Ethics Hero: Sen. John McCain

Arizona Senator John McCain has seriously tarnished his reputation for integrity  since losing the Presidential election in 2008, particularly during his last campaign for re-election to the Senate. The best of McCain was on display this week, however, as he delivered a strong and eloquent denouncement of torture (a.k.a “enhanced interrogation techniques”) on the Senate floor, in response to the ethically offensive arguments being put forth by many conservatives that the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden somehow magically transformed the evil practice of torture into a respectable tactic of national security. It is an important, courageous and persuasive statement from a U.S. Senator with special qualifications to make it, as one who had been tortured himself, and as fine a legacy as McCain, or any Senator, could aspire to.

Sen. McCain said, in part (you can read the entire text of his speech here)…

“Mr. President, the successful end of the ten-year manhunt to bring Osama bin Laden to justice has appropriately heightened the nation’s appreciation for the diligence, patriotism and courage of our armed forces and our intelligence community.  They are a great credit and inspiration to the country that has asked so much of them, and like all Americans, I am in their debt.

“But their success has also reignited debate over whether the so-called, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ of enemy prisoners, including waterboarding, were instrumental in locating bin Laden, and whether they are necessary and justifiable means for securing valuable information that might help prevent future terrorist attacks against us and our allies and lead to the capture or killing of those who would perpetrate them.  Or are they, and should they be, prohibited by our conscience and laws as torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

“I believe some of these practices – especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution, and thus to me, indisputably torture – are and should be prohibited in a nation that is exceptional in its defense and advocacy of human rights.  I believe they are a violation of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, all of which forbid cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of all captured combatants, whether they wear the uniform of a country or are essentially stateless.

“I opposed waterboarding and similar so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ before Osama bin Laden was brought to justice.  And I oppose them now.  I do not believe they are necessary to our success in our war against terrorists, as the advocates of these techniques claim they are….

…It is difficult to overstate the damage that any practice of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by Americans does to our national character and historical reputation – to our standing as an exceptional nation among the countries of the world. It is too grave to justify the use of these interrogation techniques.  America has made its progress in the world not only by avidly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by persuading and inspiring other nations to embrace the political values that distinguish us.  As I’ve said many times before, and still maintain, this is not about the terrorists.  It’s about us.

“I understand the reasons that governed the decision to approve these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who employed them in the interrogation of captured terrorists were admirably dedicated to protecting the American people from harm.  I know they were determined to keep faith with the victims of terrorism, and prove to our enemies that the United States would pursue justice tirelessly, relentlessly and successfully, no matter how long it took.  I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was considerable.  I admire their dedication, and love of country.  But I dispute that it was right to use these methods, which I do not believe were in the best interests of justice or our security or the ideals that define us and which we have sacrificed much to defend…

“For my part, I would oppose any legislation, if any should be proposed, that is intended to authorize the administration to return to the use of waterboarding or other methods of interrogation that I sincerely believe are torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading, and as such, unworthy of and injurious to our country.  This debate is ongoing, but I don’t believe it will lead to a change in current policy prohibiting these methods.

“So, perhaps this is just a debate for the history books.  But it is still important, because Americans in a future age, as well as their leaders, might face these same questions.  We should do our best to provide them a record of our debates and decisions that is notable not just for its passion, but for its deliberativeness and for opinions that were informed by facts and formed with scrupulous care by both sides for the security of the American people and the success of the ideals we cherish.  We have a duty to leave future American generations with a history that will offer them not confusion but instruction as they face their crises and challenges, and try to lead America safely and honorably through them.  Both sides can’t be right, of course.  But both sides can be honest, diligent and sincere…

“Some have argued that if it is right to kill bin Laden, then it should also be right to torture him had he been captured rather than killed.  I disagree….Had we captured him, he would have eventually received the ultimate sanction for his terrible crimes, as captured war criminals in previous wars have.  But war criminals captured, tried and executed in World War II, for instance, were not tortured in advance of their execution, either in retaliation for their crimes or to elicit information that might have helped us locate, apprehend and convict other war criminals.  This was not done because civilized nations have long made a distinction between killing and injuring in the heat of combat, on the one hand, and the deliberate infliction of physical torment on an incapacitated fighter, on the other.  This distinction is recognized not only in longstanding American values and practices, but also in the Geneva Conventions that provide legal protections for our own fighting men and women…

