The most gratifying development in the nation’s capital in recent months was the 90-9 vote in the U.S. Senate last week to set clear limits on the techniques the U.S. military can use when interrogating detainees in military custody throughout the world. Now it’s time for the House to do likewise.
Setting clear, understandable standards for handling detainees and prisoners is good for the military and good for the United States.
The amendment proposed by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, simply bans the use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and specifies that U.S. troops use only interrogation techniques authorized in the new Army field manual. This is not a formula for kid-glove treatment, simply for the use of hard-nosed techniques that don’t cross the line into barbarism.
Using tough but civilized techniques should go without saying. But the shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib and the testimony of Capt. Ian Fishback and a few other soldiers who have come forward recently suggests that some military people had lost their way during this war.
The fact that two dozen retired senior military officers, including Colin Powell and former Joint Chiefs chairman John Shalikashvili, endorsed the McCain amendment is an indication that setting understandable limits is in the military’s interest.
Soldiers who had not received sufficient training were confronted with dangerous situations and confusing and sometimes nonexistent guidelines from civilian authorities. Having clear guidelines will make their job easier.
The most disappointing aspect of this whole sorry story is that the Bush administration has talked about a veto of the McCain amendment. That an administration would consider using its first presidential veto against a measure to prevent torture suggests an alarming moral hollowness.
It is probably significant that this legislative effort was led by Sen. McCain, a veteran who endured torture as a POW during the Vietnam War. For civilians without experience, perhaps steeped in spy novels and other fiction, the use of torture is somewhat theoretical, and the idea of condoning it might seem like an exciting, even necessary tactic in a new kind of war. Those with experience know better. Torture and extreme tactics short of torture not only demean those who use them, they seldom produce reliable information.