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Every Episcopalian continually affirms a baptismal vow to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. We believe that it is a fundamental mandate of Holy Scripture and is a religious duty be found in nearly every religious tradition in the world.
Recently, state Representative Russ Diamond posted a statement to his Twitter account that equated the use of quarantine in a public health crisis to the deployment of concentration camps. Perhaps, before anyone takes this equivalency at face value, they should look up the respective definitions.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines a “concentration camp” as a camp instituted primarily to reinforce state control. Such camps have been established in various forms under many totalitarian regimes—most extensively in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Britannica continues to describe the camps as “special prisons of the secret police.” Persons often are placed in such camps because of a particular ethnic or political identity and without benefit of the processes of law. On the other hand, Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines “quarantine” simply as a restraint upon the activities or communication of persons or the transport of goods designed to prevent the spread of disease.
They serve two distinct and widely divergent purposes. To equate them is absurd on its face.
It seems to me that Rep. Diamond is using the current public health crisis for his own purposes in an election year. His stated positions on mask-wearing, the authority of Commonwealth officials, and the steps necessary to control the spread of contagion (all accepted practices in public health management throughout the world) have no real connection with his obligation to work for the common good and public health. Instead, he makes false equivalencies between a 14-day quarantine (at home, mind you) with the forceable and permanent removal of individuals from society in ways that lead to great harm, deep trauma, and even death.
Moreover, anyone, much less a public official, should consider just how their words might affect those who hear them. Nazi concentration camps in the last century (which is what most people reference by that term) were filled with alleged “undesirables,” who were judged to be an obstacle to the ends of political ideology rooted in theories of racial and ethnic purity. The most egregious atrocities in these places were overwhelmingly committed against those of Jewish heritage, only a few of whom survived the camps and even fewer are alive to today. The equivalency that Rep. Diamond makes in his Tweet is without question offensive and unacceptable from a representative of the people.
In the very same Tweet, Rep. Diamond uses the title of an obscure movie – Nacho Libre – to identify and belittle his political opponent. While the movie’s main character comes across as a bit buffoonish to sustain the film’s comedic nature (which is itself unacceptable), it is based on the real life story of a Mexican Catholic priest who, for 23 years, took on the role of a masked professional wrestler to support the orphanage he directed. In a political environment steeped with ethnic and racial dog-whistles, the use of this name in this manner indicates disregard for yet another segment of our society – the Latinx community.
Most egregiously, by his reference to concentration camps, Rep. Diamond makes the overwhelming suffering of others equal to the relatively minor discomforts and inconveniences that are now part of efforts to sustain public health in the Commonwealth. I would think that a state house representative would be more concerned about constructively meeting the physical and economic needs of his constituents during a once in a century health crisis.
I personally invite Rep. Diamond to accompany me on an in-depth visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC before he “doubles down” on equating such atrocities with public health measures designed to keep him, his family and friends, and his constituents free from a debilitating or even fatal disease, itself a pre-requisite to once more “opening our economy.”
This is not the only instance of his incivility. Only days ago, Rep. Diamond insulted the LGBTQ community by denigrating the Commonwealth’s health secretary – not based on a substantive policy argument – but because Secretary Levine identifies as a trans woman. (It might also be noted that one class of persons also committed to Nazi concentration camps were members of the LGBTQ community.)
For the moment, it seems to me that a public apology to the members of the Jewish and the Latinx communities is essential. Rep. Diamond should publicly retract his statement and acknowledge how his callous use of history, words, and images have only served to inflame and sharpen divisions within his constituency. I take this stand not as a hyper-sensitive “snowflake” but as someone deeply committed to my religious vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
Rev. Dr. David Zwifka has been rector of St. Luke’s in Lebanon since September 2015. In addition to his work for St. Luke’s, Father Zwifka also serves as an instructor and member of the Board of Directors for the Stevenson School for Ministry.
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