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June 20, 2005

On Nazis and Metaphors

The assault on Dick Durbin for comparing the torture of people at the hands of American forces to what we read about in the case of Nazis has led to criticism, even by many liberals who appreciate the sentiment but think it disgraces the memory of the Nazi's victims.

But it's an odd way to grace their memory and the idea of "never again" by giving a pass to other peoples' victimization by violence and torture. 

There is a simple reason why people jump to compare authoritarian and violent repression by any group to Nazi actions: it's a non-contested standard of evil action that people instantly understand.   Imagine if Durbin had said the American torture sounded like that of Mengistu's regime in Ethiopia or General Ríos Montt's in Guatamala's.   Most American's wouldn't even get the reference. 

We live in a pluralistic culture that often lacks strong shared metaphors of evil.  The Nazis are one of those few touchstones of shared understanding of evil and it would deny our language a strong metaphor to label actions so evil to deny its use.  Which is really the point of the attack on Durbin: to normalize abuse and torture by US forces as a morally agnostic  tool.   

To say such abuse is evil -- ie. like what the Nazis did -- is not to say that it's extent or numbers were the same as the Nazis, but to say that it crossed a line beyond pragmatic means-ends violence with some basis of justication to a point of cruel and vindictive violence that shares with the Nazis that essence of evil.    Not everything is on a continuum-- at some point you cross the line into the realm of evil, the same realm as the Nazis if in a smaller doses.

A danger of treating the Nazis as uniquely evil in a way that nothing else can compare is to give evil greater license.  The very enormity of the Nazi crimes -- if that is to be the measure of true evil -- then grants lesser cruel violence a claim on morality in comparison.  That is the claim of the Bush Administration defenders, using the deaths of Jews as a way to vindicate and justify violence against others. 

If that is the legacy of "never again," to make all lesser murder and violence pale into a moral puddle of debateable pragmatism, then the Nazis were more successful in spreading evil in our world than they ever could have hoped for.

Posted by Nathan at June 20, 2005 07:09 AM