Which causes Bush to torture us some more
Call it the drip torture — or torture of the drip: Ex-POW John McCain used and abused ex-National Guard absentee George W. Bush on the floor of the Senate yesterday.
Bush responded in the only way his handlers know how, when it comes to a fellow Republican: He tried to distract us from yesterday’s stinging criticism by drenching us today with inflammatory war clichés. I thought the guy was going to take off his shoe and pound it on the podium.
Ignore Bush’s performance, and go back to yesterday to peruse McCain’s speech. Key man investigating the Wampumgate scandal and now leading the human-rights charge in the absence of the practically toothless Democrats, McCain is looking more and more like a presidential candidate in 2008.
Even before Wampumgate hit critical mass — if this civics lesson in scandal doesn’t stay there, my fellow ‘Mericans, you have only yourselves to blame — McCain was already being touted as a contender by Republicans who are sick and tired of being led by the current coalition of neocons and religious nuts.
McCain backed the stupid and needless invasion of Iraq, but he has never embraced the Bush regime’s tortured logic.
On Wednesday, in formally introducing the measure that would order the Pentagon to follow the Army Field Manual and stop the “cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment” of prisoners, McCain invoked the name of Captain Ian Fishback, the brave soldier who has helped expose yet another torture center run by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
This is the one at Camp Mercury, near Fallujah, which Human Rights Watch publicized and which I recently wrote about here and there. McCain didn’t mention that coarse concentration camp, where psychosexual American soldiers freely referred to their random and gratuitous beatings of Iraqis as “fucking.”
A former POW himself, McCain didn’t even trade on that experience for sympathy during his Senate speech — he did little but trade on it during his futile spring 2000 GOP primary race against Bush. (See my story from the McCain campaign trail in South Carolina.)
No, McCain was simply brilliant yesterday, quoting Fishback’s letter to him that pleaded for “clear standards of conduct.” The Arizona senator then said, speaking to both the Senate president and the POTUS:
We owe it to them, Mr. President. We sent them to fight for us in Afghanistan and Iraq. We placed extraordinary pressure on them to extract intelligence from detainees.
But then we threw out the rules that our soldiers had trained on, and replaced them with a confusing and constantly changing array of standards.
We demanded intelligence without ever clearly telling our troops what was permitted and what was forbidden. And then when things went wrong, we blamed them and we punished them. We have to do better than that.
No spellbinding orator, McCain was instead blunt — a style that serves him well. He explained the simple measure like this:
This amendment would (1) establish the Army Field Manual as the uniform standard for the interrogation of Department of Defense detainees and (2) prohibit cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in the detention of the U.S. government.
Following that, he clearly laid out a reasonable argument, not one that Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. would have used, but eminently more practical if you want to get a GOP-controlled Senate to go along:
Mr. President, to fight terrorism we need intelligence. That much is obvious.
What should also be obvious is that the intelligence we collect must be reliable and acquired humanely, under clear standards understood by all our fighting men and women.
To do differently would not only offend our values as Americans, but undermine our war effort, because abuse of prisoners harms — not helps — us in the war on terror.
First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence, because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop.
Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy — if not in this war, then in the next.
And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas, because inevitably these abuses become public. When they do, the cruel actions of a few darken the reputation of our country in the eyes of millions. American values should win against all others in any war of ideas, and we can’t let prisoner abuse tarnish our image.
The “image” argument is the one that wins the day in our conservative-run Senate. But the better argument, one that he didn’t mention, is that such behavior coarsens and corrupts those who engage in it or allow it to happen. As the people in Israel’s strong peace movement (underpublicized by the U.S. media) have pointed out, this is part of the huge price of occupation that the occupiers have to pay.
My mom didn’t raise no son to hop on no elephant’s back — tugging on the varmint’s ears, yes, but going along for a ride, no — and I remember all too well McCain’s early days in Arizona politics: Future Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke was his press aide, and McCain, who carpetbagged his way into Congress from Arizona, spent much of his time kissing the butt of Charlie Keating (famously dubbed a “financiopath” by Iowa congressman Jim Leach).
When he wasn’t doing that, McCain, the son of an admiral, was sucking up to pompous publisher Darrow “Duke” Tully, who infamously lied for years about serving in the military. McCain, like all the rest of us, fell for it.
