syria and the holocaust
The Strange Selectivity of the Godwin Police

Sean Spicer’s blundering press conference yesterday, in which he defended the President’s newly activist posture towards Syria on the grounds that “even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons,” was particularly obtuse. But it wasn’t the first time that the Administration has been consumed by a cycle of outrage over the applicability of Holocaust analogies to the carnage wrought by Bashar al-Assad.

In fact, less than three months ago opponents of the Administration were invoking the Holocaust with abandon to attack the President’s new policy banning Syrian refugees from the United States. Activists created a Twitter account named after a ship of European Jewish refugees that the United States turned away and who were later murdered; journalists shared its materials far and wide. Democratic politicians, like Tim Kaine, and TV pundits, like Rachel Maddow, hammered the point home: Turning our backs on the people caught in Syria’s civil war is a moral disgrace comparable to standing by and allowing Jews to be murdered in the Holocaust.

The irony of the latest Spicer scandal is that the hapless press secretary’s botched Hitler analogy was clearly an attempt to do the exact same thing: Invoke the ultimate example of evil in Western history to moralistically defend a more humanitarian Syria policy. It’s hard not to question the authenticity of Spicer’s outraged critics when they too were indulging in reckless reductio at Hitlerum on Syria when it suited the anti-Trump agenda.

Of course, there are differences between the two instances. It’s almost certainly true that more Syrians would be saved by a generous resettlement policy than by a one-off airstrike. While refugee advocates were merely suggesting that the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria was just as bad as the Holocaust, Spicer seemed to be suggesting that it was in some ways worse. And while the administration’s Holocaust-invoking critics on refugee resettlements were not exactly careful with historical facts, Spicer’s misstatement was particularly cringe-inducing.

The truth is that Godwin’s law exists for a reason: Hitler comparisons are almost never productive in political arguments; invoking Nazi crimes has a tendency to obscure the current issues really at play while minimizing the scope of that regime’s crimes. But that standard should be applied consistently, not only against an administration whom much of the liberal establishment has foolishly convinced itself represents the second coming of fascism.

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