Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Defending Durbin: Courage in a time of cowardice

As many of you know by now, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois recently set off a storm by implicitly comparing allegations of torture at Gitmo with similar practices commonly used by the Nazis and Soviets (as well as other grotesque regimes around the world). The right, which refuses to discuss or debate these torture allegations on the merits -- and, increasingly, the truth about the atrocious treatment of detainees at Gitmo and elsewhere is coming out despite the right's efforts to keep the lies alive -- has predictably spun Durbin's remarks into a vehicle for political gain by playing the patriotism card. How dare Durbin say such a thing? What kind of traitor is he? Comparing the American military to the Nazis like that! He needs to be censured! He needs to be kicked out of the Senate! Am I exaggerating? Hardly. Here's what Hugh Hewitt, hardly a voice of disinterested reason, has said in The Weekly Standard:

Not only did Durbin's remarks injure America's position in the world, provide an enormous propaganda victory to the enemy, and slander the United States military, they also represent an escalation in the political rhetoric of the left, which is designed to undermine the public's confidence in the military, the administration, and the war. The censure resolution will oblige every senator to go on the record about how they view the American military as we enter the long phase of the war.

The outrage over Dick Durbin's comparison of interrogation practices at Gitmo to the Nazi, Soviet, and Pol Pot regimes has deeply injured Durbin's reputation and the reputation of the Democratic party that keeps him in the number two leadership position in the United States Senate.

See what's going on? See the spin? Durbin has injured America. Durbin has aided the enemy. Durbin has slandered the military. Durbin is representative of "the left," which seeks to undermine public confidence (is there any left?). How you stand on Durbin and his treasonous remarks is how you stand on the military (as if Durbin blamed the entire military). Durbin compared American "interrogation practices" to what the Nazis and Soviets did. Durbin has brought low both himself and the Democratic Party.

Really? No. And Andrew Sullivan is right to call this "rank hysteria". Here's what really happened: In his remarks, which the right has conveniently removed from any semblance of context, Durbin was referring to a report by an FBI interrogator who witnessed some of those innocuous "interrogation practices" at Gitmo. For example:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold... On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

All Durbin said was this:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime--Pol Pot or others--that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

Andrew Sullivan responds in brilliant fashion:

Is Hewitt arguing that the interrogator was lying? Does he believe that the kind of tactics used against this prisoner are worthy of the United States? Does he believe that this happened without authorization? If he were told this story and informed that it occurred in, say, Serbia under Milosevic, would he be surprised? Hewitt should then answer the same question about the 5 detainees which the U.S. government itself has acknowledged were tortured to death by U.S. interrogators, and the scores of others who died in detention during or after "interrogation". Does he deny that this happened? Does he honestly believe that removing the legal restrictions on cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees by our current president had nothing to do with this? Maybe he needs a little refresher on the extraordinary range and scale of the record of abuse that is still accumulating. I'm just amazed that some can view what has happened and their first instinct is to attack those who have criticized it, rather than those who have perpetrated it. It is this administration that has brought indelible shame on America, and it's people like Dick Durbin who prove that some can actually stand up against this stain on American honor and call it what it is. Good for him. Thank God for him.

Absolutely. And this goes for Hewitt and all of Durbin's other critics on the right. Consider how the right is trying to turn Durbin himself into the issue. As Richard Cohen puts it in today's Post:

He has instead come under vitriolic attack by Republicans who would have you think that the Democrat from Illinois likened America to the Soviet Union or the American military to Nazi Germany or disparaged the military in its entirety. In the name of our armed forces, Virginia Sen. John W. Warner asked for an apology. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, called for Durbin to be censured by the Senate. That would be a more severe penalty than that accorded Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) for praising the late Strom Thurmond's racist 1948 presidential campaign.

Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the Senate, also called on Durbin to apologize -- although he himself did nothing of the sort when his videotaped patient, Terri Schiavo, turned out to be horribly brain damaged and not, as he suggested to the Senate, potentially treatable. Frist has lost the ability to blush, but not to mischaracterize. He said Durbin "called Guantanamo a death camp" -- words that do not appear in the text...

