The Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings today for President Bush’s nomination for Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzalez. I haven’t written too much about this aspect of politics (the war and its surrounding issues) over the last year, but this is important. Rather than go into the details of Mr. Gonzalez’s past regarding his previous justification for prisoner torture, since I assume everyone has at least some knowledge of the issues, I’d rather discuss the implications. “Slippery slope” is a term thrown about recently, which is interesting because it applies so much more specifically to torture than any other context in which it’s being used. Our military, with approval and legal justification from Mr. Gonzalez and other government officials, raped, sodomized, and electrocuted prisoners (many of them innocent of any crime) to gain information. This is wrong. We can believe in an eye-for-an-eye, however useless it may be, but in the current context, it will only fuel further hatred and vengeance. We are better than this and hopefully smarter.
One common argument is that captured terrorists must be made to reveal any information that might be useful to American authorities. I do not disagree with that, but is this the best way to get it? Does torture fit the bigger goal of preventing terrorism? How does torture help our image with the world? What does it do to the respect we believe and teach about our ideals? Does it encourage our allies to support us when we claim the moral high ground but routinely violate the basic human rights that we claim to represent? No, it doesn’t, and that’s because there is validity to the “hearts and minds” aspect of this war.
Just as significant, how can we reconcile our ideals of freedom and human rights with these occurrences from 2002?
o February 7: Bush signs an order declaring he has the authority to suspend compliance with the conventions and reserving the right to do so “in this or future conflicts.” The order also says the conventions on treatment of prisoners of war do not apply to al Qaeda or “unlawful combatants” from the Taliban.
o August 1: Bybee writes to Gonzales arguing that the president has the power to issue orders that violate the conventions as well as international and U.S. laws prohibiting torture. Bybee’s memo also argues that to be defined as torture, conduct must inflict pain severe enough to cause organ failure or death. In addition, the memo lays out several defenses for military members or other U.S. government workers were they to be accused of torture.
How can the president give himself a blanket exemption from international conventions, signed in good faith by officials of the United States? How does the president have power to issue orders that violate U.S. law? Are these arguments we really want to accept? We do not need to be beholden to international will, but we can’t agree to a set of rules and then abandon them because they’re inconvenient. It would take a long time (realistically never, but…) before we reached dictatorship, but how much closer to empire do we wish to come than we already are? Our current streak of unquestioned nationalism (“homeland”) and “with us or against us” patriotism is scary to me and I’m not the only one who is noticing. America is the greatest country in the world, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect.
From today’s confirmation hearing, Mr. Gonzalez said something interesting:
“I will no longer represent only the White House. I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the difference between the two roles,” President Bush’s counsel told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Gonzalez will not represent me because I know that torture is unacceptable and any attempt to elevate the president above United States law is illegal and unacceptable. Being against Mr. Gonzalez’s nomination isn’t about attacking President Bush or scoring political points because the ideals of human rights and freedom which America stands for are more important than that. This is about what’s the morally right path. We can’t talk moral values and “What Would Jesus Do” and still support the barbaric treatment of other human beings, no matter how evil those people may be. If there is a vengeful God, as many believe (myself not included), He will hold individuals who perpetuate evil and terror responsible for their actions. Our task is to limit (end) the threat to
America the world posed by these individuals, not to extract our own vengeance. We must not let those responsible for policies of torture slide by because of indifference or worse, because of acceptance.