There’s never, to say the least, an upside to invoking the Holocaust in the context of any other subject, a lesson that politicians and their staffs learn with disturbing frequency.
The latest to blunder on this front is Louisiana Rep. Clay Higgins (R).
On July 1, he posted a video showing him solemnly touring the Auschwitz death camp run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. The video begins near the train tracks at the edge of the camp, before Higgins walks past vast piles of shoes that belonged to victims. Higgins takes viewers through the actual gas chambers, then to the ovens the Nazis used to incinerate their victims. It’s difficult to watch.
But then, at perhaps the video’s most emotional moment, Higgins abruptly — and by most standards insensitively — changes subjects.
“This is why homeland security must be squared away,” he says, looking directly into the camera. “Why our military must be invincible.”
Suddenly the video starts to feel like a political argument that is out of place and inappropriate at such a solemn site. Higgins seems to be implying that horrible things like this could happen again if the United States doesn’t take more proactive security measures.
“It’s hard to walk away from the gas chambers and ovens without a very sober feeling of commitment,” Higgins says a minute later. “Unwavering commitment, to make damn sure that the United States of America is protected from the evils of the world.”
The Auschwitz Memorial responded Tuesday, saying Higgins shouldn’t have used the memorial as a “stage.”
Everyone has the right to personal reflections. However, inside a former gas chamber, there should be mournful silence. It’s not a stage. https://t.co/AN5aA1bYEU
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) July 4, 2017
Steven Goldstein, Executive Director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, released a statement saying, “Auschwitz is not a television studio.”
“It is the site of genocide and tragedy for the Jewish people that you have disrespected,” Goldstein said. ”Not only must you apologize, but you must also get the sensitivity training appropriate for your continued service in the U.S. Congress.”
Higgins’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by The Post.
Higgins has made controversial statements before.
Last month, he wrote a Facebook post that offended some readers and constituents, hours after men wielding knives killed seven people and injured dozens more in London. “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all,” Higgins wrote about “radicalized Islamic suspects.”
The Facebook post was derided by critics as inflammatory and hateful, although Higgins said at the time he didn’t expect the post to be controversial. He later doubled down on his statement in an interview with The Washington Post, saying, “that’s what happens in war.”
Higgins first rose to prominence as a spokesman for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana. He appeared in numerous crime stoppers videos, in which he addressed viewers directly and bluntly, a shift from the slower-paced, less-emotional videos the department had released before.
Last month, The Washington Post’s Peter Holley chronicled Higgins’s emergence as a video star:
The impact in and around Opelousas, Louisiana, was almost immediate: Fugitives — moved by Higgins’s fair-minded appeals to their sense of duty — began turning themselves in. Viewers — moved by his stern demeanor, backcountry drawl and made-for-TV one-liners — began sharing his videos, turning Higgins into a viral phenomenon known as “the Cajun John Wayne.”
Two years later, Higgins has a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is still relying on the primary tools that got him there: unfiltered emotion and unscripted speech.
Higgins’s personality and blunt talk, and breaking rules about what should and shouldn’t be said, got him as far as Congress. But he’s finding out quickly, on the national stage, sometimes there are rules that shouldn’t be broken.