Yes, it is deplorable that Rep. Clay Higgins recorded a selfie video inside of an Auschwitz gas chamber. But what he said was even more deplorable, dangerous, and disrespectful to the million people (including, we think, some of my relatives) who died there.
To be sure, it was a violation of Auschwitz protocol to speak—let alone record oneself—in the gas chambers themselves. That’s what the Auschwitz Museum rightly focused on in their criticism of the Republican lawmaker: “Everyone has the right to personal reflections. However, inside a former gas chamber, there should be mournful silence. It’s not a stage.”
Wednesday, Higgins retracted the video, offering a "sincere apology for any unintended pain" while stressing that his "intent was to offer a reverent homage to those who were murdered in Auschwitz."
But his reflections in the video—some of them repeated in his statement retracting it—suggest a profound misunderstanding of the Holocaust itself.
“A great sense of dread comes over you in this place,” he said. “This is why homeland security must be squared away, why our military must be invincible… Man’s inhumanity to man can be quite shocking.” Then he continued:
“The world’s a smaller place now than it was in World War II. The United States is more accessible to terror like this, horror like this. It’s hard to walk away from gas chambers and ovens without a very sober feeling of commitment—unwavering commitment—to make damn sure that the United States of America is protected from the evils of the world.”
This statement utterly misconstrues the lessons of the Holocaust. Clearly, Higgins is referring to “terror” on the part of Muslims. But Auschwitz was not terrorism by an outsider; it was state militarism against supposed outsiders, i.e., Jews. Indeed, Higgins’s sentiments would resonate with Nazi propaganda itself: we must be strong, we must fight the enemy, we must protect ourselves.
In case there is any doubt as to who Higgins has in mind, or how outrageous his opinions are, consider his June 4 Facebook post, which Higgins doubled down on after it was criticized:
The free world... all of Christendom... is at war with Islamic horror. Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.
If this isn’t Holocaust-style rhetoric, I don’t know what is. It sends chills down my spine. And this is what Higgins means when he talked about “horror” in that gas chamber.
Indeed, the lesson of the Holocaust is the exact opposite of what Higgins has proposed. Muslims today are not Nazis – they are more like Jews, hounded by the Nazis, and now being refused entry to the United States if they come from six majority-Muslim countries. The lesson of the Holocaust is not that we must sow more fear and apply more collective punishment – it is that we must be wary of state militarism and must second-guess ourselves when we demonize other groups, especially unpopular ones.
Of course, we must commit to protecting the United States from evil, including that perpetrated by radicalized Muslim terrorists. But the specific lesson of the Holocaust is that we must also protect it from ourselves, and our all-too-human tendencies to lash out, in fear and ignorance, against the marginalized. And today, the marginalized ones are innocent Muslims who have as much in common with ISIS as Higgins does with an apocalyptic Christian cult.
But notice the specific language in Higgins’s Facebook post: “radicalized Islamic suspect.” That means any Muslim suspected of being radicalized. By whom? Presumably by Higgins and people like him – people who clearly do not understand the many forms of Islam, who think the Crusades were a great idea, and clearly have not read the data suggesting that only around 12% of Muslims worldwide support the radicals.
And what should happen to these “suspects”? “Kill them all.” Exactly what Hitler and his minions said about my grandparents. You can’t tell a good Jew from a bad Jew, so kill them all before they kill us. Remember, Jews, too, were suspected en masse of threatening Germany and its way of life. We didn’t use bombs – we used banks, they said, warmongering and controlling countries from within. They way the Nazis described us, we were every bit as dangerous as “radicalized Islamic suspects.”
To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that Higgins is anti-Semitic, or a crypto-Nazi, or anything of that order. Nor am I particularly offended by his exploitation of Auschwitz, even it is somewhat disrespectful. Higgins appears genuinely moved by his experience there, and, given the views of some of his own constituents – Higgins is from Louisiana, home of David Duke – personally, I am grateful for his first-person response to the reality of the Nazi genocide.
But the fact is, his comments align themselves more closely with the Nazis than with those who were murdered by Nazis.
Most troubling of all is that Higgins isn’t some powerless white nationalist ranting on Reddit. He’s in the U.S. House of Representatives, a member of the majority party. He backs up his words with actions. Higgins has heartily supported efforts to deport as many undocumented people as possible, to ban as many Muslims from entry to the U.S. as possible, and to punish “sanctuary cities” which refuse to cooperate with such efforts.
We have already seen how anti-Muslim rhetoric has led to (underreported) acts of violence and terror against American and British Muslims, perpetrated by angry white male conservatives egged on by rhetoric like Higgins’s. Words like his have already led to murder, and will surely continue to do so.
I suspect Congressman Higgins will apologize for violating Auschwitz rules by taping inside a room where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. But it would be more important for him to reflect on the reasons why they were murdered, and how his own attitudes perpetuate them.