Well aware of torture's price.

Photographer: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

John McCain, American Hero

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Senator John McCain has done it again.

In brief remarks on the Senate floor today the former prisoner of war bucked his party and endorsed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on the torture regime that was instituted by the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush.

McCain called the report "a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose -- to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies -- but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world."

Such a blunt assertion from the Arizona Republican, one of the nation's most aggressive supporters of U.S. military action and one of the Senate's dwindling band of war veterans, will make it more difficult for Republicans to characterize the report as a partisan effort to discredit Bush administration practices.

McCain was tortured during the Vietnam War by North Vietnamese interrogators. His body is scarred, and he is unable to raise his arms above his shoulders, requiring him to shimmy into his suit jackets. He knows torture's pain and humiliation like no other member of Congress. And today he called waterboarding not "enhanced interrogation," as its Washington proponents prefer, but "an exquisite form of torture."

McCain didn't discount the moral ambiguities of torture in an age of terrorism: "I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods," he said. And he didn't condemn those who engaged in it: "I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous." He spoke as a patriot, not a partisan.

In their book about partisan dysfunction in Washington, "It's Even Worse Than it Looks," political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein lamented the "pathologies" that had rendered Republicans a tribe "more loyal to party than to country."

McCain's departures from that practice are infrequent. But they are consequential. His public self-rebuke in 2000 for having refused, while he was campaigning for the presidency in South Carolina, to forcefully condemn the public enshrinement of the Confederate battle flag helped to discredit one of his party's most odious political reflexes -- especially at the presidential level. 

His remarks today on the Senate floor will likewise set a standard for candor and conscience. “The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow," McCain said. "It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless."

Exiting the partisan scrum, McCain just made it harder for the U.S. government to resort to torture the next time panic and expediency rule the hour.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net