It seems surreal: The president’s nominee for the highest legal position in the land is a proponent of torture. In his notorious Jan. 25, 2002, memorandum to Bush, Alberto Gonzales clearly fancies himself a shrewd thinker, a smooth operator when it comes to finessing the inevitable outrage of our allies when they learn that we have violated the Geneva Conventions. His suggestion for rebuttal to, among others, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who argued that the Conventions applied to the Taliban and al-Qaida? “First, some of the language [of the Conventions] is undefined (it prohibits, for example, ‘outrages upon personal dignity’ and ‘inhuman treatment’).” Are personal dignity and inhumane treatment really so mysterious? So fungible?
The universal horror elicited by the photos of Abu Ghraib attests to the innate human ability to recognize humiliation, degradation and abuse. As we saw in those photos, young soldiers — acting in accordance with the climate established high up in the chain of command — displayed, mocked and toyed with the genitals of prisoners who had also been beaten up, deprived of sleep, chained, hooded and made to stand for hours on one leg on elevated boxes lest they fall into the gaping jaws of trained attack dogs. According to Gonzales’ reasoning, none of these practices constitute torture unless they result in years of protracted suffering or “organ failure.” In other words, only if a prisoner dies, or almost dies, can one know if one is actually committing torture.