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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JEFF JACOBY

The overused ‘Nazi’ insult

THE MOST striking thing about the uproar over Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s comparison of American servicemen to ‘‘Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or ... Pol Pot’’ is that his grotesque comparison even caused an uproar in the first place.

Of course his analogy was obscene. Of course he knew perfectly well that there is no equivalence between the treatment of several hundred Muslim detainees in Guantanamo — some of which may have been appalling, but none of which has been fatal — and the Nazis’ genocidal slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust or Stalin’s imprisonment of 25 million prisoners in Siberian slave camps or the mass murder by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge of nearly 2 million of their fellow Cambodians.

But since when do such vile comparisons trigger an angry backlash?

When another Senate Democrat, West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, declared a few months ago that the Republican effort to bar filibusters on judicial nominations was no different from Hitler’s strategy to achieve dictatorial power, where was the storm of protest? When Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Rick Santorum, on the other side of the same debate, said of Democrats objecting to the GOP’s stand, ‘‘It’s the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, ‘I’m in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb my city? It’s mine,’’’ why was there no outpouring of censure? When pundit Robert Novak, at still another point in the filibuster controversy, fumed that for Republicans to consider compromising with Democrats would be ‘‘like going to a concentration camp and picking out which people go to the death chamber,’’ how many commentators and talk-show hosts erupted in outrage and contempt?

Why the silence when a Virginia state senator, Democrat Mamie Locke, likened a proposed amendment preventing same-sex marriage to ‘‘the rise of Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy?’’ Or when Ted Turner, to quote the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable, ‘‘compared Fox News Channel’s popularity to Adolf Hitler’s popular election to run Germany before World War II?’’

None of those revolting allusions — all of them from just the first six months of 2005 — set off any tidal waves of disgust or deafening demands for apologies, penalties, or resignations. And yet each of them was if anything even less defensible than Durbin’s ugly comments about US military interrogators in Guantanamo.

Needless to say, this habit of using the Nazis as an all-purpose taunt didn’t begin in 2005. Last year, for example, Al Gore derided GOP activists as ‘‘brown shirts,’’ a columnist for Newsday identified the Republican presidential convention with ‘‘Nazi rallies held in Germany during the reign of Adolf Hitler,’’ Linda Ronstadt interpreted the November election results to mean ‘‘we’ve got a new bunch of Hitlers,’’ Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner said Condoleezza Rice was like ‘‘a Jewish person working for Hitler,’’ US Circuit Court Judge Guido Calabresi pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore as an example of ‘‘what happened when Hindenburg put Hitler in,’’ and former Senator John Glenn equated Republican political rhetoric to ‘‘the old Hitler business.’’

To hear such crude analogies from the stupid and the clueless is one thing. But from from senators? Columnists? Judges? Do they really believe that an election result they rue belongs on the same moral plane as cramming men, women, and children into boxcars and sending them to death camps? However passionate they may be about the political controversy of the day, should those they contend with really be lumped with the monsters who machine-gunned Jews into ravines and performed horrific medical ‘‘experiments’’ on unwilling victims?

‘‘I compare this to what happened in Germany,’’ New York congressman Charles Rangel told a group of state legislators when Republicans running on a ‘‘Contract With America’’ won a majority of seats in Congress a decade ago. ‘‘Hitler wasn’t even talking about doing these things.’’ His fellow Democrat, Representative Major Owen, said the GOP leadership under Newt Gingrich consisted of ‘‘people who are practicing genocide with a smile; they’re worse than Hitler.’’

Those who draw such insane parallels seek to damn their opponents with the most evil association they can imagine. But all they really accomplish is a kind of Holocaust-denial. After all, if congressional Republicans are ‘‘worse than Hitler,’’ then Hitler must have been no worse than congressional Republicans. Which means that the tyrant who drenched Europe in blood, created a hellish network of concentration camps, and sent more than a million Jewish children to their deaths is roughly equal to — maybe even better than — a political party that calls for tax cuts and welfare reform. Anyone who can say (or imply) such a thing is guilty of trivializing the Nazis’ crimes and of cheapening the agony of their victims.

This is where the degradation of American political discourse has brought us, but it isn’t where it will end. When calling an opponent ‘‘worse than Hitler’’ or ‘‘another Pol Pot’’ has lost its sting, what new invective will the slanderers move on to? When opponents of the war can no longer whip up a frenzy by depicting Bush as Hitler or by likening US troops to the SS and KGB, what fresh venom will they come up with?

Politics ain’t beanbag. But there used to be limits — including rhetorical limits — that decent men and women respected. As those limits are shredded and forgotten, our political environment is growing dirtier, uglier, and sicker.

Jeff Jacoby’s e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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