Hours after a gunman murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, a handful of students formed a group to advocate for gun control in the United States. They called their nascent organization Never Again.
Some people, especially in the Jewish community, were troubled by the moniker, concerned it would detract from the phrase’s record as a rallying cry for Holocaust remembrance. But for whatever reason – the gruesomeness of the killings perhaps, or out of respect for a bunch of heartbroken kids – the name has stuck. Today, Never Again MSD (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) has a massive online audience. On Twitter, the hashtag #NeverAgain is followed by some 200,000 users, while Emma González, one of the Parkland students who started Never Again MSD, has over 1.6 million followers.
If the debate over “never again” is old news, a similar dispute over appropriation of Holocaust terminology now engulfs our friends to the south. As Americans watch the separation of parents and children at their border, many have likened the actions of the Trump administration to those of the Nazis, the places where the children are being held to concentration camps. At least as many have decried the comparisons as historically incorrect and situationally inappropriate.
The facts suggest that the latter camp has the edge. The holding centres are far from an ideal setting for kids, but no one is being forced into slave labour or starvation. There are no gas chambers or crematoria looming ominously. Indeed, there is zero indication that there is any threat of death whatsoever. However abhorrent the policy, these are not concentration camps; however misguided those imposing it are, they are not Nazis.
But, as Bloomberg’s Noah Smith posited on social media last week, maybe it’s worth making the Nazi comparisons anyways. “The idea that you shouldn’t compare any regime to the Nazis until the genocide actually begins is crazy,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “Why should we wait until it’s too late to start having pointed discussions about incipient totalitarianism?”
He went on further: “If we can’t compare someone to the Nazis until they’ve already carried out a genocide and started a war of extermination that killed tens of millions, then the historical lesson of the Nazis seems pretty useless, doesn’t it?”
A government policy of separating migrant families is a long stretch from “incipient totalitarianism,” let alone genocide. But then again, one of the lasting legacies of Holocaust education, encapsulated in those two simple words “never again,” is that we are all responsible to stand up and make sure it doesn’t happen again – indeed, to make clear that we won’t allow things to even get close to that point.
“Never again” is a cri de coeur, not just a statement of fact. Its message is both literal and figurative, to be wielded in times of clear danger, and as a warning against going down a path that could lead to danger.
The latest Holocaust analogies are factually wrong. These days, though, the question isn’t just whether it’s time to sound the alarms, but how long to wait before we rightfully start to worry about where things are headed.