t the end of last year, a group of congressional staffers traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with senior Saudi government officials. In two meetings, the staffers raised concerns about a case in which a Saudi rape victim was sentenced to three months in prison and ninety lashes and then had her sentence doubled to six months in prison and two hundred lashes after she spoke out publicly. In both instances, the Saudi officials responded by simply saying “Guantanamo” and “Abu Ghraib.” As if to say, “Who are you to lecture us about due process and human rights?”
When we fail to live up to the standards we profess, the rest of the world sees us very differently from how we would like. For many around the globe, the symbol of American values is no longer the Statue of Liberty; it is that horrific photograph of a hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib, standing on a box, tethered to electric wires.
When the president of the United States says we are exempt from the Geneva Conventions and free to practice “enhanced interrogation techniques,” it is intolerable for many reasons: it is morally wrong and in violation of our basic values; it produces unreliable information and causes prisoners to resist cooperation; it violates domestic and international law; and it jeopardizes our own troops if they are captured.
Beyond all of those strong arguments, the specter of torture detracts from the undeniable rightness of our cause in the fight against terrorists. People at home and abroad are less likely to believe that a confession was freely given if we have abused detainees. Even with an admitted terrorist like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to masterminding 9/11, the world may focus more on how we treated him, rather than on what, by his own words, he did to us. It is essential for our security that we and the world focus on understanding what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did, what he would do next if he could, what produces and motivates the terrorists of the world, and what methods and capabilities they have and use. That focus gets blurred when credible allegations of a policy of torture get thrown into the mix.
People we need as friends and allies are less likely to be forthcoming if our image as a beacon of human rights and human liberty is tarnished. One person halfway around the world overhearing a terrorist plotting an attack against us can prevent the mass murder of our citizens if he reports it. But that citizen in some foreign land may not report the threat against us if he views us as arrogant and hypocritical.
Simply put, we need the understanding and goodwill of the world for our own security. That’s not mushy-headed intellectualism; it’s hard-headed pragmatism. I try to visit regularly with our veterans at VA hospitals in Michigan. Last year, I had a conversation with a veteran who was lying in his bed. I asked him, “What can we do to help you?” He responded: “Win back the respect of people around the world for America.” That veteran understands that the erosion of support for America weakens us in a way that military force cannot remedy. For the sake of the security of our nation, we must win back that respect and make America a beacon once again for human rights and human liberty around the world.