John McCain is a true American hero. He is rightfully honored for his sacrifice during the Vietnam War, and for his bravery under torture during captivity. But his claim for leadership on the issue of America's torture raises more questions than it answers. When he could have made a difference, and possibly even ended the US practice of torture, he chose to stand aside and do nothing. Now, with the Administration he supported in disarray and its poll numbers plunging, he's seized the torture issue for his own. But where was he when it counted?
McCain held great power in 2004. Many voters viewed him - rightly or wrongly - as a true independent, and many remembered how Bush and Rove slurred his wife and adopted daughter in South Carolina during the 2000 primary. His support for Bush's re-election was highly sought-after, and rumors say that Kerry pursued him as a Vice Presidential candidate. McCain was in an ideal position to demand that the Bush Administration renounce torture as a condition for his support. Yet he did not.
McCain has been consistent in his condemnation of torture since it was first revealed. He spoke out against the abuses at Abu Ghraib in 2004, and was right to do so. Yet despite the fact that Bush continued to support the use of torture in his military apparatus, despite the continued presence of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, despite the ongoing revelations about torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain campaigned enthusiastically for Bush/Cheney in 2004. McCain worked to re-elect the same group that conducted the torture he condemned then and continues to oppose today. And while he was willing to introduce the anti-torture amendment this year, he did not do so while last year's election was underway.
McCain's vote to confirm Alberto Gonzales is even more damning. How can anyone comdemn torture, yet vote to confirm as Attorney General the man who wrote the memo justifying it as a government practice? The phrases Gonzales wrote will be infamous for generations - "water boarding," "pain equivalent to organ failure or death," the "quaint" provisions of the Geneva Convention - and McCain voted to place him in the highest legal office in the land.
If torture is morally wrong, McCain should acknowledge his responsibility for its continuation and apologize for his part in it. So should all the other Republicans who voted for the anti-torture amendment. Otherwise, it's all empty posturing. Any politician who supported Bush/Cheney in 2004 did so in the full knowledge that they were supporting an Administration of torturers. McCain, Schwarzenegger, Pataki, Giuliani ... they all owe the American people and the world an apology for their actions.
McCain appropriately holds a special place in history as a result of his sacrifice. He should not cheapen it now by using it selectively. And on this Veterans' Day and all those to come, our soldiers have the right to be honored by the nation and the world without falling under torture's shadow.