The moral judgment of Alberto Gonzales

In politics as in professional sports, fanaticism often overwhelms the better angels of our nature.  During a soccer game not long ago, Spanish fans “bellowed out monkey noises” whenever a black player from the English team touched the ball.  Many of those bellowers, I believe, owned their share of human sympathy, were kind to children, and today are probably writing checks to tsunami victims.  But partial passions blunted the moral sense.

A  political parallel is the loathing of President Bush felt personally by a number of his opponents, which extends far beyond policy differences.  Like the black English players, and for the same motives of good sporting fun, the President has been bellowed out of the human race by individuals who, in other circumstances, would be likely to behave more generously.

This brings me to the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general.  The talking heads are in a lather about the memos Gonzales wrote advising the President on the legal limits to the interrogation of al Qaida prisoners, and it is very difficult for me to tell what is meaningful in this discussion, and what is the media equivalent of monkey noises.

Gonzales denied “illegal combatants” POW status.  Subsequently, there have been allegations of rough treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners, which some maintain amounts to torture but others have praised as aggressive interrogation of terrorists.  Since critics and defenders coincide exactly with those who loathe and those who support President Bush, the language of the debate has been violently distorted by the passion for winning, with one commentator going so far as to exclaim in the op-ed pages of the NYT, “We are all torturers now.”  This is nonsense.

But torture isn’t trivial.  We stand, in this case, at the nexus between morality and freedom, and we must contemplate with some alarm the possibility that the country’s top cop may, if the critics are right, wink at brutality.  How can we reasonably decide, in this fog of political fanaticism?  How are we to judge Alberto Gonzales?

First, we should keep in mind that this is a moral judgment.  Even his most passionate critics have not accused Gonzales of breaking the law.  The charge is that, in his legal advice on torture, he was unable to tell right from wrong.

Second, all moral judgments are judgments on character.  That means memos, moments, words, are largely irrelevant unless they throw light on Alberto Gonzales’ character, on an unyielding pattern of behavior viewed through the filter of morality.  Gonzales is 46 years old.  He has a life history, much of it open to public scrutiny.  Is it likely, given this life history, that he would be an advocate of torture?  Do we expect him to succumb to self-interested pressures, whether from the President or from public opinion?

If the answer is yes, he should not be confirmed.  But if the answer both questions is no, then the memos are entirely irrelevant.  Character is an indivisible attribute.  One is either good or evil, strong or weak, trustworthy or false.  Perfection lies beyond the range of human possibilities, but character will ultimately assert itself.

The case of Bill Clinton provides a good example of what I mean by the indivisibility of character.  During impeachment, elaborate arguments were laid down separating Clinton’s public and private lives, and insisting on the different moral requirements that ruled each of the two spheres.  This is a venerable line of reasoning, harking back to Machiavelli, who considered the virtues of the citizen to be distinct from those of the private man; and, as a legal argument, it may well have had some validity.

But I doubt anyone really believed it.  I doubt anyone endorsed the proposition that Bill Clinton was a good President but a bad man.  Instead, some thought his sexual escapade meant he was bad all around – the pattern was bad.  Others saw a human imperfection in a good President and a good man.  Character is one, not many.  That was true of the way we judged Bill Clinton, and should be true of how we come to judge Alberto Gonzales.

Fanaticism, of course, obeys a simpler logic.  Fanatics find an apparent weakness, then attack.  This is the “smoking gun” approach, which is, in my opinion, a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder in American politics today.  Citizens wrestling with a moral decision – whether to support or oppose Gonzales’ confirmation, for example – will find the approach worthless, given that no human life can or should be reduced to a smoking gun.  Since the process penalizes public officials who have had the courage to tackle messy problems, its consequences raise an unappetizing vision of the future, in which we as a people are ruled by a herd of moral nonentities.

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