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Powerful Words

By Eric M. Nelson

While I was making my way through yesterday's New York Times, an article on page four caught my attention. Its headline read, "Nazi Case Forces Italy to Revisit Sore Subject," and it concerned the upcoming retrial of Erich Priebke, a Nazi war criminal responsible for the murders of 355 Italian civilians. A military court had found him not guilty, on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired on the crime, but the outcry in Rome, coupled with an extradition request on behalf of the German government, prompted Italy's highest court to allow a retrial. Priebke's comment: "Now here I am, responsible for everything."

The article served as a powerful reminder of the reality of Nazism and the Holocaust. Indeed, two events last week indicated that, when it comes to the way in which our society deals with the legacy of the Holocaust and other genocidal episodes, a reminder is very much in order.

In the most recent Weld/Kerry debate, the two candidates answered questions posed by a panel of citizens. One woman asked the candidates about the percentage of blacks and Latinos in United States prisons. Since the percentage is so high, she asked, how can we make certain that the death penalty, were it instituted in Massachusetts, would not turn into "genocide"?

The second event happened closer to home. An issue of Peninsula magazine, an ultra-conservative campus publication, ran an odious article titled "Know Your Enemy," in which it listed a series of people and organizations it considered hostile to conservative values. In response, a Crimson editorialist wrote a column attacking Peninsula and the members of its staff for holding "fascist," intolerant views. The net result of this pundit mini-war was that a member of the Peninsula staff got home the next day to find a swastika taped to his door.

The Peninsula incident demonstrated the extent to which the Holocaust has become little more than a rhetorical grab bag, one that any Tom, Dick or Harry feels free to reach into any time he needs an argumentative trump-card. Similarly, the debate question exemplified the recklessness with which people tend to throw around the vocabulary of mass-destruction. You want to talk about the discrimination that exists in the criminal justice system, you call it a "genocide." You disagree with someone's brand of politics, you affix the Nazi swastika to his or her door--that seems to be the name of the game.

But what the article I read in the Times should reinforce is that, although the rhetoric of the Holocaust may be among its only tangible legacies for those of us who are young, these words have real meanings--they refer to one of the most monstrous events ever to occur in the annals of man. I am well acquainted with it: Many members of my family were among its victims. Any tragedy is not a "Holocaust" or a "genocide," nor is every right-winger a "Nazi" or a "Fascist." Using these terms where they are not applicable trivializes the ideas they express.

Although the exercise may be out of style for some among us, let me close by defining my terms:

*Holocaust--the attempted extermination of the Jewish people by the Third Reich during the Second World War, or, as Webster's Collegiate Dictionary points out, "a sacrifice consumed by fire; a thorough destruction esp. by fire."

*Genocide--also courtesy of Webster's, "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group."

*Nazi--a member of the German Nazi Party, or a contemporary who holds to its principles, namely the superiority of the "Aryan race," the need to exterminate the Jewish People, the need for totalitarian control of the state.

That is all they are. That is more than enough.

Eric Nelson's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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