Torture, Shaming Us All
PETRA, Jordan -- Somewhere north of here, Bassam and I switched roles. He pulled the car over and I took over the driving. The idea was to keep talking, to fight the painful monotony of the desert road, and so we talked of family -- Bassam has four children -- and of the economic situation, his time in Kuwait and finally, because I had been avoiding the subject, what he thought of America and Americans. This is how Abu Ghraib came up.
I did not mention the prison near Baghdad where Iraqi prisoners were abused. Nor did I mention Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States keeps detainees -- forever and ever, it seems. These were places that Bassam brought up. He was, it was plain to see, confounded and disgusted by America.
You have to know something about Bassam. He is not partial to Iraqis. For 30 years he lived in Kuwait. He built an engineering business there -- something to do with oil wells and power. He had employees and an office and vehicles. When the Iraqis invaded in 1990, they vandalized his business. They stole his cars. They wrecked everything he built. Eventually he returned to Jordan, where he had been born. He is now a driver.
Bassam's English is pretty good. He had no trouble distinguishing between Americans and their government. The former he liked, the latter he did not. It all had to do with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, these places of abuse and alleged torture. Here his English started to fail him. The degradation of Muslims -- not Iraqis, mind you, but Muslims -- appalled him. He started to say why, but he could not. I kept my eyes on the road as he fumbled for the right words. "We are Muslims," he said haltingly. I looked over. He was visibly upset.
So was I. I have traveled this region for years and always I kept my head high as an American. There are things we do not do. There are things we stand for. Go ahead, hate us for supporting Israel or for some similar reason, but if you were Bassam -- any Bassam anywhere in the world -- you had to know that America did not abuse prisoners and most especially did not torture them. Other governments did that. Not us. The culprits at Abu Ghraib were punished.
Now, though, we are witnessing a debate in Washington that any American at one time would have thought impossible: whether to allow "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of persons under custody or control of the United States government." The words are taken from the amendment introduced by Sen. John McCain, which would prohibit such practices. It has passed twice, the first time by 90 to 9, the second by a voice vote. It has the support of a former POW, McCain; a former Navy secretary, John Warner; a Reserve military judge, Lindsey Graham -- and, outside the Senate, former military men such as Colin Powell. Nonetheless, the administration vows a veto.
The Bush administration's effort is being led by Vice President Cheney, who -- give him credit -- is indomitably shameless. Given the ridiculous things he said in the run-up to the war, you'd have thought the man would have sought the contemplative life and retreated to some swell retirement community. But he not only perseveres, he has become the unashamed lobbyist for torture. He must have a reason. Apparently it is this: Sometimes ya gotta play rough.
Maybe so. But all the time -- day in and day out -- the military and the CIA and all branches of government are entitled to clear rules about what is and is not allowed. The Abu Ghraib idiots sure didn't seem to know the rules, and neither did anyone around them. Moreover, as McCain and others keep saying, the only way you can reasonably expect an enemy to be decent to American POWs is if we are decent to them.
The practical advantages of banning torture are persuasive -- and a needed reassertion of U.S. principles. Merely doing so, however, is not likely to convince people throughout the world that rhetoric is now actual policy. After all, lots of countries routinely torture prisoners; none that I know of admits to the practice.
But if the day ever comes when George Bush shames us all by vetoing a ban on "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment," then I will, if I should be taking this drive to Petra again, keep my eyes firmly on the road. I could still look at Bassam. But I wouldn't want him to look at me.