In a speech to the Minnesota atheists last Sunday, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison broke one of the most important, yet unwritten rules in political speech: The Minnesota Democrat used an analogy involving Nazi Germany to score political points.
Opinion: A Nazi Analogy is Never a Good Idea
This rhetorical tactic has gotten a slew of politicians in trouble. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., made the analogy about Guantanamo, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., used it when the Democrats were set to fillibuster, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., used it when the Republicans were set to filibuster, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., used the analogy in reference to stem cell research. The list goes on and on.
Democrats and Republicans have attempted to score political points with a Hilter or Nazi analogy. It generates sensational news for a cycle as the opposing side attempts to score political points until the offending politician concedes that the analogy was wrong.
The Star Tribune reported Sunday night that Ellison said of 9/11, “It’s almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that. After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it and it put the leader of that country [Hitler] in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.”
The Reichstag fire was exploited by Hitler to consolidate his power and usher in the Nazi regime.
By Monday morning, a comparison of 9/11 to the Reichstag had morphed into a comparison of President Bush to Adolf Hitler. Mark Drake, communications director for the Republican Party of Minnesota, wrote in a press release, “Keith Ellison’s despicable comments likening President Bush to Adolf Hitler need to be immediately repudiated by all Democrats in Minnesota. To compare the democratically elected leader of the United States of America to Hitler is an absolute moral outrage which trivializes the horrors of Nazi Germany.”
By Tuesday, a nationally read Minnesota blog, Powerline, had picked up the story and it had spread to hundreds of conservative sites. “In promoting the disgusting conspiracy myths of radical ‘truthers’ and extremist Muslims, Ellison is simply working his latest hustle to the growing audience in the nut-ball box,” wrote Scott Johnson. “It’s an audience that includes the Minneapolis atheists who fancy themselves too intelligent to believe in God.”
By Wednesday, Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten penned a column in which she asked, “Where is George Bush, with all his shortcomings, in the terrible tale of the Reichstag fire and its aftermath? On what grounds does Ellison compare Bush with Hitler, who butchered 6 million Jews and many others?”
Kersten is no stranger to using a Nazi analogy to score political points. Last year, she compared those who thought Terri Schiavo had a right to die with dignity (a majority of Americans at the time) to the Nazis. Much like Ellison’s gaffe, it’s a loose analogy:
“People of goodwill may disagree about Terri Schiavo’s case. Yet as our society strays from its traditional belief in the essential dignity of every human life, we all must grapple with the implications of the notion that some lives are “not worth living.” …Some German intellectuals championed this idea well before the Nazi era began. A 1920 book, for example, decried “the meticulous care shown to existences which are not just absolutely worthless” — the disabled and deformed — “but even of negative value.” It called for applying the “healing remedy” of premature death, in order to “eliminat[e] those who were born unfit for life or who later became so.” …Today, we must ensure that we ourselves are not tempted to start down this slippery slope –moved by free choice rather than totalitarian edict, and seduced by a shallow notion of “death with dignity.”
Kersten’s Wednesday column asked Ellison for a clarification of what the statement really meant. The 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was an opening for the “Iraq war, Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence and certain provisions of the Patriot Act.” Ellison said that “in the aftermath of a tragedy, space is opened up for governments to take action that they could not have achieved before that.” The nation continues to debate whether the Iraq War was necessary or justified, and whether the increase in government, especially in the area of surveillance, is good thing. Both occurred in the aftermath of 9/11.
Kersten also wrote, “When we spoke, [Ellison] agreed that Osama bin Laden — not the Bush administration — was responsible for the attacks on 9/11.”
By Thursday, the major news networks had picked up the story. CNN ran a brief clip, and Fox News’ Brit Hume chimed in with “Wait Until You Hear Who’s Comparing the Bush Administration to Nazi Germany.”
Ellison’s comment will likely continue to run the news cycle, and he would be well advised to take the comment back. Even within the context he presented it, and these things never stay in context, it carries the inflammatory reaction that only Nazi Germany can bring. Even if the audience might agree, as both Kersten and Johnson asserted, a historical evil the magnitude of Nazi Germany doesn’t belong in political speech where it becomes trivialized and exploited. It belongs to the history books.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison responded to critics of his comments at an Atheists for Human Rights meeting last Sunday in a letter to the editor today in the Star Tribune.
“This past Sunday I spoke to constituents about religious tolerance and the erosion of civil liberties in a post-9/11 America,” wrote Ellison, a Democrat. “It is precisely in the aftermath of a tragedy like 9/11 that we must be most vigilant about our precious civil liberties. Unfortunately, some have tried to misconstrue my remarks.”
Ellison’s comment at Sunday’s meeting compared the attacks of 9/11 to the Reichstag fire in Germany that ultimately gave rise to Nazi power. Ellison’s critics, mainly conservative commentators, have called for him to retract the comment.
Wrong response to 9/11
This past Sunday I spoke to constituents about religious tolerance and the erosion of civil liberties in a post-9/11 America. It is precisely in the aftermath of a tragedy like 9/11 that we must be most vigilant about our precious civil liberties. Unfortunately, some have tried to misconstrue my remarks.
Obviously, Osama bin Laden and the hijackers who carried out the murderous events are responsible for 9/11. The question is, however, how do we respond to this tragedy? With fear and rage? Or with courage and reason?
I’m for courage and reason.
This means that in the aftermath of 9/11, instead of invading Iraq, President Bush should have responded militarily where necessary, but even more so, diplomatically, and with all of our intelligence resources.
If the president had embraced the good will of the post 9/11 world to marshal an international effort to eliminate the terrorist cells responsible for this heinous act, we wouldn’t be mired in a five-year war. We could have effectively eliminated Al-Qaida instead of creating a virtual recruiting station for them in Iraq. As it is, we may need years to shake off the taint of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, FISA violations, Patriot Act encroachments and other Bush administration failures.
And finally, America would still be viewed around the world as the beacon of hope and opportunity — where tolerance, diversity and generosity are celebrated. These are the pillars of our democracy, and they have made and kept us strong at home and abroad throughout our history.
U.S. REP. KEITH ELLISON, WASHINGTON