‘Sarah’s Key’: Enforcing Injustice

As the Occupy Wall Street and other populist protests grow, the role of police – in either allowing dissent or crushing it – will be at center stage. In that regard, Gary G. Kohls sees valuable lessons from the Holocaust drama, “Sarah’s Key.”

By Gary G. Kohls

Recently I saw “Sarah’s Key,” a powerful movie that was made from the novel by the same name, written by French novelist Tatiana de Rosnay. My opinion is that it deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film of 2011.

The movie fictionalizes the horrifying true story of the June 1942 Paris roundups of thousands of Jewish families, who were then held for days in appalling conditions at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside Paris. These victims were soon to be on their way to the extermination camps on the other side of Germany, specifically Auschwitz, in Poland.

The World War II portion of the story is about the experiences of just one innocent family, the Starzinskis, including 10-year old Sarah and her little brother, as they were brutalized by the murderous police-state repression of Nazi-occupied France and Hitler’s emerging “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.”

The latter part of the well-told story (60 years after World War II) is about the experiences of Julia Jarmond, who, as a young American-born woman who had moved to Paris 20 years earlier, was working as a journalist for a French magazine.

Julia’s editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the infamous Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups of around 10,000 Jews.

While doing the research for the article, she learns that the apartment she and her French architect husband were planning to move into was the very apartment that had been acquired in 1942 by her in-law’s family immediately after the Starzinski family had been deported to Poland via cattle car.

The family’s belongings were confiscated by the Nazis and their French collaborators, of course and sold to help finance Germany’s military apparatus. Julia is haunted by the story and, even though her magazine article had already been published, she resolves to find out what actually happened to Sarah.

The Knock on the Door

The film starts with the proverbial “knock on the door at midnight” by French plain-clothes security officials and uniformed French policemen who, as Nazi-collaborators, obediently arrested Sarah’s family, except for the four-year-old Michel, whom Sarah had hidden away in a concealed closet.

The rest of the story concerns what ultimately happened to Sarah and Michel.

Using good investigative journalism, Julia eventually uncovers the hidden history of the family. She finds out that Sarah and Michel were the only family members known to have not arrived at Auschwitz with the hope that they could have somehow survived the Holocaust. Julie is driven to persist in her search and finally succeeds in piecing together the whole dramatic story.

One of the disturbing aspects of the story, and a humiliating one for historically anti-German France, was the willingness of the Vichy government and its French policemen to fully cooperate with the Nazis in the roundups, the deportations, the thefts of property and the torturing of the Jewish minority population (in 1942 French Jews only represented a tenth of 1 percent of the population).

This emotional and consciousness-raising film about an important piece of hidden World War II history left me pondering a number of questions, including the classic, “could it (fascism) ever happen here?”

Why couldn’t what happened in Paris in 1942 also happen in our militarized America, which some observers also call a quasi-police state? Was there anything unusual about the willingness of 1942 French policemen to obey orders from their superior officers?

Why not our modern police force who are trained to reflexively follow orders in chain-of-command, authoritarian systems?

Many of the Nazis who were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity following World War II denied responsibility for their participation in the atrocities because they were merely following orders.

They had taken solemn oaths of allegiance to Hitler and, because they thought of themselves as being moral men, they would have considered going back on their oaths as an act of treason.

I think it would be worthwhile if those of us who are potential victims of state-sanctioned police brutality (and that could possibly represent a considerable number of us) start asking ourselves what would prevent our modern-day law-enforcers, our soldiers, policemen and security service members, (as well as our elected officials, politicians and judges, all of whom have taken similar oaths of allegiance) from denying the human and civil rights of dissidents, protestors, conscientious objectors to war, killing, capital punishment and the corporate raping of the earth?

Likewise, what would prevent these armed oath-takers from persecuting outsider minority groups, such as non-white foreigners or non-Christians, and guiltlessly enforce the many unjust, unethical or illegal American laws that are on the books?

Wall Street Protesters

I think many would agree that there is cause for concern, considering the current examples of police brutality and arrests of the “Occupy Wall Street” activists in New York City who are protesting Wall Street predators, Junk Bond brokers, Big Finance and other assorted white-collar crooks who caused the stock market crash, the debt crisis, the housing crisis, the bankrupting bail-out fiasco and the recession.

In modern times, many American cops and FBI agents have been guilty of  persecution, mistreatment, harassment and abuse of nonviolent American protesters against corporate corruption, starting with the protests against the atrocity-producing Vietnam War through the harsh treatment and arrests of protestors at the infamous Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968; the anti-NAFTA, anti-World Bank, anti-IMF activists in Seattle and Toronto and all around the world; the protesters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008; the antinuclear weapons activists at Oak Ridge, Kansas City, Minneapolis and elsewhere; the anti-Keystone-Excel/Tar Sands pipeline activists in front of the non-responsive White House; and etc, etc.

This list could be considerably lengthened if I included examples from the century-long history of the labor movement in the U.S., where there are countless numbers of examples of brutal police repression of striking workers, poor people, suffragettes and racial or religious minorities who were protesting against injustice.

Doesn’t it seen curious that the police are always on the side of the ruling elite, the obscenely wealthy, the corporations and the crony capitalists, none of whom ever have felt police nightstick hitting skull?

Given the evidence cited above, I have to wonder if there is an actual stated ethic in American law enforcement that would empower some discerning, ethical and courageous “good cops,” “good” FBI and CIA agents, soldiers and judges to disobey unethical and unjust laws that defy the spirit of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the International Criminal Court and the Geneva and Nuremberg Conventions (or the Christian Just War principles, for that matter).

