the mainstream media (MSM) as a fascinating novelty. As importantly, the notable exceptions of white men such as Manning, Assange, Kiriakou allow MSM and the comfortable American public to assure themselves that the war on Terror isn’t racist. It confirms for them that counter-terrorism laws are being applied “equally” against all potential threats—Muslims or whites. It’s just disproportionately catching Muslims, because…well, you know.

Utilitarianism—supporting something because it’s useful or has strategically positive consequences—is a popular framework in our neoliberal era. We constantly make calculations based on this: the lesser of 2 evils, the more incremental of 2 evils, the Alan Dershowitz straw man question (what if torture of 1 person saved 100 people?). Or my favorite: 2 potential Supreme Court Seats that will go to the anti-abortion conservatives so I should vote for Obama because thousands of Pakistanis and Yemenis will die of drone strikes regardless of whether Romney or Obama wins. And besides most poor black and brown women in the US will never have access to abortion anyway regardless of the next 2 SC justices.”

In other words, it reinforces the whole white privilege thing: I have mine. Others won’t get theirs. Let me just get mine.

At heart, utilitarianism is an economic calculus that works for savings accounts and bank corporations. It is a useless framework to argue in defense of preserving and defending the rights of vulnerable and marginal groups.

The only argument that should be used in favor of caring about privacy rights, rights against torture, pre-emptive search and seizure, rights that protect dissenting speech, access to lawyers, and due process, is for their own sake. I know that this is a strange idea in our brave new world. But why we can’t just care about rights because they’re rights? Constitutional and human rights should be vocally defended, amply utilized. The defense of rights should be carefully kept away from specious arguments about “national security,” and from utilitarian arguments about the pragmatic usefulness of defending rights for other people.

Persecuted peoples should be uncompromisingly defended on the indubitable, unconditional, grounds of their humanity.

And rights should be directly defended for their own sake. They are not like exotic delicacies from faraway countries: they’re don’t have to be rare. They shouldn’t have to be carefully hoarded.*

*The last two paragraphs of this post have been revised/updated.


15 thoughts on “Then They Came For Me: The Futility of the Neimoller Argument

  1. I wish you could speak with my high school students of privilege who need your compelling words to shift their attitudes.

  2. First, I apologize for any spelling errors as my spell-check inexplicably is not working and I am a terrible speller.

    I think the Neimoller Argument is symptomatic of a much larger problem: namely, that US citizens (and indeed much of the West) have been socialized to fear the other and are thus largely incapable of empathy. Based on my experiences, this seems to be especially prevalent amongst white males, but I have noticed similar characteristics in other groups as well. Well, I suppose saying that our society is “largely incapable of empathy” may be a little strong, but when I say empathy, I am referring to the ability to empathize with those who are cultuarly/racially/ethnically/socioeconomically different than oneself. If we are to be judged by those standards, then we would fail miserably as a society and until that changes, the Neimoller Argument is the only argument capable of inspiring even a tepid defense of the marginalized in the by the privileged-white class (and the response is indeed very “tepid”).

    So, how do we change this? There is no easy answer, but I think our increasingly s@$&*! economy just may do the trick. As inequality continues to increase, I imagine that many members of the “privileged class” will be forcibly removed to the margins of society and then actually come into contact with some Muslims who treat them kindly instead of inexplicably trying to murder their family or some undocumented immigrants who aren’t viciously plotting to steal their jobs. Then, and only then, will the Neimoller Argument become obsolete as people will be able to see past the propaganda that spews at them from all forms of media and is enforced our high levels of segregation.

    Another thing that may help, would be if the well-intentioned progessive class could cease seeing the marginalized classes as charity cases. How many white progressives will point to a list of minority friends (generally of the same socioeconomic class) and their various charitable activities (I volunteer at a Soup Kitchen and donate money to stop the flow of conflict minerals!) when confronted about race? I mean, the biggest problem I have with most “progressives” is their uncanny ability to see inequality in the world, yet fail to realize how their actions and attitudes towards the oppressed ironically perpetuate said inequalities — in other words, their tendencies towards soft-imperialism. Even when they interact with marginalized populations, they rarely do so as “equals” and this power imbalance prevents them from actually learning true empathy.

    • I replied to this, but it disappeared. Trying again.

      Jacob, thanks for reading the column carefully. It is quite troubling to see the charitable assumptions behind certain white folks befriending brown/black folks, who are then expected to be grateful and step in line. See for example this remarkable comment in response to one of my posts:

      The principle of charity also illustrates the moral derivativeness of the Niemoller argument: we should defend others from persecution because the same could happen to us, and that’s why it’s important to care about rights. But shouldn’t we care about others even if the same could NEVER happen to us? We should defend others from persecution simply on grounds of their humanity. Period.

      Reminds me of the relationship between the community and Nicole Kidman’s character in Dogville (dir. by Lars Von Trier), which is based on charity rather than reciprocity. Makes for a compelling, disturbing film.

