During the Great Terror of Stalinist Russia of 1937-38, during which upward of half a million people died, poet Anna Akhamatova remembers standing in a Leningrad prison queue with scores of others waiting for a glimpse of their husbands or sons or brothers or fathers.
She writes, "On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there), 'Could one ever describe this?' And I answered, 'I can.' It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face."
She's not going all Godwin or whatever the Stalin equivalent is. She's only asking for a modest awakening. As if anyone is sleeping well.
I think we need two things to foster healing and justice.
First, we need to notice and bear witness.
A Lutheran colleague in Oklahoma, vowing to track what he hears and sees on a daily basis, posts this: "I plan to report, and be annoying, so get ready. I plan to not leave a single aggression unrecorded. So here's ... what neo-fascism looks like, y'all."
We need to do what journalists, poets, preachers and keen-eyed children do best: We need to notice. And bear witness.
Then we need not to relativize. We're going to be tempted to say, "Well, it's not that bad." Maybe it won't be that bad for those of us in positions of various forms of privilege.
We need to be able to answer the question: Could one ever describe this? By saying "I can." Not only "I can," but "I will."