Correction to This Article
A June 22 Style article attributed to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) a statement that the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases "would deal a powerful blow on the whole [of] humanity similar to the one humanity experienced when Nazism and Communism flourished." It should have noted that Inhofe was quoting a remark by Andrei Illarionov, former economic adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Comparison That Ends the Conversation

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Someone should post a sign in the Senate cloakroom or wherever Important People Who Should Know Better will see it. The sign would warn politicians against comparing anything to the Nazis or Hitler or the Holocaust. These comparisons are not a good idea. Repeat : Not a good idea. It will only bring a massive headache, as Sen. Richard Durbin has learned (he'll take that Tylenol IV drip now, thanks).

Durbin, the Democratic whip, became the latest politician who couldn't make his point without comparing the matter at hand -- the alleged mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- with the methods of the Nazis (and those of Pol Pot and the Soviet gulags, too).

It prompted yet another episode in what has become a familiar Kabuki in American political discourse: Someone invokes the behavior of Nazis in some non-genocidal context. This is followed by an outcry (in which members of the opposing party are "saddened"), condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, futile attempts by the speaker to "clarify" his remarks, repeated calls for him to apologize and, inevitably, some acknowledgment of regret, often tearful.

Durbin's saga began June 14 on the Senate floor when he read from an FBI memo that described the ordeal of a prisoner at Guantanamo who was allegedly chained to the floor, forced to listen to loud rap music and subjected to extreme heat and bitter cold, among other unpleasantness. Durbin said: "If I read this to you and did not tell you it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, 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."

Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Warner condemned Durbin on the floor two days later. They were followed by about two dozen Republican senators (in news releases), Majority Leader Bill Frist (who called on Durbin to apologize on the Senate floor), Vice President Cheney, White House press secretary Scott McClellan and a host of veterans groups and conservative commentators.

After issuing a statement of "regret" on Friday, the Illinois Democrat came to the Senate floor yesterday to apologize in person. "Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line," Durbin said. "To them I extend my heartfelt apologies." Durbin also apologized to any soldiers who took offense at his remarks. "They're the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect for them," he said.

Taken in context, Durbin's premise -- that the techniques characterized in the FBI memo are consistent with those deployed by "mad regimes" -- is worth debating. But of course, such invocations are never debated in their precise context. "They will always be misconstrued and turned around, and that's why you should never compare anything to Nazis or Hitler," says Democratic strategist Paul Begala. "It's as basic a rule as there is in politics."

The rule is flouted all the time -- most recently by Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who couldn't talk about judicial filibusters and resist equating the tactics of the opposing party to that of Hitler (whose views on the filibuster are not known).

Santorum was responding to the Senate Democrats' charge that Republicans were breaking the rules by opposing filibusters: "The audacity of some members to stand up and say, 'How dare you break this rule?' -- 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.' "

Byrd, defending his party's right to oppose Bush's judicial nominees, said, "Many times in our history we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men."

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director and a reliable voice of condemnation whenever someone drops the N-bomb, says, as a general rule, politicians should know better. "It's kind of sad, because these are smart people who say these things," he says.

Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, says that the Nazi analogy is appropriate when someone is talking about an alleged mass murderer -- say, Saddam Hussein, whom supporters of both Iraq wars compared repeatedly to Hitler. "It doesn't have to be taboo in all cases," Foxman says.

Only most cases. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid yesterday provided a compilation that included, among other things, a statement from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) last year in which he said the Kyoto Protocol "would deal a powerful blow on the whole [of] humanity similar to the one humanity experienced when Nazism and Communism flourished." Reid's office also charged that Inhofe and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) had compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo, that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) had "linked stem cell research to Nazism" and that former Republican senator Phil Gramm "compared a Democratic tax plan to Nazi law."

All of this is consistent with the escalation of political rhetoric in general, says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown and an expert on political discourse. She mentions the Senate debate over filibusters, in which the "nuclear option" loomed. And conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, who rails against "feminazis." "It's all part of the same verbal inflation," Tannen says, adding that feminists generally refrain from torturing people.

There is a dictum in Internet culture called Godwin's Law (after Mike Godwin, a lawyer who coined the maxim), which posits that the longer an online discussion persists, the more likely it is that someone will compare something to the Nazis or Hitler.

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, "There is a tradition in many Usenet newsgroups that once such a comparison is made, the thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company