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McCain’s Rejection of Torture Puts Brakes on Neocon Assault

We heard from Marcy that John McCain had a decent op-ed today in the Washington Post, denouncing torture and laying out the facts on the role of torture. He affirmed that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed lied under torture about key facts related to the courier which harbored bin Laden, and he also provided more information on subsequent intelligence from other sources, none of which, he says, was gained through torture.

But he didn’t stop there. McCain took to the Senate floor and spoke for 20 minutes on the same subject today. He criticized sharply the stance that torture yields good intelligence, and added that it harms our effort in both counter-terrorism and the greater Muslim world.

The most important part of the op-ed was the acknowledgement that the Arab uprising, not bin Laden, is the most important world-historical event we have to get right at this time.

Though it took a decade to find bin Laden, there is one consolation for his long evasion of justice: He lived long enough to witness what some are calling the Arab Spring, the complete repudiation of his violent ideology.

As we debate how the United States can best influence the course of the Arab Spring, can’t we all agree that the most obvious thing we can do is stand as an example of a nation that holds an individual’s human rights as superior to the will of the majority or the wishes of government? Individuals might forfeit their life 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.

All of these arguments have the force of right, but they are beside the most important point. Ultimately, this is more than a utilitarian debate. This is a moral debate. It is about who we are.

I don’t know that we are holding to those ideals, or that we ever have. But if there was a place for putting those values into action, it’s right now in that part of the world. Syria and Yemen are facing major setbacks and brutal repression. The absolute least we can do is set an example, and change the paradigm of propping up dictators to extract natural resources and feed our oil addiction. I don’t think this was all McCain had in mind, but renouncing torture is a building block.

The problem is that McCain wants to indemnify those who tortured and those who authorized it from any prosecution or accountability. This makes a mockery of those ideals he professes, which after all include the rule of law.

I suppose I’ll take what I can get here from McCain, especially as it’s not like there’s anyone in Washington who’s moving on prosecutions. What’s more, this really debilitates the revival of torture from the Bush Administration rejects. McCain is the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. He’s going to lead the questioning of Leon Panetta when he has a confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary. The lack of consensus from Republicans at the highest levels will make it very hard for them to make an issue out of it in the hearings.

McCain hasn’t done a lot of noble things over the past several years, but at least he looked to his own experience and could state unequivocally that torture is not just unhelpful, but simply wrong.

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David Dayen

David Dayen