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January 6, 2005

It's Worse Than Illegal

by Ray McGovern

The following remarks were delivered at a press conference for Veterans for Common Sense.

My professional credentials are in intelligence, but I believe the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general is first and foremost a moral issue, so I will address it from a moral perspective.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rear Admiral John Hutson pointed out that Mr. Gonzales' recommendations regarding torture brought increased animosity toward the United States, hurt our intelligence effort, and increased the risks to our troops.

This is true. Torture is counterproductive. But actually it's a lot worse. It's also just plain wrong.

That's why there are so many laws against it. Not because it's counterproductive ... but because it's just plain wrong. And it is the rule of law that distinguishes us from animals who don't know right from wrong.

With some things – like torture, like slavery – well, no matter how many people might say such practices are okay, they are not okay. They are objectively evil. They are morally abhorrent ... or, at least, they should be.

Mark Twain and Moses

There is a memorable passage in Tom Sawyer where Tom asks the slave Jim what he thinks of slavery. As I recall the conversation, Jim replies:

"Just because everyone says they think it's right;
Just because everyone tells you it's right;
Well, that don't make it right!"

I don't think you need religion to understand that. But I do believe that faith can reinforce it.

Moses, the great prophet of the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim traditions, was sent by God to Egypt, where the Jews were prisoners. They were being tortured – "ground down" is the way the Bible puts it.

And Moses' instructions were to end the torture. And that, my friends, is what we are called to do – end the torture.


Let me be specific:

A friend of mine, Army Sgt. Sam Provance, was stationed at Abu Ghraib in 2003. He is an Army careerist, anything but a troublemaker. But he does have a conscience. Not unlike the vast majority of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Sam was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Sam's case, the wrong place was that terrible prison; the wrong time was the night shift.

Sam was not a military policeman or interrogator, but he was close enough to hear the screams of those being abused – close enough to see the Iraqi boy who had been tortured before his father's eyes.

The purpose, of course, was to "set the conditions for successful interrogation," to use the euphemism coined by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who, after commanding the prison at Guantanamo, "migrated," together with the abusive interrogation techniques used there, to Abu Ghraib.

The boy's father, you see, was an Iraqi general, who might know something and, if so, might spill the beans if the right "conditions" were set.

Most Chilling

Sam told me that what he found most "chilling" was how:

* The prisoners had been demonized as "the enemy," and rendered subhuman.
* The interrogators made so light of what they were doing.
* The interrogators had absolute power – the kind, Sam pointed out, that corrupts absolutely.
* Sam's fellow soldiers waved off his objections.
* Back in Germany, his superiors also waved him off, relegating him to an undefined position in the supply room. They removed his clearances and did all they could to make him a pariah among his comrades.

Since when has it become a blemish on a U.S. Army career to refuse to condone torture? How is it that someone with the courage to say "That's just plain wrong" ends up ostracized in his community? Has objecting to torture become unpatriotic?

Why is it that Army Spc. Joseph Darby, who also complained through channels about the torture at Abu Ghraib, has received numerous death threats for "ratting out" his fellow soldiers, and now has to live in protective custody?

And why do so many Americans apparently believe torture is all right?

I don't know, but, "Well, that don't make it right!"

Two Counts Against Gonzales

Remember why Socrates was condemned to death?

The charges were two: Making the worse case appear the better, and corrupting the youth.

I suggest you download and read Mr. Gonzales' Jan. 25, 2002 memorandum to the president [.pdf]. Is that not a consummate example of making the worse case appear the better?

Then consider how the youth we send to war have been brutalized by the green light given for torture. Corrupting the youth? I find what Sgt. Provance says most troubling.

I am against the death penalty ... even for such unconscionable behavior as Mr. Gonzales'. But I break out in a cold sweat at the thought our senators might approve him for the post of attorney general. This would send precisely the wrong signal to our young troops and, indeed, to the world.

Visit Prisoners, Not Torture Them

A self-professed evangelical Christian, Mr. Gonzales must be aware that Jesus of Nazareth asked us to visit prisoners – not torture them. We will "judge not," but rather leave the judgment in God's hands for the future.

In a democracy, though, we – each of us, as well as our senators – are responsible for the here and now. And the senators must vote on Mr. Gonzales.

Let us remind them that no one forced Mr. Gonzales to recommend that the president approve torture. Let the senators hold Gonzales accountable for making the worse case appear the better and for corrupting the youth. And let them prevent him from imposing more stain and stress on the moral fabric of our country.

We don't have to give him hemlock – just a one-way ticket back to Texas.

The last thing we need is Mr. Gonzales heading up a Travesty of Justice Department.

comments on this article?

Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.


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