So how is Dick Durbin partly right? It is true, as Durbin claimed, that if he were to read the allegations about depriving prisoners of food or forcing them to defecate on themselves, many Americans would be reminded of the Nazis. But that's because vast swaths of the public and their opinion leaders prefer to live in historical and moral ignorance. (As for thinking of Pol Pot's killing fields or the Gulag, it's unlikely, as neither gets a fraction of the attention they deserve.) In the circles frequented by the likes of Durbin - where Howard Dean is a statesman and Michael Moore deserves the Nobel Prize - evil must automatically be associated with "Nazi."
So it goes in our political culture, where Nazi has become so synonymous with "bad" that all bad things must be Nazi-like - particularly if these bad things have been (allegedly) committed by the United States. Durbin could have compared the alleged abuses to the behavior of the French in Algeria or even to the police in Chicago 20 years ago, and he would have been far closer to the truth. But that just wouldn't have had the oomph he was looking for - and it would have left too many people scratching their heads.
In recent years, liberals have taken the lead in the practice of arguing ad hitlerum. In the lead-up the war, George W. Bush was constantly compared to Hitler. More recently, Sen. Robert Byrd likened proposed filibuster reform to Hitler's rise to power. In the 1990s, the Contract With America was barraged with Nazi allusions. "When I compare this to what happened in Germany, I hope that you will see the similarities to what is happening to us," Rep. Charlie Rangel declared. "Hitler wasn't even talking about doing these things."
Factually, that's true. Hitler wasn't talking about term limits for committee chairs or tax cuts.
In fairness, folks across the aisle from Durbin can't resist the temptation either. During the Clinton years, Hitler and Nazi analogies were far too popular on the right, and they still pop up too often.
This is a more serious problem than mere partisan excess or Durbin's jackassery. Hitler holds our fascination because of his singular villainy. But this shouldn't crowd out our ability to make distinctions. Hitler is supposed to define the outer limits of evil, not the lowest threshold. Something can be very, very bad and be far "better" than the Holocaust.
The mere fact that Durbin and his fans don't understand this is no reason to excuse it.