Editorial Roundup for Thursday — October 13, 2005

Torture: Abuse is unAmerican


• Torture: Abuse is unAmerican

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 9

No one in the Senate could have stated the case against torturing prisoners better than Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. That’s because no one else knows as intimately as Mr. McCain what was goes on in the mind of a prisoner subjected to torture.

Speaking on the Senate floor in favor of his amendment to stop the abuse of prisoners by U.S. forces, Mr. McCain recalled his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, in the so-called Hanoi Hilton. “Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death,” he said. “But every one of us – every single one of us – knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies.”

Mr. McCain’s eloquence won the day. Even in the face of a veto threat from President George W. Bush, the McCain measure passed by an overwhelming 90-9 vote as an amendment to the important Defense Appropriations bill. Among the senators from Missouri and Illinois, only Sen. Christopher S. “Kit” Bond cast a shameful vote against the McCain amendment. Mr. Bond said in a statement that he opposed putting “undue burdens on military and intelligence officials who are on the ground trying to obtain critical information on the war on terror.”

Even though Mr. McCain won the battle by a large majority, he is a long way from winning the war. The House is less sympathetic to Mr. McCain’s amendment and the White House is working hard to strip it from the bill before it reaches the president.

The McCain amendment would ban “cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone held in U.S. government custody. It also would require all American troops to use interrogation techniques authorized in the Army field manual, although this restriction would not apply to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The president claims that McCain’s amendment would tie his hands in the war on terrorism. But surely this president, who speaks so often about the importance of literally interpreting the Constitution, realizes that Congress expressly has the power to “make Rules concerning captures on Land and Water.”

Supporters of Mr. McCain’s amendment included former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a four-star general, two dozen retired senior military officers and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Mr. Powell fought unsuccessfully within the Bush administration to broadly apply the Geneva conventions to the treatment of captured Taliban fighters. Mr. Graham, a former military lawyer, has voiced the concerns of current military lawyers about the abusive treatment of prisoners.

Abiding by humane rules for the treatment of prisoners of war is the right thing to do morally and pragmatically. Our nation had long distinguished itself as a leader in drafting international norms for the civilized treatment of prisoners. It is a proud part of our history, and our national character – one we should not surrender in the face of terrorism or for the sake of political expedience.

As for the practical considerations, the United States can’t argue that our soldiers shouldn’t be tortured if we’re torturing the enemy. In addition, the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay damaged America’s image among Muslims at a time when that is important to winning the hearts and minds of allies in the war on terrorism.

Our fighting men and women have been left in a state of confusion about the standards of military behavior. That confusion was recently illustrated by Army Capt. Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne who wrote to Congress that his soldiers were uncertain about what standards to apply to prisoners.

Sen. McCain said his amendment was addressed to honorable soldiers like Capt. Fishback. Its message? “They need not risk their or their country’s honor to prevail.”

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