October 06, 2005

Something We Can All Agree On -- No Torture

President Bush gave a speech today on efforts to combat terrorism. Bush's speech contained the usual references to Iraq, but in a rather stunning admission, Bush said that "we were not in Iraq on September 11, 2001, and al Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue...." Exactly. In other words, Iraq was not part of the "war on terror" when Bush invaded there in 2003. That's something to keep in mind as George Bush and his supporters continue to try and revise history in statement after statement claiming that Iraq is part of, or even the central front in, the "war on terror."

All of this obscures an even more stunning defeat for Bush last night. The U.S. Senate voted 90 to 9 to include Senator and former Vietnam War prisoner John McCain's anti-torture amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill. The amendment would confirm that the Army Field Manual, which has been in place for decades, is the uniform standard for the interrogation of Department of Defense detainees. The amendment would thus prohibit the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone in U.S. government custody, regardless of where they are held. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from SC and a former military lawyer, gave an impassioned speech yesterday in favor of the amendment. Graham said that the U.S. should treat all prisoners with basic human rights, even if they wouldn't do the same for us, because we are the U.S., and it's about us, not them. Other Republican Senators, such as John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Secretary of the Navy, also vigorously support the McCain amendment. So does former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The overwhelming bipartisan support for this amendment is remarkable, especially given the Bush Administration's intense lobbying against it. Could it be that it's simply a good idea? It seems like a no-brainer. There are at least 5 major reasons why our troops should be given strict guidelines prohibiting torture:

1. It gives us the moral high ground. We claim to be more civilized, humane and freedom-loving than other countries. If so, we cannot lower ourselves to the lowest common denominator, the barbarian level, in the treatment of prisoners.

2. It makes our troops safer if they are taken prisoner. If we do not afford Geneva Convention rights to all war prisoners, we cannot expect other countries to afford these rights to our soldiers.

3. It helps us in the war against terrorists, by giving them one less reason to hate us and one less action around which to rally support. Surely no one is under the illusion that we are killing terrorists faster than they are being created. Let's give them one less reason to become terrorists.

4. Many military experts, including John McCain, say that torture doesn't work. The prisoner, faced with torture, will often tell his captors anything he thinks they want to hear in order to be spared. That's a rather small return on investment, considering the high price paid in international hatred, scorn, and just plain bad PR.

5. The amendment provides certainty to the troops. As Senator McCain explained, even if they currently act in good faith, much confusion exists as to the proper treatement of different detainees, even those imprisoned in the same facility such as Abu Ghraib. According to McCain, "Several weeks ago I received a letter from Captain Ian Fishback, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, and a veteran of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Over 17 months he struggled to get answers from his chain of command to a basic question: what standards apply to the treatment of enemy detainees? But he found no answers. In his remarkable letter, he pleads with Congress, asking us to take action, to establish standards, to clear up the confusion – not for the good of the terrorists, but for the good of our soldiers and our country. The Captain closes his letter by saying, 'I strongly urge you to do justice to your men and women in uniform. Give them clear standards of conduct that reflect the ideals they risk their lives for.'” Don't we owe our men and women in uniform this much?

The McCain amendment is far from becoming law. It still needs to pass a House-Senate Conference Committee, where the White House is already lobbying furiously to kill it. Even if it passes the Committee, Bush has said he would veto the entire Defense Appropriations bill in which it is contained. Of course, based on the Senate vote, perhaps the will exists in Congress, and in the country, to give a dose of reality and shame to this lame duck president who seems increasingly out of touch with reality, and to ovverride such a veto.

So why does George Bush oppose this amendment? Apparently he wants the military, the CIA and others to remain free to torture prisoners. There isn't any other possible reason. Many of us remember the August 2002 memo written for Alberto Gonzales, the counsel for the president (and now Attorney General), signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee. The memo sought to redefine "torture" as commonly defined by the U.N. and the Geneva Convention by arguing that “physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Then the Bush Administration could conveniently claim that no prisoner is being tortured. Of course, in the real world, actions that violate humanitarian norms cannot be swept away by a lawyer's new definition in a memo. The Bush Justice Department can declare that the sky is green, but everyone knows that it is still blue.

Can't we all agree, no matter what political stripe, that torture is not only morally wrong, but also counter-productive in the wars we're fighting? Can't we agree that the best way to support our troops, as all those bumper stickers say, is to enact this law? Apparently, Senators across the political spectrum, representing their constitutuents, do.


At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or to put it another way, nine senators decided to defend Ameriaa; the rest put our citizens and troops at greater risk. I'm sure the intelligence just gathered from detainees regarding the plans to bomb NYC subways, was voluntarily received after reading these terrorists their rights, giving them a good hot meal, and a Quoran.


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