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Piling On Dick Durbin

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Those of us who have read accounts of the gulag or of the interrogation methods of the Nazis and similar barbaric regimes are familiar with the infinite varieties of torture. Maybe for that reason I did not feel it was anything of a stretch for Sen. Dick Durbin to refer to those regimes when reciting what an FBI agent had seen at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: detainees "chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water," or deprived of a bathroom, or kept in extreme heat or cold. One was found "almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out." Whatever that is, it is not America.

This was Durbin's point. He was right, although not necessarily politically prudent or elegant, when he said that if you did not know these descriptions came from an FBI agent, you "would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime . . . that had no concern for human beings." I certainly might have thought so -- although, in general, these regimes were capable of far worse than that, and Durbin should not have said "most certainly." A "possibly" would have done just fine.

Still, Durbin is not being faulted for a lack of nuance. He has instead come under vitriolic attack by Republicans who would have you think that the Democrat from Illinois likened America to the Soviet Union or the American military to Nazi Germany or disparaged the military in its entirety. In the name of our armed forces, Virginia Sen. John W. Warner asked for an apology. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, called for Durbin to be censured by the Senate. That would be a more severe penalty than that accorded Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) for praising the late Strom Thurmond's racist 1948 presidential campaign.

Bill Frist, the Republican leader of the Senate, also called on Durbin to apologize -- although he himself did nothing of the sort when his videotaped patient, Terri Schiavo, turned out to be horribly brain damaged and not, as he suggested to the Senate, potentially treatable. Frist has lost the ability to blush, but not to mischaracterize. He said Durbin "called Guantanamo a death camp" -- words that do not appear in the text.

Durbin has since regretted if his words, misconstrued as they were, offended anyone. It certainly would have been better if he had couched his criticism in a more politically savvy way. He should have recognized that it is imperative never to compare anything in America to anything in the old Soviet Union, particularly the heinous gulag, or to make any references at all to Nazi Germany. But of course, Durbin really wasn't intending to do that. He was just criticizing the administration's insistence on thumbing its nose at world opinion and its failure to hold detentions and interrogations at Guantanamo to accepted human rights standards. From the very start, from Sept. 11, 2001, onward, the Bush administration has made no bones about its willingness to treat alleged terrorists -- some of them not anything of the kind -- without the nettlesome interference of international laws and treaties. It has sent the wrong message.

The practice of the Bush White House and its supporters is to go right at its critics -- to hell with fairness -- and shout them down. This is what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did to John Kerry and this is what the White House itself did to Newsweek. That magazine's story about reported abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo was admittedly wrong on one specific, but we did learn later that the military itself had investigated reports of Koran abuse. There's smoke, if not fire, there.

The vitriol being heaped on Durbin would be almost funny if it weren't so mean. The man, after all, is the virtually invisible Dick Durbin. And yet he is being tarred and feathered for saying something that has occurred to many of us: Guantanamo makes the United States look bad.

The contempt the Bush administration has shown for world opinion and international law -- not to mention American traditions of jurisprudence -- is costing us plenty. We are not the Soviet Union and we are not Nazi Germany, and Dick Durbin did not intend to say we are. His detractors have to know that. Their intention, however, is not to answer criticism but to silence a critic. They ought to be -- whatcha say, Newt? -- censured.

cohenr@washpost.com

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