By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—At last we see the emergence of a few good men, but the moment is utterly joyless.
John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham deserve respect for their efforts to keep the president from deepening the nation’s shame by having the United States effectively nullify the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of wartime prisoners. President Bush intended to flout the Supreme Court’s ruling that his detention policies are illegal by an act of political legerdemain: He wanted Congress to declare that what the high court said is unlawful is, in fact, lawful. The three Republican senators, joined now by more, so far have thwarted him.
But here is a question few dare ask: What took so long?
We’ve known for four years that Bush refused to grant detainees—“unlawful combatants,’’ he calls them—the protections of the Geneva Conventions. His determination was announced early in 2002. Just a few months later, two Afghan detainees were beaten to death at a U.S. military prison at Bagram Air Base.
A military coroner called the December 2002 deaths “homicides,’’ a detail reported by The New York Times in early 2003—only after U.S. officials claimed the prisoners had died of natural causes. Later, the Times reported the horrific specifics: Among other things, the men were chained to the ceiling and bludgeoned in the legs as they hung there, helpless.
In May 2002, the president nominated Jay Bybee, an architect of the Justice Department’s convoluted redefinition of torture, to a lifetime seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At his confirmation hearing in February 2003—just months after the Bagram murders—Bybee refused to answer questions about his work on detainee issues. The Senate confirmed him easily, with McCain, Warner and Graham all voting in favor. Later, a memo came to light in which Bybee argued that torture exists only if the suffering inflicted upon a prisoner is equivalent to the pain endured from “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.’‘
By the time the Abu Ghraib scandal exploded in April 2004, there had been more than a year of news accounts detailing the harsh treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and the practice of secretly spiriting prisoners off to countries where torture is routine. FBI agents had begun writing concerned e-mails about abusive interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. Who can say what more was presented at classified briefings for the Armed Services Committee, on which these three senators sit?
Again the Senate would have an opportunity to choose between punishing the masterminds of torture and promoting them. As White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales wrote that the Geneva Conventions were “quaint,’’ recommended that Bush abandon them for certain detainees and said that if the president disavowed the conventions, this would shield Americans from future war-crimes prosecutions.
The Gonzales torture memo would dominate his January 2005 confirmation hearings to become attorney general. Graham even lamented to the nominee that “when you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the law ... you’re losing the moral high ground.’’ Nonetheless, the South Carolina senator voted—along with McCain, Warner and other Senate Republicans—to elevate Gonzales to the nation’s highest legal post.
Not that Democrats have behaved any better. As a group, Senate Democrats have been fearfully silent as the administration squandered the nation’s moral authority. From time to time, some would at least vote against the president’s torture-stained nominees—35 Democratic senators and one independent opposed Gonzales. But even now they do not contribute meaningfully to the effort to pull the country toward higher ground, but are content to watch from the wings as Republicans bicker among themselves.
If McCain and the other rebellious Republicans eventually succeed—and it is frighteningly unclear whether they will—it is possible we will not drift further down the sinkhole into which we’ve been thrown by our secret detentions, our brutal beatings and sexual humiliations, our outright homicides and utter contempt for whether the people we hold are guilty or innocent. But the effort is late. We already have convinced the world that we are ruthless hypocrites who’ve abandoned the values we want others to embrace.
If it is true that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, then history will record this era not as a time when a few rose to act, but when too many failed to act in time.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.