Thursday, June 23, 2005

Is Torture Anti-American?

I have avoided politics here for some time, though I have to put up something about Dick Durbin. A week or so ago he claimed that reports of American torture of prisoners at Guantánamo were the sort of thing one might hear out of Nazi Germany or some such awful place. This led to a week of shrieking from the aggrieved right - and that led to Durbin apologizing, which led to Karl Rove saying that liberals want to see American soldiers killed. (I quote: "Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals." That's what he said, that's what the man said.)

But back to Durbin: It's hard to analyze what he said. Like the Amnesty International comparison of Gitmo to the Gulag, it is something of a dangerous metaphor - I myself have hammered people endlessly for comparing Saddam to Hitler, which so often proves to be their only talking point in arguments about Iraq - but the outrage Durbin kicked up is even harder to take. If style is more important than substance - what does it mean to argue against him? Doesn't that mean that you are more upset by someone comparing Gitmo to the Gulags than you are by Gitmo's abuses themselves? (See quote.) Alas - I can conclude nothing less. For while many lefties will, like I just did above, squirm a bit about Durbin or Amnesty's hyperbole and arguing by analogy, most righties do not bother to combine their stern (or foamy mouthed, depending) condemnations of Durbin with an analogous squirm about the fact that, yes, after all, we are torturing people in Gitmo, and, yes, after all, that's not something really compatible with the American Way.

But Durbin apologized (for reactions? Michael Berube is up in arms; very nice letter from Jeanne D'Arc on Tom Tomorrow's blog; the right (represented by, say, Powerline), huffs that he only apologized for a "poor choice of words". Which of pretty predictable - you'd think the dems would catch on to that trick by now.) So now what? Karl Rove - well - you read this, right?

It is hard not to fall into despair at this crap. It hurts to think that people who think they care about the United States are that willing to defend torture. Because, really - hammering on Durbin is nothing more or less than a defense of torture. His point - that countries that torture are evil - and evil countries torture - stands. He's right. How can you accuse him of attacking American troops? He is only attacking the American military is torture is the official policy of the United States. Is it? (One worries.) Still - there is something more to this, that may offer a little hope: it's that, after all, torture is Un-American. (I know that's an overused term - but shit, if torture isn't unAmerican, is anything?) And every time someone criticizes Durbin for saying so - they are reminding everyone what happens at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. There is, just a little bit, something of the old, "when did you stop beating your wife?" routine going on. The defense - "we don't torture as many people as Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot!" - doesn't exactly fly flags of glory for the country....

Which, undoubtedly, is why Rove went out and offered an explicit, divisive attack on liberals - there's no defense like a good offense. Especially when you're as unpolular and fucked up as the Bush White House is. They have to attack - they want the ball in our court - they want the talk shows to be arguing about whether Liberals hate America, not whether you can seriously compare American government facilities to Gulags. I am not convinced that the right can continue to brag about not being as bad as the commies without some of the fact that we are doing bad things getting through. Stories like this - however they are spun - are spun. Spin around the fact that we are torturing people long enough and people will notice it.

This is from the FBI report cited by Durbin:

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.

That is what Durbin could not believe was being done by Americans.

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