Style matters. Substance does not. Reality is purely a figment of perception and image is everything.
That is the only lesson we can take from the apology made yesterday by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. The senator was compelled to apologize following public pressure after he read the following description, from an FBI agent's report from America's prison camp in Guantanamo:
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.
Durbin said that if you read that description, and didn't already know it was about an American prison camp, you would assume that it was describing the treatment of prisoners by some much more infamous regime.
For that, he was compelled to apologize. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist called Durbin's statement a "heinous slander against our country and the brave men and women risking their lives every day to defend it."
So let's review, just so we're clear what the new rules are.
Torture as official policy: A source of national pride; no apology necessary.
Condemning torture: A "heinous slander" against America; you must apologize or resign.
The apologists for torture need never apologize. But those who reject it — reject it on the basis that it is fundamentally un-American — are condemned.
Those are the new rules. Next up: Sen. Frist demands a tearful public apology from Spc. Joseph Darby.
You remember Joseph Darby, he's the brave soldier who stood up for America and American principles by blowing the whistle on some of the more egregious abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Oh, wait, let's rephrase according to the new rules: He's the cowardly bastard who hates America and put our brave men and women at risk with his heinous slander of pointing out what the U.S. was doing there. Joseph Darby, like Sen. Durbin, is a doubleplus ungood enemy of the state.
The minidrama leading up to Durbin's apology yesterday exactly paralleled the treatment that Spc. Darby received on his return home from Iraq. See if anything from this Washington Post account sounds familiar:
On TV, Spec. Joseph Darby's neighbors here in the Allegheny Mountains have heard him called a hero, a brave soldier who tipped off superiors to the abuses at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. And given the way small towns usually honor their soldiers, you might expect preparations for a proper homecoming, maybe even an impromptu parade.
But at the bar in the community center just down the road from Darby's house, near the trailer where his mother and younger brother live, none of the handful of patrons is in a parade kind of mood.
"If I were [Darby], I'd be sneaking in through the back door at midnight," says Janette Jones, who lives just across the border in Pennsylvania and stopped here at midday with her daughter for a Pepsi and a smoke. …
"Maybe if [Darby] hadn't turned them in, [hostage Nicholas Berg] would still be alive," Jones says. …
Janette Jones's husband was in the service, and so was her son-in-law. The Joneses live not far from Spc. Jeremy Sivits, a military police officer involved in the prison scandal who will face a special court-martial Wednesday. They knew Sivits, 24, growing up: He was a "nice guy, a quiet guy," says the elder Jones. She remembers he once helped her with the barbecue when the coals wouldn't light.
"Who knows what those boys were going through out there," she says. "The Iraqis did to us worse than we did to them."
Mrs. Jones argument against Darby foreshadows Frist's morally absurd condemnation of Durbin on every point. The assertion that condemning torture and abuse, but not the torture and abuse itself, is shameful. The claim that condemning such abuses, but not the abuse itself, strengthens our enemies and puts American lives in danger. Capped off with a lame NABA defense of the actual abusers. Frist owes Mrs. Jones a speechwriting fee.
I don't accept these new rules. Here's what I believe:
I believe that torture itself is dishonorable. I believe that failing to condemn torture is dishonorable. I believe that condoning the practice of torture empowers our enemies and puts American lives at risk. And I believe that by embracing the immoral, counterproductive and utterly un-American practice of torture we make America more closely resemble the kinds of infamous and evil regimes we ought never to resemble in the slightest.
I believe that those who defend the practice of torture lessen America. I believe that the condemnation of those who condemn torture lessens America. I believe that Joseph Darby is a great American and that Jeremy Sivits is not.
But I can't believe that we've fallen so far that I actually have to say all these things. I can't believe that we have reached the point where statements like "Torture is bad" and "It is good to condemn torture" are seen as controversial.
A United States Senator spoke the truth. He condemned evil and called it un-American. And then he was forced to apologize.