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Reserve language of the Holocaust for truly evil events

Published Oct. 4, 2005

The ceremonies are over, but I would like to suggest one last way to commemorate the golden anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis. How about a moratorium on the current abuse of terms like storm trooper, swastika, holocaust, Gestapo, Hitler? How about putting the language of the Third Reich into mothballs?

The further we are removed from the defeat of the Nazis, the more this vocabulary seems to be taking over our own. It's become part of the casual, ubiquitous, inflammatory speech Americans use to turn each other into monsters. Which, if I recall correctly, was a tactic favored by Goebbels himself.

Just in the past month, the NRA attacked federal agents as "jackbooted government thugs" who wear "Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms." In the ratcheting up of the rhetorical wars, it wasn't enough for the NRA to complain that the agents had overstepped their bounds; they had to call them Nazis.

Twice more in recent days, congressmen have compared environmentalist agencies with Hitler's troops. On May 16, Pennsylvania's Bud Shuster talked about EPA officials as an "environmental Gestapo." Before that, Missouri's Bill Emerson warned about the establishment of an "eco-Gestapo force."

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. John Kerry recently suggested that a proposed new kind of tax audit, on "lifestyles," would produce an "IRS Gestapo-like entity." And Democrats John Lewis and Charles Rangel compared silence in the face of the new conservative agenda to silence in the early days of the Third Reich. They didn't just disagree with conservatives; they Nazi-fied them.

Then there are the perennial entries on the Hitler log. Anti-abortion groups talk about the abortion holocaust_comparing the fetuses to Jews and the doctors to Mengele. Rush Limbaugh likes to sprinkle the term "feminazis" across the airwaves_turning an oxymoron into a laugh.

Much of the time, the hurling of "Nazi" names is just plain dumb. As dumb as the behavior of punk groups, who think they can illustrate their devotion to anarchism with symbols of fascism. Singers such as Sid Vicious, groups such as the Dead Boys once sported swastikas without realizing that in Hitler's time and place they would have been rounded up as enemies of the Reich.

As for pinning the Nazi label on the supporters of abortion rights, the propagandists surely know that Hitler was a hard-line opponent of abortion. (Did that make him pro-life?) In Mein Kampf he wrote, "We must also do away with the conception that the treatment of the body is the affair of every individual." A woman's body wasn't hers; it belonged to the state.

Feminazi? Call sisterhood powerful or pushy if you like. But tell the dittoheads that feminists were a prime target of the Nazis. The Fuhrer vowed to return Germany's uppity women to "Children, Cooking, Church." And he set about doing it.

Even when Nazi-speak is not historically dumb, it's rhetorically dumb. The Hitlerian language has become a indiscriminate shorthand for every petty tyranny.

In this vocabulary, every two-bit boss becomes a "little Hitler." Every domineering high school principal is accused of running a "concentration camp." Every overbearing piece of behavior becomes a "Gestapo" tactic. And every political disagreement becomes a fight against evil.

Crying Hitler in our time is similar to crying wolf. The charge immediately escalates the argument, adding verbal fuel to fires of any dimension, however minor. But eventually, yelling "Nazi" at environmentalists and "Gestapo" at federal agents diminishes the emotional power of these words should we need them.

In time these epithets even downgrade the horror of the Third Reich and the immensity of the Second World War. They cheapen history and insult memory, especially the memory of the survivors.

It's one reason George Bush was so quick to take offense at the NRA's Nazi-isms. As a veteran of World War II, he still knows a Nazi when he sees one and knows the difference between the Gestapo and a federal agent.

Exactly 50 years ago this spring, his generation liberated the concentration camps. Americans learned then, with a fresh sense of horror, about the crematoriums, about man's inhumanity, about the trains that ran on time to the gas chambers.

This was Nazism. This was the Gestapo. This was the Holocaust. This was Hitler. If you please, save the real words for the real thing.

The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.