Now that the dust has settled, it’s time for a closer look at what U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin actually said. Why did it ignite such a strong reaction? My take is that the furor over Nazis by Republicans and talk radio was a smokescreen, part distraction and part denial. What really got Durbin in trouble was telling the truth — that America’s behavior doesn’t match its ideals.
On June 14, speaking from the Senate floor, Durbin appealed to American values, which were, after all, at the center of the 2004 election campaign. “Muslims respect our values,” he said, “but we must convince them that our actions reflect these values. That’s why the 9/11 Commission recommended: ‘We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treating people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors.’ ”
Later in his speech, he quoted a year-old memo describing what one FBI agent saw at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo: “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 literally been 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.”
The prisoner abuse at Guantánamo reported by this FBI agent is outrageous. Congressional leaders should be demanding an apology from the Bush administration. Republican leaders should be joining with Democrats to insist that the administration declare that it will not subject any detainee to torture, or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Instead, Republican leaders joined conservative talk show hosts on the moral low ground, seizing on Durbin’s next paragraph to blow him out of the water. “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,” Durbin said, “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.”
All of a sudden, politicians and commentators were saying that Durbin was “comparing” or “equating” U.S. actions to those of the Nazis. Rush Limbaugh pronounced that he was “stunned,” not by the abuse of prisoners, but by the mention of Nazis. “We have nothing in common with them.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist called Durbin’s remarks about Nazis a “heinous slander against our country.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said “it is a disgrace to say that any man or woman in the military acts like that.”
Is it a disgrace to say it? Or is it a disgrace to act like that? After Durbin apologized for his “poor choice of words” to quell the drumbeat of criticism that was taking on a life of its own, many commentators said he had been misunderstood, his remarks taken out of context. I don’t think so.
I think he was well understood. What rankles old-fashioned patriots such as Mayor Daley is the suggestion that America would say one thing and do another. A more confident citizenry might dismiss allegations of prisoner abuse as preposterous, but after Abu Ghraib there are lingering doubts. Allegations that the U.S. government is being hypocritical about values begin to ring too true. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those in power would attack the messenger when the message is as clear as Durbin’s was. “To criticize the rest of the world for using torture and to turn a blind eye to what we are doing in this war is wrong,” he said in the speech that ignited the firestorm. “And it is not American.”