The Hitler Card

July 03, 2005|By Jon Hanson and Adam Benforado

MOST POLITICAL pundits, journalists and Monday morning quarterbacks have suggested that the take-home message of Sen. Richard J. Durbin is clear: The Hitler card should not be played unless the analog is a horrific, dictator-driven genocide. Play it for anything less and prepare to be trumped by friend and foe alike.

As the editors for the Sioux City (Iowa) Journal argued, "We cannot conceive of there ever being a time when anyone in or near our government or our military should be compared, even remotely, to Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot."

But a closer look reveals that although there are instances when the Nazi metaphor is incendiary, the comparison is often drawn with success regardless of the analog's heinousness. Indeed, there are ways to make the analogy to even the most mundane behavior without raising eyebrows, much less sending the world's blogs into a tizzy.

The Hitler analogy is unoffending when it casts us in the role of the innocent victims and them as vilified perpetrators - say, terrorists bent on our destruction, Big Brother bureaucrats, greed-driven tort lawyers or know-it-all academics. No one objected when former Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm compared a democratic tax proposal to "Nazi law" or when Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma suggested that the Kyoto Protocol would "deal a powerful blow on the whole [of] humanity" tantamount to that of Hitler and Stalin.

So if it wasn't the analogy per se, why did Mr. Durbin's remarks elicit such a powerful backlash? Because the Illinois Democrat made the mistake of comparing us to Nazis and of suggesting that we were committing atrocities against a human "them." The notion that our system may be unjust is too threatening for most of us - including many liberals - to countenance. Thus, our negative response is less to the inapt analogy than it is to the disconcerting suggestion that we - our country and our troops - may be comparable to "some mad regime."

But that possibility need never be taken seriously because the misplayed Hitler card is so easily and eagerly trumped. When someone disparages us, the context and details of the offending comments are irrelevant. The analogy provides a perfect and welcome opportunity to lash back. As Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita put it, "I didn't hear what [Mr. Durbin] said, but any such comparison would obviously be outrageous and not remotely connected with reality."

Trumping the Hitler card is generally a sure bet in this context, not simply because the suggestion that our system may be unjust is unsettling, but also because we are inclined to see anyone who raises such questions as a threat. Hence, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist claimed that Mr. Durbin's words were emboldening the terrorists while Fox News' Bill O'Reilly asserted that Mr. Durbin's comments went beyond "dissenting from a war" to "trying to undermine a war."

In that way, those who would call on us to examine or doubt ourselves become a threat that eclipses any concern for the issues they had hoped to raise. The discussion moves from one of national policy to one of indignant commiseration and mutual reassurances. As Rush Limbaugh put it, "The Nazis were literally brutal. We have nothing in common with them."

Making the contrast stark by recounting the particularly egregious atrocities of the Nazi SS or Soviet gulag guards allows Mr. Limbaugh and his fellow backlashers to alter the frame of comparison. A comment about how one policy resembles a Nazi practice is treated as a claim that the entire regime and its effects are equivalent to those of Hitler's Germany.

When we might have felt ashamed of policies and practices violating codes of ethics and international laws - not to mention our sense of ourselves - we end up contrasting our conduct to that of the entire Nazi machine. And by that standard, no doubt about it, we come off looking pretty righteous.

As understandable and widely shared as these system-affirming reactions might be, they also harm public discourse. The backlash dynamic cuts off potentially meaningful debate at the pass. And it allows us to ignore the power of situation - that the Germans of the mid-20th century weren't dispositionally evil but were very much like us, right down to their robust desire to see their system as just.

When we write off the incidents at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay as, in the words of White House spokesman Trent Duffy, "the actions of a few bad apples," we forget the lessons of our past and of social science. Badness does not well up from the apple alone. The tree, the orchard, the weather, the farmer, the soil and the climate all play a role. By overlooking the contingent nature of things, and by denying the connections and similarities between "us" and "them," we are not only failing to honor the memory of those who suffered, we are also increasing the chance that history will repeat itself.

The backlash dynamic goes well beyond the Durbin incident. It is silencing meaningful dialogue on many of our most salient and significant policy quandaries. The unwillingness to contemplate seriously the possibility that our own system may be badly flawed - and the selective outrage at imperfect comparisons - is stifling our debates and undermining the efficacy of our policies.

If, for example, to claim that race matters is to play the "race card," to point to gender biases is to reveal oneself as a "feminazi" or to comment on growing wealth disparities is to initiate "class warfare," we stand little chance of meaningfully considering those problems, much less addressing them.

Jon Hanson is a professor at Harvard Law School and Adam Benforado is a Frank Knox fellow at Cambridge University. They are writing a series of articles on how policy debates and policy are shaped by external discourse.

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