The Nazis aren't coming

Posted: Jun 19, 2002 12:00 AM
Last week, I wrote a column about Jose Padilla, AKA the "dirty bomber." In order to avoid repeating myself, let me give short-shrift to my argument and sum up as briefly as possible. I argued then, and believe now, that the U.S. government has the right and, in this case, the obligation to run roughshod over many of Padilla's rights. Padilla is an enemy combatant. And, according to the Constitution, legal precedent, international law and, most of all, common sense, the U.S. government has the right to treat enemy combatants as, well, enemy combatants -even when the combatant in question is an American citizen. I made a good case, I think, though hardly definitive or exhaustive. But that doesn't really matter. Many people have made good cases for treating terrorists as military prisoners. And, to be fair, many people have made good cases that captured members of al-Qaida -American citizens and foreigners alike -should be given civilian trials. As profoundly wrong as I believe proponents of civilian trials for murderous terrorists are, I'm perfectly willing to concede that there's plenty of room on both sides of the argument for intelligent and reasonable people to disagree. Indeed, I think a reasonable compromise between both sides of the debate is emerging: The government can lock up suspected terrorists but must demonstrate to a civilian court that such a measure is warranted in a habeas corpus hearing. That's what's happened with Jose Padilla and that's fine with me. But what is absurd is the criticism I heard from many readers from across the country. "This is how Hitler started!" "A person of your persuasion should be ashamed," and "It's because people did what you are advocating that the Nazis took over Germany." If you haven't figured it out yet, the argument from liberals and libertarians goes like this: Hitler ignored civil rights. You (as in me and George Bush) want to ignore civil rights. Ergo, we are like Hitler. Sometimes this formulation has more bells and whistles, but in the end it's always the same and it's always absurd. To me it is like saying Hitler built highways, and FDR built highways; ergo, FDR was like Hitler. Or, Nazis used tanks in World War II, and Britain used tanks in WWII; ergo, there's no difference between Britain and Germany. As a conservative columnist, I hear this all the time and, frankly, I find it offensive, not the least because no one likes being called a crypto-Nazi It demeans not only the United States but the Holocaust as well. It's as if these people think "it could happen here" is the answer to every question about civil rights and government power. Take the issue of tribunals. Presidents Lincoln, Washington and Franklin Roosevelt all convened military tribunals. Lincoln even suspended habeas corpus, but not one of my outraged e-mailers compared Bush to the "tyranny of Lincoln." No, they went straight for the Hitler analogy. These people, in effect, take Martin Niemoller's historic lament about the rise of the Nazi Party ("They came for the Jews…") and rewrite it to become, "First they came for the murderers and I did not speak up, for I was not a murderer. Then they came for the terrorists, but I said nothing for I was not a terrorist." Is it so hard to understand that being a "terrorist" is not the same thing as being a Jew or a Gypsy or anybody else the Nazis exterminated? No one is born a terrorist. Terrorists are defined by deeds, not words. The "it could happen here crowd" is not only profoundly ignorant about the historical context of pre-war Germany, the basic character of the American people and the motives and realities of the federal government today, but, even worse, by believing that the Third Reich could not only happen here, but happen here quite easily and quickly, they demean not only the historical enormity of the Holocaust but the innate and historic goodness of the Republic that put an end to the Holocaust. Perhaps, like the old joke about the New Yorker who flaps his arms twice a day because it keeps polar bears away, these people believe that if they constantly warn us about America being taken over by Nazis (or Soviets) they are providing a useful service. But that doesn't mean America was ever in danger of being the Fourth Reich. Sure, vigilance may still be the price we pay for liberty, but the American Civil Liberties Union could turn into a bunch of Rip Van Winkles and sleep through decades of government "intrusions" into civil rights and nothing like the Holocaust would ever happen here. Indeed, the mere fact that so many Americans -on the left and the right -are so susceptible to paranoia about a tyrannical monster lurking behind every tree is the best evidence it is not in our nature to easily condone tyrants, let alone totalitarians. So sure, feel free to tell me I'm full of it on tribunals or anything else. But if you don't want me to take you for a fool or a hysteric, leave Hitler out of it.