The members of the Senate’s judiciary committee received Alberto Gonzales, Pres. George W. Bush’s nominee for attorney general, with a mixture of solicitude and sternness regarding the notorious memorandum which he sought from the Justice Department—and also defended—permitting torture of prisoners taken in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But affection was never completely absent, and Gonzales will be confirmed on the floor of the Senate.
The likely placid procedural vote should provoke a reaction from the peace movement and from progressive Democrats generally. If the elected representatives won’t speak up, then the people need to.
Congressional Democrats seem unwilling to confront the Republicans on issues like a proposed, but languishing, federal hate crimes bill to protect gays from assaults, or on a similarly situated ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace. Abortion rights are under attack with many Democrats willing to make concessions. Choice and gay liberation are closely tied because both involve the right of an individual to exercise autonomy over their own body.
Meanwhile, funding for social programs will be dramatically affected by the continuing war expenditures in Iraq. With John Kerry’s wishy-washy stand on the war being one significant factor that contributed to his defeat, the Democrats should be exploring the political possibilities of an outright anti-war position.
The “Democratic wing of the Democratic party” was the rallying cry of the Dean supporters early last year. Washington seems to have forgotten the cheering throngs who briefly made former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. More than half a year later, half a million people marched through Manhattan to protest George Bush’s policies, the war in Iraq specifically, during last summer’s Republican National Convention. As early as 2002, the congressional Progressive Caucus, co-chaired by Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich, helped persuade 125 members of Congress to vote against the original appropriation for the Iraq war. That sort of energy clearly exists to help the Democrats regain a majority—or it could turn on the Democrats if its leaders continue to ignore popular opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy.
The momentum begun during the recent election campaign is not gone, but it is looking for leaders who share common values. Yet a somnolent Congress reconvened in Washington last week, and the Democrats who lead the minority, avoiding confrontations with Bush and the Republicans, are testing party unity. Exhibit number one in the case that Senate Democrats have become too tame is the conduct of the Gonzales confirmation hearings.
Gonzales was widely criticized for his role in soliciting from the Justice Department a memorandum that defined torture in such a way that the law prohibiting painful coercion was transformed into one that would actually permit it. An international scandal developed. Torture, according to the Department of Justice memo that Gonzales defended against criticism from Colin Powell’s State Department, involves “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Actions that fall short of these dire consequences are not torture. Thus, stuffing a person under water so that they fear drowning is not torture. There is no permanent injury to the organs of the body. Of course, as nearly everyone reminded him, submerging a person’s head underwater was considered a form of torture as far back as the Middle Ages.
Gonzales backtracked a little last week and said he does not “believe” in torture. How odd a qualification for the post he seeks in the second Bush administration. The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer for the United States. He is in charge of the Department of Justice and among his duties are supervising the FBI, the civil rights division, anti-trust laws and U.S. attorneys. When the chips are down, as they often were during his tenure as White House counsel, Gonzales will presumably side with the tough law enforcement approach that the president has demonstrated since his days as Texas governor.
The tacit acceptance of Gonzales as attorney general mirrors a larger silence over the growing evidence of torture by U.S. interrogators in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A horrible secret lurks under these stories—the tortured were often hapless innocents. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces offered rewards for identifying Taliban soldiers. False identifications were often made so that the informer could earn the money. Apparently, even parents would identify their own children for the reward money. The inability of the innocent to provide information spurs the interrogators into ever more desperate efforts to make them “tell the truth.” Testimony in the court martial trial this week of Specialist Charles A. Graner for his role in the Abu Ghraib torture case also suggests that the victims often had no intelligence value to U.S. interrogators.
At his confirmation hearing, Gonzales was unrepentant. He still opposes applying the Geneva Convention to the captured prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It would actually make it more difficult, in my judgment, for our troops to win in our conflict against Al Qaeda. It would limit our ability to solicit information from detainees,” he said. Just to make sure he was understood, Gonzales added, “It makes absolutely no sense” to apply the Geneva Convention to these prisoners.
By confirming Gonzales, the Senate is issuing a bipartisan endorsement of a policy that rejects humane treatment of prisoners captured in the war on terror. Bob Herbert of The New York Times hit the nail on the head: “It’s a measure of the irrelevance of the Democratic Party that a man who played such a significant role in the policies that led to the still-unfolding prisoner abuse and torture scandals is expected to win easy Senate confirmation and become attorney general. The Democrats have become the 98-pound weaklings of the 21st century.”
The Vietnam War badly divided the Democratic Party as party regulars sought to support Pres. Lyndon Johnson and his policies. The current war is a Republican venture, so the Democrats should be able to avoid a split, but Congress seems intent on provoking unnecessary conflict. According to a poll of delegates to the Democratic Convention, 80 percent opposed the decision to go to war against Iraq at the time it began, and 95 percent say they now oppose the war. These are core Democratic Party supporters and they are not finding a voice in Congress. The peace movement has reserved its harshest judgments for the Republican Party, but as Tom Hayden warned last summer, “The burden is on our political leadership to show us how much social change is possible through government.”
Peace activists worked hard in the election, and they are organizing. The Chicagoans Against War and Injustice (CAWI) has called on Dean and Kucinich supporters to join with MoveOn.com, America Coming Together (ACT) and other organizations formed during the election campaign to create an organized non-partisan force for peace and justice. While Washington officials are remaining silent, the Internet is humming with proposals for organizing Americans against the war.
These activists argue that the Democratic Party must stand up for peace and for justice in domestic affairs. Washington officials should listen and show some leadership or they will be punished for their moral evasions.