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June 19, 2005

Posted by Teresa at 10:00 PM * 33 comments

Sorry about the duplication; I’d already been writing about the Durbin thing when Patrick finished and posted his piece about it. I’ll skip the part where I rehearse the news story, and cut to the part where I’m disagreeing with Charles Bird at Obsidian Wings. He said:

Can we agree that … putting American in the same sentence with Nazis, gulags and the Khmer Rouge has no place in civil political discourse?


All humans have moral agency—call it free will—and we have it all the time. The circumstances in which we find ourselves may contrain our choices, but we do make them.

Free will has a lot of implications. One of the biggest is that we can always screw up. That’s why it can never be right for us to give ourselves permission to stop making moral judgements. If we let ourselves become so certain we’re the good guys that we no longer have to question whether we’re acting like the good guys, we’re already deeply in the wrong and getting wronger by the minute.

So very sorry, Charles Bird. Americans have the same ability to do evil as anyone else. There’s no magic fuse box that’ll save us from our own excesses. Arguably, as Americans we have greater ability to do evil—it goes along with having more power, more resources, and more freedom of action. That makes us the last people on this planet who ought to be excused from having to think about whether there isn’t some resemblance between our own recent actions and those of the other regimes you’ve mentioned.

Good is always good, no matter who does it. That’s one of the really swell things about good: it’s a universally available option. Likewise, evil is evil, whether or not you reassure yourself that you’re one of the good guys while you’re doing it. Nobody gets to hand out white hats and black hats, then stop thinking.

What excuse do we have for the treatment of prisoners at Gitmo? Torture doesn’t yield worthwhile intelligence; everybody knows that. Also, many of these guys have been there for years. Whatever intelligence could be gotten out of them has long since been got. And yet, there they are, being tortured. What remaining reasons can there be? If it’s being done to send a message of intimidation to various persons and populations around the world, then we have met the terrorists, and they are us. And if even that very bad reason doesn’t stand up, the one that remains is that they’re being tortured for the amusement of their jailors.

What in all this disqualifies comparisons to other regimes? We’re less systematic and explicitly ideological about it than the Nazis? We’re not coming anywhere near the Khmer Rouge’s record-setting score for total percentage of population slain? Gitmo’s generated fewer notable works of literature than the Gulag Archipelago? That’s like saying you can’t be called an alcoholic because you drink less than Shane MacGowan.

On torture: Keeping someone chained up in a strained and unnatural position for 18-24 hours qualifies as torture, even if you don’t do anything further to them. Also, as I’m sure some of your office mates or neighbors could tell you if only you knew which ones to ask, prolonged restraint can cause permanent injury or death: impaired circulation, tissue damage, nerve damage, death or brain damage due to positional asphxia, heart attacks, et cetera.

(Here’s the challenge: try to find a “safer BDSM” site that doesn’t say that you should never, ever leave someone unattended, even for a minute, when they’re in restraints.)

We are behaving very badly indeed. There is no defense for it. Bridling at an accurate description of the situation is not going to get us off the hook.

Actually, it’s just now occurred to me what our Guantanamo policy adds up to. To summarize our positions:
    For our own purposes, or for no purposes at all, we assert that we have the right to take captive people who fall into our hands, hold them incommunicado, and transport them to distant countries, if we so desire.

    We can do anything we please with our prisoners, and keep them as long as we like—for the rest of their lives, if it comes to that.

    We may transfer ownership of our prisoners to other parties.

    We are not answerable for these actions to any tribunal. We owe no compensation to our prisoners, their families, or anyone else.

    Our prisoners have no rights we are bound to respect.

Technically? This isn’t law, war, or national security. It’s slavetaking.
Comments on Durbin:
#1 ::: Mac ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:14 PM:

the older I get, the more certain I become that noble ends do not justify ignoble means.

#2 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:23 PM:

There was a time when I was offended by comparisons of American policy to that of Nazi Germany. It bothered me for two reasons: 1. Intellectual dishonesty. I simply didn't see Reagan, as much as I disagreed with his policies, as a fascist. 2. Dilution of the terms. I felt that if we called everything we disliked akin to Nazism, we would no longer have a meaningful vocabulary for Nazism when it reared its ugly head.

I no longer take offence to the comparison of US policy to Nazism. We have crossed that line. We have the man who made torture legal as our attorney general. We are torturing people, there is no presumption of innocence or due process. This thing is way out of control.

