Collectively guilty for crimes in a democracy? I don’t know.

Ben Wolford

My roommate in Olson Hall freshman year was from Tokyo, and once I asked him what the Japanese thought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was only beginning to learn English, and my Japanese is limited to “domo arigato,” thanks entirely to Styx.

So Tomofumi, my roommate, said something to the effect that the Japanese remember the two days in August 1945 with sadness, as it still affects them. Children of survivors still live with defects from radiation.

But Tomofumi wasn’t angry at me. He wasn’t angry at the United States, either, from what I understood. I haven’t surveyed all of Japan, so I’m not sure how they all feel toward us.

I do know much of the rest of the world hates us for it.

My friends Guillaume, of Nice, France, and Douglas, from Durban, South Africa, passionately contended Saturday night that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which roughly 300,000 civilians died, is the worst moral atrocity in history. (They mercifully failed to mention the fire bombings of Tokyo.)

And so I found myself trying to defend an action that is arguably the worst moral atrocity in history.

I took the position that it was horrific, but perhaps a necessary lesser evil than allowing the war in the Pacific to continue. Short of an atomic bomb (were two necessary?), would the Japanese have continued to the death? They were still sinking U.S. submarines in late July of 1945.

Moreover, doesn’t everyone agree that the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, homosexuals, Poles, disabled people and others was the most evil crime?

No, said Guillaume. The Third Reich was evil and therefore committed evil crimes. But the United States was the great liberator. “You were supposed to be the good guys,” he said.

And the Japanese were killing other U.S. warriors, not civilians. Even the Pearl Harbor attack was against soldiers. President Truman destroyed a city, including women and children.

Which lives are more valuable? Women and children or drafted soldiers? Would I obliterate 10 people to stop a fight that may or may not kill 20?

It’s difficult to reason an opinion on those questions, and Guillaume and Douglas ignored me when I asked them and maintained that they hate the U.S. for doing it.

I wonder if they hate the U.S. now and whether they hate you and me individually. Do they hate the government of 1945, or do they hate the U.S. government indefinitely?

I’m still thinking about that conversation because it has implications across other issues regarding collective guilt.

The post-war German author Günter Grass has interesting ideas about guilt. At 17, he fought as a Waffen SS. His novel “The Tin Drum,” and more explicitly his memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” calls for recognition of the guilt of every single German citizen who failed to actively oppose the Nazi regime.

I’m not sure how he feels about those Germans born after the war. Should a 21-year-old, white male accept a level of guilt for American slavery? Are citizens in a democracy guilty of the crimes of their government?

I would be interested to discuss this with some of the professors in Bowman Hall. It’s worth talking about.

Ben Wolford is a junior newspaper journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]