While I don't think what Barack Obama said yesterday was meant as an intentional slur, he's been in a lot of trouble for it today. And now the pressure is on:
Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski said Wednesday he had written a personal letter to President Barack Obama urging him to do more to correct the record after Obama referred to "a Polish death camp" in a White House ceremony on Tuesday.
"I hope we will jointly act to make up for this unfortunate mistake. I believe that every error, every mistake can be corrected if it is given adequate consideration," Komorowski said in remarks posted on his official website.
It's important to be precise, especially if you are President of the United States, and this is an example where a misstatement can become something much bigger. While it is true that the most infamous of Nazi death camps, Auschwitz, is located in territory that is part of Poland, it is clearly wrong to suggest that it was in any way a Polish enterprise.
For his part, Obama sent out his usual surrogate, Press Secretary Jay Carney, to discuss the matter:
"He was referring to Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland," Obama's press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily briefing on Wednesday.I believe Carney. However, what follows is problematic:
"And as we've made clear, we regret the misstatement and that simple misstatement should not at all detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski, and beyond that, all those brave Polish citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny," Carney said.
Asked whether Obama had plans to reach out to Polish leaders, Carney demurred.Now is not the time to demur. Writing in the Daily Beast, David Frum explains why:
Many of the Nazi death camps were located inside the territory that is now Poland, yes. But it was not Poland in 1942. Poland then was a conquered and enslaved territory. If we are to identify the killers by nationality—rather than by their Nazi ideology as would be most appropriate—then the camps were German, German, German: ordered into being by Germans, designed by Germans, fulfilling a German plan of murder. When they found local thugs to guard the victims and run the killing machinery, even those low-level wretches were very rarely Polish by language or self-conception: they were more typically Ukrainian, because many Ukrainians—with their own sufferings at the hands of Josef Stalin's Soviet regime fresh in mind—were willing to act as German allies in a war that was advertised as a war against the Bolshevism that had starved their fathers, mothers, and children to death in the early 1930s. But Poles? As a Polish friend of mine once bitterly put it, "The Germans despised us so much, they did not even want us as collaborators."This is true -- the quintessential example of this phenomenon is the case of John Demjanjuk, who was implicated in the deaths of thousands of Jews at another camp located in Poland, Sobibor. Demjanjuk was a Ukranian. Frum also offers an example of how awful using the term "Polish death camp" really is:
You may say the Poles are over-sensitive. One might as well say that Americans are under-sensitive. The U.S. has had such a comparatively happy history that it's hard to think of a domestic analogy that would capture what Poles feel when the worst crimes of their worst oppressors are attributed—not to the authors—but to them. "The Hawaiian sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor" is a pathetically inadequate approximation, but at least it gets the grammar of the insult. "The Belgian massacre of U.S. prisoners at Malmedy"? No, still not it. Aside from being morally inadequate, such analogies also miss the moral intensity of World War II for Poles. Their war did not end until 1989: they continue to live more intimately with the war's legacy even now, more than almost any other European nation. The medal to Karski was to be part of the process of laying painful memories to rest. It was intended too to strengthen the US-Polish relations that the Obama administration has frayed in pursuit of its "reset" with Russia. Instead, this administration bungled everything: past, present, and future.Indeed. Now is not the time to demur. Now is the time to apologize. To do anything less would be to add injury to insult.