I read somewhere, I have no idea where, that Hitler never broke German laws. He just kept changing them, and then abiding by them. I feel like that's what's happening in my country. The unthinkable is becoming policy, and already people are acting as if it has always been this way, that it's the American way, and that we're doing what we must to protect freedom and liberty. What's happening in America is utterly perverse. It's a perversion of our language, of our history, and of our morals.

#3 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:25 PM:

Your BDSM links all appear to be broken; I think it's because you've used Smart Quotes instead of good ol' ".

#4 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 10:53 PM:

Sean, I've read much the same thing. More precisely, that Hitler tried to seize power illegally in the Beer Hall Putsch, and when that failed he concluded that Germans were too law-abiding for that approach and he'd have to follow all the rules to seize power.

#5 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 11:01 PM:

What amuses me (grimly) about the 'gulag' uproar was that, by the anti-Amnesty logic, the Gulag itself cannot be called the Gulag except when referring to it as it was at the very end of its activity. Because every day prior to that, it was not as bad in comparison.

Even at the height of a Stalin purge, it could not be called the Gulag, because the Gulag (from the perspective of 2005) was even worse than that.

Thus, the Gulag ceases to exist, and vanishes in a puff of lame right-wing rhetoric.

#6 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 11:10 PM:

I suspect that, even if we were actually gassing prisoners and burning the bodies, Charles Bird-type people would say we still couldn't be compared to the Nazis, because the people we kill are 'terrorists' who 'attacked' us, but the Nazis killed innocent people.

#7 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 11:28 PM:

Sean, I've read much the same thing. More precisely, that Hitler tried to seize power illegally in the Beer Hall Putsch, and when that failed he concluded that Germans were too law-abiding for that approach and he'd have to follow all the rules to seize power.

That's pretty much what I've read, too. The real irony is that Hitler followed all the rules and didn't seize power; it took the ineptitude of von Papen and Hugenberg to give him access to the power he couldn't quite get on his own.

But once he had that access, the rest was history.

#8 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2005, 11:32 PM:

The Gulag that can be told
is not the true Gulag.
The Nazi that can be named
is not the true Nazi.

Free from the Gitmo, you see only the manifestations.
Caught in the Gitmo, you realize the mystery.

Yet Gulag and Gitmo arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness,
The gateway to all understanding.

#9 ::: Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 12:11 AM:

I've been thinking about all the legal wrangling the Bush admin. does to circumvent the spirit of the Constitution. Once I was part of a group that met in church basements to discuss ways of living one day a time. We would keep a little bit of cash in a box with a flimsy lock on it.

The lock was a joke, anyone could have broken it and taken the $20 inside. But the lock was there, as a member said, to "keep honest people honest." It didn't actually prevent anyone who was determined to break it from breaking it. It prevented people who were inclined to do to the right thing from doing the wrong thing.

That's sort of how I view the elaborate laws that protect our rights and the restrictions on government. They are there to keep people with good intentions from doing bad things. If you are bent on breaking the flimsy lock and violating the public trust, you can. Just because you can, doesn't mean you're not a criminal.

The Bush admin. seems to think that if they can find a way to get around the laws, then they are doing nothing wrong, there's no image problem, it's all fair play. It's sociopathic is what it is.

#10 ::: scapegoat ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 12:25 AM:

That makes us the last people on this planet who ought to be excused from having to think about whether there isnít some resemblance between our own recent actions and those of the other regimes youíve mentioned.

This is very true. All of what you said is very true. I will have to write something about this kind of thin in my own blog soon. Probably for the 4th of July.

#11 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 01:03 AM:

It'd be slavetaking if we were using them for anything other than revenge fantasies. This is torture for torture's sake. It's so that punk fckps who managed to get assigned to military intel can get their rocks off. Loud rap music? Leaving people for hours *unatended* while tied in stress positions? Pissing on people?

This is juvinile frat-boy prank stuff. And it's also unofficialy OK'd. By Bush. Who probably gets off on it his own sick self.

I know Rivka warned us all against airmchair psychoanalysis, but sometimes I do wonder at the reality of Bush's psyche.

#12 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 08:42 AM:

Josh --

Lots of these people are slavers; they are, without the self discipline and the self knowledge, Stirling's Draka.

(What, you didn't think both sides in those books were drawn from our United States?)

There's a great steaming pile of rhetoric to the effect that 'enslaving people doesn't make you bad' out there, and the theocons believe it. (They have to believe it; they're pushing the Bibilical line that women are property, after all, the chattel of her father or her husband.)

That this view is wrong isn't the point, really; the point is that if a large group of people will believe that rather than believe that their revered ancestors weren't good people, there's very little that they won't believe in preference to believing that they aren't good people.

