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We Don't Want a Hanoi Hilton

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By Richard Cohen
Thursday, October 27, 2005

Five years ago I went to Vietnam with Sen. John McCain. We went to the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the jail where American POWs were kept and where McCain spent much of his 5 1/2 years in captivity, most of the time being brutalized, some of the time being tortured. It was a dark, fetid place where waves of claustrophobia washed over me, and I wanted to flee, as McCain could not have done. "Nice place, huh?" he said to me as we left. For the stoical McCain, that amounted to a primordial scream.

I watched McCain closely that day. I know only a few people who were tortured, and never had I accompanied any of them back to where they were put through so much pain. McCain is not a let-it-all-hang-out sort of guy. He does not weep on cue or choke for the cameras. But he does resolve. Somewhere along the way, he apparently resolved that what happened to him should not happen to anyone else -- especially at the hands of Americans.

So McCain's amendment, added to a $440 billion military spending bill, would ban the U.S. military and other government agencies -- the CIA, for instance -- from engaging in "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees. The Senate approved the amendment 90 to 9. Whatever it meant to 89 of the senators, to McCain it was simply a matter of doing to others what he would have wanted done unto him. It is, in that sense, a very old idea.

Stunningly, George W. Bush has threatened to veto this measure. Bush has vetoed not one bill in all of his presidency but would, he says, veto this one. The threat borders on the preposterous, or maybe the idiotic, because it is hard to imagine any president vetoing a measure that forbids torture, given the black eye that the United States has received over the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. After that, Bush would have to issue his veto in the middle of the night and have it recorded in invisible ink. I'd leave it to Karen Hughes to explain it to the Islamic world.

It's worth noting that the very conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham supports McCain in this effort. Graham was a judge in the Air Force. It is worth noting, too, that Sen. John Warner also supports McCain. He was once secretary of the Navy and is a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. Colin Powell also supports this amendment. He was once just about everything, including a combat Army officer. As you can see, McCain has not assembled a group of bleeding-heart liberals, as the insulting caricature goes. His coalition is virtually America in miniature.

The administration says the amendment would shackle American intelligence-gathering. Indeed it would. That's the whole idea. But while some interrogators might be inhibited, they would not necessarily be impeded in their work. The apparent utility of ugly interrogation procedures can often be a chimera. Put a man in enough pain and he'll tell you anything -- anything you want to hear, that is. More important, putting such extreme measures out of bounds provides every American with guidelines. They sure could have used some at Abu Ghraib.

Vice President Cheney, the administration's point man in its effort to defeat or water down the McCain amendment, is seeking an exception for the CIA. This makes no sense, because the military could merely turn over a detainee to the CIA and, anyway, when you think about it, even CIA agents are Americans. In other words, they too ought to be bound by an American ethic: There are some things we will not do.

President Bush is infected with a Frank Hague complex. Hague was the longtime (1917-47) mayor and political boss of Jersey City, who supposedly waved aside an inconvenient statute by proclaiming, "I am the law!" Bush has done something similar, trashing the Geneva Conventions and asserting the government's right to jail anyone for any time for any reason -- as long as national security is at stake. The many laws and precedents that limit government authority do not, Bush insists, limit him. He is, as always, a firm believer in what he believes.

But this is no time for tautologies. The experience that McCain brings to the question of torture has to be respected. If not, it is appallingly conceivable that someday someone could take the press to a spot and say that here -- here in this dark and fetid place -- is where he was cruelly abused by Americans. We would all be degraded by that.

cohenr@washpost.com


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