The moral judgment of Alberto Gonzales (2)

In an earlier posting, I set out the preconditions for passing a moral judgment on the fitness of Alberto Gonzales to become attorney general.  In brief, the judgment is of Gonzales’ character, and a judgment on character must be based on a pattern of behavior, not on a single moment or memo, unless these can be made to fit into such a pattern.

The Washington Post, in opposing confirmation, has made a case that such a pattern exists:  that Gonzales, in fact, has conspired with the White House to deny foreign detainees any protection against abuse and degradation.  The WaPo argument hinges on whether one accepts that aggressive interrogation practices, for which Gonzales provided legal cover, are in fact abusive and degrading.

This debate between John Hutson and Heather Mac Donald covers both sides of the question.  Hutson testified against Gonzales in the Senate.  Mac Donald, in CITY JOURNAL, has been holding a furious but enlightening dispute with Andrew Sullivan and others, on the questions of what constitutes torture and whether the abuses that have taken place, such as Abu Ghraib, were condoned or even inspired from the top of the Administration.  In the debate with Hutson, Mac Donald quotes in context the controversial bits of Gonzales’ memo:

The war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for [the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War]. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip, athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.

She makes her own position clear.  The aggressive interrogation techniques used against detainees could not be carried out under the Geneva conventions, or against Americans protected by the Bill of Rights; but it’s a long way from saying that to condoning torture.

The torture issue is a red herring, as is your admonition against waging “uncivilized war.” No one is advocating either. I have explicitly rejected torture, as has the Bush Administration. Our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq strove constantly to observe the Geneva Convention requirements for civilized war: They made sure to wear some sort of identifying insignia on the street and before entering homes, they set themselves probable cause standards for searches that were higher than in the U.S., any possibility that a strike would generate civilian casualties was always carefully debated by the Judge Advocate Generals.

What I have advocated is the careful use of stress interrogation techniques against terror suspects when they resist questioning. I believe that it is morally acceptable to question a terror suspect past his bedtime, to isolate him, or to play music to distract him from his resistance strategies. We can argue about whether such techniques would be permissible for a lawful prisoner of war under the third Geneva Convention; you would have to work hard to convince me that such techniques are “torture,” however. I do know that whether we employ such modest stress techniques on Al Qaeda suspects or confine ourselves to the traditional 16 psychological gambits codified in the Army Field Manual for use on POWs will have not the slightest effect on whether Al Qaeda terrorists go ahead with their next effort at mass destruction.

Hutson, for his part, believes in civilizing war.  He is worried about the consequences of  the U.S. not adhering to the Geneva conventions in this war, regardless of the unconventionality of the enemy.  He considers torture both morally abhorrent and pragmatically ineffective.

Now, a word about “civilized war.” Sure, it’s an oxymoron, but it’s a goal we should strive to achieve. War can get a lot worse. It has been in the past. It’s a fearful endeavor under any circumstances, but we dare not give up waging civilized war. If we do, we really, really, really, won’t like what it can degrade to. 9/11 gave us a hint. I think that even if it is only us trying to stay on the high road, it’s worth the effort.

This isn’t the last war we will fight. It’s not even the next to last war. In the end, adherence to Geneva will protect U.S. troops in this war and all the future wars.

This blog is about the relationship between morality and freedom.  This issue concerns both.  One must come to some sort of judgment.

I detest torture.  It corrupts victim and torturer alike.  Like Hutson, I believe that as a tool to obtain truth it is largely useless.  One reads accounts of Savonarola’s interrogation – torture, confession, recanting, more torture, new confession – and one comes away thinking that torture gets the torturer what he wants to hear.

I found the behavior of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib repulsive and shameful.  They disgraced their country, and they tarnished the good cause for which they fought.  That applies to the perpetrators for their actions, and to their commanders for their morally culpable incompetence.

But Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with Gonzales or interrogation tactics.  It was a night party for singularly depraved individuals in uniform.  And I find Hutson’s arguments, on the whole, disingenuous and confused.  Geneva either is a set of conditions to be met or it isn’t.  The comparison Hutson attempts between Al Qaida and the American colonists is historically false.  The terrorists aren’t a citizenry in arms.  Geneva cannot possibly, under any stretch of the imagination, apply to them.  The memos drafted by Gonzales may be controversial, but the substance of what they said is legally and morally correct.

Mac Donald makes a convincing case that none of the techniques approved by the government amount to torture.  The matter requires close and continuing oversight by the American people.  We must never look away, not even if we think that by doing so we will ensure our safety.  In the end, true safety can only be achieved by the preservation of freedom.

None of these qualifications affect the heart of the matter:  Alberto Gonzales appears to be a man of good character.  For political reasons, having to do with the Republican majority in the Senate, he will be confirmed.  Given what I know, I think he should be confirmed.

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