Gitmo Analogies

Kevin Drum asks a fair question apropos the criticism Dick Durbin, Amnesty International, and others have come under for comparing the conditions at the American detention facility in Guantanamo with past outrages:

Conservative apologists clearly believe it’s out of bounds to fill in this blank with Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Pol Pot. Fine. I’m not really as offended by Nazi comparisons as some people are, but OK. No Nazis.

So my question is this: what is the right historical analogy? There are lots of evil regimes past and present to choose from, but I’m not sure which ones are acceptable references when describing the use of torture at Guantanamo. Can I get some conservative feedback on this?

I agree with Kevin that Nazi analogies are not necessarily out of bounds for comparison, even when there is an obvious difference of scale. Even Godwin’s Law has exceptions. Comparing Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro to Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin is perfectly valid, in my book, in the same way that the names of Ted Bundy or Jack the Ripper can be invoked when discussing a lesser serial killer. No one ever argues, “It’s outrageous to compare Charles Manson, who killed only seven people, to Ted Bundy, who killed 28.” Similarly, comparing Pol Pot to Stalin is perfectly reasonable even though the latter killed ten times more people.

Americans are outraged by comparison of abuses at Gitmo to the Nazi death camps or the Killing Fields because Hitler and Pol Pot ordered the systematic slaughter of millions of innocents whereas Bush ordered the detention of suspected terrorists captured trying to kill Americans. Discounting deaths from combat, Hitler was responsible for the murders of 6 million; Stalin, 20 million; Pol Pot, 2 million; and Bush, 0. To note that one of these is not like the other is not playing semantics.

Average Tobacco Chewing Joe gets it right:

I’d prefer it if U.S. Citizens didn’t compare the U.S. to any evil regimes unless they actually think we are one – in which case the point is moot. […] Because I don’t think what’s happened at Gitmo, or at Abu Ghraib makes us an evil regime. If it has, the standard for evil regimes has certainly declined.

Quite so. It’s certainly legitimate to argue that the abuses at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib violate international law, are immoral, or are counterproductive. It’s reasonable to say that by setting loose guidelines at Gitmo, the Bush Administration made Abu Ghraib more likely. It’s outrageous, however, to pretend that a country that looks after the dietary, medical, spiritual, and recreational needs of people captured trying to murder its own citizens is evil.

Update (1036): Jim Henley notes, correctly, in the comments that I never answered Kevin’s question. As a reminder:

So my question is this: what is the right historical analogy? There are lots of evil regimes past and present to choose from, but I’m not sure which ones are acceptable references when describing the use of torture at Guantanamo.

I believe I’ve answered the second part of this: No comparison with the evil activities of evil regimes is appropriate when discussing the non-evil activities of non-evil regimes. As to the first part, the right historical analogy, I would say Gitmo should be compared to bad policies from legitimately elected democracies.

The “Nazism” of American history are slavery and the horrendous mistreatment of the aboriginal population. I would argue that Gitmo pales in comparison with those shameful parts of our history much more so than, say, Pol Pot pales in comparison with Stalin.

Other examples might be more apt. Perhaps war crimes such as the My Lai massacre, which were criminal acts of a handful of individuals but perhaps not entirely divorceable from policy choices made by higher ups. No one has died at Gitmo, so My Lai was worse, but there are at least similarities. Perhaps comparison with the by-current-standards abusive treatment of inmates in our domestic prisons prior to the 1960s is a good analog. There, well meaning officials charged with carrying out an undeniably legitimate task–protecting innocents from criminals and punishing the guilty–violated some norms of human decency.

I’m sure others can come up with better examples. The point being, though, is that Gitmo and Abu Ghraib should be compared in a reasonable context.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Just Me says:

    You know-it is okay for Durbin to be upset and appalled at what he read in the FBI reports. But why doesn’t he just say that he is upset, and doesn’t think this is how Americans should behave, and that he will do everything within his power as a US senator and citizen to make sure similar actions don’t happen again.

    He could have made his point, taken his position, but without the tarring of our military as a bunch of a Nazi’s or murdering communists.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    James, correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t answer Kevin’s actual question, did you?

