Over the weekend, former CIA Director Michael Hayden displayed the calm reflection and sense of proportion for which Donald Trump's opponents are known by likening the separation of illegal border crossers from their children to the Holocaust:
Other governments have separated mothers and children pic.twitter.com/tvlBkGjT0h
— Gen Michael Hayden (@GenMhayden) June 16, 2018
Yesterday on CNN, Hayden defended the comparison. "I walked down that railroad siding, where the families were separated," he said, "and that's why I used that picture. That's the scene where families were separated. Now, look, I know we're not Nazi Germany, all right. But there is a commonality there and a fear on my part that we have standards we have to live up to."
Last night Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an architect of the "zero tolerance" policy that has separated thousands of children from their parents at the border, got a chance to explain why Hayden's analogy was unfair. "It's a real exaggeration," Sessions said on Fox News, "because in Nazi Germany they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country."
Let's leave aside the point that Hitler initially tried to expel Europe's Jews (the opposite of keeping them from leaving) and might have stopped short of the Final Solution if other countries had been more welcoming. Is the victims' desired direction of travel really the crucial distinguishing feature between what Hitler did at places like Birkenau and what Trump is doing along the southern border?
Yes, Trump is separating parents from children at the border, which many Americans rightly view as a cruel and disproportionate response to people who enter the United States without the government's permission. But Trump is not proceeding to starve them, beat them, torture them, work them to death, and murder them en masse in gas chambers. These are not minor details.
"I guess I wanted to grab's people's attention," Hayden said on CNN. Maybe Hayden, a retired Air Force general who ran the National Security Agency as well as the CIA, has never heard of Godwin's Law, and maybe he is unfamiliar with the mocking meme that begins, "Do you know who else…" It is easy enough to believe that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who also resorted to the N-word yesterday, suffers from a similar lack of rhetorical self-awareness.
At the risk of stating what I thought was obvious, the Nazi analogies may be effective at trolling Trump, signaling your virtue, or catering to blind hatred of the president. But this sort of eye-rolling hyperbole does not persuade anyone, which requires allowing for the possibility that a policy can be unwise, unjust, or immoral without achieving Holocaust-level evil.