Torture: An American Story

Scene one: Put untrained, unprepared American soldiers in charge of thousands of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Call it a war on terrorism. Take away the rulebook.

Cut to: Photos of naked detainees at Abu Ghraib. Autopsy reports of horrific prisoner deaths at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. FBI memos discussing beatings and sexual humiliation at Guantanamo Bay.

Cut to: President George Bush, in an interview broadcast to the Arab world. "Those mistakes will be investigated, and people will be brought to justice."

Dissolve to: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, facing the nation. "I take full responsibility."

Cut to: A pregnant Lynndie England (private first class) facing court-martial proceedings. The verdict: guilty of six criminal counts of abuse and indecent acts. The sentence: three years.

Scene two: Ninety senators, backed by an array of former admirals and generals, voting in favor of an amendment to a military appropriations bill. Their bill provides clear guidance to American troops, banning the "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in U.S. custody. It establishes the Army Field Manual as the uniform standard for interrogation of detainees.

Cut to: The White House threatening to veto the proposed measure. It would "restrict the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bringing terrorists to justice."

Behind the Scenes in Conference Committee

Scene three is just now being written. The authors are congressional negotiators working behind the scenes in a committee room to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the Defense Department appropriations bill. The House version of the spending package says nothing about limiting torture and abuse. And it is in conference committee that the White House, more often than not, imposes its views.

Since this is an American story, it needs an American leading man. (The Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Saudis are, it seems, relegated to non-speaking roles, unless you're watching Al Jazeera.)

Senator John McCain, the hero of this story, is well cast. A former soldier and a former prisoner of war, he knows both the needs of the military and the pains of imprisonment. The amendment he sponsored, therefore, protects soldiers and detainees alike. It provides guidance to American troops, who need to know what treatment is allowed and what isn't. And gives detainees some assurance that they won't be attacked by snarling dogs, or forced to masturbate on camera, or deprived of food, water and sleep, or beaten to death.

The military itself acknowledges that eighty-six detainees have died while in U.S. custody and that at least twenty-six of these deaths were homicides.

High Stakes and Suspense

The story's central plot point comes now. Will McCain succeed in preserving his amendment, or will the White House manage to expunge it from the bill? Or, even more dramatically, will President Bush exercise the first veto of his presidency in defending his government's power to commit torture, abuse and human rights violations?

The cast of characters is impressive. On one side is the powerful White House apparatus, with cameo appearances by Vice President Dick Cheney. On the other side, backing McCain, are the more than two dozen retired senior military officers that have endorsed his amendment, including Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. John Shalikashvili, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A final player worth noting is Captain Ian Fishback, an active-duty soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Captain Fishback wrote to members of Congress this summer, describing his fruitless efforts to obtain guidance from his superior officers regarding the proper treatment of detainees.

And so his letter to Congress ended with a plea: "I strongly urge you to do justice to your men and women in uniform. Give them clear standards of conduct that reflect the ideals they risk their lives for."

Flashback to the Hanoi Hilton

Flashback thirty-five years: McCain is being held at Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He is in solitary confinement: bruised, battered, and deprived of proper medical care. He tries to hang himself twice, using his shirt as a noose.

But McCain, despite his personal history, insists that his legislation is not based on sympathy for the detainees. Instead, he asserts, what is ultimately at stake is American ideals: justice, fairness and human dignity.

As McCain puts it, "[T]his isn't about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies."

As the world waits to see how this story ends, those who are writing it should keep these values in mind.

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