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No place for Nazi salutes

Can any of my readers — ANY of you — pretend, with a straight face that you do not understand the historical and racial implications of a supervisor ordering a class of corrections department cadets to be photographed giving the Nazi salute, over a caption that says “Hail” anybody?

Didn’t think so.

Yet instructor Karrie Byrd, who, unbelievably, was also the cultural diversity teacher at the Corrections Training Academy in Glenville, claimed she saw absolutely nothing wrong with not only encouraging the cadets to salute her in such a manner, but pressuring those who felt uncomfortable into doing it anyway, because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

Further, Byrd appeared to revel not only in being greeted regularly with the Nazi salute (she even returned it, according to a state report); but she is quoted as sounding practically giddy at the idea that the cadets “do that because I’m a hard-a– like Hitler.”

Nauseating, isn’t it?

It gets worse. Cadets who understood what they were being asked to do was very, very wrong voiced their concerns. A secretary who saw the photo voiced concerns. Other instructors voiced concerns.

Basic Training Supervisor Annette Daniels-Watts didn’t see anything wrong with it and allowed it to continue.

In fact, when she was called out on the matter, she flippantly asked, “Do I resign now or what…?” and said, “I saw the picture and did nothing.”

A report on the matter compiled by state Inspector General Gary Johnson and Deputy Commissioner Mike Coleman suggests Byrd may even have ordered several reshootings of the photo in question, until all cadets’ arms were in the air. Still a few of them managed to get away with raising their arms, but closing their fists rather than extending their hands.

What on earth are we becoming?

Though it is tempting to be sympathetic toward those few who managed to at least close their fists, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation did exactly the right thing in firing the class of cadets in the photo and three staff members (the state will not say which ones, yet); and in suspending four others without pay.

If you are among those who perhaps feel sorry for those cadets because they were “only following orders,” you are as much in need of a history lesson as the folks at the Department of Corrections.

As someone else in the newsroom pointed out to me the other day, the first-hand witnesses of the Nazi horror — the men and women who spent much of their lives trying to teach the rest of us what had almost been unleashed — are nearly all gone, now. We are left with what can be taught out of history books.

My generation grew up not only hearing about the Nazi era from grandparents, but learning about it in our history and social studies classes, watching movies like “Schindler’s List,” or “Life is Beautiful” … and time after time asking ourselves “How could an entire nation allow that to happen right under their noses?!”

It seemed impossible.

But if you need any reminder of the dangers of eliminating those lessons, please note the state’s report says most of the people interviewed after the photo was released professed ignorance of the historical significance of what they were doing. Ignorance combined with a pathetic lack of judgment, and manipulated by a power-hungry person in a position of authority is incredibly dangerous. And it spreads.

Among the Nazis’ slickest tricks was (and note, I am not saying Hitler. Hitler was nothing without those pulling the strings for him behind the scenes) dividing Germany into those who thought they were “true” Germans, and everyone else. And of course, any hardship felt by those “true” Germans was the fault of the “other.”

Though many might think of that “other” as simply the Jewish population at the time, Nazis also targeted the Roma (gypsies), Poles, Soviets (particularly prisoners of war), blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, eastern Europeans, those with disabilities, homosexuals, political dissidents and “asocials” (anyone who either actively opposed the regime or whose behavior did not fit in with the Nazi ideal).

Yet a cultural diversity instructor at one of our state’s academies would like us to believe she did not understand that.

Perhaps we should be glad Byrd has given us this glimpse — of the manner in which some people again feel free to behave, as education and an understanding of right and wrong have suffered.

Byrd and Daniels-Watts should receive the full punishment available to Gov. Jim Justice and Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. And every teacher of history, social studies, sociology or any other subject where the matter can be brought up, should use this moment as an opportunity to teach students –truly — about the Nazi era, and the political and cultural psychology that created it.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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