Politics & Policy

Nazi Nonsense

Hitler is supposed to define the outer limits of evil, not the lowest threshold.

You know, now that he’s apologized, let’s admit it: Dick Durbin was right, sort of.

As you’ve probably heard, in a speech on the Senate floor (which was no doubt better in the original French), the senior senator from Illinois compared American behavior at Guantanamo Bay to the killing fields of Pol Pot, the Nazi concentration camps, and the Soviet Gulag. And last night he tearfully apologized.

Recall, he read a list of as yet unconfirmed (but probably true) allegations of abuse, which included blasting detainees with rap music and chaining them to the floor to stew in their own filth. “If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings.”

Now, I don’t mean this as a defense of Durbin, who is without a doubt one of the most unimpressive–or should I say most impressive?–hacks in American politics. But he was largely right.

No, not because the comparison is in any way valid on the merits. The Nazis, Soviets, and Cambodian Communists murdered millions of entirely innocent men, women, and children. The Nazis performed medical experiments on children and gassed whole families. Under Pol Pot, merely showing grief for a murdered husband, wife, parent, or child was punishable by summary execution. And the Soviet gulag earns the top “honor” of having killed the most people, some 15-20 million, most of them having had no clear idea why their own country found it necessary to terrorize and kill them.

Meanwhile, the 500 or so men in Guantanamo may be terrorized, but they know why. They declared a terrorist war against the United States and the West. They openly embrace the slaughter of women and children. They defy all the rules of war set down by man and even their own God. That may not justify some of the alleged abuses committed by Americans, but it justifies a great many things America’s critics call abuses but aren’t.

And it shouldn’t tax the intellects of even the Dick Durbins of the world that, say, plucking a child from the arms of his executed mother and sentencing him to a slow death at a work camp is different from plucking a terrorist from the mountains of Tora Bora and sentencing him to a holding facility where he gets three square meals, a Koran, and, during interrogation sessions, a heavy blast of hip-hop and lousy air conditioning.

So how is Dick Durbin partly right? It is true, as Durbin claimed, that if he were to read the allegations about depriving prisoners of food or forcing them to defecate on themselves, many Americans would be reminded of the Nazis. But that’s because vast swaths of the public and their opinion leaders prefer to live in historical and moral ignorance. (As for thinking of Pol Pot’s killing fields or the Gulag, it’s unlikely, as neither gets a fraction of the attention it deserves.) In the circles frequented by the likes of Durbin–where Howard Dean is a statesman and Michael Moore deserves the Nobel Prize–evil must automatically be associated with “Nazi.”

So it goes in our political culture, where Nazi has become so synonymous with “bad” that all bad things must be Nazi-like–particularly if these bad things have been (allegedly) committed by the United States. Durbin could have compared the alleged abuses to the behavior of the French in Algeria or even to the police in Chicago 20 years ago, and he would have been far closer to the truth. But that just wouldn’t have had the oomph he was looking for–and it would have left too many people scratching their heads.

In recent years, liberals have taken the lead in the practice of arguing ad hitlerum. In the lead-up the war, George W. Bush was constantly compared to Hitler. More recently, Sen. Robert Byrd likened proposed filibuster reform to Hitler’s rise to power. In the 1990s, the Contract With America was barraged with Nazi allusions. “When I compare this to what happened in Germany, I hope that you will see the similarities to what is happening to us,” Rep. Charlie Rangel declared. “Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things.”

Factually, that’s true. Hitler wasn’t talking about term limits for committee chairs or tax cuts.

In fairness, folks across the aisle from Durbin can’t resist the temptation either. During the Clinton years, Hitler and Nazi analogies were far too popular on the right, and they still pop up too often.

This is a more serious problem than mere partisan excess or Durbin’s jackassery. Hitler holds our fascination because of his singular villainy. But this shouldn’t crowd out our ability to make distinctions. Hitler is supposed to define the outer limits of evil, not the lowest threshold. Something can be very, very bad and be far “better” than the Holocaust.

The mere fact that Durbin and his fans don’t understand this is no reason to excuse it.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services

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