  3. Lt bell says:

    No one is Tarring our military as a bunch of bad guys, they are tarring the Bush regime as a bunch
    of incompetent fools bent on a nazi like theocracy in our own country.
    And there are simililarities between Nazi Germany
    and the Bush Administration, particularly their
    use of God and religion to cover their lawlessness and complete disregard for the truth.
    Remember ,to spin the truth, is the same as lieing

  4. Just Me says:

    They are tarring our troops. In case you forget-“obeying orders” is not an excuse when it comes to unlawful acts (as a matter of fact the UCMJ requires that illegal orders be reported up the chain of command rather than followed). If what Durbin things is going on is unlawful, he most definitely is tarring our troops with the Nazi brush as much as he is tarring the administration.

    I think the Nazi analogies to the administration are also out of line.

  5. Jim Henley says:

    If what’s going on IS unlawful, then the specific troops involved don’t merit any exemption from being “tarred.” Nor does their chain of command. It only “tars” the Army as a whole to the extent that the Army as a whole complies with illegal orders and partakes in abuses reminiscent of the actions of the militaries of authoritarian regimes. But to the extent that is true of the Army, it also “tars” American society as a whole, because the Army is OURS. We’re a representative democracy with a volunteer military. None of us can divorce ourselves from any stain that “tars” the Army as a whole. Any fair reading of Durbin makes it clear that he is calling on the entire polity to be truer to our ideals, not pointing fingers at the troops.

    And speaking of the troops, most of them don’t wear skirts. Stop trying to hide behind them.

  6. John Anderson says:

    “what is the right historical analogy?”

    Someone else suggested the British interrogations of IRA members in the 70s. Even that is a bit strong, but it is closer than the Gulags.

  7. TJIT says:

    The most applicable comparison would be the US domestic prisons. Or perhaps the Chicago police department which apparently had a bit of an issue with false confessions obtained by physical abuse during questioning.

    The conditions at Gitmo are probably better then a lot of domestic prisons in the US.

  8. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘ I’m not sure which ones are acceptable references when describing the use of torture at Guantanamo. ‘

    There’s no historical reference because having the AC on too high or too low and playing loud crappy music may be annoying but it’s not torture. Actual despots must be laughing their heads off over this handwringing.

  9. bp says:

    If liberals such as Drum and Henley know history so poorly that they can’t come up with suitable analogies of their own, I’m not inclined to help them. All they are doing is trying to deflect attention from Turbin Durbin and put conservatives back on the defensive. Sorry fellas, I’m not going to play your game.

  10. Jim Durbin says:

    The correct historical analogy has been made many times.

    The conditions at Gitmo are just as bad as they are for rich white fraternity pledges the week before initiation.

    Scantily clad females, bad music played loudly, lack of sleep, and having people yell at you.

    Of course there is no forced alcohol-drinking, no elephant walks, and no fraternity history to memorize – so, maybe the fraternity comparison is too evil to compare to Gitmo.

    How about, Gitmo is just as bad as living in cheap apartment housing with thin walls, obnoxious neighbors, and an drunk uncle that yells at the televison all the time?

    That’s the right comparison. The horror, the horror.

  11. Hesiod says:

    Apparently, when Republicans (and Joe Lieberman) hear about a prisoner having his wrists shackled to his ankles for 20 hours a day, and who is forced to wallow in his own excrement and urine for the same period of time….all while shut up in a solitary cell that is without ventilation and in excess of 100 degrees, they immediately think: “Gee…that sounds exactly like what Amercans do to their captives. It would never dawn on me that any other regime could do this to their prisoners. It MUST be our boys and girls doing this. God Bless America.”

    Excuse me if I disagree. I happen to think that kind of treatment does NOT sound like America. In fact, it’s downright UN-American in my book. America just does not do that. I happen to believe that America stands for human rights, freedom, the rule of law and justice.

    But, apparently, I am completely wrong about that. I guess that makes me a traitor or something.

  12. Hesiod says:

    “The conditions at Gitmo are just as bad as they are for rich white fraternity pledges the week before initiation.”

    I actually was in a fraternity. And went through the pledge period. And, I can tell you that what happens at Gitmo is NOTHING LIKE fraternity hazing. And even if it were, the fraternity hazing is VOLUNTARY. Nobody is chained up in a basement and forced to live in their crap and piss for days at a time against their will.

    That you would make this kind of argument, even as a joke, speaks volumes about how sick you people are.

  13. Hesiod says:

    P.S.

    I think a simple rule of thumb on interrigations should be to follow the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    If the technique you are about to employ is something YOU wouldn’t approve of if it were done to you or a citizen of this country, then don’t do it. Period.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of those who employ such techniques would crack like a fat plumbers ass the minute they were subjected to such techniques. So they overcompensate for their own lack of intestinal fortitude by taking it out on the “hajis.”

  14. Hesiod says:

    “There’s no historical reference because having the AC on too high or too low and playing loud crappy music may be annoying but it’s not torture. Actual despots must be laughing their heads off over this handwringing.”

    I love how you wackos are pretending that “loud music” and “turning up the AC” are the ONLY things these prisoners are subjected to at Gitmo and elswehere.

    Some of the things WE have done to detainees include waterboarding, savage beatings, hanging people up by their wrists with handcuffs, USING ELECTRICAL SHOCKS, sexual assault, and the aformentioned forcing people to wallow in their own crap and piss for days at a time.

    Not all of these things were done at Gitmo, so far as we know. But all of these things have been VERIFIED by US investigators.

    In fact, there are around 2 dozen HOMICIDES being investigated.

    It’s obvious that the torture apologists have their heads up their asses.

  15. Average Tobacco Chewing Joe writes: I’d prefer it if U.S. Citizens didn’t compare the U.S. to any evil regimes unless they actually think we are one.

    The point of bringing up evil regimes is not to say that the US is one, but exactly the opposite. To say that X is the sort of thing that evil regimes do is to argue that we (the US) shouldn’t be doing it. We are better than the bad guys, and we should hold ourselves to higher standards.

  16. Nell Lancaster says:

    Here are some apt historical analogies: Argentina in the 1970s and early 1980s. El Salvador in the 1980s.

    There may be a reluctance on the part of some to make those particular analogies, because the U.S. government supported those governments. In the case of El Salvador, we trained, supplied, and accompanied the torturers, and worked hard to shield the torturers from accountability. In the case of Argentina, we trained and supplied.

  17. Hesiod says:

    The closest analogies are actually Great Britain during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and Israel.

    In fact, I believe the US is direcly following the Israeli model for fighting islamic terrorists here across the board.

    The problem with the Israeli model is that, at best, it just creates a stalemate. It doesn’t SOLVE the underlying problem.

    But at lest in Israel’s case, their very existence is plausibly at stake.

    What the hell is our excuse?

  18. Barry says:

    “We’re Americans”. Of course, the same people who make that excuse seem to believe that being American is being better, so there’s some logical problems. However, logical problems, in the course of human history, seem to be not very bothersome.

  19. Jon H says:

    I suspect that, if we were running death camps in Iraq, gassing people and cremating them in ovens, there would still be plenty of people objecting to any comparison with the Nazis.

    They’d come up with crafty rationalizations, I’m sure. Such as “The Nazis were MUCH worse. They were never attacked by the Jews, Roma, gays, and others. But we were attacked by the islamofascists! This is self-defense! It’s wrong to compare our gas chambers with their gas chambers, and it’s wrong to equate our death-camp guards with their death-camp guards”.

  20. Barry says:

    “our concentration camps are much nicer, and the gas has a pleasant, minty smell. Besides which , it’s necessary, it’s self-defense, it’s liberation, they attacked us, it isn’t happening, and anybody who says so is lying,…”

  21. Bones says:

    Discounting deaths from combat, Hitler was responsible for the murders of 6 million; Stalin, 20 million; Pol Pot, 2 million; and Bush, 0. To note that one of these is not like the other is not playing semantics.

    Yes it is playing sematics. Because the number for Bush is NOT Zero. We know of 26 individuals who have died while in custody. At least 5 of those are known to have been tortured to death and many more are suspected to have been. At least one is known to have been innocent. There are undoubtedly many more deaths that we havn’t heard of.
    Furthermore, we know that the policy of torture comes directly from Bush. He instructed his Attorney General to find a way to shield torturers from legal liability.

    Which makes Bush a bit of a baby in the evil department. Especially when you measure using only the death-by-turture metric. Even so, it is clear that Bush has voluntarily joined the company of evil men who order others to torture and kill even when it isn’t necessary for their survival. The difference at this point is no longer one of kind, it is merely one of scale.

    And defending the scale of this evil is not something that honorable men do. Honorable men are like Durbin: The say clearly and in public – We should not be doing this.

  22. Emil Janning: “I want to hear from a man like you. A man who has heard what happened. I want to hear–not that he forgives–but that he understands. . . . I did not know it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it.”

    Dan Haywood: “Herr Janning. It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

    –Abby Mann, Judgment at Nuremburg, 1961

    For the context, see this post.