Opinion

When Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?

The most total victory I could ever possess over Nazis like Richard Spencer is to be able to ignore them entirely. But these days that's less and less of an option.

I used to live next to a Nazi.

By "lived next to a Nazi," I don't mean that I lived near someone who had outlandishly right-wing views. Nor do I mean that I lived near someone who identifies as part of the so-called alt-right (though I'm fine generally characterizing such persons as, at the very least, heirs to Nazism).

What I mean is, a few months after moving to Minneapolis, I discovered that a former SS officer lived in a house a few doors down from mine

Over the inauguration weekend, alt-right leader Richard Spencer was punched on camera. The internet is now debating whether it's okay to punch Nazis. I gather I'm in a minority of my peer group in not endorsing punching Richard Spencer. Some of those reasons are very pragmatic. But other reasons relate to my own reaction upon learning of my Nazi neighbor.

When I found out who was living next to me, what stood out most of all was a strange feeling of vertigo. I felt like I should do something about it. But what? Part of me was just curious to meet him, hear his story. Part of me wanted to meet him, but simply to throw in his face that I was alive. Part of me wanted, yes, to smack him. Part of me thought that went a bit far and that I would settle for egging his house.

Part of me said "he's in his 90s, what's the point of haranguing him?" Another part replied "He's a Nazi, he's not entitled to 'live out his days in peace'!"

Ultimately, I didn't do anything. I didn't walk by his house, I didn't knock on his door. I didn't talk to him, or stare at him, or punch him, or acknowledge him in any way.

Why not?

Some people might say that, by punching a Nazi, I'm "resorting to their level." But that's not necessarily true. As many of the pro-Nazi-punching set have observed, there are times when it is absolutely fine (and consistent with being a good liberal) to punch (or otherwise commit violence against) Nazis. 

People protest on the day white nationalist leader Richard Spencer was due to speak on campus in Texas.
SPENCER SELVIDGE/REUTERS

When Nazis are assembling war machines and marching across continents, it is entirely right and just to assemble armed force to counter them. Americans didn't become Nazis by entering into World War II. We had to punch Nazis then, and it was entirely consistent with good old-fashioned American values to do it.

The concentration camps didn't afford Jews many opportunities to punch Nazis. But it did force Jews to react and respond to Nazis. Often, we had to grovel, beg, barter, or obey. And even when we resisted, we were still resisting Nazis – our actions were responsive to what they were doing. We hid because they made us hide, we ran because they made us run, we fought back because they left us no other choice. Everything we did, we did because of the circumstances Nazis put us into. Do you think the average Jew in 1935 wanted to spend the next decade furiously darting for her life?

But one of the perks of winning World War II is that I don't have to let Nazis dictate how I behave. I can do what I want! And if I don't like punching people – and I don't – why should I let a Nazi make me do it?

I've often quoted Carol Gilligan's remark that power means, "You can opt not to listen. And you do so with impunity." Generally, I quote it as an indictment of the powerful – they can choose to ignore marginalized persons without consequence. But there is another, liberating dimension to the same observation: disempowered groups are frequently forced to listen. Part of empowerment, for many, is precisely to be able "not to listen" with impunity. The most total victory I could ever possess over Nazis is to be able to ignore them entirely.

Ultimately, I ignored my neighbor because I had no interest in either making nice conversation with Nazis or staring them down, in punching them or in egging their houses. I left him in peace not because it was "the right thing to do," but because it was what I wanted to do. And the days where a Nazi could make me do something I didn't want to do were over.

If this strikes you as a contingent observation, you're right. The world today is not the same as the world even five years ago, and the degree to which we can simply ignore Nazis has dissipated significantly. It may be we are entering a different space, one in which we have to punch Nazis. We should acknowledge that this is a loss, not because there's a deep tragedy in Nazi-punching, but because it is a sad day whenever Nazis are in a position to make us "have to" do anything.

But for the time being, I don't think I have to punch any Nazis. And that's lucky for me, because I actually do like the norms that say we don't respond even to detestable speech with violence, that we defeat noxious ideologies with better arguments and better politics rather than with brute force. If I'm forced to abandon those norms – and I agree there are times where they do not fit – that would itself show the gravity of the circumstances we've found ourselves in.

I do have to pay attention to Nazis, and that's regretful. And perhaps things will deteriorate further and I will have to actually physically fight Nazis. The day that happens is the day that Nazis are sufficiently powerful such that I will have to take actions I really would rather not. 

But I'm not going to give them that victory for free. I am lucky to still live in a world where Nazis are very limited in what they can make me do. And so I will continue, as best as I am able, to do what I want to do, without regard to what some Hitler Youth wannabe is spouting off on.

David Schraub is a Lecturer in Law and Senior Research Fellow at the California Constitution Center, University of California-Berkeley Law School. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Follow him on Twitter: @schraubd