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Mon, May 20

McCain's in the right on anti-torture bill

Five years ago, I went to Vietnam with Sen. John McCain. We went to the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the jail where they kept American POWs where McCain spent much of his 5-1/2 years in captivity, most of the time where his captors brutalized him, some of the time tortured him.

It was a dark, fetid place where waves of claustrophobia washed over me and I wanted to flee, as McCain could not have done. "Nice place, huh?'' he said to me as we left. For the stoical McCain, it amounted to a primordial scream.

I closely watched McCain that day. I know only a few people who were tortured and never had I accompanied any of them back to where they suffered so much pain. But McCain is not a let-it-all-hang-out sort of guy. He does not weep on cue or choke for the cameras, but he does resolve. Somewhere along the way, he apparently resolved that what happened to him should not happen to anyone else ­ especially at the hands of Americans.

So McCain's amendment,added to a $440 billion military spending bill, would ban the U.S. military and other government agencies from engaging in "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment'' of detainees. The Senate approved the amendment 90 to 9. Whatever it meant to 89 of them, to McCain it was simply a matter of doing to others what he would have wanted done unto him. It is, in that sense, a very old idea.

Stunningly, President Bush has threatened to veto this measure. Bush has vetoed not one bill all of his presidency but would, he says, veto this one. The threat borders on the preposterous, or maybe the idiotic, because it is hard to imagine any president vetoing a measure that forbids torture, given the black eye the U.S. has already received over the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

It's worth noting that the very conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham supports McCain in this effort. Graham was a judge in the Air Force. It is worth noting, too, that Sen. John Warner also supports McCain. He was once Secretary of the Navy and a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. Colin Powell also supports this amendment. He was once just about everything, including a combat Army officer. As you can see, McCain has not assembled a group of bleeding-heart liberals, or so the insulting caricature goes. His coalition is, virtually, America in mini-ature.

The administration says the amendment would shackle American intelligence gathering. Indeed, that's the idea.

The experience McCain brings to the question of torture commands respect. If not, it is appallingly conceivable that someday someone could take the press to a spot and say, here ­ here in this dark and fetid place ­ is where Americans cruelly abused him.

That would degrade us all.

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