Wednesday, November 23, 2005

In His Own Words

We have been talking a lot about Senator McCain’s anti-torture legislation on this blog. Recently, Newsweek allowed McCain to write an article about his stance on torture. We all know his position is principled and borne of experience in one of the infamously cruel POW camps in Vietnam. But his article shows he has more than principle. He attacks the issue from all angles in a way that leaves you wondering how anyone could disagree. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of the article is how it actually deals with security concerns of the right.

McCain starts off his piece by acknowledging that the Bush administration has a responsibility to protect the people of this country that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Their decision to condone harsh interrogation practices are meant to make us more secure. Where liberals might attack Bush and Cheney from the beginning, thereby losing any chance of influencing conservatives, McCain acknowledges their honorable intentions while still disagreeing with them. He also makes it clear that our decision to allow torture (or torture light) will have little impact on the terrorists’ decision to torture Americans. This enemy is unfazed by international condemnation or public opinion. But our enemies in the future could be different. And if we have a reputation of condoning torture or harsh interrogation tactics, that enemy may be more willing to do the same to our troops.

He also acknowledges the possibility that harsh interrogation might be necessary if there is an impending attack against the US. And his answer to this is simple, but brilliant. In that case, he believes harsh interrogation might be necessary. And in that situation, the President should be willing to break the law and be truthful after the fact about it. He argues that it would be better to break the law in the rare circumstances when there is an impending attack, instead of creating loopholes allowing for torture in these situations – loopholes that could easily become often used exceptions.

If that was all McCain wrote, it would be enough to convince most people. His argument is logical and will protect American interests in the long-term. But he is also able to talk about the effect of torture on the person, and the reality about the usefulness of the intelligence that is gathered from the victim. Through his own experience he is able to show that a victim will say anything he or she thinks the captors want to hear to stop the torture. In his case it meant lying about the names of his flight squadron (giving the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line). But in other cases it could mean lying about the terrorists’ intentions or activities just to get the pain to stop.

And finally, McCain attacks some of the harsh interrogation methods, sometimes called torture light. Although some of these methods, like water boarding, don’t cause physical harm to the victim, he argues that some of these methods are worse than a beating. Water boarding makes the victim believe he or she is drowning, leaving them to believe they are going to die. McCain said that as a POW he would much rather have been beaten than have to face a mock execution. Wounds from a beating heal, the psychological effects of facing death through water boarding or pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun at your head stay with you forever. Those of us that have never faced any situation like this can sit back and believe that water boarding is okay because it causes no physical harm. But I would rather take the word of someone who has been through similar situations about the real harm of torture light.

In the end, McCain demonstrates that we as a nation can choose not to torture without losing our security. And he brings it back down to earth by saying (again, he draws this from his own experience) that soldiers need to feel that they are fighting for something – that they are better than their enemy. They need to believe that they are fighting to protect the grand idea that this country was founded on, democracy and liberty. When we torture, we show that we are as cruel as our enemy. And that is what hurts troop morale.