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Right message, wrong words


WASHINGTON - I don't think Sen. Richard J. Durbin's overheated remarks about detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have given the aid and comfort to al-Qaida that some of his overheated critics say they have. But there's no denying the glee the Illinois Democrat's remarks have given to Republicans.

By providing his own hide as a convenient pincushion, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat has given the GOP something cheerier to discuss than the reports of detainee abuse that continue to ooze out of the Guantanamo prison camp.

Before Mr. Durbin stepped on his own message, he was reading excerpts from FBI e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"On a couple of occasions," one agent's e-mail reads, "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 had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more."

After quoting from that e-mail, Mr. Durbin said, "If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others - that had no concern for human beings."

Indeed, if you didn't know better, the FBI agent's description does sound a lot like the horrors of a mad regime. It takes a mighty lively imagination to infer from those remarks that Mr. Durbin intended to smear all of our troops as Nazis. His mistake was one of rhetoric: He said "most certainly," for example, instead of "just might."

Yet, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan seized on his remarks as "reprehensible" and "beyond belief" and "a real disservice to our men and women in uniform who adhere to high standards and uphold our values and our laws."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, also chimed in, calling for Mr. Durbin to be censured by the Senate, a punishment that usually is reserved for such offenses as pocketing bribes or pinching the wrong person's bottom.

Mr. Durbin said he "sincerely regrets if what I said caused anyone to misunderstand my true feelings." But that was not good enough for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who called on Mr. Durbin to apologize from the Senate floor, which he did Tuesday.

I would like to have seen Mr. Durbin make a counteroffer: He would apologize right after Mr. Frist, a medical doctor, apologized for declaring on the Senate floor, after looking at a videotape, that Terri Schiavo did not appear to be in a persistent vegetative state. His misdiagnosis was discredited by doctors who actually happened to be in the same room with her and later by an autopsy.

If there is any lesson of Mr. Durbin's gaffe, such as it is, it is to lay off references to gulags, Pol Pot or Nazis unless you're talking about the real thing. When you trivialize references to Nazism, you trivialize the horrors of what Adolf Hitler and his henchmen did. History matters, lest we forget.

With that in mind, the Durbin mud bath reveals a troubling tendency of the Bush administration to try its mightiest to silence and discredit its critics, even when the critics are raising important points about how our "war on terror" is being handled.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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