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Commentary: The mysteries of mercy

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- It's easy to despair looking at the world this week of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Red Army. From Cambodia to Sudan, and from Rwanda to Bosnia, the chronicle of man's inhumanity to man has remained a stunning spectacle with genocide remaining frightfully in fashion through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

With millions continuing to die every year of starvation, disease, civil war and merciless pillaging across the continent of Africa in particular, it is obvious that this is still not "the best of all possible worlds" -- an attitude the great French 18th century philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire ridiculed in his classic satirical novel "Candide."

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Given the enduring realities of human greed, hatred, cowardice and envy, the recurrence of monstrous crimes against entire races and religious groups of people -- be they Christians, Muslims, Cambodians, Bosnians, Chinese, Tibetans or Tutsis -- over the second half of the 20th century is arguably as predictable as the genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Armenians and Chinese in the half century that went before.

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It's easy to overlook, therefore, other common trends in modern human history that have been far more positive, yet may be so obvious that they are almost always unseen. One of the most important is the wise, commonsense observation of the great Mahatma Gandhi, architect of the huge non-violence movement that broke the back of the British will to remain in India: "There have always been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it. Always."

It's also easy to overlook during this week of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz that it and the other Nazi death camps were indeed liberated. And less than a decade later when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died, his eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev threw open the gates of the infamous Soviet Gulag Archipelago, freeing millions of survivors who had been convinced they would never see their homes again.

It's easy to forget that, as the movie "Saving Private Ryan" dramatically reminded an entire generation of Americans, millions of American, Soviet and British soldiers, and their Canadian, Australian, French and many other allies, fought and died to destroy the terrible regimes that had ravaged the human race in the 1930s and '40s. Those awful actions eventually called forth an even greater and ultimately decisive reaction.

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The bravery and decency of hundreds of millions of human beings was called forth as never before during World War II to protect their nations and the wider human race from the actions of scores of millions more who had been deceived or enticed into supporting monstrous regimes. Eventually, the Soviet communist colossus, too, crumbled into dust, just as Gandhi had predicted.

In 1993, the already classic movie "Schindler's List" directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Liam Neeson celebrated the heroism of an ordinary, indeed, more than slightly seedy German businessman who saved more than a thousand Jewish lives from the Holocaust. The awful crimes he saw around him called forth from him a decency he himself had never before realized was there.

And now, movie theaters around the world are showing a similar tale, "Hotel Rwanda," the story of Paul Rusesabagina, played in the movie by the great American actor Don Cheadle. He was another ordinary man who was not looking to be a hero but whose sense of decency saved more than 1,200 lives from the extraordinary slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists in Rwanda in 1994.

It's easy to demonize every German, or Russian, or Chinese, or Israeli, or Arab, or Hutu that ever lived and blame the horrific crimes perpetrated by crazed mobs or brainwashed multitudes in specific times and places on everyone who fits the appropriate label. It is much more difficult by far to remember the eternal words of the great Gulag chronicler Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he warned, "the line between good and evil runs through every human heart."

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Even Nazis could know mercy. One Nazi Party member, John Rabe, saved a quarter of a million lives during the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese during the rape of the city of Nanking by conquering Japanese forces in 1937.

The day after world leaders solemnly met at Auschwitz, the terrible "capital of death" where at least 1.5 million human lives, most of them Jewish, were deliberately and systematically snuffed out, Louis Michel, the 25-nation European Union's Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, addressed a European Institute conference in Washington. Michel straightforwardly noted, "The bald figures speak for themselves. More than a billion people in the world live on less than one dollar a day; 11 million children -- most under the age of 5 -- die each year; over 6 million of these deaths are due to preventable diseases." But Michel continued, "This is no time to despair; this is the time for us to act."

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Bible records God stating, "I have set before you life and death: Choose therefore life." On the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is well to remember that the camp was indeed liberated, even though it was too late for so many -- and that the way of life, as well as the way of death, still remains open before us.

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