‘You Stand Condemned by What You See’

Richard Dimbleby’s words from 1945 hang hauntingly over the footage portrayed in ITV’s Return to Belsen – a programme broadcast to mark the 75th anniversary of Belsen’s liberation.

Ultimately, the horrors of Belsen and elsewhere reflected a tragic failing in our collective humanity. They showed what can happen when the worth of every human being is abandoned in the search for social and ideological perfection. In this way, Dimbleby’s words contain ripples of relevancy that force us to ask important questions of ourselves, in our own time…

Have we ever borne witness to injustice and neglect and walked away?

Have we ever responded to the rags and limbs of homeless people on our streets with disgust, rather than with compassion?

Have we ever closed our eyes to the cries of the poor and the hunger of the oppressed?

Have we, in fact, built an economy where individuals are treated as objects on the path to human convenience, rather than according to their individual human dignity?

Since this Coronavirus crisis began, the capacity of the human spirit to adapt and respond has led to astounding and overwhelming acts of solidarity, compassion and co-operation. We have been reminded of our common humanity – we see the importance of checking on our neighbours, of thanking our essential workers, of choosing to live our lives freely but responsibly in a way that maximises the strength of our common interests. However, if we are capable of these things now, why weren’t we capable of them before?

The fact is we were fully capable before, but we may have simply found excuses not to.

Change develops over time. Whilst the inequalities that existed before the crisis will continue to exist after it, we also know that just as things are different now to what they were in the past, they can again be different in the future.

Our economic recovery may well be very difficult; more than ever we will need a society that values its essential workers; that builds an economy around social need and not just social convenience and private profit; that looks out for its neighbours and extends a strong hand to the poor and the vulnerable. If we can do these things in a time of crisis, we can do these things when the crisis is over.

Once this is all over, many of us will first and foremost wish to celebrate in some way. Many of us will mourn the loss of loved ones and a year of lost time and opportunities. Rightly, there needs to be time for a societal recovery. When we rebuild we will need all our strength and co-operation in order to return to some normality. But, if we fail to make a new world that builds on the solidarity and compassion of these unprecedented days – and returns instead to the days of convenience, greed and ignorance – then no matter how loudly we applaud: one day we too may stand condemned by what we see.