And so:

The contempt the Bush administration has shown for world opinion and international law -- not to mention American traditions of jurisprudence -- is costing us plenty. We are not the Soviet Union and we are not Nazi Germany, and Dick Durbin did not intend to say we are. His detractors have to know that. Their intention, however, is not to answer criticism but to silence a critic.

This is the reasoned response to the right's trumped-up charges against Durbin. It's possible to be for the war and to support the troops without resorted to the indefensible position of defending torture. No, they're not just "interrogation practices" -- let's call them what they are. But the right, which in the wake of the war's gross misconduct and increasing unpopularity has grown defensive and hypocritical, seems now to equate dissent on any issue, or even the questioning of the war's conduct, as treason. That is nothing if not deeply and profoundly un-American.

If the right wants to defend what's been going at Gitmo and other detention facilities, then, well, it's representatives should come out and be straight with the American people (and the rest of the world). Yes, let's have that debate. I'd welcome it. But what I suspect is that the right knows it would lose. Andrew Sullivan again:


If Durbin had said, as Amnesty unfortunately did, that Gitmo was another Gulag, I'd be dismayed and critical, as I was with Amnesty. There's no comparison in any way between the scale, intent and context of the Soviet gulags and Gitmo. If Durbin had said that what was being done there in the aggregate was comparable to Auschwitz or Siberian death camps, the same would be true. But Durbin said something subtler. Now I know subtlety is not something that plays well on talk radio. But in this case, it matters. Durbin focused on one very credible account of inhumane treatment and abuse of detainees and asked an important question...

So go ahead: answer his implied question. If you had been told that prisoners had been found in this state in one of Saddam's or Stalin's jails, would you have believed it? Of course, you would. In fact, I spent much time and effort before the war documenting the cruel and inhumane conduct of the regime we were trying to destroy - a regime whose cruelty encompassed low-level inhumanity like Gitmos - and, of course, unimaginably worse.

Yes, America once had the moral high-ground (no matter your position on the war), at least with respect to Saddam, al Qaeda, and the fascist jihadists in Iraq and elsewhere. In some ways, it still does, and I continue to reject the notion that there is any kind of moral equivalency here. But these allegations of torture -- no, let's call them what they are: these instances of torture -- perhaps isolated, but more likely part of a larger problem -- have destroyed much of that reputation. The right may spin these stories however they like, and they'll no doubt continue to do so, but the truth is that this prisoner abuse, not Durbin or the various comments of critics and dissenters, has "injure[d] America's position in the world" and "provide[d] an enormous propaganda victory to the enemy". To blame Durbin is to live in denial, but that's precisely where much of the intransigent right -- whether in Congress, the commentariat, talk radio, or the blogosphere -- finds itself today.

Along with Andrew Sullivan and Richard Cohen, Kevin Drum is right: "The 'outrage' over this incident is obviously manufactured and deserves to be treated with scorn." The real outrage should be directed at the perpetrators of torture and their military and political enablers -- and that, ultimately, means President Bush. The buck needs to stop somewhere. The right wants to deflect our attention away from the real issue, but we all know that the buck ultimately stops in the Oval Office. (Not that the occupant of that office is taking any responsibility for anything happening under his watch.)

On Monday, Senator Durbin stood on the floor of the Senate and apologized for "a very poor choice of words," for being unclear, and for possibly "cast[ing] a negative light on our fine men and women in the military". That he did so, and that he needed to declare that he loves America and respects the men and women in the military (as if that really needed declaring), speaks to the volume of the attacks hurled at him from the right. But he needn't have apologized. He said what he said because hearing of a man chained to the floor in the fetal position without food or water and wallowing in his own urine and feces does remind us, those of us who aren't deafened by the noise of partisan rancor, of the worst abuses of the twentieth century. No, Gitmo isn't a Soviet gulag or a Nazi concentration camp, but that doesn't mean that there aren't appalling similarities.

When so many of America's leaders see no evil and hear no evil and continue to live in denial, fiddling while prisoners in America's care are brutally tortured and denied their basic rights as human beings, Durbin's candid remarks reflect courage in a time of cowardice, a moral core in a time of political opportunism. Yes, good for him. We need more like him to step forward and face up to the real outrage that threatens America's standing in the world, indeed, that pollutes America's own moral core.

If America truly stands for liberty and democracy, is it too much to ask that it live up to its own principles?

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