The Line of Decency
There’s something tedious about the continual back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of abusing the memory of the Holocaust. First there was Senator Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, comparing Republican threats to cancel the filibuster in March with Nazi manipulation of German law during the 1930s. That prompted an angry retort from Senator Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican, who called it “inexcusable.” Just a few weeks later, Santorum himself was in the hot-seat, after saying that Democrats’ complaints about the threat to cancel the filibuster made them sound like Hitler seizing Paris and then saying: “I’m in Paris. How dare you invade me?” Santorum’s response was to complain that he didn’t mean it literally.
A month later, it was another Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, who came under fire. After reading from an FBI report on abuse of detainees at Guantanamo, he compared the American practices to “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings.” That unleashed a storm of criticism that hasn’t abated in the month since then, despite Durbin’s tearful apology a few days afterward.
What’s silly about all this posturing is that it turns a compliment into an insult. Americans who compare misbehavior to Nazism are saying, in effect, that they can’t think of a worse insult. They’re acknowledging that Hitler’s crimes were the worst ever committed. Do their targets deserve the overheated rhetoric? Almost never, but — well, that’s politics.
Jews have been playing the same game for decades. Even the most distinguished among us have used Holocaust imagery in the most wildly disproportionate ways: the “silent Holocaust” of intermarriage, the “spiritual Holocaust” of Soviet antisemitism, Yasser Arafat as “Hitler in a keffiyeh.” None of the perpetrators — rabbis, organizational presidents, Israeli prime ministers — has ever been forced to apologize.
It’s likely that some of the new indignation spills over from the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which has made many Jewish activists acutely sensitive to inflated Holocaust rhetoric and eager to apply the lesson where it doesn’t belong.
But we suspect the indignation swirling around Washington reflects something else: a desire to suppress political dissent. It was former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, discussing a snide remark back in September 2001 by television comic Bill Maher about the 9/11 terrorists, who chillingly warned that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” Now it seems that just about anything untoward that you hear from Democrats — it’s nearly always Democrats — has crossed some invisible line of decency.
In fact, it’s thought control and censorship that are always inappropriate. The cure for bad speech is more speech.