Which is the thing; there's going to be a bunch of stuff happen that -- same worldview, not my delusion, ok? -- can't happen to good people.

So there will be a very angry response.

Karl Rove -- the Republican thug faction -- is planning on using that anger. (The lunatic faction, which has set up the conditions for a lot of anger by setting out to get a third of the US Army outright destroyed, wasn't trying to do that; this doesn't mean the thanatophilic thug faction won't use the fellow-traveller fuckup to reach their ends.)

#13 ::: Slothrop ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 08:47 AM:

It's already happened here, though Americans are in total denial of the subject. We wiped out the Native American population and stole their land.
Our nation is based on it.

#14 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 09:34 AM:

I'm not sure that the Draka are closely based on Americans--as a general thing, I don't think we believe need to be/can be/should be improved.

I'm inclined to think that you can own slaves without being a totally bad person, but the slave-owning part *is* bad.

(This is related to something I'm going to write sooner or later about G.K. Chesterton. He didn't own slaves, but he was definitely a bigot. The bigotry should be judged, but I don't think it's a reason for ignoring the sensible things he also wrote.)

#15 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 10:18 AM:

"It's already happened here, though Americans are in total denial of the subject. We wiped out the Native American population and stole their land. Our nation is based on it."

Not total denial. Americans do remember this every so often. And stuff it back into the memory hole as quickly as possible, of course.

Slavery, genocide, mass murder (of, for instance, Filipinos), eighty years of lynching--we do a pretty good job of rationalizing these things as exceptions to the general rule that we're the good guys.

#16 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 10:46 AM:


Ah, the Myth of America!

The Native American and Mexican issues that you mention are important to understanding the genre of Westerns, and remain important in the Noir Detective genre that arguably grew from them, and of modern Science Fiction, whose American strain sprang from the same roots.

If the lone cowboy / private eye / spaceman knows right from wrong, and that moral sense is detached from or antithetical to the norms of governmental power, then does one put one's life on the line? And what if Indians, Mexicans, Gangsters, or Martians stand in the way? Norman Spinrad's "The Iron Dream" was banned in Germany, not only for pretending to have been written by Hitler, but also for using Science Fiction tropes to justify genocide against communists and Jews.

I'll give my paper Thursday, and see if the assembled Science Fiction critics agree. There is a paper in my session about "Firefly" and "Serenity," by the way.

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 11:45 AM:

Again, if you agree with Sen. Durbin and support him, write to him and say so. Takes just a minute.

#18 ::: jim ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 01:45 PM:

I suppose the question that needs to be asked is What is the right comparison? If not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, who?

How about Mussolini?

Corporatist? Check. Nationalist? Check. Militarist? Check. Capricious invasion? Check. Invasion bogged down? Check. Capricious imprisonment? Check (though Mussolini also used internal exile). Extraordinary rendition? Well, no. Mussolini didn't send people out for torture. In fact, he refused to send Italian Jews to Germany despite his ally's request.

So the comparison favors Mussolini. If the Bush regime is better than the Nazi, it's worse than the Fascist.

But will Charles Bird admit that?

#19 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:01 PM:

Something about this has a familiar ring to it. I just can't put my finger on it....


The history of the present King ... is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies ... to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

#20 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:06 PM:

What disturbs me about this whole thing is that we've gone from not being allowed to compare people to the Nazis, no matter how Naziish their behavior, to not being allowed to compare ACTIONS to Nazi ACTIONS.

I've heard what the Senator said; he said you wouldn't be able to tell whether Nazis had done it. He was denouncing the behavior mentioned in the report. He didn't accuse anyone of anything.

Of course, since all things done by our boys are by definition OK, the GOP had to accuse him of painting our soldiers as Nazis. This is typical these days; it's the "support our troops == support the war" trick in a slightly new guise.

I wish I knew how many people fall for this shallow trick. I suspect it's a lot, actually.

#21 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:33 PM:

And I took James' suggestion. Here's what I wrote:

While I am not technically one of your constituents, I wanted to write and offer you my full support on the issue of the abuses at Guantanamo Bay. Naturally those who defend such abuses are accusing you of comparing "our boys" to Nazis, when in fact you said no such thing.

Such abuses are NOT something a free society can tolerate, no matter the crimes of which the victims are accused, and no matter whether they are our own citizens or those of some other country, be it friend or foe.
Please do not back down, no matter what. While you represent only Illinois, you are bearing a standard for all decent Americans.

Thank you,
Christopher HattonI don't know if this will help, but I hope it will.

