Editorial: Taking the high road

Death, propaganda, and fear: these are all instruments available to terrorists as they conduct their war against freedom. Since we are in a war against terrorism on all fronts, it means we must not indiscriminately kill. It means we must combat terrorist propaganda with truth, and it means we must represent ourselves to the target populace as morally righteous. In other words, we should never treat enemy combatants as less than human, even when we have been subjected to the like.

It becomes harder and harder to not lash out against an enemy that seems to crawl through the cracks of the floorboards and from underneath every rock in the desert. Add to it the compounding criticism from the American public for faster results, less casualties and a quicker withdrawal. The deeper we get into a war against a cowered enemy, the harder it becomes to provide the safety for our troops and U.S. citizens. The enemy has become much smarter since Sept. 11, and they will continue to innovate.

That is why, now, more than ever, we cannot succumb to the dangerous game of moral equivalency played by our enemies. This is not a war of an eye for an eye. When it comes to the treatment of prisoners, we have a duty to uphold the ideals of democracy and human dignity. Since Sept. 11, we have suspended the rights of enemy combatants, which are afforded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention guidelines. The actions of the U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib were a scandal that jeopardized our hard work at convincing the Iraqis that we are better than Saddam Hussein. The concealment of activities at Guantanamo Bay makes us vulnerable to severe scrutiny from the world. The recent accusations of prisoner abuse by the Army’s elite Ranger unit only compound a dire situation.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a prisoner of war for five years after being captured by the North Vietnamese, has come at odds with Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush regarding a proposed bill that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners. President Bush recently stated his opposition to the proposed bill and asserted, “We do not torture.” But that is simply not enough. It may very well be the case that torture and inhumane treatment are not condoned, but preventing the passage of the bill only means the government is saying, “It is better to apologize later than to ask for permission.”

Even if the government’s idea is to not take the torture option off the table, thereby intimidating the prisoners with the fear of torture to force them into talking, that still is not enough. There is not even an assurance that prisoners would simply lie to avoid pain.

In certain and very extraordinary circumstances, torture may be the only option to save thousands of lives. But the process as it stands today leaves no one accountable for violations of human rights. The government must define explicitly what torture is, why it is or is not allowed and in the very least make someone accountable when a prisoner is intentionally harmed. The idea of torture alone undermines the credibility of the United States as the defender of the oppressed and the helpless.

The time is long overdue for the United States to stop playing with semantics of enemy combatants, insurgents or terrorists. The most powerful nation on Earth must treat every human with dignity while dispelling the notion that the citizens of this country condone abuse, mistreatment and torture. This is a war of ideals. We must remain above shameful and repugnant acts while maintaining our integrity as a nation that stands for liberty.