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Sounds Like...

January 25, 2006
By Pamela Troy

"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."

- 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 museum piece.

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 loud.

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 Communists..."

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 contempt.

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 lessons.

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 American politics.

"[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 shot."

"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.

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