Louisiana GOP Rep. Clay Higgins sparked intense controversy on Wednesday after he filmed and shared a video in an Auschwitz gas chamber. The Republican lawmaker now faces criticism and condemnation, including from the Auschwitz Memorial, for violating the seriousness of the historic and solemn space.
UPDATE: Higgins has released a statement retracting the video, and apologizing for "any unintended pain" it caused.
The video runs about five minutes in length, and while Higgins narrates it in a grave and low tone, that's beside the point. As the Auschwitz Memorial itself tweeted following the video's upload, guests visiting the former gas chambers ― mass murder rooms in which thousands of Jews were slain on a daily basis by poisonous gas ― are specifically asked to show respect by staying silent.
The memorial described this as a request for "mournful silence" in a tweet responding to Higgins' video, concluding that the inside of a gas chamber is "not a stage." It didn't refuse Higgins his right to "personal reflections" on his visit, to be clear. But his narration while standing within the gas chamber was a violation of the memorial's standards of respect, and of proper deference to the dead. A sign preceding the Auschwitz Memorial reads as follows:
You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory.
The video is even more controversial for the fact that it isn't wholly focused on Higgins' personal and historical recognition on the Holocaust and the fate of the Jewish people. While he does speak at some length on the atrocities of the Holocaust, he also makes a couple of political statements, commenting on what the memory of Auschwitz says about the modern need for American security and military might.
"This is why homeland security must be squared away. Why our military must be invincible," Higgins at one point says. Towards the end of the video, he gets even more explicit:
The world's a smaller place now than it was in World War II. The United States is more accessible to terror like this, horror like this. It's hard to walk away from gas chambers and ovens without a very sober feeling of commitment — unwavering commitment — to make damn sure that the United States of America is protected from the evils of the world.
The appearance of Higgins using a site from the Holocaust to make a political point ― he was literally standing in front of ovens used to incinerate the bodies of slain Jews when he made the above remarks ― has drawn sharp rebuke.
The Anti-Defamation League, for example, had some strong words. ADL president Jonathan Greenblatt gave the following statement, as noted by NBC News, saying Higgins' video causes "pain and hurt":
The museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau lies on sacred ground. It is a burial site and a memorial to the estimated 1.1 million prisoners who were exterminated or tortured inside the camp's walls. It is a permanent testament to the brutality of the Nazi regime, and a reminder of why the world should never turn away when forces of hatred and prejudice lead to genocide. ... We hope Congressman Higgins will realize the pain and hurt he has caused, and that, in doing so, he will remove his video from circulation.
When you watch Congressman Higgins' disgraceful infomercial, you hear him use all sorts of euphemisms for those murdered at Auschwitz by the Nazis. He never refers specifically to the mass murder of Jewish people at Auschwitz, nor uses the words Holocaust or Shoah. And the logo at the end indicates he is using the video as a campaign video for his reelection to Congress. This is disgusting beyond description. He must get sensitivity training or get a new job.
For the record, while Higgins does discuss the extermination of "innocent civilians" at length in the video, it's true that he never uses the word Holocaust, or ever makes explicit verbal reference to the Jewish people. An image at the very end of the video, however, does shows the American flag alongside the Israeli flag.
This isn't the first instance of Higgins facing self-inflicted controversy. He was also condemned by progressives and anti-Islamophobia groups earlier this year, when he called for the mass extermination of "radicalized Islamic suspects."
Specifically, Higgins wrote a Facebook post claiming that "all of Christendom" is at war with "Islamic horror," one which concluded with a plea for the United States to "kill them all":
Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.
According to NBC News, a spokesperson for Higgins has not yet responded to the controversy. Higgins represents Louisiana's 3rd Congressional District, and is up for reelection in 2018.