Like many Southwestern students, I was surprised to see an e-mail from Dr. Leese announcing that Southwestern would be bringing a drug-sniffing dog onto campus. SUPD has a record of allowing students to feel safe on campus while still maintaining a police presence. It was not surprising that there was a backlash against this announcement. Within hours, a message was sent across the SU listserv and posted on Facebook which decried the invasion of privacy that this action represented. I firmly believe that public debate and discussion of issues is one of the best things that college has to offer, but I was completely taken aback by the title of the memo, “SS or SU?” Students clearly have a right to raise questions about school policy, but invoking Nazis doesn’t seem like the right way to go about this. In fact, it’s offensive.
The allusions to the Nazis and the Holocaust don’t just end in the title of the message; in fact, they become more overt and in-your-face. The opening paragraph states that SU students were probably “too stunned and scared by the SS invading our campus” to act sooner. Another protester posted a status update on Facebook asking if anyone was “down for a protest against SU Gestapo?” and yet another group member changed his profile picture to that of a Nazi officer carrying the Nazi flag. This person replaced the flag’s swastika and the officer’s red armband with the Southwestern University pirate logo and brazenly declared in all caps that “It’s not Fascism when we do it.” That’s great to know; I suppose it’s also not distasteful when you do it.
If we believe the perspective painted by the reactionary members of this movement, Southwestern will soon have its very own concentration camp on the academic mall. Or perhaps they are implying that a stay in a Georgetown jail for a short while compares to the years that countless numbers of people were forced to endure at labor camps like Auschwitz. Perhaps we should post a sign on campus similar to Auschwitz’s famous “Work makes you free.”
I’ve been Jewish since birth. While I am not very religious or observant of holidays, I have always been proud of my heritage and the history that comes with it. Being Jewish is an important part of my identity. The laws against possession of drugs can seem extreme sometimes, but is it really on the same level of the Holocaust? It’s extremely unsettling that Southwestern’s push is being compared to Nazi atrocities such as the merciless slaughter of over six million Jews and millions of others that Nazi Germany deemed to be undesirable. These hurtful comments do not just target Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but the myriad of other victims. Southwestern student and theatre major Jessica Espinoza was just as upset as I was over the language that was being thrown around in the rancor. “Using rhetoric comparing a university squabble to genocide is not activism. With the world reeling from tragedy, disaster, war, disease, I don’t need to name off atrocities, is this really what we think injustice is?” The distaste for this language extends to the faculty as well. On hearing about comments that were being used on campus, Dr. Eric Selbin told me that “as the child of a refugee from Nazi Germany whose grandfather and great-grandfather were brutalized by the SS, I think that [these people ought] to either read a little history or pick their comparisons more aptly.”
In my search for various opinions, I stopped by the office of Dr. Michael Saenger (faculty sponsor of the Jewish Student Association here at Southwestern.) He had heard that there was a debate brewing over Dr. Leese’s e-mail and had heard that there are some rather questionable comparisons being made, but it was not until I sat with him and showed him some of the things being posted online that he saw the extent to which these words and images are being used. “I would say that on the one hand I understand why it happens, sometimes in our culture people use words; Everything from Rush Limbaugh talking about ‘Feminazis’ to Jerry Seinfeld talking about the Soup Nazi. Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish. I understand there is a little ambiguity to someone who isn’t comfortable with these terms, however, that doesn’t make it right.” Dr. Saenger went on to comment on the role that political correctness plays in debates like this. “I understand the irritation that people have from the sense of terribly overwhelming political correctness. And I do think that it is incredibly important that we relax a little bit. It’s fun to tease people once in a while. We don’t have to be dreadfully serious and moralistic all the time. On the other hand we need to confront ignorance.”
It is true that there have been people who have confronted the author of the initial e-mail and Facebook event. When a Facebook member asked whether the name of this event is “slightly inflammatory,” the group’s creator responded: “No, I don’t think that it is. This is a matter of fundamental rights. Also, it is a headline meant to catch attention to the subject. Worked for you, didn’t it? Ha.” It’s easy to see how the right to get high on weekends is comparable to the rights of millions to not be evicted from their homes and be executed. I attended the counter-protest on the mall today and was fortunate enough to be able to talk to several of the members of the movement. A majority expressed disdain over the comments and apologized for them, but the fact remains that the original author has vehemently defended her choice with no remorse. Even after I pulled her aside and talked with her one-on-one, she defended her actions by saying that they were “used to illicit an emotional response.” Dr. Saenger offered a different perspective. “The notion that it was meant to provoke an emotional response is simplistic. It’s saying that you did what you were intending to do. Whether it is right or not is a separate question. Not all attempts to illicit an emotional response are right. There is a right and wrong.”
At the conclusion of our interview, Dr. Saenger offered an outlook on the future of this debate. “Anyone who is on a variety of sides on this issue should be challenged to either defend that image or really address it for its offensive nature. I would challenge people to not be indifferent to that. Not to shrug and say that just went out or that’s just an image. This is far too important for anyone to be indifferent about it. And I think that I would challenge those who are against the drug sniffing dogs to forcefully take a position. Not to casually say ‘that wasn’t okay,’ but to say that ‘I don’t want to be associated with anything that trivially associates to pure evil or associates Hitler to SU.’”
Next Wednesday (January 27th) marks the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Would the survivors, and more importantly the families and friends of those who were not survivors, be proud to know that their stories of unimaginable suffering are being used as a headline meant to catch attention? I don’t think so. Dr. Saenger agreed too. “I just really want for this to be an issue about decency. There are a lot of people on campus. There are a lot of Christians who gave their lives fighting in France [during World War II]. This should not be an ‘us vs. them’ debate. Everyone should be offended by that image, not just a few Jews.”