The Opinion Pages | CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER
The War Hero and the Chicken Hawk
They're old men now, one unable to dress himself without help, the other living with a transplanted heart. Old men with stories to tell and tailor for posterity, stories that might still bend history. When they were young men, they had choices to make, and those choices shaped what they said this week about an awful breach in American values.
John McCain was the impetuous one, though duty-bound by family to serve. He fought in the unpopular war, was shot down, captured by the enemy and tortured. Everything he knows about what coercion and pain do to the truth, he learned from personal experience in a cell in Vietnam.
Dick Cheney took a more calculated route. In and out of colleges, he dodged the war with five draft deferments; he said he "had other priorities in the '60s than military service." Early on, he learned how easy it was to evade responsibility.
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This may be the last big fight of the two old men: a struggle over the accepted narrative of a time when a nation lost its way because of fear. It's old news, you say. Torture again? Dog collars and waterboarding. Didn't we see it all in "Zero Dark Thirty," the film that implied — wrongly — that putting people in animal cages and stringing them up for days led to the break that caught the world's most wanted terrorist?
Old news it may be. But what happened in the first decade of this century will be chiseled as truth, in some fashion, and passed on in lesson form to Americans yet unborn.
Cheney has long backed torture, blithely supporting techniques that were called war crimes when used by Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, and outlawed in treaties signed by most civilized nations. His central claim — not supported by a phone-book-thick body of evidence — is that torturing terrorists produced "phenomenal results," including "the intelligence that allowed us to get Osama bin Laden." Without having read the Senate Intelligence Committee report, he was quick to say on Monday that the barbarism committed in our name was "absolutely, totally justified." And of course, he would do it all again, without hesitation.
By Wednesday, he was the petulant child caught and cornered. Confronted with evidence that 26 detainees were wrongfully held, with examples of "rectal feeding" (rape by another definition), or induced hypothermia that most likely killed one suspect, he proclaimed the exhaustive inquiry "full of crap." He still had not read the report.
It's impolite to call somebody a liar. So take it from the rare blunt headline in Politico earlier this week: "Dick Cheney Was Lying About Torture." This was a piece written by Mark Fallon, who was on the inside — the special agent in charge of a task force that sought information from numerous terror suspects.
What Fallon concluded is what any fair-minded reader of the Senate report will conclude: that "at no time" did the torture program produce intelligence that averted a terrorist threat. Nor did it lead to Osama bin Laden. That break came from a detainee, Hassan Ghul, who "sang like a tweetie bird" from the outset, as one officer said.
Cheney cannot accept this, and probably never will. To do so would open him to more truth seeking — mostly about a war in Iraq built on misinformation. He speaks for many torture apologists in his party.
The exception is John McCain. His principles, the straight talk that made him the hope of independent-minded voters some time ago, were AWOL in the years since Republicans abandoned mainstream ideas. He's been too fast to give war a chance all over the globe.
But on the singular point that defined McCain the warrior, he has been consistent: We don't have to become bad guys to fight bad guys. And if that argument is not persuasive enough, consider the record on torture's efficacy: It doesn't work.
"I believe the American people have a right — indeed a responsibility — to know what was done in their name," he said. Does anyone doubt this? Yes. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Mike Rogers, said releasing the report was "a terrible idea."When the former prisoner of war took to the Senate floor on Tuesday, he gave one of the best speeches of his life. It was good because it was heartfelt.
Here's McCain's response: "The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless."
What happens to a country that gives up its values when gripped by fear? "Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights."
When McCain was done speaking on Tuesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California approached her colleague. She had made her own memorable speech, saying, "History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say, 'never again.'"
As McCain walked off the floor, with the cautious gait of a man physically hobbled by his service nearly a half-century ago, Senator Feinstein kissed him on the cheek. It was a way of saying thanks to a war hero whose words, if this country believes what it preaches, will outlast the scowling remarks of a chicken hawk.