Senator Durbin defends America’s Values

In recent weeks, controversy has mounted over the treatment meted out to detainees at U.S. facilities in Guantanamo Bay and other locations around the world. In an effort to deal with the criticism and change the subject, the White House and their allies have responded, blasting critics, like Amnesty International, charging that their comments damage the image of the U.S., endanger American troops and harm the war on terrorism.

Watching the right wing’s attack machine go into motion is really quite a spectacle. It targets its victim, strikes, and then launches into a multimedia, multi-day assault. Every medium is used: the White House comments, Senators and Congressmen issue releases. And then Fox News, radio talk shows, the Washington Times, web logs and websites-all carry the "story" and add to it. The initial attack is then echoed and magnified. The goal is to bury the target and silence critics with overwhelming force.

Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) is their most recent target. Last week, on the Senate floor, Durbin, who, in the past, has successfully led the effort to pass anti-torture legislation, read aloud a statement by an FBI agent describing the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. He said that the techniques described by the agent called to mind those used by repressive regimes, including the Nazis and Soviets.

The response was quick and harsh, utilizing all the media noted above. Prominent among the attackers were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Gingrich said that Durbin’s comments appeared on Al-Jazeera, and that, "You cannot have a public official quoted throughout the world by our enemies describing the U.S. in these terms — it puts every young American in uniform at risk."

Frist went further, mischaracterizing Durbin’s remarks, alleging that his statement was "anti-American and only fuels the animus of our enemies. . . .It is this type of language that they use to recruit others to be car bombers; suicide attackers; hostage takers; and full-fledged jihadists." The assault went on for a week, frightening many from coming to Durbin’s defense.

Abandoned by his allies, Durbin went to the Senate floor and apologized for the inept historical references. But on the critical issues of torture and detention, he firmly stood his ground.

The rhetorical excesses of Gingrich and Frist are dead wrong. What damages the U.S. image and endangers us are not comments by Durbin and other critics of Guantanamo Bay. It is the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld explicitly authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. FBI agents and the Red Cross both concluded that the use of these techniques at Guantanamo constituted "torture." In the past, the United States has always condemned the use of such techniques. Now, we apparently approve of them.

According to polls we have conducted, Arab attitudes toward the United States have dropped to dangerously low levels. The treatment of Arab and Muslim prisoners is a big reason, rivaling regional disapproval of US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.

Buttressing these poll results are my experiences in the Arab world, where I travel frequently. In conversations with opinion leaders and average citizens across the region, they frequently note their deep disappointment with current state of our human rights policy. Many Arab reformers tell me that our behavior now mimics that of their own governments.

President Bush has linked the spread of democracy to the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, the indefinite secret detention and highly coercive interrogation of Arab and Muslim detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other locations has harmed our ability to advocate credibly for democratic reforms. Indeed, some governments now point to American practices to justify their own human rights abuses.

President Bush has suggested anti-democratic practices and human rights abuses promote instability and create the conditions that can breed terrorism. Democratic reformers and human rights activists used to look to the U.S. as an exemplar, the city on a hill. Now they are dismissed by their countrymen when they point to the American experience.

Once we set a high standard for the world, now we have lowered the bar. The damage to our image, to the values we have sought to project, and to our ability to deal more effectively with root causes of terror have been profound. Efforts to silence debate and the attacks against courageous opponents of torture like Dick Durbin are wrong and send the wrong message to our world.

Comments by Durbin and other critics of torture help, not hurt, the U.S. image in the Middle East. People there are already outraged about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The fact that Durbin and others have demonstrated the courage to speak out and challenge these shameful and abusive practices demonstrates to the Arab world that not all Americans support what the world knows we have done. As their criticism makes clear, there are still Americans who hold high the values we call on others to emulate. At a time when we’re trying to spread democracy, Durbin and other critics show people in the Arab world how a democracy works. The good new is that not only has Durbin not been silenced, but the controversy about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the treatment of detainees, in general, is growing and will not be stopped until changes are made.