Some things – like the Nazis and racial injustices in the American South – never lose their grip on our imagination, as a couple of utterly unrelated events reminded me last week.
On Wednesday, The New York Times published a photo album from the Auschwitz death camp, showing carefree men and women of the SS singing, picnicking and sunbathing during time off from superintending mass murder.
The next day, the cable channels ran wall-to-wall coverage of thousands of people who had descended on a small Louisiana town, in the biggest civil rights protest march seen in the US since the 1960s.
Remarkable events both, but with one glaring difference. The crimes of the Nazis are a thing of the past, those photos a ghastly reminder of the banality of an evil that once was. But what drew the marchers to Jena was proof that a century and a half after the Civil War, and 40 years after the climax of the civil rights struggle, race discrimination lives on in the US.
The basic story is now well known. Last year, black students at a local high school sat under a tree where traditionally white students met. The latter responded by hanging nooses from the tree. Racial tensions escalated. The whites involved were merely reprimanded, but when six black students were arrested after beating up a white schoolmate, they were charged with attempted murder.
Thus Thursday's march, to "Free the Jena Six". From former presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to the son of Martin Luther King, all today's big civil rights names were there. The atmosphere conjured up memories of the great protests of the 1950s and 1960s, while showing that a generation often accused of being self-centred could also be stirred to outrage.
And with good reason. The case of the Jena Six struck virtually every raw nerve of black history in the South – from nooses on trees, signifying lynching, to the small-town prosecutor (white, naturally) warning black students staging a peaceful protest that "I can make your lives go away with the stroke of a pen".
Is racism rife in Jena? Not to hear the locals tell it. The town may be 85 per cent white and the races may live in more or less segregated neighbourhoods (as is the case in most US cities). Beyond that, nothing unusual. "But they make it sound as if the whole of Jena is just one big KKK rally," one (white) citizen complained.
But why, then, were white and black offenders treated so differently? In the US South, hanging a noose from a tree is as much a hate crime as daubing a Nazi swastika on the wall of a New York synagogue, and all but five of the 50 states have laws that make such offences a felony. Yet in Jena, the white students responsible were handed mild disciplinary punishment, as if what they had done was a schoolboy prank.
By contrast, the blacks who attacked their white classmate last December were charged not with assault but attempted murder. The resultant uproar has already had some effect. The charges have been reduced to second-degree battery, while the conviction has been overturned of the one member of the Six who has been in court – tried as an adult for what supporters say was a schoolyard fight.
But Jena merely underscored how blacks and whites are not equal in the eyes of the law. Murder a white person, and you are four times more likely to be sentenced to death than if your victim is black. Of blacks executed for murder, no fewer than 20 per cent were tried by all-white juries. According to Human Rights Watch, five times as many whites as blacks use drugs, but two-thirds of drug offenders in state prisons are black. One in every 20 black men over 18 in the US is behind bars, compared to one in 180 whites. Money, of course, has a great deal to do with it too. If you are both poor and black, the system is even more tilted against you.
Take O J Simpson. OJ is black, but more importantly, he is affluent – rich enough in 1995 to have hired the glittering legal team that secured his acquittal on double murder charges. Now he's back in the headlines, facing charges of armed robbery and kidnapping. The picture that said it all, however, was of OJ walking away from the courthouse with a couple of pricey lawyers, bailed for a modest $125,000 and secure in the knowledge that this time too he is unlikely to spend very long behind bars. If you're a poor high-school kid in the South, though, with just a lousy court-appointed lawyer, you can only pray that your case becomes a cause célèbre.
But Jena offers hope, too. Race is this country's original sin, a dividing line between America as it is and America's proclaimed image of itself as the land where all men are created equal and stand equal before the law. That is manifestly still not true. But at least people still care and aspire to put it right.