The Bush administration wishes the torture issue would go away. Given his escalating problems of credibility, the president hardly needs prominent members of his own party reviving the horrors of Abu Ghraib and calling upon his administration to follow the rule of law in its treatment of detainees.
The administration has tried to bury the issue by denial, multiple Pentagon investigations (each with their explanations that somehow fall short of chain-of-command complicity), and show trials of the "few bad apples" like Pfc. Lyndie England and Spc. Charles Graner. They also counted on the short attention span of the American media and public.
It is true, many Americans would also rather not deal with it -- too depressing, too remote from more immediate concerns, and too much a hot-button issue used by "the left" to "beat up" the administration. Others believe the administration's rhetoric of saving American lives through "harsh" interrogation techniques.
Nonetheless, continuing revelations of torture, murder and ill treatment of detainees -- and evidence of the practice of rendition, described by one observer as the "outsourcing of torture" to other countries -- continue to disturb people of conscience and trouble those who soberly assess the negative impact on America's reputation and security.
Conscience motivated Pfc. Joseph Darby to reveal the existence of the photos of Abu Ghraib; and there have been several other heroes along the way, patriots who could not find comfort in the claim of being "innocent bystanders," people who instinctively could not remain silent in the face of wrongdoing.
The latest among these heroes is Capt. Ian Fishback and two others from the 82nd Airborne stationed in Iraq who were disturbed by the inconsistency between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's claim that the U.S. was adhering to the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and what they had witnessed firsthand. After 17 unsuccessful months of trying to go through the chain of command, Fishback went to Human Rights Watch and to the Senate, including the office of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
Perhaps it was McCain's experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam that made him put principle before loyalty to the administration and persuade senators to vote 90 to 9 for his amendment to the defense appropriations bill.
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The McCain amendment requires a tough uniform standard for the interrogation of detainees and will prohibit "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of individuals in "the custody or under the physical control of the United States government." It essentially restates what is already in U.S. law and our legal and moral commitments to international conventions on human rights. Almost 30 retired military commanders supported McCain's amendment.
Astonishingly, the White House has threatened a veto, claiming that the anti-torture provision would unduly "tie the hands" of the president in fighting the war on terrorism. Tie his hands? Isn't that what the rule of law is supposed to do? Is the administration actually suggesting it should be exempt from law? Perhaps. This is the same administration that launched an illegal war in Iraq and lied about why it was necessary.
Americans should consider McCain's and the commanders' arguments: Torture does not produce reliable intelligence; torture of detainees held by the U.S. endangers American military personnel who are captured by enemies; torture undermines the larger war against terrorism.
If we the people do not act to reverse the reputation of America as a country that tortures its prisoners, we lose the "war of ideas," isolating us from our allies and further alienating those who were already suspicious of our motives.
How have we come to this? What are the values for and by which we fight this war? Do we really believe our security will be enhanced by becoming as inhumane as our enemies? Don't we owe it to the men and women in uniform the knowledge that they can serve without the tarnish of torture?
There is much more to be done: Create an independent commission to investigate and recommend punitive actions against those in the chain of command responsible for torture, as high as the evidence confirms; ensure that the CIA and other intelligence agencies, not just the armed forces, are accountable to the rule of law; end the illegal practice of turning prisoners over to other countries that torture.
For now, we owe it to ourselves to demand that the House approve the Senate's action and that Bush not veto the defense bill because of the McCain amendment. Consider the effect on world public opinion if Americans could find the courage to reject its administration's reckless, immoral and illegal course. Both the soul and security of America are at stake.