Alexander O. Boulton: What's Disturbing About the Reaction to Sen. Dick Durbin's Comments

Alexander O. Boulton, in a communication to HNN (7-8-05):

[Alexander O. Boulton, Associate Professor History, Villa Julie College.]

As a college professor who has taught World and U.S. History for over a dozen years, I am glad to see so many historical references in the news lately. Most of this recent attention to history is the result of Senator Richard Durbin’s remarks suggesting that American treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo might be compared to acts performed “by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or . . . Pol Pot.” Apparently, many people were offended by his comments, but I was glad to see, in the uproar that followed, that there was a general assumption that most people shared some basic knowledge of these historic events. I was glad to see that most people seemed to be aware of Hitler’s campaign to exterminate Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals. I am not so sure, however, judging by my own students’ knowledge of history, that as many people are equally knowledgeable about the forced labor camps of the Soviet gulags, or even of the atrocities committed under the reign of Pol Pot in Cambodia. What most disturbed me about the recent mention of these important historic events, however, was the apparent conclusion that we have nothing to learn from them. These horrible events, the consensus seemed to be, were so unique and so horrible that they are irrelevant to any contemporary discussion. To my mind this argument seems to be like saying that we should remember these events by forgetting about them.

I try to teach my students that if history is to have any meaning or purpose, it can only be in its ability to shed light on our contemporary situation. We should not put these horrible acts of brutality into our historical attic, out of sight and out of mind, to be dusted off every now and then when we are in the mood. Instead, we should be looking at them closely for every valid parallel that they might offer. Certainly, the mistreatment of prisoners by American soldiers and interrogators during the last few months are not equivalent to the brutal deaths of tens of millions of people in Europe, the Soviet Union, and South East Asia throughout the twentieth century.

History should teach us, however, that individual Americans, under certain conditions, can be the equal to other people in our ability to perform terrible acts of brutality. My Lai and Abu Ghraib should be proof of that. History should also teach us that decent and honorable people sometimes just stand by and do nothing while horrible acts are being committed. History should teach us, as well, that such acts have sometimes been justified by turning history itself into a melodrama in which we are the embodiment of perfect goodness and our enemies are the embodiment of absolute evil.

Unfortunately, while many politicians and media commentators have been criticizing Dick Durbin for his use of historical analogies, the central message that he originally tried to raise about the treatment of prisoners who are in American jails in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo has been forgotten. But, I guess that was the whole point.

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