Matthew Yglesias is right on.
A little while ago Dick Durbin noted on the Senate floor that torturing prisoners was the sort of thing Nazis or Communists would do, and that the United States, trying to be one of the world’s good guys, should hold itself to a higher standard of conduct. The right-wing noise machine, deploying some now familiar tactics, decided that the correct response would be to deliberately misrepresent what Durbin was saying and express a lot of outrage that someone would fail to understand that contemporary America is not, in fact, just like Nazi Germany. Hugh Hewitt and Bill Kristol, both of whom I firmly believe know perfectly well that Durbin said nothing objectionable, fall over each other in The Weekly Standard to see who can win Hack of the Year prize by demanding ever-harsher retribution against Durbin.
It’s interesting as a case study in the operation of the smear machine, but really more telling as an instance of the ethical black hole into which the contemporary right has fallen. Nowadays, every time somebody raises the topic of immoral torture-related policies undertaken by the Bush administration the instant conservative reaction is to transform the conversation into a debate about the appropriateness of the critics’ rhetoric. Every time, the point of the defense is not to defend the conduct in question, but simply to note that someone, somewhere, at some time has done worse things. We’re better than Saddam Hussein! Our prisons aren’t as bad as Auschwitz! People may be detained arbitrarily without hearings, appeal, due process, or POW status, but it’s no Gulag!
So, in other words, as long as we’re not doing things like systematically killing people in gas chambers, burning their bodies in massive ovens, or burying them in mass graves, hey, we’re the beacon of freedom and democracy!
If Senator Durbin made a mistake in his speech on the Senate floor, it was in not knowing that no matter what he said when he broke Godwin’s Law (the argument is over when a comparison to Hitler is made), the banshees of the right wing would come after him like he was in heat. But perhaps he was hoping that the FBI report would be accepted as an objective report and his commentary drawing from historical perspectives would have been taken as just that. And perhaps he assumed that his fellow Democrats would have stood with him against the howls from the disingenuous right wing. Well, Senator Durbin, look how the Democrats have stood with Howard Dean over the last couple of weeks. Uh huh.