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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

What's all the fuss over torture?

At press time, attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales was undergoing the first day of grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was expected to win approval and eventual appointment as the country’s top law enforcement official.

So what was the fuss over torture? And if he, indeed, recommended voiding the Geneva Conventions as outdated and quaint when it came to judging what constitutes torture, then why was he nominated?

That may seem a simplistic question, arriving in your mail, as it will, in the remote backwash of what was expected to be two days of hearings. An actual vote on the nominee was not expected until later in the month.

News, which never stayed fresh very long, has an incredibly shrinking duration these days. Twenty-four/seven news cycles have voracious appetites, always looking for some new scrap to devour and digest. There’s no time for reflection, for considering the relative importance of things. All the bits flow one into the other -- all seemingly weighted the same. Torture -- and the role the United States plays in condoning it -- have popped up as bits in the news from time to time. But what does it all mean?

Is there a way, given the seemingly indistinguishable flow of declassified reports about torture at Guantánamo and torture in Abu Ghraib and a White House attorney who says torture in the age of terrorism can be redefined, to grab hold of it all and figure out what it means?

Considering the record of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, whose playing fast and loose with constitutional protections raised ire on both sides of the aisle and across the political spectrum, it is hardly encouraging that Ashcroft’s replacement is a lawyer who was willing to go even further in improvising on long-held understandings of international law.

It is small consolation that the original memos overseen by Gonzales -- memos that redefined torture in such a narrow way as to exclude almost everything but fatal activities -- have been judged way out of order and rewritten.

America has too much to offer the world in its hard-earned, if imperfect, understanding of individual rights, civil rights and basic human rights to stoop to the level of those who know no rule of law.

If our only response to terrorists’ lawlessness is to abandon the law -- as Gonzales has suggested -- then the terrorists have won.

The haunting questions we must force on ourselves are: Who are we in America? and What is being done in our name?

In our Nov. 5 issue, reporters Linda Cooper and James Hodge ran out a detailed and long record of U.S. involvement in teaching and using torture techniques. It is in light of that history that the bits of today begin to make sense. It is against that backdrop that the questions become more compelling.

Gonzales may have come to abhor torture and he may have revised the views he endorsed in the earlier memos. He has also taken us as a country -- and this is what we can’t forget -- into very dangerous waters. His declaimers before the judiciary committee and his firm embrace of the rule of law are not enough to steer us clear of danger.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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