January 25, 2006
By Pamela Troy
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."
- Senator Richard Durbin 6/14/05
Does anybody remember Dick Durbin and the infamous "Nazi"
remarks made on the Senate floor? The ones where he drew parallels
to the way we treat our Iraqi prisoners and the human rights violations
of regimes like the USSR, Pol Pot, and Hitler? You know, the remarks
that prompted calls of "Insidious!" "Repugnant!"
"Outrageous" from the talking heads and for which Durbin
apologized a week later?
Of course, the Dick Durbin thing was several months ago which,
given the attention span of the American media, qualifies as almost
a century. That might explain the amnesia that seems to have set
in among various pundits. Or maybe the weird inconsistency currently
being displayed has to do with the ongoing drive to transform the
memory of the Third Reich into a carefully preserved and shellacked
Whatever the reason, some of the same people who were making horrified
noises about Durbin seeing a moral similarity between torturing
Middle Easterners in 2005 and torturing Western Europeans in 1942
responded to the latest Osama Bin Laden recording by gleefully comparing
Bin Laden's comments to those of American critics of Bush. Joe Scarborough
said, "When you look at what Osama Bin Laden said it sounds
an awful lot like what we hear the President's political enemies
domestically - not only like what a lot of democratic senators have
been saying, but also what one or two movie makers have been saying
over the past several years..." Chris Matthews compared Bin
Laden to Michael Moore. Tucker Carlson spent several minutes giggling
about it on his show, declaring "I literally expected him to
say Hillary in 2008 in the end."
Not, as some of them insist, that they're equating Bin Laden to
America's critics. Oh mercy no! They're just, well... thinking out
So why is it appropriate to compare statements from Bin Laden
with those of opponents of the Bush administration like Michael
Moore, John Kerry, and Howard Dean but inappropriate to compare
torture committed by Germans to torture committed by Americans?
One of the answers commonly offered is that the Third Reich was
extra, extra special. It represented an incredible effort at mass
extermination, combining a fanatical ideology with modern efficiency
and mechanization. The death, the havoc, the suffering of millions
was unprecedented, and all the more terrible in that the nation
responsible was one that had formerly been an open society admired
for its contributions to literature and philosophy.
Therefore, according to some, the best way for us all to show
respect for Hitler's victims is to act as though what happened to
them couldn't possibly have anything to do with us. As Jon Stewart
explained about the Durbin quote, the question is whether or not
inmates at Auschwitz would consider such treatment "a day at
the beach." That criterion effectively eliminates as victims
of Nazi-like treatment not only Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White
Rose resistance group (they were "merely" beheaded without
being tortured five days after being arrested for passing out anti-Hitler
leaflets), but the inhabitants of the Warsaw and Lodz ghettoes,
the people targeted during Kristalnacht, and those folks who were
forced by German soldiers to scrub the sidewalks of Vienna shortly
after the Anschluss.
And besides, it's argued, the "hallmark" of Nazism is
how many they killed. Until a society begins to murder on that scale,
using the Nazis as a parallel is just plain wrong. Those leaflets
the White Rose risked their lives to distribute, like the one that
opened with "Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as
allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible
clique that has yielded to base instinct?" Irrelevant! Why,
nothing would have insulted those martyrs to free speech more than
the thought that someone several decades down the road might take
their message to heart before the death toll had hit six million.
The Niemoller Statement? Badly worded. What Niemoller probably meant
to say was "First they came for no fewer than several thousand
And now Bin Laden is being merrily used as a club with which to
beat critics of the Bush administration. Where an insanely narrow
set of criteria is being demanded for comparisons with the Third
Reich, an insanely broad set of criteria is used to justify comparisons
with the man widely considered America's number one mortal enemy.
What made Hitler's name a curse in the mouths of any civilized
person was the fact that even before knowledge of the death camps
became widespread, he was known to be a thug whose followers tortured
and often killed any opponent unlucky enough to fall into their
hands. It was his use of deceit and brutality, whether in the streets
of Berlin or the concentration camps or the Gestapo prisons that
made him a bad guy. It wasn't because he was a vegetarian non-smoker,
because he was an anti-Communist, or because he disliked Winston
Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
So pointing out any shameful similarities in the way we treat
prisoners to the way the Third Reich treated prisoners (or the way
the Soviet Union or Pol Pot treated prisoners) is valid, painful
as it may be. Taking a quote from Hitler in which he criticizes
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, laying it alongside a quote from an American
Republican who criticizes Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and coyly inviting
everyone to observe the similarities is not valid unless that Republican
is also comparing Jews to maggots or rhapsodizing about the use
of force and the single idea in motivating the masses.
What has made Bin Laden despised in the U.S. and much of the western
world is the fact that he's believed to have masterminded the worst
terrorist attack in American history. Countless American citizens
did not spend three days in September of 2001 sitting stunned in
front of the television because someone was uttering criticisms
of George W. Bush. We were horrified and enraged by a crime that
left some three thousand people dead.
If a prominent Democrat or liberal advocates hijacking a plane
and flying several hundred terrified passengers into an occupied
building, then comparing that Democrat or liberal to Bin Laden is
valid. It might even be valid if a prominent Democrat or liberal
seriously suggests that citizens start strapping explosives to their
bodies, going into public places, and blowing themselves up. But
highlighting the fact that Bin Laden says "George Bush lies"
and so does Michael Moore and other Bush critics as if this were
somehow revealing about either Bin Laden or those critics is beneath
For the past few years there has been a steady escalation in rhetoric
as the right edges closer and closer to the overt rejection of political
freedom as we know it. The terms "aiding and abetting the enemy"
– part of the legal definition of treason – have been used repeatedly
to describe the actions of administration critics from Cindy Sheehan
to John Kerry. It is no coincidence that at the same time, there
has been an effort to drive the example of the Third Reich out of
all memory, to turn what happened in the mid-twentieth century to
the formerly tolerant and cultured society of Germany into little
more than a backdrop for war films or video games. It's especially
discouraging that some moderates and Liberals who should know better,
like Jon Stewart, laughingly dismiss the relevance of those hard-won
2006 America is not the Third Reich. We do not legally equate
dissent with treason, haul critics of the Bush administration before
a court and publicly denounce them before sending them off to prison
or the gallows. But there is a steady chorus of voices who plainly
regret those differences, voices that are rising in volume and confidence.
Consider some of the comments made about and to anti-war activists
and Bush administration critics, both on right-wing blogs and forums
and by prominent pundits who are presumably in the mainstream of
"[Name withheld] is a traitor!....If this was 1943 she
would have been detained long ago and no one would have heard
from her again until after the war."
"He stabs his country in the back!"
"...a shameless bitch who needs to either shut up or be
"We need to defeat the defeatists, and keep our troops
from being stabbed in the back."
"They ought to hang this [name withheld]."
"Your terrorist aid to the enemy will cause the death
of more of our troops!"
"[Name withheld] should be arrested for treason and if
not hung, put in a hole."
"How can you join ranks with those who support the terrorists?"
By the way, since we're on the subject of valid and invalid analogies
– I cheated. Two of the above quotes are not from the 21st century
at all, but from the Third Reich's notorious "People's Court"
judge, Roland Freisler. He was the man who tried White Rose members
Sophie and Hans Scholl and Christophe Probst and sentenced them
to death for passing out leaflets opposing Germany's war. I invite
readers to guess which quotes are his.
No, we're not in the Third Reich and probably will never be. But
a lot of Americans – and not all of them powerless crackpots - want
to take us to a place that's far too much like it. Equating critics
of the war with Bin Laden and anti-war activists with Iraqi insurgents
is a big step in that direction.