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Responding To Nazis

Jarret Liotta’s support of legislation banning public displays of the Nazi flag — spurred by an incident in Fairfield last December, and reported 2 days ago on “06880” — has drawn this passionate response from Westporter Eric Burns.

In 1978, as an NBC News correspondent based in Chicago, I was assigned to cover a march of neo-Nazis through Skokie, Illinois.  The Nazis had chosen Skokie because it had an extraordinarily high number of Holocaust survivors.  The American Civil Liberties Union supported the Nazis, and helped persuade local authorities to permit the march.

I watched the whole thing.  I wrote about it.  I reported on it that night for “NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor.”  Viewers saw the so-called Nazis:  young, tattooed, their faces twisted into sneers.  They saw the Holocaust survivors — old, wrinkled, their faces contorted in pain and bewilderment.  Viewers could hear, in edited fashion, the vile obscenities that the Nazis spewed at the Holocaust survivors; they heard the whimpers and occasional tormented shouts of their victims.

I interviewed some of the former, holding my breath, looking away.  I interviewed some of the latter.  They wondered whether their suffering would ever end.

I lost all respect for the ACLU that day, and have not changed my mind since.  Faced with a choice of supporting the civil liberties of villains or victims, it chose the latter.  The group’s definition of civil liberties, not only then but in many instances since, is an obscenity as grotesque as anything uttered by the Skokie Nazis.

Free speech?  Is that the right the ACLU supported?  Why did it not take the side of the Holocaust survivors and support their right not to be singled out for vilification by thugs?

In truth, the march in Skokie was not an issue of free speech at all.  The Nazis could have spoken freely in literally thousands of different forums.

No, the issue in Skokie was one of pain, pure pain, nothing more.

The Nazis petitioned for the right to cause it.

The ACLU supported them.

A judge supported the ACLU.

That is what happened in a suburb of Chicago more than 30 years ago, and it is the story I recall most vividly in my entire career in journalism.

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