NEW YORK--In Survival at Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalled that, after their most sadistic guard had been transferred away, he and his fellow death camp inmates were terrified. True, the man was a murderer. But the prisoners had studied his habits, learned how to avoid his wrath. What if his replacement turned out to be even meaner?
No matter how bad they are, things can always get worse. Little did the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, abused by horrific regimes, realize that their "liberation" would usher in a grim Mad Max-era of chaos and looting by AK47-toting teenagers. Now political entropy, a staple characteristic of overseas Bushism, is manifesting itself as second-term political appointments here at home.
Faithful readers will note that I never joined the four-year-long chorus of catcalls against outgoing attorney general John Ashcroft. It's true that he used the sweeping prosecutorial powers granted him under the USA Patriot Act to arrest more than 5,000 people, none of whom have ever been convicted of anything, and that he held them without letting them see a lawyer. Ashcroft was also a central figure in what wags are beginning to call the Bushiban--loopy Christianists in Bush's inner circle. In November 2001, while Brooklynites were still dusting the pulverized corpses of their fellow citizens off their window ledges, Ashcroft spent over 8,000 tax dollars on a curtain to cover the bare-breasted Spirit of Justice statue at the Justice Department. The statue, marble boob exposed, hadn't attracted attention since its installation in 1936. Still, Ashcroft wasn't unusually evil.
Dick Cheney is a breathtakingly corrupt politician, trading American and Iraqi lives for his personal profit. Compared to ordinary warmongers, Donald Rumsfeld is exceptionally gleeful and callous about the people who die every time he shoots off an email. John Ashcroft, on the other hand, was nothing more than another conservative nut. His mass detentions and arbitrary prosecutions were the inevitable result of the Patriot Act--a heinous attack on American freedom for which Bush and Congress are solely to blame. Janet Reno, given Ashcroft's freedom to abuse personal liberties, would have behaved similarly.
Alberto Gonzales, on the other hand, possesses one of the most twisted minds the American legal system has ever produced.
If Bush gets his way, the nation's chief law enforcement official will be a man whose warped interpretation of presidential power, contempt for due process and gleeful deconstruction of fundamental human values puts him at odds with every patriotic American.
Gonzales is the author of the infamous August 2002 "Standards of Conduct for Interrogation under 18 U.S.C. 2340-2340A," a legal opinion issued while on his current job as White House Counsel. The 50-page "torture memo," which provides government interrogators justification to torture suspects in the war on terrorism, isn't just another memo. It's a benchmark position paper, a document that Administration figures from Bush and Rumsfeld down to CIA interrogators at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib still rely upon to protect themselves from possible future prosecution for war crimes.
First and foremost, Gonzales argues for a definition of "torture" that omits the most commonly used tactics banned by the Geneva Conventions. (Gonzales calls Geneva as a "quaint" anachronism.) To qualify as torture, he writes, the agony "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Abuses previously banned by the Army--"pain induced by chemicals or bondage, forcing an individual to stand, sit or kneel in abnormal positions for prolonged periods of time, food deprivation, mock executions, sleep deprivation and chemically induced psychosis," according to The Washington Post--are now A-OK, according to Gonzales. As long as Bush orders it.
Even the extreme mistreatment Gonzales still calls "torture," is permitted--up to and including the death of the victim. This is because a post-9/11 torturer "would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by ... al-Qaeda."
The military's judge advocate generals (JAGs), not known for squishy liberalism, say that Gonzales is nuts. "It's really unprecedented," says a senior military attorney. "For almost 30 years we've taught the Geneva Convention one way. Once you start telling people it's okay to break the law, there's no telling where they might stop."
Gonzales' torture memo has already cost the lives of innocent--i.e., never convicted, never charged and likely totally unconnected to terrorism--detainees. Two Afghan detainees died in U.S. custody at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan during the same week of December 2002; though their deaths were ruled homicides, no one has been charged. In April 2004, a captured Iraqi general was murdered by "blunt force trauma to the torso and positional asphyxia." The Pentagon says that there have been at least 127 homicides of POW detainees.
Taking his cue from the Nazis' "führer principle," Gonzales posits that Bush, by virtue of his "commander-in-chief authority," can authorize torture. But American law doesn't include any such concept.
Thanks to the Democratic wimps in Congress, this pseudo-intellectual monster is coasting to confirmation. Noting that as a Texas judge he once "let a teenager get an abortion without her parents' knowledge," the New York Times' liberal editorial page signaled that it is resigned to Gonzales' ascension to the top gig at Justice. The Bushies shrewdly calculated that Democrats wouldn't want to be seen blocking the nomination of a Hispanic. Again demonstrating the bankruptcy of identity politics, traditionally progressive Latino groups are pleased as punch that one of their own--albeit a psychopath--has gotten the nod. "This is probably the most meaningful nomination ever for the Latino population," said Brent A. Wilkes of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
A set of strategically placed electrodes might change his point of view.