Differences between 6th district candidates on torture

by Amy Kingsley

US Rep. Howard Coble voted in favor of legislation that enshrines military tribunals as a standard judicial forum for terror detainees and allows President Bush to set limits on interrogation techniques on Sept. 27.

Except for a handful of defectors, the vote fell along party lines. The two other members of Guilford County’s congressional delegation, Democratic Reps. Mel Watt and Brad Miller voted against the legislation.

If Rory Blake, Coble’s challenger for the 6th District, had had the opportunity to vote, he would have sided with the Democrats, he said.

“You can’t just lock someone up for years and years,” he said. “People can’t just disappear. This isn’t like Argentina.”

Whether or not the legislation boosts or hurts Republicans in November, it is almost guaranteed to surface in the debates leading up to voting day, and is one of several federal issues Blake is using to distance himself from his entrenched opponent.

The House legislation, which is almost identical to a Senate version that passed the day after, strips detainees of habeas corpus, allows them to be tried in military tribunals where coerced testimony can be used as evidence and allows the president to set limits on interrogation techniques.

“I’m convinced this legislation is necessary,” Coble said. “We are dealing with an enemy the likes of which we have never known. They are motivated by a fanatical hatred of us and it’s very difficult to protect against that kind of hatred.”

The legislation spells out rules for a judicial process unlike the one with which most Americans are familiar. But the highest-profile component addresses interrogation techniques; the bill outlawed the worst forms of torture but allows the president to set limits on techniques like stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures. Blake and others opposed to allowing interrogators to use such techniques label the treatment torture because it is banned under the Geneva Conventions and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The president and his supporters prefer the term “alternative interrogation techniques.”

Either way, it is an issue that has sparked deep feelings on both sides. Coble said the new rules are essential for dealing with a new kind of combatant.

“I’m inclined to think that most of them that are [in Guantanamo] are there for good reason,” he said.

Many of those in detention at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay have not been charged, and no timetable has been set for their trials.

Coble has not been supportive of the Bush administration on every issue; although he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, Coble has since been critical of the post-invasion strategy. Withdrawal from Iraq needs to be one of the options on the table in Iraq, Coble said, but he would leave any decisions about a timeline to the commanders on the ground.

“We did the right thing taking out Saddam Hussein,” Coble said. “He was a brutal dictator and he was involved in international terrorism, even if it wasn’t with Osama bin Laden.”

Blake takes a less charitable view of the invasion.

“It’s like if John Smith beats my son to a bloody pulp and we go to Richard Brown’s house and burn it down,” Blake said.

He said the administration has not been truthful about the extent of sectarian violence in Iraq, and that the increasing number of attacks on American troops may mean that pulling out is the only option available to restore peace to the region.

“We just need to know the facts and base a decision on the facts,” he said.

Neither candidate has a clear position on the issue of illegal immigration, although Coble has voted in favor of building a fence along the border and supports adding personnel to border security agencies.

“But you can’t turn a blind eye to the importance of guest workers,” Coble said. “Some industries depend very much on them. At the same time you don’t want to have a blanket amnesty.”

Blake blamed the Republicans’ pro-business policies for creating a demand for illegal workers and suggested trying to enact policies that would keep businesses from hiring illegal immigrants.

“You have to look at first who benefits from illegal immigration,” he said. “Mostly it’s the chicken and pork processing plants.”

Before Blake has an opportunity to challenge Republican legislation, he’s got to beat Coble on Nov. 7 – no small feat for a relative newcomer challenging a 22-year veteran of the US House of Representatives. Blake said his personal finances have taken a beating since he pledged to self-finance his campaign earlier this year, but that he thinks he can win based on the strength of anti-Republican sentiment.

Even though Coble hasn’t run a competitive race in more than a decade (he trounced the 2004 Democratic challenger William Jordan 207,470 votes to 76,153), he said he isn’t taking victory for granted.

“I have never been casual about a political race,” he said. “I’m going to take any politically contested race seriously.”

So far, his campaign coffers reveal quite a bit more activity than his opponent’s – Coble has almost $800,000 on hand compared to Blake’s $10,000.

They will be meeting face to face later this month for a forum at New Garden Friends Retirement Community. Despite their political differences, the candidates anticipate a cordial discussion of the issues. Coble described Blake as a stand-up member of the community, and Blake largely returned the favor.

“He’s an interesting guy,” Blake said. “Everybody kind of likes Howard, but he just votes wrong.”

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