The SanityPrompt

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Dick Durbin Goes All Wobbly

The Nazi card, like the race card in politics is one that frequently gets trotted out and usually elicits howls of outrage. Calling your opponent a Nazi is an easy reach for someone frustrated in a debate. And certainly one side or another employs tactics that seem to draw inspiration from the Nazi approach. But generally, we are averse to the use of the Nazi comparison, not because it is unfair to the person compared (although it can be) but because it is an insult to the memory of those who suffered and of those who died under that regime. And defenders of the Holocaust memory such as the ADL police all use of the Nazi term and typically condemn anyone who invokes it. So comparing a situation to Nazi rule is pretty much accepted to be off bounds.

But how off bounds? At what point can someone's outrageous actions wander into that horrible territory. Is the comparison forever off limits in all instances? What is the use of historical analogy if not to draw a contrast between something new and perhaps unfamiliar with something older but much more familiar? Certainly if racist, totalitarian thugs began rounding up members of a particular group or set of groups in this country with little cause other than race, ethnicity, or political ideology while also projecting an aggressive and aggrandizing foreign policy it might be time to say, "heh, this is behavior that is unbecoming and rather Nazi-like."

So it is with some disappointment that progressives watched Dick Durbin tearfully apologize for his comments expressing outrage that the miserable treatment of American detainees continues, that extraordinary rendition to countries that employ torture continues, and that all this is being done in our name and by our fellow Americans. Before we take the NY Post's, the Wash Times, Fox News, Bill Frist or the White House's word that Durbin called US soldiers Nazis, let's review the transcript. Durbin had said:

When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here [at Guantanamo Bay]--I almost hesitate to put them in the [Congressional] Record, and yet they have to be added to this debate. Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report:

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.
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.

So let's look more closely: "If I had read this to you you would most certainly believe this must have been done by the Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others." Well, exactly. If I didn't know better I would say, "you are having me on, Americans did not do this." But the sad fact is that they are and continue to do this. Mistreatment of prisoners occurs not just where there are bad apples but in Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq. The Administration continues to claim that it can designate anyone, anywhere an enemy combatant and lock them up without trial -- forever! And all they ask is 'trust us.' Perhaps we are the mad regime. Or perhaps we are all in a state of madness so that we sit around in some kind of stupor while all of this happens in our name and say nothing. Do nothing.

Jim Gilliard gets the progressive outrage at Durbin right here: THE NEWS BLOG

But where is the outrage against the press, the ADL which should know better or the White House?

The ADL response is typical but you have to see the whole thing to understand it in context:

Dear Senator Durbin:

We write to object to your reference to Nazis in the context of the debate on detainees at Guantanamo Bay on the Senate floor earlier this week.

Whatever your views on the treatment of detainees and alleged excesses at the Guantanamo Bay facility, it is inappropriate and insensitive to suggest that actions by American troops in any way resemble actions taken by Nazis in their treatment of prisoners. Suggesting some kind of equivalence between their interrogation tactics demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about the horrors that Hitler and his regime actually perpetrated.

We urge you to repudiate your remarks and apologize to the American people for distorting an important issue with an inappropriate comparison to Nazi tactics. However heated the debate over issues of the day, we would urge you to refrain from using Holocaust imagery in the future.
(My emphasis added)

The ADL just doesn't want anyone ever to invoke the Holocaust. The imagery itself is off limits and essentially the word. But the ADL loves to invoke the phrase -- Never again. My own view is that if you carve out the imagery and language as a protected, some how hallowed space that can never be used in comparison on any occasion, you stand a dim chance of preventing future occurences. How are to to protect from this happening again if we do not parameterize the extent of Nazi crimes and limit them. Do we mean only that the Nazis should never be allowed to have power again? Never be allowed to exactly duplicate their crimes? The Nazi crimes were massive in their extent. But if we lose sight of all and each of their crimes, we lose sight of the total crime. The Holocaust becomes a vague abstract notion divorced from history. If it is to be a living and breathing thing that preserves and portects liberty for all of us, then all of its parts must me be understood and held up to scrutiny. We should be concerned not just with the plan to extinguish all of Europe's Jews, or with the Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing and ghetto-ization. We must also remember Kristallnacht as a night of terror on jews which was also an effort to extinguish free thought and divergent views. We must remember that in reprisal for partisan attacks, Nazis would single out entire communities and kill them all. We must remember that Hitler rose to power by violently seizing and consolidating his power after being appointed premier in a deal with conservatives. We must remember that free speech was extinguished. We must remember that hope was extinguished. We must remember that Hitler sought to subject all of Europe to his vision. We must remember all of this and so much more. The Nazi crimes were both large and small but we must remember all of them. And so we should also be free to invoke each and or all of them from time to time if we want to give life to the expression never again. For we must prevent all of it again. And each crime commited by them as well. But if we wait to find a circumstance when we feel that all the great crimes have finally found their equal, we will miss the chance to invoke lessons learned from that period in numerous instances.

The fact is that the self-proclaimed greatest Democracy on earth is perpetrating outrage after outrage that draws from the totalitarian playbook. Shouldn't we use the lessons learned from other regimes to justify our outrage, to stand and say, no, this must stop? Not in my name!

I don't generally like to link to Sullivan anymore but using his typical restrained good sense and reasoned judgment he reviews Durbin's words and judges them perfectly respectable. Perhaps what is most striking in all of this is that the brouhaha and the Press are focused on Durbin and the analogy rather than on the FBI report itself. It doesn't seem to trouble anyone that all of this is happening in America's name. That the US is focused on the comments while the world is rightly focused on the torture and mistreatment. And that the Press once again is completely complicitous in this. This commentator to a DailyKOS posting has is pitch perfect:

Has a reporter yet asked any of these "outraged" officials (after they've finished tearing Dick Durbin a new one) what THEIR IMPRESSION of the report is?

"Senator_____ being as you are unmoved to agree that the report describes Nazi-like/Stalin-esque/Pol Pot-ian horrors, how would YOU describe them?"

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