  3. I dunno – not sure of the distinction being made here. Goebbels understood, and Niemoller and college professors and marketers too, that the human brain is amazingly malleable. Any challenge to group think, if it is loud enough, can be effective for whatever the reason it was undertaken- whether utilitarian or principled. Had I been a Jew in Germany I would have been happy to have anyone speaking out on my behalf for whatever reason.

    Ironically, isn’t this thought provoking post challenging group think at the same time it’s calling into question the value of doing so.

    • Mark, thanks–I’m glad the post is thought-provoking. But I’m absolutely advocating defending those who are being targeted. I’m also saying that it’s not useful to tie that defense to the fates of those more privileged and hardly vulnerable. Because those who are unmoved by the persecution of others don’t seem to be moved by the argument that it could happen to them. Let’s directly defend folks who are being persecuted. Let’s defend rights. Each is important on its own terms.

      • When you take a cherished quote like Niemholler’s and challenge it as you’ve done I believe that is an inherently valuable exercise regardless of whether we agree on the conclusion. Genocide always seems to be carried out by ones neighbors. Anything that can move the herd away from that behavior rather than towards it is good. So – exercises in critical thinking uber alles. And as a terminal skeptic I’d say if we can’t have critical thinking let’s at least have more effective marketing (ie brainwashing in a good cause…).

  4. I’ve heard a lot of peace activists use the Niemoller argument, and I believe they are often motivated by a genuine desire to protect rights for their own sake, and not for some other end like improving America’s image in the world and thereby improving “our national security.” This perhaps is the view of what we could call “well-intentioned liberalism.”

    But intentions don’t really count for much in terms of what happens politically. I think I’m in agreement with what you’re saying because I think that, even if the Niemoller argument is deployed with the intention of protecting rights, it ultimately fails to muster the kind of political will necessary to defend those rights when they are threatened. Activists resort to utilitarianism not necessarily because they personally believe that this philosophy best clarifies moral questions, but because they perceive that the people capable of action lack the ability to act based on the purpose of extending solidarity, which is an inherently collective endeavor.

    The task, it seems is to build up that alternative framework that enables activists to ground their own commitment to a politics of solidarity. Somehow this framework needs to go beyond abstract commitments to solidarity and contend with the multifarious ways that we all get personal incentives to break away from a commitment to solidarity. In this alternative formulation, we could say that the real reason Niemoller didn’t speak up during the Nazi rise to power had little to do with the fact that he wasn’t a socialist, a trade unionist, or a Jew. It had more to do with his inability to express a desire for solidarity. It was the folly of parochialism.

    I think there is an incentive for desiring solidarity and collectivity (I somewhat prefer the similar term, communality). I think we become more fully human when we tap into that collective desire, and we are reduced as people when we lack it.

  5. You have constructed a false dichotomy. There is nothing wrong with opposing attacks on civil liberties because they may eventually hurt you. For many, the first step towards caring about everyone’s rights is recognizing that attacks on vilified minorities are often extended to other groups as well (as they have been with the vast expansion of the surveillance state, post 9/11, for example). In fact, I see this with some of my students on a regular basis—they come to see that racial profiling is wrong, for instance, by realizing that they would object to profiling of their group (Irish Americans, say) if some members of it were engaged in illegal activities. My response is not: “You are so self-centered—you only care about your own well-being.” Instead, I point out why they should object when it happens to others too.

    • Actually, the US state has created a false dichotomy between “evil” Muslims and “good” non-Muslims, which is what allows many non-Muslims to be comfortably indifferent to the repeal of rights. I am merely pointing out that dichotomy makes the Neimoller argument irrelevant in this case. The repeal of rights as seen in the war on terror does not affect all people equally: the US state is not coming after bourgeois whites, unless they threaten the state in some way. In fact, as you say, it is possible to teach students that they should care about the rights of others. But there are many, many, comfortably ensconced whites who–today, 11 years after 9/11 are still indifferent to the repeal of rights. The Niemoller argument is not moving them to think differently.

      • It doesn’t have to affect people equally for the argument to have force. In fact, even thinking about the situation hypothetically (as in the racial profiling examples I use in my classes), can be very effective. The underlying point is that we don’t have to say “either self-interest or rights.” We can oppose injustice on both grounds, and starting with the former can lead to the latter.

        • It seems like we’re on the same page: It doesn’t HAVE to affect people equally, in which case we can make the argument that people should care about rights regardless of how it affects them personally. My point is that we don’t need to rely on utilitarian arguments. Also, students do not constitute the entirety of whites in the US. They are a very small segment of the population–they are already interested in these issues, even if they aren’t already convinced about the importance of preserving rights for all.

          • I teach at a community college in a mid-western state—my students are pretty representative of quite a large section of the population. But I should add that I think your blog is excellent—not because I always agree with your conclusions (although I generally do), but because I learn a lot about the arguments that can be made.

            • Thanks very much. I appreciate your willingness to engage our differences and your kind words. I should add that students are still a special segment: often they are young and open-minded enough not to be too invested in received wisdom. And my urgent concern underlying the above piece is that Muslims and precarious portions of the US population are disproportionately being targeted–and their vulnerable political/social status is not likely to be augmented by comfortable whites or South Asians, etc. any time soon.

Comments are closed.