Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) yesterday offered a tearful apology on the Senate floor for comparing the alleged abuse of prisoners by American troops to techniques used by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Khmer Rouge, as he sought to quell a frenzy of Republican-led criticism.
Durbin, the Democratic whip, acknowledged that "more than most people, a senator lives by his words" but that "occasionally words will fail us and occasionally we will fail words." Choking up, he said: "Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line. To them, I extend my heartfelt apologies."
He singled out the victims of the Holocaust, which Durbin called "the greatest moral tragedy of our time," as well as U.S. troops.
The week-long Republican campaign against Durbin shifted attention from the subject of the senator's initial statement: allegations that terrorism suspects are being mistreated at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Critics have called for the base to be closed, but defenders, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, say there are no alternatives.
Durbin had prefaced his remarks, delivered June 14 on the Senate floor, by noting that for two years he had sought congressional hearings on the treatment of detainees. Then he cited an FBI account of how Guantanamo prisoners had been chained to their cells in extreme temperatures and deprived of food and water.
"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," Durbin said. "Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."
Quick to pounce were conservative Web commentators and radio talk-show hosts, followed by other media outlets with a strong conservative following, including Fox News and the Washington Times. Conservative activists who ordinarily take little interest in foreign affairs weighed in as well. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, issued a statement June 16 calling Durbin's remarks "grossly unfair and hurtful."
"They are extremely well organized," Durbin said in an interview, referring to the conservative movement. "And, inevitably, they drag the mainstream media behind them."
Comments from the White House and other elected officials helped to keep the spotlight on Durbin. Also on June 16 , White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the remarks "reprehensible" and "a real disservice to our men and women in uniform who adhere to high standards and uphold our values and our laws."
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called for a Senate censure of Durbin. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wrote on Monday to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), urging him to "encourage" Durbin to "apologize for and withdraw his remarks."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press": "I think that Senator Durbin owes the Senate an apology -- I don't know if censure would be in order -- but an apology, because it does a great disservice to men and women who suffered in the gulag and in Pol Pot's 'killing fields.' "
Initially, Durbin strongly defended his assessment. "This administration should apologize to the American people for abandoning the Geneva Conventions and authorizing torture techniques that put our troops at risk and make Americans less secure," he said.
Late Friday, Durbin's office issued a statement saying that the senator regretted it if his statement had been misconstrued. "I have learned from my statement that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood," he said.
But as the days unfolded, the story continued to dominate the conservative media while cropping up repeatedly in more traditional news outlets.
The Anti-Defamation League on Thursday joined lawmakers and other groups in calling for an apology for comparing the activities of U.S. troops to those of Nazis. Then, Chicago's Democratic mayor, Richard M. Daley, declared: "I think it's a disgrace to say that any man or woman in the military would act like that."
Durbin said his biggest concern is the perception of troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. His voiced quavered when he said in his floor speech yesterday, "When you look at the eyes of the soldiers, you see your son and daughter. I never, never intended any disrespect for them."
After the speech, Republicans said they were ready to put the matter to rest. During a later vote, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) shook Durbin's hand and thanked him for apologizing. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said of the apology: "It was good for the troops, and it was good for Senator Durbin."
McCain said the lesson is "Watch your words."
"It's a very partisan atmosphere," he said. "Things have a great resonance."
To them, I extend my heartfelt apologies."