Frank Rich on The “Good Germans” Among Us

Frank Rich has an excellent op-ed regarding public opinion over the Iraq war entitled The “Good Germans” Among Us. He begins:

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.

By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”

Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled “politics.” We turn the page.

While the entire column is well worth reading, the heart of the column comes a little later:

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.

In April 2004, Stars and Stripes first reported that our troops were using makeshift vehicle armor fashioned out of sandbags, yet when a soldier complained to Donald Rumsfeld at a town meeting in Kuwait eight months later, he was successfully pilloried by the right. Proper armor procurement lagged for months more to come. Not until early this year, four years after the war’s first casualties, did a Washington Post investigation finally focus the country’s attention on the shoddy treatment of veterans, many of them victims of inadequate armor, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.

We first learned of the use of contractors as mercenaries when four Blackwater employees were strung up in Falluja in March 2004, just weeks before the first torture photos emerged from Abu Ghraib. We asked few questions. When reports surfaced early this summer that our contractors in Iraq (180,000, of whom some 48,000 are believed to be security personnel) now outnumber our postsurge troop strength, we yawned. Contractor casualties and contractor-inflicted casualties are kept off the books.

It was always the White House’s plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war. Part of this was achieved with the usual Bush-Cheney secretiveness, from the torture memos to the prohibition of photos of military coffins. But the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.

After further discussion, again all of which is worth reading, he concludes:

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.

There is some protest in this country, which the right unsuccessfully tries to write off as protests of a radical left fringe. There is no doubt that the Democrats have been failures as an opposition party, too frequently toning down protests out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic or soft on terrorism. It remains the Republicans who are most directly complicit in these acts which makes it impossible to see them as being fit to continue to govern regardless of the faults of the Democrats.

The Nazi reference has resulted in protest from the conservative blogosphere. Most of the criticism of this column is easily disregarded as conservatives ignore, the ethics of the situation, the lack of efficacy of torture, and how these acts ultimately harm the United States. The Van Der Galiën Gazette has a more balanced comment as he does acknowledge that “the treatment of prisoners is truly embarassing to the US. Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, etc. have done great damage to America’s image.” Unfortunately he also writes, “With regards to the treatment of prisoners Rich compares the US to… Nazi Germany (as liberals are so fond of doing these days with anyone and everyone they disagree with).”

This is certainly true of some liberals, and Michael might have been overly-influenced by a recent attack on him from one of the more off the wall liberal blogs in a dispute which did involve the over-use of Nazi comparisons. I do have three objections to this, the first being that, while sometimes true, this is hardly characteristic of the majority of liberals. Secondly, Rich was quoting conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, not a liberal, in making the Nazi comparisons. Thirdly, there are some situations in which Nazi comparisons are valid. In this case Rich does draw a valid parallel.

It is important in making any comparisons to Nazi Germany that we are looking at a considerable difference in degree. That doesn’t rule out utilizing such analogies. American treatment of prisoners is not any where near as bad as the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but not being as bad as the Nazis is hardly a meaningful defense. This is especially important as, in dealing with those who might turn to terrorism, this is largely a battle of hearts and minds. If we are seen as the moral equivalent of the Nazis, regardless of whether those thinking this understand that the Nazis were far worse, we have no chance to win this battle.

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    john says:

    Thank you you to Frank Rich for his column today regarding torture. The youtube video at this link mashes together various Bush administration denials in support of the argument. Americans must decide if we are a nation which allows torture or not. Whether we as a nation should conduct torture is fundamentally not political question but a moral and legal one. With this issue once again front and center as a result of the recent leaked memos, the American people have an opportunity to assert their basic decency and work to oppose torture of human beings under any circumstances. Taking steps to ensure that we do not torture can turn this country back from its current path by addressing issues of legal rights, executive authority and in the process reestablish America’s moral authority and standing with the international community and with US citizens. John Kirk

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