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Town responds to Nazi salute prom photo

CNN's Don Lemon discusses a viral prom photo that shows a group of boys appearing to flash a Nazi salute and the Wisconsin town's reaction to this photo.

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 10:40 PM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 10:55 PM

It's a terrifying sight: A pack of young white men, their arms extended in an apparent Sieg Heil salute, most of them smiling and seemingly laughing.

It's a type of image we've seen before, maybe in a WWII documentary, maybe at a Holocaust museum, maybe as part of an educational curriculum about the horrors of Nazi Germany.

This photo, though, isn't from a museum or a textbook. It's of high school students in Wisconsin, and it was taken last year for the prom. It has gone viral and, of course, with good reason:

When we've seen historic WWII photos of this sort, they have served to remind us not just of the mass genocide of Jews, people with disabilities, Roma people, LGBT people and other minorities, but of the dark fact that an entire nation got behind that genocide. And that a sophisticated government waged an effective propaganda campaign that relied on a long-existing chauvinism of white Germanic Christian superiority. And that while of course not every single German was on board, a great many were culpable.

The rise of Adolf Hitler, and the Holocaust that followed, was not the story of a malleable but ultimately innocent populace exploited by a powerful and malevolent few. It was instead a story we always see with autocrats, dictators and genocidaires: one of a powerful few backed by a malevolent many.

Some who are sympathetic to the Wisconsin students -- white non-Jews, one imagines -- will be tempted to write this off as teenage antics for which the young men should not pay a significant price. One of those people appears to be Peter Gust, the motorcycle photographer who took the photo and posted it on his website. I can imagine that many people saw the photo and wondered if this could have all been avoided if there was an "adult in the room." It turns out there was.

Gust claims the photo is "innocent," and is actually of the kids waving goodbye to their parents (I don't know how people wave in Wisconsin, but I've never seen it done like that). Gust has also taken the photo down and complained about "jerks" who are being online bullies -- by which he apparently meant the people angry about the photo, and not the teenagers who appear to be making a Nazi salute.

The photo was also tweeted on a parody account called @GoBaraboo with the caption "We even got the black kid to throw it up." If the photo was of an innocent group wave, why would it be notable that the one African-American kid participated?

The school administration is now investigating, and Baraboo police tweeted that they are assisting. It's unclear why police would be involved with this -- throwing up a Nazi salute is disgusting and offensive, but it is not and should not be illegal. Still, the school needs to take this seriously. That doesn't mean just a slap on the wrist. The school should have a policy on racist bullying (and if it doesn't, it needs to implement one immediately), and the students should face meaningful consequences -- suspension at the very least, and certainly alerting any colleges to which these students have been accepted.

Right-wing terrorism, including white supremacist and anti-Semitic terrorism, is the biggest domestic terror threat Americans now face. Is each student who raised a Nazi salute in that photo a potential terrorist? Of course not. But this is not merely youthful hijinks. We don't know why these particular young men went along with this pose, but it bears a chilling similarity to the gesture of genocidal regimes that many white supremacist terrorists display. It's no joke.

This should also be a moment of reckoning for the community that raised up these young men. They didn't have to learn the Sieg Heil salute at home to have grown up in a culture that tacitly or even explicitly overlooks or endorses bigotry. At least one student wrote to a reporter that bullying and bigotry are par for the course at Baraboo High School.

One has to wonder what messages these teens absorbed from the authority figures and adults around them (not to mention the adults in the White House) to conclude not only that throwing up a Nazi salute would make for a great photo, but also that it would be funny to tweet and share it.

The facts of this story point to one possible conclusion: This wasn't a shameful moment about which everyone thought better after the shutter clicked. It lived online for many months — and only now when it is under public scrutiny has there been a reaction. The Twitter account on which it was shared Sunday night — on Armistice Day — has now been made private. What does this incident say about the values of these young men as they leave high school and enter the adult world?

Repudiating hatred and bigotry must happen at home. But we also need leaders and authority figures, from teachers to the President of the United States, to model goodness, open-mindedness and intolerance of hate and bigotry. On that, we are failing, from Wisconsin to Washington.

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