Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Noise Machine at Work

The U.S. right wing noise machine - including its blog component along with talk radio and FOX - occasionally selects something said by a liberal or a Democrat and decides that it is worth making a huge fuss over on the grounds that it is beyond the pale in terms of patriotism. They have done this recently with respect to a speech made by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin on the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo. One conservative blogger, Hugh Hewitt, even quoted extensively from the speech in order to justify his call for a Senate censure of Durbin.

I do find their commentary disturbing. It suggests a type of blind lunatic partisanship that it is completely out of touch with reality. Here is what Hewitt suggests:

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER BILL FRIST and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter should move this week to initiate a censure resolution of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin for his remarks on the Senate's floor on June 14, 2005. Not only did Durbin's remarks injure America's position in the world, provide an enormous propaganda victory to the enemy, and slander the United States military, they also represent an escalation in the political rhetoric of the left, which is designed to undermine the public's confidence in the military, the administration, and the war.

Bill Kristol, former chief of staff to Dan Quayle when he served as Vice-President, said the same thing.

What part of Durbin’s speech has them in a lather? It is the following passage:

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.

It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.

It is clear that he laments the evidence of torture and mistreatment supplied by the FBI and argues, quite correctly, that if one did not know the source, one might well attribute this behaviour to Nazis, gulags, etc.

For the right wingers (or wingnuts as they are known) this statement is simply an attack on the U.S. military as being essentially like Nazis, gulags, etc. rather than a straightforward attack on the specific behaviours at issue. Hence the calls for censure.

The underlining emphasizes his true meaning and therefore how completely reasonable his statements are. But try telling that to the wingnuts.

Ironically, the most effective rebuttal to the loony right has come from conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan who poses the pertinent question.

I've now read and re-read Senator Dick Durbin's comments on interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. They are completely, perfectly respectable. The rank hysteria being perpetrated by some on the right is what is shameful. Hugh Hewitt should answer one single question: does he doubt the FBI interrogator who witnessed the appalling treatment of some detainees at Guantanamo?

I also strongly recommend this post by Kevin Drum, and this one, plus this commentary by Matthew Yglesias, who correctly describes the right as falling into an “ethical black hole”.

And to give them credit (via Atrios), here is an editorial from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The comments that were criticized came late in a long, thoughtful speech on the Senate floor in which Durbin reflected on the United States' obligation to be better than reprehensible regimes of the past. He talked at some length about mistakes American presidents made in previous wars (repealing habeas corpus during the Civil War, interning Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, taking over the steel industry during the Korean War), and he urged President Bush to recognize and rectify his mistake in prisoner treatment during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. …
Durbin was spot on in his assessment of Guantanamo. That's why he was so roundly attacked. He told the truth. And his message is of vital importance; the United States is better than this.

Or ought to be is more like it. But it is the influential character of attacks like this that make one despair of the future of political debate in the U.S.

UPDATE: Durbin has now apologized. Demonstrates the political strength of the noise machine, sadly.

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