Naïve citizens may be surprised to learn that some of the most morally upright of our fellow Americans, at least by their own estimation, are also among the most enthusiastic endorsers of the practice of torture. Even more startling than their zeal to abuse detainees—many of whom are innocent of any offense—is their eagerness to exploit those abuses for partisan political advantage.
The President has sent legislation to Capitol Hill that would “clarify” the parameters available to those who interrogate prisoners in the war on terrorism. His bill would apparently permit the use of “waterboarding,” which simulates drowning, and “long time standing,” which is exactly what it sounds like (with shackles), as well as sleep deprivation, constant loud noise and death threats.
To oppose any of these methods, or so the political advertising would claim, is to jeopardize national security, endanger our troops and coddle terrorists. That is how Republican strategists hope to make voters forget the incompetence and corruption on display in Washington, Baghdad and New Orleans and let the party escape disaster in the midterm elections.
Their strategy, however, has been thwarted so far by a single simple fact: The leading opponents of torture in the Senate include three Republican veterans—John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina—and perhaps as many as nine other Republicans, along with most of the Senate Democrats. They refuse to sanction interrogation techniques that obviously violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Voting for the Bush bill means, in effect, not only legalizing those forms of abuse but, even more significantly, repealing the ratification of the conventions.
Whether George W. Bush and Dick Cheney realize it or not, official withdrawal from the Geneva Conventions, which date back well over a century and represent generations of military tradition, is an exceptionally heavy responsibility.
Clearly, Messrs. Bush and Cheney cannot comprehend the damage they are doing to American dignity, credibility and prestige. This is, after all, the same President who has repeatedly told the world that the United States doesn’t use or condone torture. His public negotiations with the dissident Senators over torture techniques have created one of the worst spectacles in modern history.
But this blithe attitude toward barbarism only reflects the broader degradation of the Republican Party and the conservative movement under their present leadership. While there are courageous Republican politicians willing to fight the torture bill, the President knows that most of his party’s leaders are on his side in this debate.
It is strange but true that the country’s most prominent spokesmen for the Prince of Peace and for tradition and morality are also its most outspoken proponents of torture. These worthies are unfazed to learn that this government is responsible for the bloody medieval abuse of innocent men, like the Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was sent to a Syrian dungeon on baseless suspicion.
The Reverend Louis Sheldon, who heads an organization called the Traditional Values Coalition, has indignantly warned Senator McCain that opposing torture may mean forfeiting the support of evangelical leaders in 2008.
What are we to make of the fact that men like the reverend, who refer to themselves as “Christian” while obnoxiously suggesting that other Christians are inferior in faith and character, now tell us that we must support the horrific abuse of prisoners?
What “traditions” and “values” do Mr. Sheldon—and, for that matter, the devout Mr. Bush—truly uphold? What kind of conservative promotes the violent abuse of people who have been convicted of no crime?
It can only be the same kind of conservative who hopes to use torture as a “wedge issue” to divide the nation and win the next election. That is the express desire of the editors of The Weekly Standard and of Grover Norquist, the leading Republican lobbyist and strategist. All of them are furious at Senator McCain, as Mr. Norquist put it, for “confusing the message.”
We should hope that he and his colleagues continue to ignore the right-wing demagogues and opportunists, and instead heed the wise counsel of Lieutenant General John Kimmons, the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, who explained the other day why torture is such a costly mistake.
“I am absolutely convinced [that] no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tell us that,” said the general. “Moreover, any piece of intelligence which is obtained under duress, through the use of abusive techniques, would be of questionable credibility, and additionally it would do more harm than good when it inevitably became known that abusive practices were used. And we can’t afford to go there.”
His words summarize the view of the professional officers who have been working so bravely to restore the honor of the armed forces. It is they who represent tradition, values and patriotic faith.