Torturous Times

Welcome to America, where our fearless leader's busy golfing and barely bothered by reports that the CIA's been hiding al-Qaeda prisoners in secret Eastern European jails formerly operated by the Soviet KGB.

Where our entertainment's provided by Team America's second-in-command, Dick "Terrorist Your Game Is Through" Cheney, who's lobbying Congress to defeat a righteous piece of legislation approved 90-9 by the Senate that would outlaw the torture and degradation of political detainees (this era's polite word for "prisoners").

Cheney's bossman's on record that Americans "do not torture." But Dubya's autism must have led him to forget Arizona's very own U.S. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war who bears the scars of his own torture at the hands of his Communist North Vietnamese captors.

McCain has authored an amendment that would ban "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of any person in U.S. custody. That's McCain's M.O. It's a big part of what he's known for, like Lance Armstrong and his testicular cancer or Brooke Shields and how she hates her baby.

So, if America doesn't torture, The Bird would like to know, why the hell is the White House working so hard to block McCain's proposed law, which would say just that?!

"It's hard to take the president at his word," Avi Cover told the winged one. Cover is a senior associate at the New York-based Human Rights First, an advocacy group devoted to the civil liberties of refugees, who gripes that the Bush administration "has gone about redefining the law, in particular the prohibition against torture, in a way that would famously permit interrogation methods that include sleep deprivation, restriction of prisoners' diet, stripping prisoners naked, forcing prisoners into inert positions, using dogs to prey upon prisoners' phobias, hooding prisoners, and exposing them to extreme changes in hot and cold temperatures.

"So when Bush says we don't torture," Cover continued, "he's being something of a [believe it or not, considering his English-language-mangling history] wordsmith, with terrible and fatal consequences."

Cover's saying, If we don't torture, then why has Bush vowed to veto any bill that contains McCain's anti-torture message, which our senior senator says he'll attach to any bill that comes to the Senate floor for a vote?

"It makes you wonder what's going on in these secret detainee camps if Bush won't endorse an amendment from a former POW," says Arizona Democratic party official Seth Scott. "McCain has more credibility on the long-term effects of torture on POWs than anyone in politics!"

While it's clear even to this bogus beaker that a majority of his colleagues will vote with McCain, it's also clear that McCain and company may be wasting their time. Because although Bush is the first president since James Garfield never to veto anything (and Garfield spent more than three years of his single term in office quite dead), he's certainly going to dust off ye old veto stamp for this one.

The upside for Democrats is, if they can manage to put the right spin on it, this could plunge Bush's approval rating so deep into the sewer that he'll never even get back to the toilet bowl.

As for McCain, he wants to ban "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" and establish the Army field manual as the universal policy on interrogation at Armed Forces facilities. While the manual includes an entire section on the proper folding of bedclothes, it does not address torture. Which, to McCain, means you don't do it. But, to Bush and Cheney, it means that stuff like the aforementioned "degrading treatment" and cruelty are permitted. They aren't prohibited, so they're okay. And, since there's no definition of torture in the manual, Americans "do not torture."

Meanwhile, Team America's co-captain continues to fight for an exemption for the CIA, so that that agency can continue to use the kind of interrogation methods McCain abhors. And Cheney continues to argue that the vagueness of terms such as "humane" and "degrading" could lead to limitations on all agencies' interrogation techniques. In other words, do we really want these jerk-offs to know we've got a law against torture?

Which is where McCain and his "torture is torture" routine comes in. While The Bird can find plenty to disagree with our fair Senator about (especially those cheesy dinner jackets he wears on national television -- Hey, John Boy! Read The Bird's beak: No more Macy's Labor Day sales!), it must agree with McCain that torturing prisoners isn't about the horrible crimes the prisoners may have committed, it's about defending human rights -- no federal agency excepted.

After all this, The Bird can't help but wonder how long it will be before the Bush-ites try to suspend habeas corpus and start spread-eagling fine-feathered Americans -- sans feathers, of course -- in the name of their version of the greater good. The Bird's alleged crime: failing to crap on the comb-over of a United States senator from Arizona for the first time.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela