The Truth, Mainly - 01/24/2005

Have we lost our way?
by Leon Satterfield

So what did you think of Alberto Gonzales' testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month?

You remember: he's the guy that President Bush wants as his Attorney General for his second term.

I surprised myself by finding him sort of likable. He's a pudgy little guy who smiles a lot—even when being asked nasty questions by U.S. senators.

Of course he's going to get the job. He'll be compared to John Ashcroft and even Beelzebub would look good doing that.

And what's not to like about Alberto's Horatio Alger background? He's one of eight kids of poor Mexican immigrants to Texas. After public school and two years in the Air Force, he graduated from Rice University, went off to Harvard, came back to Texas with a law degree, served on Governor Bush's staff, then got appointed justice on the Texas Supreme Court, and for the past four years has been legal counsel to President Bush.

Whew! Who can find fault with a guy like that, especially when he smiles the way Gonzales smiles?


There's that open letter on the internet to the Senate Judiciary Committee signed by nine retired generals and three retired admirals, all of them unhappy with Gonzales' 2002 memo advising the president that the Geneva Conventions wouldn't apply to the war in Iraq, and that the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

"Quaint." That kills me. And probably lots of others.

Hence the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Atrocities which imply we've discarded the Geneva Conventions and which outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell said would "reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice…" and—ominously—"undermine the protections of the rule of law for our troops."

In other words, we play dirty with the bad guys and they'll play dirty with us. Even retired generals and admirals protest.

Mark Danner is the author of a book called "Torture and Truth, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror." In an op-ed piece in the NY Times on Jan. 6, he writes that Gonzales' confirmation as Attorney General will "give full legitimacy to…a path that has transformed the U. S. from a country that condemned torture and forbade its use to one that practices torture routinely. Through a process of redefinition largely overseen by Mr. Gonzales himself, a practice that was once a clear and abhorrent violation of the law has become in effect the law of the land….By using torture, we Americans transform ourselves into the very caricature our enemies have sought to make of us."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham made this observation at the Judiciary Committee hearings: "I think you weaken yourself as a nation when you try to play cute and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be….I do believe we've lost our way."

Just how much we've lost our way bubbled to the surface last week in the military trial of Specialist Charles Graner, the guy accused of being the ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

(Be forewarned; what follows isn't pretty.)

According to a story in Wednesday's NY Times, one of the prisoners, Ameen Said Al-Sheikh, testified that he saw Graner force another prisoner to eat from a toilet.

Another, Hussein Mutar, testified that he and other prisoners were forced to strip, masturbate, and then with their naked bodies form the pyramid that we've all seen photos of.

Graner's attorney said that making the naked prisoners form a pyramid was nothing special because cheerleaders often form pyramids with their bodies without any damage being done.

Mutar didn't see it that way. He said that even "Saddam didn't do that to us."

So to get back to the question of finding fault with someone who smiles the way Gonzales does, the easy answer is the one Hamlet gives us: "One may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

A more frightening answer is that he smiles not because he's a villain but because he's been doing just what he knows the boss wants him to do.

Now that's a really scary thought, and here's an even scarier one: Steve Weissman in an internet piece on Jan. 6 titled "But What If Torture Works?" comes to this conclusion: "Once we allow Mr. Bush's foreign misadventures to override the rule of law, due process, fair trials, the presumption of innocence, and safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment, we invite the torturers to come after us as well. That's when we will truly learn whether torture works or not."


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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