Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Misdirected Outrage (US)

Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) caused a massive outporing of outrage among Republicans for making this comment last week:
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.

On the face of it he's absolutely right. He didn't do what Amnesty did and say that the camps were equivalent to Gulags. He said that the actions of the interrogators weren't different enough to other regimes that did horrific things. He said that America is, and should be, held to a higher standard than others. It isn't good enough to say "what they did was worse", the treatment of American prisoners must never get to a point where it's in the same league as even the lesser evils of those regimes. Andrew sullivan puts it better than I can:

The moral question is not simply of degree - how widespread and systematic is this kind of inhumanity? It is of kind: is this the kind of behavior more associated with despots than with democracies?
I'm sick of hearing justifications that the enemy is worse. This is news? This is what now passes for analysis? They are far, far worse, among the most despicable and evil enemies we have ever faced. Our treatment of their prisoners is indeed Club Med compared to their fathomless barbarism. But since when is our moral compass set by them? The West is a civilization built on a very fragile web of law and humanity. We do not treat people in our custody as animals. We do not justify it. We do not change the subject. We do not accuse those highlighting it of aiding the enemy. We do not joke about it. We simply don't do it.

The outporing of outrage from the right at these comments is completely misdirected. Where's the outrage at the actual abuses that went on at Gitmo, Abu Gharib and Afghanistan? Right wing blogs over the last weak have trivialised the abuses in a bizzare and disturbing manner. The dehumanisation, physical mistreatment and psychic abuse which has, on occasion, happened in American prisons in the past few years is appalling. Why have some on the right turned defence of abuse into a partisan issue? Principled Conservatives recognise that this sort of thing goes beyond party politics.

Too often Conservatives are highlight the most minor abuses which are reported or point to other aspects of the detention (like the meals) in an attempt to deflect an analysis of what really happened. In response to the front page Time report on Guantanamo detainee al-Qahtani, Powerline focussed on the beard shaving and the loud music, ignoring the substance of the abuse allegations:

  • al-Qahtani was subjected to 20 hours of interrogation at a stretch;

  • He was given 312 bags of IV fluid and then refused permission to urinate, until he wet his pants -- and the log reports that 30 minutes later "[h]e is beginning to understand the futility of his situation."

  • He was subjected to a drill euphemistically known as "Invasion of Space by a Female.

  • Dogs were brought into the interrogation room, and, according to FBI reports, were used "in an aggressive manner to intimidate the detainee."

  • al-Qahtani was made to stand nude, bark like a dog and growl at pictures of terrorists.

  • According to an FBI agent's report, al-Qahtani was "subjected to indecent isolation for over three months," until he evidenced behavior "consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end)."

Even this sort of thing pales when compared to some of the more extreme prisoner abuses. To pick some of the better documented, the photographed Abu Gharib abuses (severely disturbing images warning), the non-photographed Abu Gharib abuses, the beating to death of an Iraqi general in a sleeping bag and deaths and beatings of inmates in Afghanistan are way beyond the pale. And yet there has been little outrage over this among the right. Conservatives have in the past been very willing to prove Goodwin's Law:

White House confidante Grover Norquist, known for his blistering attacks on U.S. taxes, likened the estate tax to the "morality of the Holocaust" in October 2003. After being criticized for his remarks, Norquist expanded them in 2004 to include Democrats. "The Nazis were for gun control, the Nazis were for high marginal tax rates.... Do you want to talk about who's closer politically to national socialism, the Right or the Left?"
"We certainly have all seen the rejections of Nazi Germany's abuses of science," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) declared regarding his opposition to stem cell research last October.
"That, Mr. Speaker, is a `modern-day' equivalent of the Nazi prison guard saying 'I was just following orders,'" [Steve King (R-IA) said on the House floor Sept. 8, 2004. "It was all legal in Nazi Germany at the time."
Sen. James Inhofe said Oct. 11, 2004 that Kyoto "would deal a powerful blow on the whole humanity similar to the one humanity experienced when Nazism and communism flourished."
"Republican Congressman Tom Cole claims a vote against the `re-election' of President Bush is like supporting Adolph Hitler during World War Two,"
Former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) compared a Democratic tax plan to Nazi law in 2002.

"Now, forgive me, but that is right out of Nazi Germany," Gramm said. "I don't understand ... why all of a sudden we are passing laws that sound as if they are right out of Nazi Germany."
(Raw Story)

The anger at Durbin over his use of this rhetorical device is nothing more than an attempt to obfuscate the real issue of maltreatment of detainees in American prisons.


  • obfuscation is what you do when you don't have arguments

    anyone else catch the debate on Jim Lehrer this evening re funding
    for public broadcasters in the US?
    like this whole Durbin affair, it was a great illustration of what's wrong with the way the American uber-right approaches the concept of political discourse

    By Blogger John Lee, at 12:05 AM  

  • "Oh no, we're not as bad as Hitler," does not sound like much of a defense.

    By Blogger Charles Watkins, at 5:44 AM  

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