Graham, McCain stand up for our nation's ideals

July 17, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

Thank heaven for military veterans such as Lindsey Graham and John McCain. The two Republican senators insist that the United States is a nation dedicated to the rule of law and civilized standards of behavior, even in a war against ruthless terrorists who butcher, burn and behead. They don't believe we should stoop to torture in the name of security or inhumanity in the name of spreading democracy. They don't think we should become that which we are fighting against.

The time has come for them to defend American ideals once again. Despite the recent rebuke from the U.S. Supreme Court, President Bush is still insisting that he should have the authority to try terror suspects in one-sided military tribunals that ignore routine judicial procedures. Last week, the White House sent Pentagon lawyers to a Senate hearing to demand a law giving Mr. Bush his tribunals back. But Mr. Graham seemed unlikely to give in.

It was Mr. McCain who, last year, forced the Bush administration to accept an amendment banning "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of its prisoners, no matter where they are held. Mr. McCain was held prisoner by the Viet Cong for 5 1/2 years; he knows what it's like to be tortured. He doesn't want to see America's men and women in uniform sink to the level of their enemies.

Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration has tried to justify cruel methods of interrogation, detentions without charge or trial, and even kidnappings of civilians of Middle Eastern descent, claiming that the war against al-Qaida is such a dire threat that those measures are necessary to protect national security. The administration has scoffed at the Geneva Conventions and issued reams of justifications for torture. But instead of protecting us, those policies have led to outrages such as those at Abu Ghraib, alienated our friends and allies, and handed terrorists fresh recruits.

Every time I write about this, though, I get angry letters and e-mails from readers who point out the savagery of al-Qaida's death squads and wonder why I don't condemn them. That always strikes me as a strange comparison, a kind of moral equivalence I don't get. Of course, al-Qaida is brutal, bloodthirsty, utterly contemptible. I don't expect its members to behave in accordance with any rules of civilized behavior. But I do expect that of the men and women who represent the U.S.

Indeed, I've been gratified to watch military lawyers fighting back against the Bush administration's efforts to condone torture and kangaroo courts. While civilian attorneys at the Pentagon and the Justice Department used convoluted logic to justify ignoring international law, a group of Navy lawyers protested, pointing out that such procedures were inhumane and would do our cause more harm than good. But, internally, their concerns were shunted aside. In 2003, those uniformed attorneys went to Scott Horton, who was then chairman of the human rights committee of the City Bar Association in New York. Because of their revelations, the bar wrote a report on the Bush administration's abuses.

Mr. Graham, too, was a military lawyer. That's why he understands so well what's at stake here: Our efforts to spread our ideals abroad - ideals that include support for the rule of law and for individual rights - are only as good as our commitment to those principles. If we treat terror suspects humanely, we show the world that we genuinely believe in those ideals.

In the ruling striking down military tribunals, Justice John Paul Stevens reminded President Bush that he is not above the law. "The executive is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction," he wrote. That's about as clear as it gets; it gives Mr. Bush a good excuse to shut down Guantanamo and house those detainees still deemed dangerous in regular federal facilities until they get their day in court.

I've been ashamed to discover some of the tactics my government has used. There have been cases in which U.S. agents have swept up innocent civilians and hustled them off to foreign prisons for torture - only to later discover they've mixed up names and rounded up the wrong people.

But I've been nothing but proud of the veterans who have stood up to insist that we are better than that, that we can keep this great nation safe by respecting its laws and sense of fair play. God bless 'em.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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