Senator John McCain of Arizona has been roundly applauded for his efforts to place in the 2006 Defense Appropriations bill an amendment banning the use of torture or any other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. He declared he would not back down to the President or make any concessions despite Dick Cheney’s best efforts to exempt detainees held by the CIA. He stood tall against the President’s threat to veto the bill containing the anti-torture amendment. All of this would be quite noble, coming from a Congress who has shown little courage in defending itself from unbridled executive power. But alas, this apparent heroic stand has turned into just another example of worthless theatre brought to you by the U.S. Congress.
I refer you to Brian J. Foley’s CounterPunch article of 1/10/06, which demonstrates how the McCain amendment was undermined by the Graham-Levin amendment, which effectually cut off access to the courts for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Therefore, if the detainees are tortured, that fact would never see the light of day. Furthermore, when the Defense Appropriations bill went to the House-Senate Conference Committee, the committee members-in secret, of course-squeezed any remaining life out of McCain’s amendment.
In the Graham-Levin amendment, which was included in the Senate portion of the Defense Appropriations bill, it specifically states in determining the status of any detainee, “a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or Administrative Review Board may not consider statements derived from persons that, as determined by such Tribunal or Board, by the preponderance of the evidence, were obtained with undue coercion” This simply means that evidence derived through undue coercion (torture) shall not be permitted.
Contrast that language to the language that came out of the Conference Committee between the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Bush:
“a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or Administrative Review Board, or any similar or successor administrative tribunal or board, in making a determination of status or disposition of any detainee under such procedures, shall, the extent practicable, assess
(A) whether any statement derived from or relating to such detainee was obtained as a result of coercion; and
(B) the probative value (if any) of any such statement.
So after the Conference committee, language that originally prohibited torture, morphed into language that didn’t prohibit or permit torture-but saying instead that information obtained through coercion can be considered, if the tribunal or board, judged the information to be valuable. Under this system, detainees will be subject to torture with no recourse. It is a system designed to accomplish exactly what the McCain amendment prohibited.
So what was John McCain’s reaction to all of this? One would think it would be outrage. I am not sure what his private reaction to this was, but his public reaction was pretty underwhelming. He could have voted NO on the Defense spending bill, and made a statement of protest against the purposeful undermining of his amendment. He could have given a statement to the press, and clued in the public about what other amendments and the Conference committee did to his anti-torture amendment. He didn’t do either. He chose not to vote on the finished Defense bill at all. And he never released a statement condemning the changes made to the bill.
In a statement by McCain prior to the passage of the final Defense bill, a clue emerges as to why he may have been less than outraged at the way his amendment was de-fanged:
“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 we 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.”
McCain claims that this argument is over who we are, as a nation and a people. He asserts we are morally superior, and have a moral mission to spread around the world. His statement justifies torture first, saying the terrorists “don’t deserve our sympathy.” Yet in the spirit American exceptionalism, we are so good that we will not torture, even though it is justified.
He says that the terrorists do not respect human life, yet the United States is responsible, at the very least-even by Bush’s own estimation-for 30,000 deaths caused by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Wouldn’t it then, be quite easy to make the same argument toward the U.S? There is no basis on which the U.S. can claim it respects human life any more than the terrorists. The U.S. has certainly caused more unnecessary deaths around the world than terrorists. Even at the minimum of 30,000 dead in Iraq, that is 10 times the number of people killed on 9/11. Yet Saddam had no connection to 9/11, or weapons of mass destruction. And the people keep dying there. And the dying will not ease until the U.S. leaves Iraq. Yet we stay-in the name of our own interests-and tolerate the dying. Excuse me if I just can’t accept that the U.S. is morally superior to anyone.
In the end, for all the dramatics by John McCain, many in the public believe that with his amendment, the U.S. has taken care of its little torture problem. Yet, it is only an illusion–an illusion of progress, as is the entire war on terror.
JEFFREY KOLAKOWSKI can be reached at Jeffrey.Kolakowski@bbdodetroit.com