It has been a violent week in America. Uncommonly violent sort of. On Wednesday, another mass shooting occurred, this time in a racially motivated incident in a Charleston, South Carolina church. This tragedy overshadowed an important decision made by the U.S. Senate the day before on interrogation standards of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Human rights progress was made earlier in the week when the Senate added an amendment to the military reauthorization bill that effectively bans the practice of torture techniques while interrogating military detainees by any agent of the U.S. government. The amendment was more than just a ban in that it standardized certain noncoercive interrogation methods that can be used across the government’s intelligence and military branches.
It is no surprise that the amendment was pushed by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California). For six years, she has led a detailed investigation of the matter that resulted in a somewhat controversial report being released last year. However, the amendment this week was authored by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). There is no more credible member of the Senate on being detained as a prisoner of war and being tortured during interrogation. Both are personal experiences for him. On the Senate floor Tuesday, McCain said: “we must continue to insist that the methods we employ in this fight for freedom and peace must always–always–be as right and honorable as the goals and ideals we fight for.”
Now how do you argue or vote against that? Well hang on.
The action came in response to outrage over torturous treatment of detainees during the President George W. Bush and post 9/11 era. Ironically, many believe the controversial techniques like “water boarding” were already illegal. Additionally, President Obama banned the questionable practices by executive order in 2009. But the legislative action adds a more permanent aspect to the end of the practice. I am operating on faith here regarding the “permanent” part.
So the action does have a symbolic aspect to it, and in its approval of the amendment, the Senate voted 78-21 to end torture. Whew! For a moment, those inside the beltway worried that the pro-torture crowd might prevail. Even our own Sen. Dan Coats voted against human rights here and it is unfortunate he won’t have to answer for that vote in next year’s election due to his retirement. But only 99 Senators voted. Who wasn’t there? Sen. Marco Rubio, the young Republican Presidential hopeful was busy “campaigning” in the one place he shouldn’t need to: his home state of Florida.
Luckily for us though, and since he stood alone in missing this vote, Rubio released a statement detailing his opposition to the torture ban. It read in part: “I would have voted no on this amendment. I do not support telegraphing to the enemy what interrogation techniques we will or won’t use.” He went on to describe the banned techniques as “important tools” that could be used in the future to protect the American homeland. I don’t know about others, but knowing we could water board someone during interrogation has helped me sleep like a baby since 9/11.
I hope this statement is the reason Rubio is defeated in his campaign for the Republican nomination for President. Not just that he be defeated, but for this specific reason. And I hope Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina of all places, who also voted wrong, can split the tab with Rubio on their early exit parties.
To the band of twenty-two, I want to make this perfectly clear: in America, the government is not to torture people. Any people. Not even in wartime have we empowered our government to torture people. While many would argue that in our justice system we use sentences that incorporate cruel and unusual punishment like the death penalty, even that only occurs after an exhaustive commitment to due process.
I still occasionally and naively wonder why our country is hated in other parts of the world. Then votes like this occur and I snap out of it. The American people won’t stand for torturing its own, but how would the rest of the planet know that? If we were to “telegraph” something to our enemies, I wish it would be our unrelenting commitment to human rights. Of course, if I were to actually send a telegraph, I would only consider sending it to Rubio, who apparently still uses Morse code.
There is no value in behaving on the international stage in a manner which is intolerable within our borders.
Timothy McVeigh was afforded due process before he was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. James Eagan Holmes is in the middle of his trial stemming from his 2012 shooting spree at a Colorado movie theater. And this week’s horrific and latest entry in homeland acts of terror, Dylann Roof, who tragically killed nine people in the racially charged shooting in a Charleston church, will also receive a fair trial. That is how we do it here. And that is one reason why our way of life should be sought instead of hated.
The torturing of detainees that occurred during the Bush era is something of which we should be ashamed. Most of us are. It doesn’t represent who we are as a people, and that’s why votes like the one on the Senate floor are so lopsided. But the 22 members of the Senate that oppose it represent a demographic that can’t be ignored.
Four states had both of their senators vote against the amendment, including and ironically, South Carolina. The symbolism of this vote was important in and of itself on Tuesday. The very next day in Charleston, the vote had already been forgotten.