McCain finds sympathy on torture issue
Voters captivated by his discussion of issue, although they may disagree
On a bitterly cold morning last week, diners at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Boone, Iowa, were just sitting down for their morning coffee when Senator John McCain entered. Within minutes, Mr. McCain turned to a hot-button topic for which he literally serves as the living embodiment: the subject of torture.
“One of the things that kept us going when I was in prison in North Vietnam was that we knew that if the situation were reversed, that we would not be doing to our captors what they were doing to us,” he said.
When Mr. McCain brings up the issue of torture, he is often met by a complex response. Many of the Republican voters he courts do not agree with his opposition to aggressive interrogation techniques that many have condemned as torture. But they are often captivated by his discussion of the issue, in some cases even moved to tears, as was the case in Boone.
On the campaign trail, Mr. McCain does not dwell on the personal details of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war, the “torture ropes” in which he was bound day and night, or the beatings he endured. But as he speaks, the physical reminders of his wounds are there for all to see, from the stiffness of his arms, which to this day he can only painfully raise above his head, to the shortness of his stride, a result of injury and subsequent beatings.
Mr. McCain has been speaking out more forcefully about the issue as it has bubbled up recently on the campaign trail and in debates.
Democrats are largely opposed to torture, and while the Bush administration has said it does not engage in torture, it had previously reserved the right to use aggressive interrogation techniques in questioning terrorism suspects. And the leading Republican candidates, with the exception of Mr. McCain, are refusing to rule out certain techniques that others would deem as torture.
“I want to tell you. Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney all think it is O.K.,” Mr. McCain told the diners in Boone. “They have one thing in common. They don’t understand the military and the culture of this nation. If they did, they could never condone such behavior.”
The issue has taken on particular resonance over the last few weeks as lawmakers argued over the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general, with Democrats angered over his refusal to call waterboarding torture and therefore illegal. And it has led to some of the most pointed exchanges of the Republican campaign so far. When Mr. McCain faulted his Republican opponents’ lack of wartime experience, Mr. Giuliani shot back against his old political ally, Mr. McCain, saying he “has never run a city, never run a state, never run a government.”
From public forums in Iowa to the living rooms of New Hampshire and the military towns in South Carolina, Mr. McCain’s message is simple: what America does to its enemies defines America itself.
Sometimes, he does not even have to say anything himself, leaving the task to those who introduce him.
At a Veterans Day ceremony at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina, Mayor William Rauch of Beaufort introduced Mr. McCain by recalling how as a prisoner, Mr. McCain had once refused to be filmed for propaganda purposes, “uplifting his center finger” when the guard entered his cell and uttering “the oath that is commonly associated with that gesture.”
The act of defiance, Mr. Rauch said, led to another month or so of beatings.
At many events, the campaign often shows grainy black-and-white film of a young Mr. McCain soon after his capture in North Vietnam, obviously in pain and confined to a bed, telling his captors his name and rank as he smokes a cigarette.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, will often point to Mr. McCain’s opposition to torture to support her own stance. All of the leading Democratic candidates have made it clear that if the Republican nominee is not Mr. McCain, they will make torture a subject of any general election campaign.
While Mr. McCain refrains from discussing his own experiences, he lets others address the issue. At a celebration Saturday of the 232nd birthday of the Marine Corps, in Bedford, N.H., as veterans from five wars over the last century looked on, Mr. McCain said that any candidate who joked about sleep deprivation, as Mr. Giuliani had done several days earlier, should talk to his fellow prisoner of war and supporter, Orson G. Swindle.
Mr. McCain described how Mr. Swindle was “chained to a stool for 10 days, then let off that stool for one day, and then chained to that stool again for 10 more days.”
Mr. McCain believes that the United States’ war on terrorism has been defined for much of the world by its failure to forthrightly reject torture, as well as its continuing the practice of rendition, in which terrorism suspects are spirited off to countries that may engage in torture, and the continued detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, without trials. He portrays his Republican opponents’ position on the torture issue as reflective of “macho” or “tough-guy” poses.
After a public forum at a restaurant in Allison, Iowa, where he once again took on his Republican opponents by name, Mr. McCain told reporters that, because of his efforts in the Senate, he was confident that the United States was no longer engaging in cruel and inhumane treatment.
“After we passed the Detainee Treatment Act, the Military Commissions Act, then obviously anybody who violated any law of the United States would have to be held responsible,” he said.
A few days later, in New Hampshire, Mr. McCain was asked about reports that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was made to give up vital information only after being waterboarded.
Mr. McCain said he did not believe that to be the case. While the C.I.A. might have left that impression, he said, the F.B.I. disagreed.
It has also been reported that Mr. Mohammed “confessed” to plotting to kill former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter as well as Pope John Paul II, leading interrogators to believe he was telling them whatever he thought they wanted to hear.
Mr. McCain said he had no idea how the issue of torture would affect the primaries and caucuses. As he traveled across Iowa one day last week, he reviewed a new CNN poll that found 69 percent of Americans believed waterboarding was torture. But only 58 percent thought it should not be used on terrorism suspects.
Aware that many people might not even know what the technique involves, Mr. McCain often outlines its details.
“You incline someone’s head and stuff a rag in their mouth and pour water and give one the total sensation of drowning,” he told the breakfast diners in Boone. “It was invented in the Spanish inquisition and was used by Pol Pot. It is now being used on Burmese monks by this military junta in Burma.”
“I know how evil this enemy is,” Mr. McCain told the Boone audience. But the issue is about more than one technique, he said. “This is really fundamentally about what kind of nation the United States of America is.”
But Milt Mattson
, standing outside the cafe after Mr. McCain left, said he thought the United States needed to take any measure it deemed necessary.
“This is a war for our life,” Mr. Mattson said. “These are people that chop heads off. I don’t care what we have to do to stop them.”
Editorial note: Mr Milt Mattson's alias on the CowboysZone Political Forum is Burmafrd