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.