Some of you may be familiar with my horror short, “East of the Midnight Sun, West of the Full Moon”, which is told from the point of view of a young Alaskan woman named Senka. Senka’s grandmother came to America when her family fled Europe to escape the Holocaust and this legacy both haunts and drives Senka as she sees history begin to repeat itself. While writing this story, I went down a research rabbithole into everything from average winter temperatures in Barrow, Alaska to how to kill vampires in various cultures’ mythologies to the history of antiziganism. Oh, the eyebrow raises my search history and open tabs would get.
One of the things I spent the most time researching was the meaning of different armbands used in Nazi concentration camps. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t find the one for disabled people. I had wanted a way to show that a character had an invisible illness and bring home that even those who appear safe and part of the in-group may be targets (and because I am chronically ill and I write what I know and I know I wouldn’t make it out of Nazi Germany alive). I eventually realized I couldn’t find the armband because there wasn’t one. The Nazis killed them first, before there was a need.
That realization felt like being doused with ice water and has remained with me like shrapnel under the skin, needling at the back of my neck every time I hear politicians like Paul Ryan use the exact same dehumanizing language for the sick and disabled that the Nazis did, every time I hear people I know or thought I knew echo those talking points around me (always insisting “Oh, but I didn’t mean you!” when I question them about it). You did. You did mean me. You meant me and everyone like me and you know where it leads. You just don’t have to care. You’d rather not have to think about it, have to “be political”, have to be uncomfortable at a family dinner, have to stick your neck out in mixed company, have to take responsibility for the dangerous ideology you so easily fell for and so willingly perpetuate. Of course you weren’t talking about me. You would never. You didn’t mean it. And I’m sure plenty of Germans didn’t mean it either.
That didn’t stop it from happening. And it didn’t end there. That was only the beginning. The trial run. The silence taken as permission to do it again. To the Jews. To the Communists. To the Roma. To the gay people.
If you can’t care about disabled people because we’re people, remember that it didn’t end with us. It started with us. Just like the alt-right flexed its muscles targeting women online and grew bolder, louder, and more visible from there. If you let people dehumanize someone, you give them permission to dehumanize others. Sometimes those others turn out to be your neighbors or your friends or your family. Sometimes they turn out to be you.
Which is, in the end, the point I was trying to make with the comparatively privileged “Gypsy Soul” character (who wound up with a different armband and a port in her chest). Being ignorant of the wrongs done to others won’t keep them from being done to you. Generally the opposite is true. As The Paul McKenna Band put it in the song “Silent Majority“:
If the Silent Majority stays silent
Then the evil men will surely have their way
Stem the tide before the deluge; that’s the moral
If we don’t speak up we’ll all be swept away