McCain’s torture tale

The recent presidential candidate forum hosted by megachurch Pastor Rick Warren at Southern California’s Saddleback Church was interesting for many reasons. One answer in particular caught our attention: Sen. John McCain’s moving description of being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and the compassionate Vietnamese guard who loosened the captured airman’s bonds at night, then tightened them again prior to other guards’ return. In McCain’s narrative, one morning the guard approached him in the yard of the Hanoi Hilton and etched a cross in the dirt before wiping it away.

But the veracity of McCain’s story has been called into question, most notably by Andrew Sullivan in his blog for The Atlantic magazine. First, McCain has told the story before, but in earlier versions, it happened to someone else and he heard about it secondhand. In addition, an extremely similar tale is part of the late Russian dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago.

It’s possible that Christian guards are common in places like the Soviet gulags, the Hanoi Hilton, and by extension, Abu Ghraib. It’s even possible that guards in these hellholes make a practice of offering what compassion they can to prisoners by drawing crosses in the dirt to glorify their Lord. We sincerely hope that Sen. McCain’s recollection is true, if only because anyone enduring such mistreatment deserves any compassion, hope and brotherhood he or she can find.

But since McCain is campaigning on his experiences as a POW who endured torture, we’d like to point out that he wasn’t tortured, at least not by current U.S. standards. By McCain’s own accounts, and those of other prisoners held in Vietnam, U.S. prisoners of war were subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation, humiliation, long-term standing and beatings. But according to current official U.S. policy, those “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture. They are acceptable means to extract information.

Let us be clear: We believe that Sen. McCain and his fellow prisoners of war endured torture, and the Bush administration’s claim that such practices aren’t torture is a purpose-driven lie intended to protect our nation’s tattered reputation.

We honor McCain’s service. But the senator has been seriously lacking in integrity and purpose on the issue of U.S. use of torture. That’s far more important in deciding the presidency than whether or not a particular Vietnamese guard ever scratched a cross in the dirt.

Let’s hope, instead, that there are guards everywhere torture is being used who have deep and profound convictions about the dignity of humanity, whether those convictions come from their own moral compass or from their honest belief in God. Let’s also hope that they do more to end the use of torture than etching symbols in the dust.