WASHINGTON — What in the world are George Bush and his alter ego, Dick Cheney, thinking when it comes to handling suspects and prisoners in the war on terror? This country doesn't torture people or hold them indefinitely without due process or deny them any of the other protections that are afforded by the Constitution, international agreements and just plain civilized behavior.
This nation doesn't set up clandestine prisons around the globe to hold suspected terrorists in so-called "black sites" where no one but CIA operatives knows what occurs. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to make sure that the Gestapo never exists here and that even our enemies are treated with the civility that they would never accord us.
That is the point that Republican Sen. John McCain has made eloquently in introducing legislation to end any use of extreme and degrading coercion by our military and intelligence gathering forces.
Maintaining a humane system of justice even for our enemies is our greatest strength. If it leads to some failures in apprehending those who would harm us, it is the price that we must pay for our own liberty. For the president of the United States not to understand this is almost incomprehensible. It is equally bad for him to openly defend such policies and for the vice president to lobby to continue these practices on grounds that terrorists are faceless, shadowy enemies who should not be afforded the same humane treatment given prisoners from the battlefield.
Presidents can no longer get away as they once did with looking the other way while their agents take measures outside international law. Plausible deniability is almost impossible to achieve in this world of 24-hour journalistic oversight.
The situation at Guantanamo and the tragedy of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq did enormous harm to this nation's image and aided and abetted the goals of terrorism nearly as much as the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, lending credence to the claims of those who hate us that we are far from the sympathetic, honorable people we profess to be. A good case can be made in these situations that we are little better than those who would destroy our institutions.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many of us reacted by arguing that anything we had to do to prevent another such incident, we should do. If it meant torturing, deporting, incarcerating without cover of law anyone we suspected of plotting against us, so be it. After all, the end should justify the means, particularly if the end was saving American lives. But as we calmed down we understood that ultimately this would shred the standards of decency and law that we profess to cherish. If we are God-fearing as many of us believe, then we must live up to the edicts of that God no matter what.
Throughout our foreign wars we have prided ourselves in the way we treated prisoners. We were a leading force in the adoption of the Geneva Convention and the agreement that excluded torture as a means of gathering intelligence. As a 12-year-old, I worked in the Indiana fields with young German prisoners of war who more than once told me how thankful they were to be in the hands of civilized people and not the Soviet Union. In later years, a distinguished German journalist and friend laughed when I asked how he came to speak English with a Southern accent.
"Washing dishes in an Alabama restaurant when I was 19 and a prisoner of war," he said. "Getting captured was the best thing that ever happened to me."
We know our own troops did not always benefit from similar decency and that our enemies often used torture, particularly on those who were caught out of uniform and interrogated as spies. Also, one would be naive not to expect random violations of the rules, including the use of extreme physical coercion, by our own inquisitors in the heat of battle. But these practices should be rare exceptions and certainly not an official albeit clandestine policy.
No one is better qualified than McCain to drive this home. His years in a North Vietnam prison were a nightmare only the strongest constitution and spirit could have survived. If we ever expect to free our own forces from the fear of that experience, we should clean up our own act. The president must take the lead without qualification.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.