On the McCain amendment

Senator John McCain’s amendment to the Defense appropriations bill protects all persons in the custody or under the effective control of the Department of Defense or under detention in a Department of Defense facility from any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation. It also prohibits the cruel treatment of individuals in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government, regardless of their nationality or physical location. Last week Senator McCain vowed to add his amendment to every major Senate bill until it’s adopted. The text of the McCain Amendment is accessible here; the Washington Post article on Vice President Cheney’s proposed exemption of the CIA from the amendment is accessible here.

Professor David Gelernter was himself the victim of the vile domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber. His column today reflects on the necessity of preserving the option of torturing terrorists for information under appropriate circumstances. Professor Gelernter’s column bears the scars of his own personal experience, referring graphically to “terrorists whose bombs leave bewildered innocents maimed, blinded or wracked with pain for the rest of their lives, or ripped to pieces.” The column is most bracing in its call to resist joining the thundering herd:

Those who defend McCain’s amendment and attack Cheney and Bush feel a nice warm glow, as if they’re basking in virtue, as in a hot tub, sipping Cabernet. But there is no virtue in joining a crowd, even if the crowd is right — and this one isn’t.

McCain is a bona fide hero. But there’s nothing courageous in standing firm with virtually the whole cultural leadership of this nation and the Western world, under any circumstances. It’s too easy. To take a principled stand that you know will make people loathe and vilify you — that’s what integrity, leadership and moral courage are all about. This time Cheney is the hero. McCain is taking the easy out.

Of course, saying “never” instead of “almost never” is a trap that well-meaning, lazy people have been falling into for a long time.

Shouldn’t the foreign terrorists seeking to commit mass murder against our fellow citizens have some fear of detention? I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure that Professor Gelernter’s column adequately address Senator McCain’s amendment, but I think that Senator McCain’s amendment is another example of the kind of moral vanity that brought us his odious campaign finance bill undermining Americans’ basic First Amendment freedoms. Subtract from the rights of Americans at home and extend the rights of Americans to foreign terrorists abroad — it doesn’t make much sense to me. Professor Gelernter’s column is “When torture is the only option…”

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