In the summer of 2020, video footage emerged showing long lines of prisoners, bound and blindfolded, sitting on the ground at a railway station. The pictures were taken by a drone, and the captives, many of them wearing high-visibility vests, appeared to be Uyghurs. They had apparently been shipped by train to a location that analysts placed in southeastern Xinjiang. Standing over the men were Chinese police in black uniforms. In the short video, which was posted anonymously on YouTube, some of the captives were being led away, their heads bowed, their eyes still covered, their destination unknown.
Perhaps it was the trains, the aerial shot of the sidings, but the visual echo was immediate. To anyone steeped in the imagery of the Holocaust, when Jews were transported in cattle cars from all across Europe to mysterious camps in the east, the association was hard to avoid. But I also made another connection with the Shoah, one that I imagined gave me a glimpse into the mind of the unnamed leaker of the Xinjiang footage and the hope that drove them to make these images public.
At the time, I was immersed in the story of a whistleblower who had revealed to the world a central part, and perhaps the most notorious aspect, of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” That man, too, had to hide his identity. He took terrifying risks and endured unimaginable torments, spurred by the conviction that a simple act of revelation—of making the horrific known—would prompt action. He believed that once people knew the shocking truth, they would rise up, instantly and without hesitation, and demand that the horror be stopped.
In researching the story of that messenger, I have come to a bleaker conclusion: The conviction that galvanized him—and doubtless galvanized the source of those distressing images of Uyghur prisoners—rests on a frail foundation. Because the faith that once people know, they’ll act misses something unsettling about human nature: People do not always want to believe the bearer of desperate news—and even when they do believe, they are very capable of looking the other way. [Continue reading…]