THAT AN OFFICIAL of the Federal Republic of Germany was sacked last month for
comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler was proper, but not because of the insult
to Bush. The extremity of Hitler's malevolence must always be insisted upon. Whatever
one's problems with Bush, it banalizes evil to equate him with the author of the
Final Solution. Germans must be particularly careful not to do this.
Historical analogies can often mislead, as the numerous dead ends beyond the
signpost of ''appeasement'' show. How many people have needlessly died in the
name of avoiding another Munich? But humans are nevertheless condemned to understand
the present in the light of the past, especially when events seem unprecedented.
It is clear that, with the American president intent upon a new program of moralistic
imperialism, beginning with a war in Iraq, we are in what might be called a threshold
period, leading from one conception of society to another as yet undefined one.
The ominous situation requires us to ask: When have we stood in such a threshold
For Americans of my generation, the years between 1963 and 1965 leap to mind.
It was then that decisions taken in Washington established a momentum of violence
that ran unchecked for a decade. By the time US citizens realized what was being
done in their names, it was too late to stop the momentum until it ran down on
its own timetable. The United States after the war in Vietnam was a very different
place from the United States before - to say nothing of the transformation of
Vietnam. A historic threshold had been crossed, but what everyone saw by 1975,
few had seen in the pivotal period of 1963-65.
What characterized that threshold? Four things:
Low-grade social panic. American citizens had just suffered through
two traumas - the near-apocalypse of nuclear war over Cuba and then the shattering
of national self-confidence with the assassination of President Kennedy.
The mainstreaming of previously ''extremist'' ideas. Lyndon Johnson
was elected in 1964 as the ''peace candidate,'' but he immediately embraced the
rampant belligerence of Barry Goldwater. Savage violence was promoted with hyper-rationality
as the ''moderate'' course.
The surrender by legislators of their constitutional authority. Congress
ceded emergency powers to the executive with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and
political opposition to the war was permanently marginalized, from Gene McCarthy
to George McGovern.
The recasting of patriotism to mean conformity. National self-criticism
was defined as disloyalty. America - love it or leave it.
To list such defining notes of a threshold period in the past is to recognize
them in the present. Our social panic today is tied to terrorism. Formerly extreme
ideas (contempt for the UN, unilateralism, carelessness about civil liberties)
animate Washington now. The US Congress has just given Bush nearly unrestricted
license to use force. Citizens are detached, dissenters are marginalized, and
a momentum toward permanent war is set loose.
But even to enumerate such characteristics of the time is to recall another
threshold period, one to which we must return again and again - but this act of
memory can seem offensive for a reason already noted. Between 1933 and 1935, the
world changed, although how it changed was not clear until the horrible decade
that followed had run its course. The notes of that threshold period are familiar.
The 1933 social panic in Germany was tied to economic distress and to active dread
of terrorism - in this case communist terrorism (Hitler was elected on March 5,
just days after the Reichstag was burned, a national horror blamed on communists).
The once widely denounced ideas of Nazism, especially the political exploitation
of anti-Semitism, quickly found a place in mainstream attitudes. (Few objected
to the Nazis' April 1 offensive against Jews.) German legislators ceded their
responsibility to Hitler by passing the ''Enabling Act'' in April. The last opposition
party - the Center Party - dismantled itself. The broad population of Germany
quickly accommodated the new hysterical nationalism despite excesses few would
have affirmed earlier. A threshold was crossed.
The point of this analogy is not to compare Hitler to Bush any more than the
1963-65 analogy is to compare Johnson to Bush. The question is not about leadership
but about societies that allow themselves to be radically transformed without
substantial debate. The question is about what is lost when traditional restraints
are abandoned and about what follows when the momentum toward open-ended war is
set loose. The question is about the cost of world-primacy ambition and who pays
it. The question is about what happens when national consensus is hijacked by
fringe politics and when the very people empowered to object say nothing. The
question, in other words, is not about Bush but about us.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company