Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or ... Pol Pot"

I took some shots at Senator Durbin from Illinois a month ago, challenging his comments on the judicial nominations then tying up the Senate. "A comment that was made about a section of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin's speech on the Senate floor made me curious, so I went to take a look at it. The verdict? Pathetic. Irrational, illogical, emotional, nonsensical. Is this supposed to somehow pass for informed debate?"

He's gotten worse.

During the debate on the Guantanamo Bay detention facility yesterday, Senator Durbin made a comment that is almost staggering in its historical dishonesty.


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.
- Senator Richard Durbin, 6/14/2005 on the floor of the US Senate


Before we get back to what Senator Durbin was referring to, let's look at the comparisons, so we put some context to his remarks.

  • Nazi concentration camps
    A conservative estimate of those who were murdered in the Nazi death camps stands at about 3.5 million. Most were European Jews who were killed for no other reason than the fact that they were Jews. The process was rationalized, however, by the Nazi ideology of racial superiority/inferiority. These ideas were given official legal sanction in the Nuremberg Laws (1935). Combined with Hitler's quest for lebensraum, "living space," and his goals of world domination, and with World War II as a cover, the Nazi regime was able to carry out the greatest crime in human history.


    "Men to the left! Women to the right! Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Yet that was the moment that I last saw my mother and my sister."
    - Elie Weisel, Night


  • Stalin's Gulag
    The Soviet system of forced labor camps was first established in 1919 under the Cheka, but it was not until the early 1930s that the camp population reached significant numbers. By 1934 the Gulag, or Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps, then under the Cheka's successor organization the NKVD, had several million inmates. Prisoners included murderers, thieves, and other common criminals--along with political and religious dissenters. The Gulag, whose camps were located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North, made significant contributions to the Soviet economy in the period of Joseph Stalin. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions. GULAG manpower was also used for much of the country's lumbering and for the mining of coal, copper, and gold.

    Stalin constantly increased the number of projects assigned to the NKVD, which led to an increasing reliance on its labor. The Gulag also served as a source of workers for economic projects independent of the NKVD, which contracted its prisoners out to various economic enterprises.

    Conditions in the camps were extremely harsh. Prisoners received inadequate food rations and insufficient clothing, which made it difficult to endure the severe weather and the long working hours; sometimes the inmates were physically abused by camp guards. As a result, the death rate from exhaustion and disease in the camps was high.


    "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
    - Josef Stalin


  • Pol Pot
    1975 - Members of the Lon Nol government, public servants, police, military officers, teachers, ethnic Vietnamese, Christian clergy, Muslim leaders, members of the Cham Muslim minority, members of the middle-class and the educated are identified and executed.

    Towns and cities are emptied and their former inhabitants are deemed "April 17th people" or "new people". The country's entire population is forced to relocate to agricultural collectives, the so-called "killing fields". Inmates exist in primitive conditions. Families are separated. Buddhist monks are defrocked and forced into labour brigades. Former city residents are subjected to unending political indoctrination. Children are encouraged to spy on adults.

    An estimated 1.5 million are worked or starved to death, die of disease or exposure, or are summarily executed for infringements of camp discipline. Infringements punishable by death include not working hard enough, complaining about living conditions, collecting or stealing food for personal consumption, wearing jewellery, engaging in sexual relations, grieving over the loss of relatives or friends and expressing religious sentiments.

    Khmer Rouge records from the Tuol Sleng interrogation and detention centre in Phnom Penh (also known as S-21) show that 14,499 "antiparty elements", including men women and children, are tortured and executed from 1975 to the first six months of 1978. Only seven of those detained at the centre will leave it alive.

    At least 20 other similar centres operate throughout the country.



These are the historical events and situations to which Senator Durbin wants to compare our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.


Frankly, when I began writing this, I was looking forward to laying out some invective. To making fun of Senator Durbin's intellect, or his speech-writer. I was going to wax lyrical about how foolish the comparisons are, maybe quote Santayana, possibly go into the Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" bit. But after gathering those links, and looking again at the monsters of the 20th century, I feel nauseated. This is not a subject for humor. This kind of hysterical hyperbolic overreaction from one of the 101 men elected by the people of the United States to represent them in their dealings with other people and nations around the world is inexcusable in its self-loathing, and its complete lack of historical context. It does a great disservice to everyone in the world, except that group that hates America.

I do not here accuse Senator Durbin of hating America, but if he were actively seeking to work against the United States and her interests in the world, he could not produce a statement better tuned to furthering those goals.

What, by the way, was the FBI report that brought on this outburst?
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.

I'll be honest - that doesn't sound pleasant. I wouldn't want to be in that situation.

(Of course, I wouldn't want to clean a chicken house on a 95 degree day, either, and I've done that. For $3.25 an hour. Not a complaint - just an observation.)

Who are the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay? Men. Captured in arms against Americans. No women, no children. Enemy combatants. Not being systematically executed, but interrogated, and many of them released. Others have provided information that has prevented attacks on Americans.

Should we, the people of the United States of America, be sanctioning torture in US facilities? Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that we should not. Let's further assume, just for the purpose of making a point, that there are a couple of hundred middle-eastern men being mistreated in US custody at the moment, that the treatment of them is pointless, and that half of them weren't even combatants. I don't believe any of that, but let us assume it anyway. The question that then arises is this - does that make comparisons to Nazi's, Stalin and Pol Pot appropriate?

No. Not in any way.


One last comment - in December of 2002, Senator Trent Lott tossed off a compliment to retiring Senator Strom Thurmond at a party celebrating his 100th birthday.
I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either.
- Senator Trent Lott, December 2002

Senator Lott was virtually pilloried, forced out of his leadership post, because when you stop and break the comment down, it appears to be an endorsement of segregation. It was a politically tone-deaf, politically stupid comment.

And it was far less offensive than what Richard Durbin said yesterday...




More on this from others, including:

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