“All of these arguments have the force of right, but ultimately, even they are beside the most important point.  There are many arguments to be made against torture on practical grounds.  As I have said, I believe torture produces unreliable information, hinders our fight against global terrorism, and harms our national interest and reputation.  But ultimately, this debate is about far more than technical or practical issues.  It is about far more than whether torture works or does not work.  It is about far more than utilitarian matters.  Ultimately, this is about morality.  What is at stake here is the very idea of America – the America whose values have inspired the world and instilled in the hearts of its citizens the certainty that, no matter how hard we fight, no matter how dangerous our adversary, in the course of vanquishing our enemies we do not comprise our deepest values.  We are America, and we hold ourselves to a higher standard.  That is what is really at stake…

“Though Osama bin Laden is dead, America remains at war, and to prevail in this war we need more than victories on the battlefield.  This is a war of ideas as well, a struggle to advance freedom in the face of terror in places where oppressive rule has bred the malevolence that feeds an ideology of violent extremism.  Prisoner abuses exact a terrible toll on us in this war of ideas.  They inevitably become public, and when they do they threaten our moral standing, and expose us to false but widely disseminated charges that democracies are no more inherently idealistic and moral than other regimes.  I understand that Islamic extremists who resort to terror would destroy us utterly if they could obtain the weapons to do so.  But to defeat them utterly we must also prevail in our defense of the universal values that ultimately have the greatest power to eradicate this evil ideology…

“As the United States discusses and debates what role we should play to influence the course of the Arab Spring, can we not all agree that the first and most obvious thing we can do is stand as an example of just government and equal justice under the law – as a champion of the idea that that an individual’s human rights are superior to the will of the majority or the wishes of government?  Individuals might forfeit their life and liberty as punishment for breaking laws, but even then, as recognized in our Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, they are still entitled to respect for their basic human dignity, even if they have denied that respect to others.

“I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life.  Nor do I care if in the course of serving their malevolent cause they suffer great harm.  They have earned their terrible punishment in this life and the next.  What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we allow, confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength – that when we fight to defend our security we also fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion, but for an idea that all men are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.

“It is indispensable to our success in this war that those we ask to fight it know that in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to our country they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, and the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others – even our enemies.

“And those of us who have given them this onerous duty are obliged by our history, and the many terrible sacrifices that have been made in our defense, to make clear to them that they need not risk our country’s honor to prevail; that they are always – through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss – they are always, always, Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.

“Thank you.”

                                                                                                                No, thank you, Senator McCain.

14 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Sen. John McCain

  1. Ever the quote-monger, I’ll invoke a famous Russian on this topic: Fyodor Dostoyevski, in THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Bk. 5, Ch. 4 (1879-1880).

    “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at least, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature . . . and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

        • link

          A series of spectacular covert operations followed from this secret pact. On September 13, 1995, U.S. agents helped kidnap Talaat Fouad Qassem, one of Egypt’s most wanted terrorists, in Croatia. Qassem had fled to Europe after being linked by Egypt to the assassination of Sadat; he had been sentenced to death in absentia. Croatian police seized Qassem in Zagreb and handed him over to U.S. agents, who interrogated him aboard a ship cruising the Adriatic Sea and then took him back to Egypt. Once there, Qassem disappeared. There is no record that he was put on trial. Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist who covers human-rights issues, said, “We believe he was executed.”
          A more elaborate operation was staged in Tirana, Albania, in the summer of 1998. According to the Wall Street Journal, the C.I.A. provided the Albanian intelligence service with equipment to wiretap the phones of suspected Muslim militants. Tapes of the conversations were translated into English, and U.S. agents discovered that they contained lengthy discussions with Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy. The U.S. pressured Egypt for assistance; in June, Egypt issued an arrest warrant for Shawki Salama Attiya, one of the militants. Over the next few months, according to the Journal, Albanian security forces, working with U.S. agents, killed one suspect and captured Attiya and four others. These men were bound, blindfolded, and taken to an abandoned airbase, then flown by jet to Cairo for interrogation. Attiya later alleged that he suffered electrical shocks to his genitals, was hung from his limbs, and was kept in a cell in filthy water up to his knees. Two other suspects, who had been sentenced to death in absentia, were hanged.

  2. We should look into the history of the use of torture in this country. There were reports of the use of torture as early as the American Civil War .