Does anybody see any indication from those in positions of authority and power in our legal system where the oaths that civil servants have to take are still considered sacred oaths (including the promise to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States, presumably including the First Amendment – the right to free speech)?

Is there any sign that any oath-takers out there might be courageous enough to disobey orders when that is the right thing to do?

I hope so. I hope that our elected civilian officials, who are supposed to have ultimate control of the policies and actions of law enforcement and the military, begin a dialogue about that important question that is critically important to real democracy.

The American Experiment

America’s fragile two-century-plus democratic experiment is dangerously close to being drowned in the metaphorical bathtub first promised by the neoconservative, anti-tax guru Grover Norquist and endorsed by the radical right-wing Tea Partiers (funded by cunning billionaires like the Koch brothers), the right-wing think tanks (like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute – among about 400 others) and the right-wing Christian theocrats (like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, etc. and their supporters and paymasters).

At one time in America’s anti-fascist, pro-democracy past (or was that only a pipedream?), most Americans thought (perhaps falsely) that law enforcement and the legal system was on the side of the little guy, the laborers, the poor, the abused, the “huddled (immigrant) masses yearning to be free” and the marginalized ones whom Jesus called “the least of these my brothers.”

But now law enforcement and the courts seem to pointedly avoid prosecuting the criminal activities of predatory lenders (with their high interest rates that force poverty, bankruptcies and foreclosures), the war profiteers (and their ill-gotten gains from selling weapons that are designed for human slaughter), BigPharma (and their toxic, dementia-causing, sickening synthetic drugs) and the various Ponzi scheme operators and junk bond “investment” crooks on Wall Street.

The motto that used to be printed on patrol cars was supposed to articulate the mission of law enforcement, but the “To Protect and To Serve” insignia is now regarded as a joke in way too many cities.

Certainly that ideal of law enforcement may have existed in simpler times, but in times of crisis, ideals often go out the window. The reality that is too often perceived is “To Harass and Abuse.”

It is the observation of many peace and justice activists colleagues of mine that most police personnel prefer obeying orders that are given to enforce petty laws that may result in the arrest or ticketing of nonviolent offenders that put the policeman at no substantial risk to health or life.

I totally understand not wanting to get hurt on the job – any job. Most of us will try to avoid unnecessary risks at work, preferring the less dangerous tasks.

Arresting unarmed Jews in Paris 1942 was that kind of low-risk assignment. Also qualifying for preferential assignments would be the harassing, hand-cuffing, arrest, pepper-spraying or tasering of nonviolent protestors for trespassing at Wall Street, the School of the Americas, the White House, the Pentagon and military recruiting offices.

Raiding homes for the possession of pot, arresting farmers for selling unpasteurized milk, ticketing drivers for parking violations or “speeders” for going 35 mph in a 30 mph zone; etc, etc are other examples of preferred assignments.

Disobeying Unjust Laws

Wealthy crooks, drug kingpins and other violent offenders tend to have guns, live in gated communities or have armed bodyguards. Career criminals may shoot back if they are threatened with arrest (and white-collar criminals may have expensive lawyers who can turn the tables on law enforcement). So these are not on the preferred list of assignments for average policemen.

But what about justice for the powerless victims of unjust laws like in a war-torn nation such as France in 1942? That type of atrocity can only happen if obedient, oath-taking law enforcers forget their humanity and are willing to be the accomplices of a crime that is being perpetrated by someone higher up the chain of command.

Questioning and disobeying unjust laws is always the moral thing to do, but it takes unusual courage. Refusing to obey the orders of the rulers in fascist-leaning or totalitarian societies can get you fired or black-balled or worse.

Not the Nazi Holocaust nor the Vietnam War nor the illegal war in Iraq could have happened if agents of the state – whether soldiers or policemen or other cogs in the system – had been courageous enough to disobey unjust orders.

Gary G. Kohls is a physician from Duluth, Minnesota, who, prior to his retirement, practiced holistic (non-drug) mental health care. He writes a weekly column for the Reader Weekly of Duluth that deals with topics such as politics, religion, medicine, health, psychiatry, nutrition, war, peace and justice.

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3 comments on “‘Sarah’s Key’: Enforcing Injustice

  1. kristine on said:

    Bravo, Dr. Kohls. Standing up for what is right, instead of knee-jerk submission to power is everyone’s job in a democracy.

  2. Rababa Gorzono on said:

    Dr. Kohl’s article is too long, too obvious, too laden with garden variety truisms to occupy space on this website.

  3. rababa . just read your comment as i printed the doctor’s article, and i must disagree. it’s not so long, only the evil acts are long, and obvious, but not the reasons, and there’s nothing garden about police brutality or injustice, though it’s true that they exist!-and why not even imagine if none existed?! too much?

    dr. kohl asks why do soldiers and police practice brutality, even sometimes so easily?

    i can guess that you, yourself, have never been a victim of brutality because you would remember asking yourself, at least, how and why people can be so wretched- especially toward a weaker or totally helpless other human.

    not only that, but your remark is so short! seems…. callous, i think, so that i imagine you have never empathized with OTHER victims either- like the jews or minorities killed by hitler or the victims of police brutality which can be found everywhere, unfortunately.

    i agree with dr kohl that the public should ask the question, that the authorities should discuss and fix the true, long and obvious problem. they should ask themselves the questions especially now that we are more so in a new policestate era…. and WE should ask them , too. i really wish we would and that all unjust arrests and beatings and harassments and tortures would stop forever. shouldn’t we at least be able to aim for that?

    now, the comment IS long, and maybe disposable, but not the article. i wonder why you would ever think so.