No, this is not Nazi Germany.
In 1958, The New York Times’ A.M. Rosenthal visited the Auschwitz-Brzezinka complex in Poland. Writing in a voice of restrained rage and sorrow, he began his report this way:
“The most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon and on the grass near the gates children played.
“It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter. It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror.”
Unutterable terror. That’s our standard of measurement?
Yellow stars of David, required, identifying people as “subhuman” and without basic rights. Numbers tattooed on the arms of children. Death camps. Masks to slow the spread of a virus.
Which of those is not like the others?
If you have seen the gruesome pictures, the awful videos shot by American soldiers after they liberated some of the death camps – if you have listened to Holocaust survivors naming relatives lost to the ovens – if you have more than a slight understanding of the history of the 20th century – you must hesitate before comparing today’s events to that unfathomable time.
It threatens our democracy, calling into question as it does one of the great principles of democracy – that we, citizens, are the government.
Would-be saviors routinely trash government, warning of “the Deep State” and promising to “clean the swamp.” People have been persuaded that our noblest institutions, including a free and vibrant press, are the enemy. Decency is weakness, liberalism treason.
The right to not wear a mask has joined the right to own and brandish an assault rifle.
We can debate the effectiveness of masks. I’m not a scientist, but the evidence from people who are seems fairly persuasive. “Mayo Clinic supports the protective value and effectiveness of widespread mask use, maintaining physical distancing at work and in public, and keeping hands clean as the primary infection prevention measures to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the venerable clinic declared last month, responding to reports of skepticism.
“We know that after implementing universal masking for our staff, we saw an immediate decrease in work-related exposures,” said Dr. Jack O’Horo, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo. “Of the COVID-19 positive staff exposures that occurred at work, many were due to being unmasked during eating or celebrating with others during the workday. With that, it is clear that masking is an effective measure to prevent exposure to COVID-19 droplets.”
The new mayor of Grand Forks, who supports the voluntary use of masks, undoubtedly was speaking for many when he recoiled against the idea of implementing and enforcing a mask mandate. But to say “This isn’t Nazi Germany” to justify not taking that step is to trivialize the Holocaust and feed the conspiracy theory that actions taken by government to protect public health are really about power and the suppression of rights.
Do we feel the same way about enforcing a seat-belt mandate? Or the requirement that children have appropriate protective seats when riding in cars?
The Nazi references have occurred around the country. In New Mexico, a clinic posted a sign: “This isn’t Nazi Germany and we aren’t the Gestapo. If you do or do not want to wear a mask you are still welcome here.”
In Pennsylvania, several elected officials used the term “Nazi” against Gov. Tom Wolf during discussions of his stay-at-home order, which drew a strong editorial rebuke from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Regardless of whether you agree (with the order), it should go without saying that there is absolutely no factual or moral comparison between the coronavirus response and the policies and practices of the murderous Nazi regime.”
Responding to calls for a statewide mask mandate, Gov. Doug Burgum demurred. He favors broad use of masks, but he is reluctant to order it, knowing that “there are people who will not wear a mask” and some would see a mandate as a violation of their freedom, their rights.
“We’ve had a great track record so far of relying on personal responsibility, and I guess I’m still hoping in my heart of hearts that North Dakota can step up and figure out a way to get it done,” he said at a briefing early this week. And the primary role in encouraging the use of masks should lie with “local leadership and local execution.”
Here in Grand Forks, city and local health officials encourage masks. UND requires them in classrooms and other common areas. And city buses have large signs that speak to passengers. “Please,” they say. “Wear a mask on the bus. Protect yourself, other riders, drivers. Slow the spread.”
As a regular bus rider, I can report that some do wear a mask, but many don’t. Maybe they don’t know where or how to get masks. Maybe their self-selected “news” feed tells them that masks are ineffective, dangerous … a conspiracy.
But on a recent ride, there were eight people on my bus and just one mask. Mine. I looked at my fellow passengers and tried to convey a message with my eyes: “Please.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.