“Mr. Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him. There is a difference.”
As recorded in Rod Gragg’s book “My Brother’s Keeper,” this is the response President Franklin Roosevelt gave to the Polish ambassador and Jan Karski in 1942.
Karski, a Polish resistance fighter, had escaped to the United States to spread word of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Poland. Sitting face-to-face with the president, he illustrated everything from the death camps to ghettos. He implored the president, a leader who he hoped could enact change, to take in 100,000 Jewish refugees slated for death.
Yet Roosevelt was incredulous that a story like Karski’s could be true.
From this exchange, Karski understood that horrors, such as those committed by the Nazi Party, could not be conceivable within the limited bounds of the rational imagination. Even when allied with the right intention, the careful moderate, like Roosevelt, would fail to fully comprehend and, by extension, deny, what Karski knew was real.
Jan Karski and the president’s meeting is a story of a critical juncture. When we speak about events as they unfold in front of us, we do not have the power of hindsight to aid in adjusting course.
So, what must we do when confronted with the unbelievable?
On Feb. 15, President Trump called into effect a national emergency. A few have called his incendiary announcement a “Reichstag fire.”
The term “Reichstag fire” refers to a false premise used by an authority to implement “emergency” or extreme measures. It paved the way in 1933 for Nazi Germany to seize due process and civil rights. The purpose was to forcefully implement what Nazis saw as the necessary solution to an imaginary crisis in which “others” had contaminated the state’s pure, great living space.
Trump lit this fire a month ago when he recast the story of the humanitarian crisis at the border for the advancement of his own agenda. The next step he took in setting the proverbial building ablaze was bypassing congressional approval of border funding.
The context of these two situations is not identical — unlike Germany, the U.S. is not war-torn nor steeped in an economic depression. But a Reichstag fire can still happen if two conditions already exist for an authority to exploit: sentiments of retribution and complacency.
Nazi Germany did not have to create anti-Semitism in its occupied territories. It already existed there. The party merely organized it and gave it directional force.
Trump’s campaign trail was an incarnation of this process. In several instances at his rallies, Trump endorsed violence against dissenters. The violence was then committed by supporters who acted upon their preexisting attitudes of intolerance, if not hate.
Racism in America became Donald Trump’s fertile stomping ground. All he had to do was give bigotry a collective form in a larger, more powerful space. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, it is why 2017 became the year in hate and neo-Nazism.
Bigotry will always exist. But who permits its ascension to power are those who do not believe the unbelievable. Donald Trump’s Reichstag fire has set a precedent for false inducements and power grabs. The legal purview of the emergency declaration itself gives him a wide range of limitations on civil liberties to choose from, including the ability to shut down many kinds of electronic communications within the U.S. and freeze any or all Americans' bank accounts.
So, in the interim between inaction and action, belief that is overly careful will allow this fire to burn until the unbelievable manifests an unmanageable reality.
At least that is the historical formula. But as future generations reflect on this juncture in history, another question may eventually be asked: “How did it get this far?” Those who had the luxury of disbelief and the ability to act will be called to answer it.
The good news is that Roosevelt was influenced by Karski’s testimony. In 1944, he established the War Refugee Board, a committee that rescued more than 200,000 Jewish refugees. This board effectively shifted the American war effort from one of complacency to one of action. Americans today do not have a president who is willing to enact this change, so it must be a grassroots effort.
As Roger Cohen wrote, “The Reichstag fire was at least a fire.” What we have now is a deceptive repetition of history masked by “smoke and mirrors.” But we can decide, now, what will be done to stifle it.
Contact opinions writer Jessica Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.