    [Mark Neely, Jr describes ] “the rise of torture as a means of extracting confessions” not of Southerners but of “Northerners suspected of deserting from the United States Army” into which many of them had been conscripted (p. 109). “Handcuffs and hanging by the wrists were rare, in the summer of 1863, the army had developed a water torture that came to be used routinely.” [When this practice became public knowledge], “there was no impulse to correct the abuse; indeed, no one [in the administration] saw it as an abuse. It had become a usual and customary way of handling certain kinds of prisoners.”

    There were also reports of torture of detainees during WWII.

    . . .The investigators,�? he said, “would put a black hood over the accused’s head and then punch him in the face with brass knuckles, kick him and beat him with rubber hoses. . . . All but two of the Germans, in the 139 cases we investigated, had been kicked in the testicles beyond repair.

    January 9, 1949, Washington Daily News and January 23, 1949, London Sunday Pictorial

    And of course, I wonder what the history of the Indian Wars to settle the American West would reveal.

  3. Although I neither have first-hand experience nor research to support this notion, I strongly suspect that since time immemorial, certain forces of EVERY state have used tactics which clearly constituted torture (no matter how defined) and shocked the conscience, although many (for various reasons) have chosen not to do so openly.

    However, that we live in a society capable of public introspection may be just good enough, for now, especially with other issues on our plate.
    It’s what helps form the “collective conscience” that all societies need, but do not have.

  4. Is McCain truly an ethics hero?

    I would have to disagree. I’m not even sure you can call waterboarding torture – it does not cause physical harm (for real torture, look at: What the CIA did was nowhere close to that or what went down in the Hanoi Hilton. It was no worse than SERE training.

    Also, put that into perspective with the likely alternative: Not getting the information that stopped plots to fly planes into the US Bank Tower, Heathrow, and Canary Wharf. From what we are told by former and current CIA directors, former Attorney General Mukasey, and from former President Bush, and other officials in that administration, that CIA program DID result in getting the terrorists to provide information that broke up those plots, among others.

    So, at least one, if not three 9/11-type plots were broken up as a result of the programs. Thousands of innocent lives were saved as a result.

    I would argue that NOT acting to get the information that stopped the attacks would have been the more unethical choice. To me, it’s a case of competing harms. Which is the lesser? The waterboarded terrorist. It’s not even a close call.

    • Weatherboarding is torture. Your argument that it isn’t is overwhelmingly rejected by legal scholars, international protocols, the armed services and common sense. Saying that other things are more painful, more horrible—pointless, and irrelevant. Obviously some kinds of torture are worse than others—that’s not an argument, that’s a rationalization.

      The “likely alternative” is pure speculation, and even so…the fact that something good was accomplished does not justify evil, and torture is evil; it does not justify abandoning core American principles, and torture is that too. If something is off the table, it’s off the table, and that means coming up with ways to accomplish the same result without losing the values you’re trying to protect in the process.

      It takes a lot to make me ashamed of my country and my government—resorting to torture, however, does it.

      • I have to disagree – you are assuming that John McCain’s version of what was gained through the CIA interrogation program is correct. The problem is, those who were briefed in on the CIA program – including what was gained as a result of the CIA program, tell a very different version about what was obtained than Senator McCain did on the Senate floor.

        So, it now comes down to this: Is McCain telling the truth about what was obtained via the CIA’s interrogation program, or are Mukasey and the former Bush Administration officials telling the truth? If the former, then you are right. But if it is the latter, then McCain is being unethical by lying about the results to justify his position.

        I have a hard time not considering using coercive means to get information from a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or an Abu Zubaydah when I know they have future 9/11-type operations in the works.

        When they began plotting those operations intending to kill hundreds, if not thousands, they have forfeited their rights the same way a violent assailant has forfeited his right to life when he began his assault on an innocent person. The alternative is to state that the rights of KSM are somehow more important than the rights of those innocents that would be inevitably maimed or killed in the attacks he was planning and which were broken up – and that one does not pass my ethical or moral smell test.

        • I’m not assuming that at all. I don’t care what the information was, or how it was obtained. The quality of the information does not change the nature of the means to acquire it. If it as unethical before the torture commenced, it was unethical after.

          There is no point at which an individual forfeits his right to be treated with fairness, justice and human dignity. Your contention to the contrary is by definition unethical. If you can write something like that, you don’t HAVE an ethical or moral smell test.

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