#22 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 02:34 PM:

Argh. The "Thank you, Christopher Hatton" was part of my note to the Senator. The subsequent comment was not. I messed up the blockquotes.

#23 ::: Anton P. Nym (aka Steve) ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 03:10 PM:

I can't help but wonder what Abby Mann thinks of the whole mess... there's just too many of the excuses in Judgement at Nuremburg in today's headlines for my comfort, anyway.

#24 ::: Avedon ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 03:24 PM:

Ah, perhaps I should have checked in here before I wrote On bloody roads.

#25 ::: bryan ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 04:38 PM:

well Teresa I think your argument that Bush, Cheney and the rest are not doing this because of a really bad sado kick mixed in pedophilia (given the nature of the suppressed evidence) just doesn't cut it. I don't care what the BDSM sites say.

#26 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 08:11 PM:

Rice pilaf!

#27 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2005, 10:17 PM:

Again, if you agree with Sen. Durbin and support him, write to him and say so. Takes just a minute.


#28 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2005, 09:06 PM:
Sen. Durbin Apologizes for Gitmo Remarks

Tuesday June 21, 2005 11:31 PM


Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Under fire from Republicans and some fellow Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin apologized Tuesday for comparing American interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to Nazis and other historically infamous figures.

``Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line,'' the Illinois Democrat said. ``To them I extend my heartfelt apologies.''

His voice quaking and tears welling in his eyes, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate also apologized to any soldiers who felt insulted by his remarks.

``They're the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect for them,'' he said.

The apology came a week after Durbin, the Senate minority whip, quoted from an FBI agent's report describing detainees at the naval base in a U.S.-controlled portion of Cuba as being chained to the floor without food or water in extreme temperatures.

``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,'' the senator said June 14.

The comment created a buzz on the Internet and among conservative talk radio hosts, but Durbin initially refused to apologize.

``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 the day after his initial comments.

By last Friday, Durbin was trying to clarify his comments, yet the White House and top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, refused to relent. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview scheduled for broadcast Wednesday on Fox News Radio's ``The Tony Snow Show,'' tried to equate the comment with actress Jane Fonda calling U.S. soldiers war criminals during a visit to North Vietnam in 1972.

The Guardian Unlimited

It's not too late to send Senator Durbin letters and faxes of support.

#29 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2005, 01:17 PM:

Well, I had sent him faxes of support.

Now, I just sent him a fax stating that it's clear that my support was misplaced, and for the good of those trying to fight the GOP, he should immediatly step down as the Senate Minority Whip, since he wasn't willing to stand up to Frist when he was right, thus, he's rendered himself useless.

Not that it matters much -- there are plenty of Democrats in the Senate who were backstabbing him -- he'll probably feel better in the back benches. But when push came to shove, he did what most Senate Democrats do. He folded.

Fuck him, and the horse he rode in on. He won't get a dime of support from me, and, if I'm back in IL come reelection time, I will vote against him.

I merely hate the GOP. These fuckers who claim to be on my side, then fold up in a strong breeze, I simply cannot stand.

What next, Dick? Where else will you surrender? There's plenty of other chances. Perhaps you can move clouture on Bolton -- that'll earn you a couple of pats on the head from Frist and the wingers, since that's apparently who you think you server.

#30 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2005, 02:20 PM:

Erik, I agree with most of that. But if you vote against him, you'll probably have to vote for a Republican...don't go there.

I'm so angry at him for that apology. And he wasn't apologizing for the things he said, but for what they were falsely accusing him of saying! Damned wimp.

Do Republicans apologize? Ever? (Well, yeah, occasionally, when it doesn't matter, or when their careers are over anyway. Bastards.)

#31 ::: punkrockhockeymom ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2005, 02:37 PM:

I had sent a letter of support too. And I'm angry that he apologized. I wish, in a very angsty, sigh-inducing way, I were surprised.

I'm not a constituent; I'm in Michigan. But don't go Republican. The punishment will be worse for the country than the crime. Not much worse, but worse nonetheless, and there are an awful lot of US citizens (and others around the world) who really can't afford for US policy to get even a little bit worse.

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 05:14 PM:

It just keeps coming. O'Reilly calls for arrest of Air America staff.

Personally, I'd maybe go along with the arrest of Bill O'Reilly and sending him to Gitmo, just to see how long he'd be able to hold out before he admitted being a member of al Qaeda.

#33 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2005, 07:38 PM:

Here is a link to Jeanne d'Arc's "An Open Letter To Senator Durbin" on This Modern World.

It's a good one. Well-reasoned, well-written, not overly emotional. Worth reading; I hope Durbin sees it.

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