June 20, 2005,
Richard Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, cries that “right-wing media” have wrenched his recent jeremiad against interrogation techniques at U.S. detention centers from its proper context. Let us pause, then, to consider in detail what he said, and to ask what, exactly, he could have been thinking.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Durbin quoted from the report of an FBI agent who claims to have seen
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 temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. . . . . On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room.
Durbin then said, “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.”
Even granting what has not been established that these allegations are true one marvels at the inappositeness of the comparison. Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags, and the Khmer Rhouge’s killing fields are not known principally for the interrogation methods employed therein, summary execution having been the preferred expedient. For an enemy combatant to foul himself in a hot room is an unpleasant thing. For an innocent civilian to be murdered is rather worse; and when such murders aggregate into the millions and tens of millions, that is something unfathomably worse.
Durbin has subsequently acknowledged that the horrors committed by Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot surpass anything found or even alleged at Guantanamo, a triumph of ethical reasoning that invites us to wonder why he made the comparison at all. It is a bit like comparing Leona Helmsley to Stalin on the grounds that both had rough social manners, all the while conceding that Stalin was somewhat worse on the question of forced starvation. That statement is not false so much as it is insipid. For a comparison to be at all illuminating, the things compared must be more than trivially related. Supposing, then, that Durbin took himself to be saying something illuminating, he must have thought that killing 20 million people and exposing prisoners to loud rap music belong to the same genus if not the same species. In short: If someone says you are like Stalin, he probably means you are like Stalin.
to Stalin on the grounds that both
had rough social manners, all the while
conceding that Stalin was somewhat worse
on the question of forced starvation.”
Who is like Stalin? Not just the immediate perpetrators of the alleged abuse. Durbin is not blessing standard military practices while condemning aberrations from them. He is not, that is, simply saying that the law ought to be obeyed. Rather, he is alleging official connivance in wrongdoing: “The law was clear, but some of the president’s top advisers questioned whether we should follow it or whether we should write new standards.” And: “After the president decided to ignore Geneva Conventions, the administration unilaterally created a new detention policy.” And again: “The administration also established a new interrogation policy that allows cruel and inhuman interrogation techniques.”
Now to say that the authorized interrogation techniques at Guantanamo rise to the level of torture trivializes the meaning of that word. And the claim that torture is authorized absent the Geneva Conventions is risible, as is the idea that the Bush administration has approved the abusive treatments that have, on occasion, come to light at such places as Abu Ghraib. But this is manifestly what Durbin and many other liberals think. To the extent that Durbin sees U.S. interrogation methods as similar to the practices of genocidal despots, and to the extent that he thinks President Bush authorized these methods, he must, to the same degree, think Bush is similar to a genocidal despot. In a moment of wanton charity we might suppose that Durbin doesn’t really think that; perhaps he simply failed to follow his logic to the conclusion toward which it ineluctably advances. If so, the fact that Durbin reaffirmed his remarks two days after their initial utterance along with the fact that, even now, having expressed “regret” if anyone “misunderstood [his] true feelings,” he does not retract his statement suggests that the senator thinks very slowly indeed.
As must the leaders of his party, who have found it astonishingly difficult to condemn Durbin’s insinuation that the Bush administration is of a kind with history’s evilest regimes. Harry Reid wonders why we can’t just drop the matter and talk instead about public schools in Searchlight, Nev. Hillary Clinton, asked for comment, declines to offer any, not having heard Durbin’s speech. A reporter reads the relevant passage; again she declines.
Whatever the Durbin Democrats’ motives, they are doing incalculable damage to the cause they swear to support the war on terror. When Amnesty International likened Guantanamo to the gulag, both political parties should have been able to reject that outrageous comparison. Instead, a leading Democratic senator has echoed it, and his party has hardly murmured in disagreement. Durbin’s words have already been aired by al Jazeera, whose viewership is not known for the dispassionate reason it brings to bear when evaluating the merits of the anti-American slander du jour.
Then again, Richard Durbin isn’t known for that either and his party is rapidly gaining the same reputation.