Someone once asked me whether I would abort Adolf Hitler if I knew in advance he would try to launch a Holocaust against millions of Jews. I said I would not. That is because aborting Hitler would not have prevented the Holocaust. It would have justified it. The killing of millions of innocents does not begin with the killing of one innocent. It begins with the idea that in the larger scheme of things it is permissible to kill one innocent person.
The movie Judgment in Nuremburg (1961) shows that, even in Hollywood, Americans once appreciated this important principle. The movie is three hours long. But one only needs to watch the last ten minutes of the movie in order to see how far we have fallen in just a half-century.
For those who do not remember the end of the movie, Spencer Tracy plays an American judge who sentences former Nazis for their involvement in the Holocaust. One Nazi judge who sentenced innocents to death was himself sentenced to life in prison. As the sentence is read, he stares off in disbelief. He initially believes he is innocent because he was simply following the law. He later realizes his life sentence was just.
Only a couple of days after he is sentenced, the former Nazi judge requests that the American judge visit him in his jail cell. As he faces the man who sentenced him, he makes an odd request: he asks him to keep his personal memoirs – adding that they must be placed in the hands of a man who can be trusted. It is then that he declares the sentence passed upon him was just.
After pausing for a moment, the condemned Nazi judge says of the millions of dead Jews, “Those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that.” Spencer Tracy, playing the American judge, responds with one of the most profound lines of his storied acting career saying, “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
That has been the story of the American Holocaust as well. It began in 1966 in my native state of Mississippi. Just two years after I was born, a law was passed that made it legal to abort in the case of rape or incest. But then, the very next year, Colorado passed legislation allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the health of the mother.
Then the floodgates were opened. By the end of the year, several states were pushing legislation modeled after the Colorado statute. Within just six years, abortion for mere convenience was not just permitted by several states. It was enshrined as a fundamental constitutional right.
Some have declared that they will not rest until Roe v. Wade is overturned. Others say that is too lofty a goal. I disagree. I believe it is too shortsighted. We must reach further back if we want to reverse our moral free fall. Pre-1973 thinking is not enough. We must go back to the time when no state authorized the killing of innocents – a time when only the rapist, not the product of rape, was eligible for a sentence of death.
Ideas have consequences. And so do exceptions. One of the consequences of embracing an evil exception is that it hardens our hearts and clouds our thinking in advance of our consideration of other exceptions. Eventually we come to a point where we cannot imagine life without that initial exception.
It is fitting that it all began in Mississippi. We have a legacy of executing innocents by denying their personhood. It happened with slavery. It happened again with abortion. Now we have learned to justify our own Holocaust. We didn’t need Hitler after all.