Stinging political rhetoric is nothing new, but with the nation facing unprecedented challenges at home and abroad, today's venomous talk is producing dangerous paralysis in Washington.
Top Bush advisor Karl Rove's recent accusation that liberals are soft on terrorism was just recycled red baiting; the left's charge that the right is a bunch of intolerant jingoists also echoes decades-old political clichés.
And the language seems to be getting more extreme by the day – both here, where religious and political extremists are ratcheting up their culture wars, and in Israel, where the supercharged rhetoric threatens to produce violence. A common thread is the increasing use of the Nazi epithet.
The take-no-prisoners approach of polarizing politicians rejects restraint, and by invoking the powerful imagery of the Holocaust, it leaves little room for compromise.
Holocaust scholars have called it "the foulest epithet in any language" and the "nuclear bomb of epithets." The Nazi analogies may be irresistible because they are incendiary and emotionally powerful, but their usage suggests that the fallout may be contaminating the bomb-thrower more than the target.
Just ask Sen. Dick Durbin. The Illinois Democrat's comparison between American treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and actions of Hitler and other tyrants, exploded in his face.
By the time he belatedly offered a tearful apology on the Senate floor, his stature had suffered far greater than that of the administration whose questionable policies he targeted.
Two senators who traded Nazi epithets over their respective party's approach to judicial filibusters suffered similar fallout. One, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum, eventually tried to clean up his mess with an apology, but Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) refused.
The two main Jewish partisan advocacy groups – the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council – are playing a running game of "gotcha" as they rush to point out how the opposition party is inhospitable to Jews and tarnishes the memory of the Holocaust.
Neither group looks particularly good in this spitting match, though the RJC seems to be winning the hypocrisy contest. NJDC has criticized rhetorical transgressions by members of both parties and called for apologies, but it went easier on Democrats.
By contrast, the RJC said nothing about Santorum's Nazi comparisons until he apologized, and then gushed with praise for his "sensitivity."
After harshly attacking Durbin and demanding a retraction -and getting it – RJC didn't bother to remove the attack from its Web site, much less acknowledge the apology. Nor was the group, judging by its silence, troubled by Rep. John Hostettler's (R-Ind.) floor statement essentially declaring Jews and other non-Christians second-class citizens.
Both groups are too quick to play Rottweiler at the first hint of Holocaust comparison or imagined insult by the opposing party, trying to exploit each incident to claim that only their side is a true friend of the Jews – and the other one a cabal of closet anti-Semites.
Both parties keep a tally of the other's transgressions. Nazi allusions have been employed by, among others, Republicans Sen. James Inhofe (the Kyoto Protocol), Rep. Tom DeLay (the Environmental Protection Agency) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (stem-cell research), and by Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler (a Republican staffer) and Charles Rangel (the Iraq war).
As the charges grow more shrill, the connection to the events of the Holocaust fade, and the charges lose their potency. That is an insult to victims and survivors, and it further debases our political dialogue.
As alarming as the use of such comparisons are on Capitol Hill, where they have little or nothing to do with Jews or Israel, they are downright dangerous in the Middle East. The Arabs and their allies like to compare Israel to the Third Reich not because they believe it – after all, they were among Hitler's staunchest allies – but because they know the Nazis represent true evil, and use of the epithet is intended to delegitimize Israel and make hatred of the Jews respectable.
Too many people suffered from the real thing to debase the memory of one of history's greatest crimes by making it just another insult in the partisan war of words.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.