On the other hand, no one would wish upon anyone else the horrible experience McCain underwent as a POW in Vietnam. But the fact is that the experience did more than just preternaturally age him; it also humanized him. Unlike Bush, McCain is much more than a scion in a well-connected family. I know him slightly from my years in Arizona, and I’ve made fun of him in print many times, but McCain, though he has a temper, doesn’t displace his anger onto the hapless and poor the way the pampered POTUS does.
McCain, due to his life experiences, has a conscience, while Bush, because of his life, remains unconscious.
And you’ve got to hand it to McCain for what he’s doing now. Fishback isn’t the first whistleblower McCain has embraced. He’s one of a handful of relatively progressive Republicans who publicly quarrel with the Blutocrats currently leading their party.
In his stirring speech yesterday, McCain blistered the Bush regime for flouting international law at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, Fallujah, and other such places. And he backed it up with action. He and another senator tacked on the clause banning torture of military prisoners to an appropriations bill, and the Senate passed it, 90-9.
The Bush regime has continually argued that Lynndie England et al. were simply “rogue” soldiers. That is balderdash. Thanks in part to our colonial, slave-driven past, torture and abuse by our military are institutionalized, as my colleague Nick Turse pointed out last year in his recounting of our country’s “doctrine of atrocity.”
McCain put the lie to that lame bullshit from Bush and his rogue handlers, though the senator was clever enough to refrain from linking it directly to the regime’s specific schnooks:
Confusion about the rules results in abuses in the field. We need a clear, simple, and consistent standard, and we have it in the Army Field Manual on Interrogation.
That’s not just my opinion, but that of many more distinguished military minds than mine. I would refer you to a letter expressing strong support for this amendment, signed by 28 former high-ranking military officers, including General Joseph Hoar, who commanded Centcom; General John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Rear Admiral John Hutson and Rear Admiral Don Guter, who each served as the Navy’s top JAG; and Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Army Intelligence.
These and other distinguished officers believe that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and elsewhere took place in part because our soldiers received ambiguous instructions, which in some cases authorized treatment that went beyond what the Field Manual allows, and that, had the Manual been followed across the board, we could have avoided the prisoner abuse scandal.
Finally, McCain brought in his own big gun, invoking the name of the hallowed Ronald Reagan:
On last year’s DOD Authorization bill, the Senate passed a bipartisan amendment reaffirming that no detainee in U.S. custody can be subject to torture or cruel treatment, as the U.S. has long defined those terms. All of this seems to be common sense, in accordance with longstanding American values.
But since last year’s DOD bill, a strange legal determination was made that the prohibition in the Convention Against Torture against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment does not legally apply to foreigners held outside the U.S. They can, apparently, be treated inhumanely.
This is the administration’s position, even though Judge Abe Sofaer, who negotiated the Convention Against Torture for President Reagan, said in a recent letter that the Reagan administration never intended the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to apply only on U.S. soil.
Digression: Be sure to read this riveting anecdote by Sofaer about a dinnertime conflict back in 1985 between Don Rumsfeld and Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein‘s former minister, now a prisoner of Rumsfeld’s. End digression.
Back to McCain: After reminding his fellow senators that even Reagan wouldn’t have done this shit, McCain connected the dots:
What all this means is that America is the only country in the world that asserts a legal right to engage in cruel and inhuman treatment. But the crazy thing is that it is not even necessary, because the Administration has said that it will not engage in cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as a matter of policy. What this also means is that confusion about the rules becomes rampant again. We have so many differing legal standards and loopholes that our lawyers and generals are confused — just imagine our troops serving in prisons and the field.
And if you can get past the jingoistic stuff about our “higher standards” and “moral mission” — this from a country that still has the death penalty — you’ll see that McCain makes a shrewd point: We’re corrupting our society when we engage in morally corrupt acts. Here’s how he wraps it up:
Mr. President, let me just close by noting that I hold no brief for the prisoners. I do hold a brief for the reputation of the United States of America.
We are Americans, and we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. To do otherwise undermines our security, but it also undermines our greatness as a nation.
We are not simply any other country. We stand for something more in the world — a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad. We are better than these terrorists, and we will win. The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy.
But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2005