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We say we disapprove of torture, but allow it

Adlai Stevenson had it right when he said it’s often easier to fight for a principle than to live up to it.

That insight explains a lot about the struggle some members of Congress are now waging against the U.S. Justice Department to rein in excessive provisions of the Patriot Act.

The federal law was enacted when the nation’s eyes were still dilated from the trauma of 9-11. Now that we’ve had time to collect ourselves, certain lawmakers – Idaho’s Sen. Larry Craig and Congressman Butch Otter, for instance – want to remove some of the Patriot Act’s threats to personal liberty.

That puts them in good company. Past American statesmen ranging from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Robert F. Kennedy have pointed out the temptation to combat deplorable practices by adopting them. It’s a warning we’ve been slow to heed, though, as certain Patriot Act provisions demonstrate, not to mention the embarrassing disclosures at Abu Ghraib Prison.

Another glaring breakdown of traditional American principles involves “extraordinary rendition,” known to its critics as the outsourcing of torture. The practice dates to the Clinton administration but was widely expanded after Sept. 11, 2001. Under it, the United States turns people suspected of terrorist involvement over to countries who lack America’s official scruples about using torture as an interrogation method.

Officially, we maintain our disapproval of torture, get a meaningless assurance that it won’t be used, then put a detainee into the hands of Egypt, Syria or some other country with a record of human-rights violations.

The most highly publicized case involved Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was returning to his home from a vacation in Tunisia in 2002. U.S. authorities detained him during a plane change in New York and flew him to Jordan, from where he was driven to Syria. There he was beaten and held in a cramped cell for 10 months before he was finally allowed to return to Canada. He’s never been charged with a crime or tied to any terrorist activity.

Still, administration officials refuse to drop the practice because they contend it protects U.S. troops. Actually, experts say, it doesn’t. Torture produces unreliable intelligence.

Meanwhile self-governance is struggling to take root in Iraq, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other places where citizen movements want to emulate the American commitment to liberty.

It is a blemish on our proud heritage, however, to join these hopeful celebrations while permitting, through unofficial agents, behaviors that we officially condemn. Moreover, it dishonors American military personnel if we abandon the principles they donned the uniform to defend.

The war against terrorism is no justification for a practice like extraordinary rendition. If that’s how we fight for liberty and human rights, it may produce a defeat for terrorism, but it won’t be a victory for the United States.


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