The Spirit of Nazism

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

When I was a kid and the worldwide horror at Nazi atrocities was fresh, I had no doubt that the only way the human race could climb from the pit they put us in was by letting the images of the concentration camps stamp themselves on our consciences forever, so that as individuals and as a nation what we stood for first was: Never Again.

Nazism, as I grasped it in my formative years, was a monster loose in the collective psyche, a live possibility of evil set loose by hatred and blind obedience (“we were just following orders”), which required a moral stand far, far in advance of the next reappearance of Der Fuhrer. Every instance of the dehumanization of one group of people or another had to be fervently opposed not because it was Nazism’s full flower — the boxcars, the gas chambers, the Final Solution, the 6 million dead — but because this is how it all starts. This is the precondition for holocaust.

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois grew up in the same era that I did and learned the same post-World War II moral lessons, and his recent words on the floor of the Senate — the ones that set off such wailing and howling among the diminishing ranks of supporters of the Iraq war — reverberated with the shock and disbelief of a 10-year-old thumbing through a Life magazine photo spread on Auschwitz. His words were politically incautious; they were honest.

“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,” he said, referring to the torture and humiliation of detainees at Guantanamo, “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.”

The fury that ensued was rooted in a different take on the moral meaning of Nazism: that only its aggregate death toll matters. Because our kill count in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t approach the number of corpses Hitler or Stalin racked up, Durbin has no right comparing torturers in American uniforms with those in Nazi or Soviet uniforms.

And just like that, the spirit of Nazism vanishes as humanity’s warning signal and becomes instead a moral cover. As long as we keep our kill numbers sub-genocidal (only 100,000 or so), we can kick detainees to death for a good cause, bomb civilians, fire on journalists and storm hospitals. As long as our population of political prisoners held without charges in inhumane conditions — “chained to the floor, deprived of food and water,” as per the FBI report Durbin cited —is in the mere tens of thousands, our prison network can’t be called a gulag.

If Durbin’s comparison had truly been out of line, it wouldn’t have generated such hysteria. It would have been worth a pitying shrug, a roll of the eyeballs. But it hit a nerve precisely because it was so dead-on accurate. The horror of our little war on terror is that we’re behaving with the same lurid inhumanity that has, since the 1940s, been associated with Nazism.

Durbin was the courageous messenger bringing this news to the floor of the Senate. Republicans didn’t shoot the messenger, but their demands that he “apologize,” retract what we said and abase himself were the political equivalent of doing so.

I must confess I have almost as little patience with the Democrats’ making the same demand a few days later of Karl Rove, who at a GOP fund-raiser in Manhattan said liberals were wimps: “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”

Ha ha, Karl. Good one. Democrats on the Defensive (a permanent subcommittee of the DNC) tried to match the decibel level of the GOP howls a few days earlier. They failed, of course — they always do — but managed in the process to remind their constituency of one of their most egregious betrayals: their role in Congress’ near-unanimous vote after 9/11 giving George Bush carte blanche to make war on the world.

Rove and Co. — including Bush in his Tuesday night speech at Fort Bragg, N.C. — are still trying to milk 9/11 for political gain, even as they evade the consequences of their reckless militarism and perpetuate the lie that the invasion of Iraq, planned well before 9/11, was a response to the hijackings.

I wish the Democrats, rather than trying to wring a political apology out of Rove, could have turned his words against him. He did belittle the values of many, if not most, of his countrymen, who following the terrorist attacks wanted not indiscriminate war against Islam but a compassionate re-evaluation of the use of force to achieve geopolitical ends. We ache for this all the more as we watch our military machine churn out more atrocities.