Grandstanding on Guant

Newt Gingrich says that Dick Durbin has brought shame upon the United States.

By Tim Grieve

Published June 20, 2005 12:16PM (EDT)

More than 50 Iraqis have been killed in the last two days -- many of them police officers, some in an area that the foreign minister had declared relatively stable just the day before -- but here's what has Newt Gingrich and others on the right all hot and bothered: The world just hasn't come down hard enough on Dick Durbin for comments he made last week about the mistreatment of some detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Over the weekend, Gingrich sent a letter to all members of the U.S. Senate urging them to censure Durbin for his comments. "It's one thing for one senator to endanger young Americans and defame America," Gingrich wrote. "It would be the shame of the Senate if the other 99 senators did not stand up to defend America and to defend the reputation of our young men and women in uniform."

The shame of the Senate?

Let's take another look at what Durbin actually said. In the course of a lengthy speech on the Senate floor last week, Durbin read from a report by an FBI agent who witnessed what a lot of us would consider the inhumane treatment of some detainees at Guantánamo. The agent said he had seen a detainee "chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water." He'd seen detainees who had "urinated or defecated on themselves" and had been "left there for 18 to 24 hours or more." He'd seen detainees subjected to air conditioning so cold that they were left shaking or kept in unventilated rooms where the temperature exceeded 100 degrees. He'd seen a detainee so distraught he'd pulled his own hair out, and another left overnight chained hand-to-foot in a fetal position in a sweltering room where loud rap music played around the clock.

"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," Durbin said, "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."

And the problem with Durbin's comments would be . . . what? The right has spun Durbin's remarks as somehow equating all U.S. soldiers with Nazis and as drawing some parallel between the moral worth of the detainees held at Guantánamo and the Jews who died in concentration camps. On Friday, Fox's Chris Wallace said the abuses described by the FBI agent "would be considered a day at the beach in the Soviet gulag" or a Nazi concentration camp. "Excuse me?" he asked. "I mean, you know, Auschwitz? Bergen-Belsen? The Soviet gulag? I think they would have been very happy to be allowed to defecate on themselves."

But it's Dick Durbin who has brought dishonor on the United States? Sorry, but we just don't get it. Durbin didn't say that U.S. soldiers are Nazis. What he said was that the worst mistreatment of detainees at Guantánamo -- at least, we hope that it's the worst mistreatment -- sounds like the kind of thing that Nazis or someone else who had "no concern for human beings" might do.

And what's wrong with that, exactly? How is it not true? Yes, the Nazis did worse things, too; nobody's disputing that, and nobody could. But, Newt, answer us honestly: If you didn't know better, and if someone had read you the description of abuses set out by that FBI agent, might you not have thought that it sounded like the sort of thing that a Nazi would do?

Of course you would have. So perhaps it's time to stop beating up on Dick Durbin and begin focusing instead on the real problems in George W. Bush's war on terror. We can talk about Dick Durbin, or we can talk about what we're going to do with all of the people we've got locked up. We can talk about Dick Durbin, or we can talk about the Downing Street Memo. We can talk about Dick Durbin, or we can talk about the 1,722 U.S. troops who have been killed in a war that was started on false pretenses and isn't going to end until a lot more American soldiers have died.

So, Newt, you say you're interested in defending "American honor"? So are we. Let's talk -- but let's talk about the things that actually matter.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Guantanamo Newt Gingrich Richard J. Durbin D-ill.