It is a rite of passage for major world leaders to tour Auschwitz and other Holocaust-related sites during visits to continental Europe; George W. Bush did in 2003. His father, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and other American presidents have made similar pilgrimages of contrition during or after their terms in office. George W., in fact, enjoyed it so much he went back a second time. These visits are as regular as they are pre-scripted, involving the usual combination of somber photo-ops, Formal Apologies, and earnest resolutions that these tragedies will happen Never Again.
The actual lessons leaders, nations, and people choose to take from their visits to Holocaust sites, in stark contrast to their solemn rhetoric, are shockingly superficial. If the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that nations should not elect leaders with toothbrush mustaches and swastika armbands, then we have learned it quite well. This terrible thing happened, and it serves as a reminder that we shouldn't elect Nazis. What neither George W. Bush nor most other Americans acknowledge is the actual lesson – that the Holocaust is an extreme example of what happens when societies, governments, and people decide to scapegoat, legislate against, and ostracize people based on political, religious, ethnic, or lifestyle differences.
No, instead we remind ourselves: Hitler bad, Nazis bad, "freedom" prevents Hitler and Nazis.
As cheapened, exploited, and distorted as the Holocaust has become, I can only imagine what the 10th, 20th, or 50th anniversaries of 9-11 are going to look like. Right now it has been seven years since that day, and what have we learned? For most Americans, it seems that the lesson was Muslims are Violent and They Are Trying to Kill Us. The lesson is that They must be stopped. The lesson is that there is no lesson, just an evil, fanatical enemy to be destroyed before They destroy us.
The real lesson is that times like these test the resolve of nations (and their people) and if we respond by becoming what our enemies have always accused us of being, we have lost a lot more than two iconic buildings and 2,752 human lives. While the superficial lessons abound today and have done so for seven years, we patiently wait for our political leaders, media, and neighbors to indicate that they have learned anything at all from this event that so dominates their worldview. I am not holding my breath.