- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Democratic officials around the country have said Sen. Dick Durbin’s comparison of the U.S. treatment of al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to Nazi and Soviet atrocities was absurd and inflammatory.

The bombastic analogy by the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat in a fiery floor speech last week drew no rebukes from party leaders here, who stoutly defended him from a storm of Republican complaints. But Democrats at the grass-roots level found his comparison deeply troubling.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who went to the floor to stand by his assistant leader (though he did not specifically defend the Nazi and gulag remarks), thought the controversy would blow over quickly. But the negative reaction from the party’s state leaders, together with a withering rebuke from major veterans organizations and Jewish leaders, suggested Mr. Durbin’s remarks had angered key voting blocs.

Under pressure from Democratic leaders, Mr. Durbin late last week said he regretted his words were “misunderstood.” His statement equating U.S. military interrogators with Adolf Hitler’s death camps and Josef Stalin’s gulags was clear to everyone and satisfied no one. Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who condemned the remarks, called on Mr. Durbin to retract them and apologize.

The Illinois Democrat did just that Tuesday in an emotional statement on the Senate floor, saying his comparisons to Nazis and gulags was “a very poor choice of words.”

However, it was the angry reaction from their party’s grass roots that should really worry Democratic leaders here.

As a rule, Democrats are loath to criticize their national leadership, no matter how justified the criticism, and the silence of most state party leaders was deafening. But calls to a number of state Democratic chairmen found many did not like Mr. Durbin’s remarks and were willing to say so on the record.

“The words Nazi and gulag are certainly inflammatory,” said Arizona Democratic Chairman Jim Pederson, who didn’t like their use one bit, although he was troubled about the interrogation stories emerging from Guantanamo Bay. “The people who use them have to be careful in the words they use or else we lose the advantage of the argument.”

Mr. Durbin’s “rhetoric concerns me. There’s no way you can make that parallel,” said former Democratic Rep. Richard Stallings, now the chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party.

“There are real issues we should be discussing, and here we are making comparisons to Hitler and Stalin’s gulag,” he told me. “Those statements are detracting from what our party and the nation ought to be talking about.”

New Mexico Democratic Chairman John Wertheim was also bothered by the senator’s words. “I do not agree with the parallel that Durbin drew because I think that analogies to the Nazis and the Soviet gulag system must be reserved for extraordinary evil,” he said.

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin thinks Mr. Durbin’s attack on the prison camp “was just way over the top. Those comparisons are just absurd.”

There are about 500 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, who have been judged enemy combatants as part of the al Qaeda terrorist army. Unlike the concentration camps and gulags to which Mr. Durbin compared the U.S. facility, and where tens of millions were exterminated, no one has died at the U.S. prison on the tip of Cuba. Interrogation is sometimes hard, but humane. Information gleaned has saved lives, Defense Department officials say.

The prisoners are kept in immaculate prison conditions. They are given better health care than many Americans enjoy. They eat better than our troops in the field, who must live on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat in vacuum-packed bags). A recent prison meal at Guantanamo Bay: Orange glazed chicken, rice pilaf, steamed peas and mushrooms, and fruit roupee.

Americans by and large instinctively know the prisoners kept there are bad people, who, if released and returned to Iraq or Afghanistan, would kill again. That is why, despite the Democrats’ increasing criticism of prison life at Guantanamo Bay, their rants have had no political traction.

A Fox News Opinion Dynamics survey on June 14-15 reported 59 percent believe the terrorists are being treated well at Guantanamo. A June 13 Pew Research Center poll found 54 percent of Americans think reported abuses are isolated cases.

“I’ve heard very little comment about it,” said Mississippi Democratic Chairman Wayne Dowdy. “All the comments I’m hearing are about gas prices and summer heat, but not the treatment of prisoners.”

Mr. Durbin’s complaints about the treatment of al Qaeda detainees doesn’t seem to have been playing well back home, either. A SurveyUSA poll earlier this month showed his voter approval rating falling to 50 percent, which now ranks him near the bottom among 100 senators in home-state support.

His shrill attacks aren’t playing any better elsewhere in the country.

“If you ask people what they’re angry and worried about, no one is mentioning Guantanamo,” says Mr. Pederson.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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