The issue of torture was front and center during the seven-hour appearance of White House counsel before the . President George W. Bush's nominee to replace John Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general, an evangelical Christian, repeatedly, insistently, disavowed any role in building a legal case for an official U.S. government policy authorizing the torture of "enemy combatants" and "detainees."
Much of the hearing focused on Gonzales' role in soliciting a "torture memo" authored by Jay Bybee, of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which defined "torture" down to mean only the most extreme pain comparable to "organ failure or death." That occurred in the same week that thousands of pages of newly released documents, including FBI memos, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, showed shocking abuse of U.S.-held prisoners in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The torture inflicted was not, as Rush Limbaugh quipped, tantamount to a "frat party" or an orgy at U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy's Palm Beach estate.
As White House counsel, Gonzales presided at several meetings where torture was discussed openly. The Washington Post reported that Gonzales repeatedly refused to invite lawyers from either the Pentagon or the State Department who would offer any dissent to torture policies the Bush administration wanted and which would violate U.S. laws and international agreements.
During the nomination more and more revelations of torture at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison and at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo emerged daily.
Journalist Joe Conason wrote for the Internet news site Salon.com: "Perhaps the most eloquent rebuke to the Gonzales method came from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who once served in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps. On this matter, Graham speaks like a true conservative, expressing the outrage felt by so many military officers at the disgrace inflicted on their institution by Bush, Gonzales, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"The South Carolina senator warned that 'when you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, you're losing the moral high ground.' He added that 'once you start down this road... it is very hard to come back. So I do believe we have lost our way, and my challenge to you as a leader of this nation is to help us find our way without giving up our obligation and right to fight our enemy.'"
Gonzalez was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but the fallout from the policies he helped forge will likely continue, as more and more revelations of torture at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison and at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo emerge daily.
As Newsweek's Khue Bui reported in the magazine's January 17 issue, full-scale investigations are underway by both the military and the FBI on "bizarre forms of humiliation and abuse by U.S. military inquisitors."
One torture room at Camp X-Ray was known as the "Hell Room," where "detainees" were "strapped to the floor... wrapped in Israeli flags, taunted by female interrogators who rubbed their bodies against them in sexually suggestive ways, and left alone in refrigerated cells for hours with deafening music blaring in their ears...
"Many of the FBI accounts came from conscience-stricken agents troubled by what they had witnessed. One agent reported seeing a detainee sitting on the floor of an interrogation cell with an Israeli flag draped around him while he was bombarded by loud music and a strobe light... Another reported seeing detainees chained hand and foot in fetal positions, in barren cells with no chair, food or water.
‘The gravity of the threats we face tempts us to tolerate an ends-justify-the-means morality.’
"In one account that seemed to parallel the sickening scenes from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, an FBI agent reported the way in which a female U.S. Army sergeant sexually humiliated a shackled male prisoner during Ramadan and even 'grabbed his genitals'."
As these ongoing revelations continue, Americans are debating what not long ago would have been non-debatable: Is torture justified?
A January 12 poll by the neoconservative, pro-war Weekly Standard found that, among its readers, only 16% believe torture is inexcusable and should be illegal, while 34% believe some forms of torture are reasonable under the right circumstances, and 33% believe the government has the right to "use any means necessary to insure the safety of Americans." Eight percent believe torture can be used against "foreigners suspected of terror."
Several days after the Gonzalez hearing, Brian Orloff of Editor & Publisher magazine reported on the conflicted views of American newspaper editors on the issue of torture, and the role of Alberto Gonzalez in formulating a new U.S. policy that sanctions its use.
"An E&P survey of editorials during the past few days in 19 leading newspapers finds strong doubts about Gonzales' fitness to be U.S. attorney general. Eight newspapers in that group have called on the U.S. Senate to reject his nomination. Seven others expressed serious reservations, and four others endorse him strongly," wrote Orloff.
The Catholic View
As United Press International columnist Michael Kirkland observed in a January 6 column, the silence of conservative and religious groups, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Gonzales' nomination as attorney general is inexplicable. This is so not only because of his torture memos, but also because he accepts the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Also, as a Texas Supreme Court justice, he gave the go-ahead for a 17-year-old girl to abort her baby without her parents' knowledge, despite a Texas law requiring parental consent.
"Everyone, it seems, has taken a stand on the torture issue, except for conservative religious groups, who spoke out with such genuine concern when the issue was abortion.
"Where is Focus on the Family? Where, for that matter, is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? The conference condemned torture but has been silent on the Gonzales nomination and whether he should give a full accounting of what went on.
"Again, the silence from that front has been deafening."
The Catholic position on torture is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the heading of the Fifth Commandment, nn. 2297 and 2298.
"Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to the respect for the person and for human dignity...
"In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times, it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors."
Graham spoke like a true conservative, expressing the outrage felt by so many military officers at the disgrace inflicted on their institution…
After the initial reports on torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public last April, the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published an unprecedented three editorials in one week condemning the U.S. policy of torture and treating human beings as "animals."
In a May 8, front-page editorial, the Vatican newspaper said: "The abuse and cruelty against the prisoners represents the radical denial of human dignity and of fundamental human values. Brutal cruelty against one's own kind is in tragic opposition to the basic values of civilization and democracy."
Speaking on Vatican Radio, condemned the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, charging: "This is a matter of crimes, real crimes, because even in war there are rules to be respected...
"We need to pray for the victims of these acts of torture and for those who committed them, so that they recognize what they have done before the U.S. justice system, which I hope will run its course."
Perhaps the most eloquent of Vatican officials addressing the subject was Francis Cardinal Stafford, OMI, of Chicago who told Delia Gallagher in a May 13 interview that the United States was violating its own principles by authorizing torture.
"Citing articles in Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The Times of London in 2001 which signaled that the administration was considering the use of torture, the cardinal calls current administration dismay at the revelations a 'hypocrisy.'
" 'All of this outcry by the Democrats in Congress, the Republicans in the White House, and by the press is deceitful in light of the silence that took place when torture was being talked about in 2001, 2002, 2003.
" 'In February of 2003,' Cardinal Stafford said, 'I made a statement that the government of the United States has compromised its own basic principles by implicitly endorsing the use of torture since September 11, 2001.
" 'I made that statement because I had read a number of articles in American papers that spoke of this torture. What's incredible is that nobody at that time made any comments about these articles,' he said.
"The cardinal cited a November 5, 2001 Newsweek article headlined ; a Washington Post October 24, 2001 article which said, 'Federal officials are now considering the use of torture to extract information from a number of suspects they believe to have links to al-Qaeda. Authorities are also considering the possibility of extraditing suspects to allied countries whose security forces use torture to obtain confessions'; and The Times of London October 21, 2001 article entitled,
'…the twin feelings of victimization and moral superiority do not free us from the moral obligation to uphold the basic rights even of our worst enemies…’
"'Two Republicans, Kenneth Starr and Richard Thornburgh (attorney general under Reagan), both came out in support of torture at that time,' said the cardinal.
"'Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, a civil libertarian, said that if we have to have torture it should be authorized by law. This is a statement from one of the leading liberals,' he said. 'His reasoning is incredible,' said Cardinal Stafford, 'He said: "If we have to have torture it should be authorized by law": This seems against everything that we believe in, to torture people.
"'What's important is that when he said this, nobody made any comments... Muslims are outraged and deceived because Americans appear to be imposing the same type of life upon Iraqi society that we said we were going to rescue them from. It's the very opposite of what we said we were going to do. Not only have we humiliated the Iraqi people, but we've deceived them. We've deceived the Arab peoples,' he said.
"'Is this what American democracy is producing? Men and women who, just below the surface, are barbarians. Just below the surface of American civilization, of American popular culture, we are becoming barbaric. Is that what American democracy is producing today?'"
On May 17, , the chairman of the bishops' International Policy Committee, said the abuse cases are a challenge to reflect on larger moral issues.
"The abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners has brought shame upon our nation, is an affront to our most basic ideals, and will undermine legitimate efforts to confront the very real threats faced by our nation and the world."
Bishop Ricard said the prisoner abuse cases highlight "two related moral risks that could arise in responding to the horrors of September 11 and the difficulties in Iraq."
The first, he said, is a sense of "exceptionalism. We can lose sight of the hard truth that the twin feelings of victimization and moral superiority do not free us from the moral obligation to uphold the basic rights even of our worst enemies who, themselves, show contempt for such rights."
‘Is this what American democracy is producing? Men and women who, just below the surface, are barbarians?’
The second moral risk, Bishop Ricard said, occurs when "the gravity of the threats we face tempts us to tolerate an ends-justify-the-means morality."
"The moral challenge at this moment is to address the horrendous cases of abuse in a way that proves to the world—and, most importantly, to ourselves—that our nation has not succumbed to these risks," Bishop Ricard said.
But that the United States seemingly has succumbed, as the Pentagon has stated that it will not release the thousands of photographs and videos of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and Congress has shown no interest in requiring the Pentagon to do so.