The respective media flaps involving Senate Democratic whip Richard Durbin and presidential consigliere Karl Rove invites a kind of admixture of awe and revulsion at the state of American political discourse and the media’s inability to make the most fundamental kinds of distinctions to help citizens navigate it.
Durbin’s offense, which set off a conservative firestorm that eventually forced an apology, was to express alarm about an FBI report describing Guantánamo prisoners as “chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water…urinat[ing] or defecat[ing] on themselves…for 18-24 hours or more.” Durbin allowed that such behavior struck him as less appropriate to Americans than to “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime.” Clearly, Durbin was paying tribute to American ideals and expressing his dismay over their violation. But the mere mention of the words “Nazi” and “gulag” gave conservatives in the media the opportunity to decry an analogy he never made, beat their chickenhawk breasts about “dishonoring the military” and to tar all opponents with the same brush.
As Karl Rove’s comments later demonstrated, however, Durbin’s cave was pointless. Speaking to New York’s Conservative Party, Rove all but termed Durbin–and every liberal–a traitor:
Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might and power of the United States military against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to submit a petition. I am not joking. Submitting a petition is precisely what MoveOn.org did. It was a petition imploring the powers that be to “use moderation and restraint in responding to the…terrorist attacks against the United States.”…Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: We will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: We must understand our enemies. Conservatives see the United States as a great nation engaged in a noble cause; liberals see the United States and they see Nazi concentration camps, Soviet gulags and the killing fields of Cambodia. Has there been a more revealing moment this year than when Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, speaking on the Senate floor, compared what Americans had done to prisoners in our control at Guantánamo Bay with what was done by Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot–three of the most brutal and malevolent figures in the twentieth century? Let me put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts to the region the words of Senator Durbin, certainly putting America’s men and women in uniform in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.