By Greg Moses
Because Sen. Dick Durbin and his fellow Democrats are concerned about the human rights of American soldiers taken prisoner during armed conflicts, on FLAG DAY he called upon the Bush administration to set a humane standard of treatment for “enemy combatants” and to respect the human rights of prisoners at Guantanamo and other US prison camps.
Durbin’s remarks suggest that the best defense of human rights for American soldiers and citizens begins with the examples that Americans set. When it comes to respect for international conventions that uphold human rights, the American flag should stand on the side of these rights, not against them.
If we want a world where our rights are respected then we have to lead by example. What better message to send on Flag Day? Yet right-wing commentators who have little time to think for themselves piled onto Sen. Durbin’s comments with a recklessness that will only further endanger the general level of human rights for soldiers and civilians throughout the world.
“The idea of moral equivalence between the U.S. military at Gitmo and the 15 to 30 million who died in the Soviet gulags or the 9 million who died in Nazi concentration camps or the 2 million dead in the Cambodia killing fields is utterly outrageous.”
Such is the way that one right-wing commentator characterizes the comments by US Senator Richard Durbin, but it is a poor characterization at best. Not to bore anyone with the facts, but here are the relevant paragraphs from Durbin’s remarks from the floor of the US Senate:
When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here — I almost hesitate to put them in the 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 here we see what evidence Sen. Durbin uses and to what extent he compares the practices of Guantanamo to infamous totalitarian gulags: If you read this and did not first know it was Guantanamo, then what would you think? You’d think this was some kind of gulag, that’s what you’d think.
Durbin did not say that one should compare the “scope” of atrocities between Guantanamo and Auschwitz. He simply said that certain dehumanizing practices found at Guantanamo were just the kinds of things that we expect to find at gulags.
“Senator Durbin and the looney left supporting him are slandering our military, our President, and our nation. It is a total outrage,” continues our right-wing commentator as if Durbin had said anything incendiary about “our military.” In fact, what Sen. Durbin argued in his carefully-worded remarks was that adherence by the US administration to Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners is the most prudent policy for PROTECTING our military in times of war.
Former Congressman Pete Peterson of Florida, a man I call a good friend and a man I served with in the House of Representatives, is a unique individual. He is one of the most cheerful people you would ever want to meet. You would never know, when you meet him, he was an Air Force pilot taken prisoner of war in Vietnam and spent 6 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison. Here is what he said about this issue in a letter that he sent to me. Pete Peterson wrote:
>From my 6 1/2 years of captivity in Vietnam, I know what life in a foreign prison is like. To a large degree, I credit the Geneva Conventions for my survival….This is one reason the United States has led the world in upholding treaties governing the status and care of enemy prisoners: because these standards also protect us….We need absolute clarity that America will continue to set the gold standard in the treatment of prisoners in wartime.
Abusive detention and interrogation policies make it much more difficult to win the support of people around the world, particularly those in the Muslim world. The war on terrorism is not a popularity contest, but anti-American sentiment breeds sympathy for anti-American terrorist organizations and makes it far easier for them to recruit young terrorists.
So what’s really outrageous and tiresome in these right-wing backlashes against Sen. Durbin is the outright intellectual dishonesty of the smear tactics in use. Once upon a time, a Senator from Illinois tried to call the nation to conscience and his very nerve was perceived as a total insult to the right-wing establishment of the USA.
I hope the voices of conscience will be able to help Sen. Durbin withstand the unjust tirade that has been deployed against his remarks.
If I showed you Sen. Durbin’s remarks and then showed you the reactions he received, would you think you were living in a freedom loving country? Or would you rather think you were living amongst the brown-shirts of times gone by?
NOTE: Sen. Durbin’s full remarks on Gitmo made on Flag Day 2005.