John McCain’s Better Nation
OVER A CENTURY AGO, PRESIDENT Teddy Roosevelt dismissed a general for engaging in waterboarding in the Philippines , explaining that no matter the provocation, “nothing can justify … the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.” Roosevelt ’s decision was widely praised by both parties for “uphold[ing] the national honor.”
Roosevelt ’s action was consistent with American policy from its inception as General Washington directed his troops to “[t]reat [British prisoners] with humanity”; a policy President Lincoln reduced to writing as part of the Union Army’s code of conduct.
Ninety days ago, a prominent U.S. senator stated emphatically that “[a]nybody who knows what waterboarding is could not be unsure … People who have worn the uniform and had the experience know that this is a terrible and odious practice and should never be condoned by (the) U.S. We are a better nation than that.”
Strangely, unlike with President Roosevelt , this senator’s action was seen as a tremendous act of political courage. This is a perfect illustration of the upside-down world we are living in with the White House claiming waterboarding is legal and a vote to prohibit the CIA from using torture can only muster 51 votes in the Senate. On top of it all, John McCain, who was the “courageous” senator that was emphatic that waterboarding not be condoned 90 days ago but is now the Republican nominee for president, voted against the ban.
Even after this vote, columnist Nicholas Kristof praised McCain for his political courage for acts such as standing up against waterboarding and denouncing the Confederate battle flag as a “symbol of racism.” Kristof dismissed the fact that he later caved on both issues for political expediency since he did so “out of desperation and with distaste.”
Juxtapose McCain’s actions with the House Democrats later that week (yes, the much maligned House Democrats) who refused to cave to President Bush’s fear mongering and extend the “Protect America Act” due to its lack of judicial oversight and retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that assisted the White House’s illegal domestic spying.
What may explain McCain’s reversal is an intention to embrace the strategy followed by President Bush since 9/11 of consistently wrapping legislative initiatives under the cloak of national security while always overreaching by including provisions Democrats would never agree to otherwise. This put Democrats in the uncomfortable position of either standing their ground (and risk being labeled as weak on terrorism) or caving.
Far too often, enough Democrats took the later position to give Bush what he wanted — but not last week. As Congressman Silvestre Reyes said, “[w]e are a strong nation [and] cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution.”
The House Democrats deserve credit since for the last 7 years many in Congress and the media have cowered and been reluctant to speak out against torture, warrantless searches, indefinite detentions and disregard for the rule of law — all of which have long been repugnant to fundamental American and human values. Even Nicholas Kristof himself notes, to oppose “torture and arbitrary detention is not to be squeamish. It is to be civilized.”
McCain’s latest flip flop, so eagerly embraced by his new lap dog Sen. Lieberman, is a signal of what to expect in the fall campaign. Republicans will continue to present the false choice that we can either have security or be civilized — but not both. That McCain, who endured five and half years of captivity and torture in Vietnam with courage and honor on behalf of the country he loved, believes that to ascend to its highest office he must embrace the tactics of his captors is an indictment of the state of the Republican Party today.
In September, John McCain will accept the presidential nomination from the party that his fellow Arizonan Barry Goldwater once led. The party of Barry Goldwater that believed “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice … and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue;” is now the party that believes in defending liberty and pursuing justice except when it benefits Republicans not do so.
We can only hope that McCain’s campaign will end in defeat as Goldwater’s did, proving that he was right from the beginning — “we are a better nation than that.”