Sunday, March 29, 2009

When Awful Things Happen to Terrible People

I do not recall joining the TalebanSpring, that heartening season when life returns to the world, brings on a wonderful sense of renewal and restoration of a long-lost balance: migratory birds start arriving home, bugs and flowers peep out of the ground and begin celebrating the warm, moist days – and a Spanish prosecutor contemplates indicting Alberto Gonzales for war crimes.

Gonzales has garnered himself a coveted niche in the annals of American jurisprudence – he rose from a hapless Texas yes-man to then-governor George W. Bush to the yes-man for the Bush administration’s initiatives to keep Afghan prisoners out of the reach of any criminal authority in his stint as legal counsel to the president, and from there ascended to Attorney General, inspiring many Americans to do something they never thought possible: miss the wisdom and sober judgment of John Ashcroft.

Currently Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon is considering an indictment against Gonzales and others in the Bush Justice Department for authorizing torture – a term which elicited, in a White House noted for its disdain for such fancy ideas as ethical relativism, an almost reverential degree of nuance, ambiguity and downright confusion. On January 25, 2002, Gonzales issued a memo calling a long-standing treaty against abuse of detainees “
obsolete,” while in its defense the Bush administration adamantly declared, “We do not torture.” As though, possibly, the legal opinion that the Geneva Conventions were outmoded was really only a commentary on their oh-so-1950s typeface.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, another cautious and deliberate figure when it came to matters of law, issued a memo the very next day that Afghan detainees would receive protection only "
to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity." While there is no evidence that Rumsfeld also issued thumbscrews and fireplace pokers to relevant combat units, this was probably an oversight on his part, as he was extremely busy underequipping and underplanning the subsequent invasion of Iraq because of the urgent fear that Saddam Hussein might commit more human rights abuses.

Subsequent investigation has shown a direct link between Gonzales’ authorization of policies that go beyond limitations of US law to cases of torture and abuse that riddled the military for years afterwards, from the waterboarding of high-value detainees to the torture of prisoners held without charge at Guantanamo Bay to the beating to death of a
cabbie in Bagram in US custody to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

You might think that after creating such a memorable legacy, your average sadist would rest on his laurels (i.e. the skulls of little children) and spend some time congratulating himself on the vast swath of unspeakable horror he’s managed to exsanguinate onto the Constitution. But that would be to misunderestimate Gonzales. It was he, after all, in his previous capacity as legal counsel to then-Governor Bush, who had formulated a memo summarizing the clemency petition of death row inmate
Terry Washington – a memo so cursorily penned that it barely mentioned the mitigating factors in Washington’s case – among them that the mentally-retarded 33-year-old had the developmental abilities of a seven-year-old and that he and his siblings had been frequently “beaten with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts.” Bush denied Washington’s petition on May 6, 1997 and he was executed that same day.

If anything could further exacerbate Gonzales’ fetishizing of human suffering and his Rumsfeldian inattention to obvious facts (besides a passion for
clown paintings and a large crawl space, that is), it was his ambition to play out his medieval sense of right and wrong on a larger stage – as Attorney General or even as a justice of the Supreme Court. Fortunately Gonzales’ own ineptness, partisanship and downright stupidity kept him from that particular appointment – instead, after a scandal involving the firing of US Attorneys and his subsequent Congressional testimony that displayed equal parts ignorance, corruption and condescension, Gonzales announced his resignation on August 27, 2007, and has since spent his time puzzling over his inability to land a job.

In spite of Gonzales’ horrific performance as Attorney General, equal to the legacies left by previous Republicans such as John Mitchell and Ed Meese, it’s Gonzales’ sycophantically eager authorization of torture and other war crimes that did to American justice what a bus driver with macular degeneration and the DTs might do to a schoolyard full of children and puppies. His conduct has rightfully earned the attention of Judge Garzon – if not, alas, that of serious legal authorities in this country. And while his ambitions to the highest court in the land were thwarted, there is still hope that some sort of international tribunal can find him the lifetime appointment that would cap off his brilliant career.

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