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Blocking Mr. Torture

James Schamus

As progressives wonder at how best to direct — and revive — the struggle to return America to its basic values, a dizzying number of worthy causes, coalitions and strategies present themselves. But one immediate issue must be engaged: America has become a country that tortures its prisoners.

The mainstream media uses the word torture” to describe those (hundreds of) documented cases of isolated” incidents, performed by those few bad apples” at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. When it comes to the pervasive use of torture at Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray and scores of other secret military prisons around the globe, the media has preferred the term abuse.” It’s a word that takes the edge off.

That may be changing with the leak late in November to the New York Times of a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that said the Bush administration had institutionalized a system that uses refined and repressive” methods tantamount to torture” to extract information from prisoners at Guantánamo. The construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture,” said the report.

The show trials of low-level military personnel have allowed the administration to evade political responsibility for the systematic torture, rape and murder of American-held captives. In the lull between sentencings (which look like traffic citations compared to what the average perp gets for holding an ounce of crack), the public is reminded that military investigations” are happening, have been happening, or will be happening. Donald Rumsfeld took full responsibility” on May 7 — though he has been too busy leveling Fallujah and torpedoing the intelligence reform bill to serve hard time.

Against this background noise, George Bush is grooming Alberto Gonzales, White House legal counsel and a long-time political ally from Texas, for the Supreme Court. The first step in this process is to install him as attorney general. As White House sources told the New York Times, his Senate confirmation process for attorney general will be a dry run for a future Supreme Court nomination.

In addition to serving as the president’s lawyer, Gonzales is, in fact, Mr. Torture himself: the man who laid out for the Bush administration the arguments for voiding the Geneva Conventions and end-running the War Crimes Act, thereby providing legal cover for the horrors inflicted on those unfortunate enough to disappear into the new American global gulag.

Gonzales’ January 25, 2002 memorandum sanctioning the Bush administration’s torturing ways has become an infamous addition to the post-Orwellian canon. In it, he argues that President Bush runs the risk of being prosecuted as a war criminal — unless he decrees through an executive order that what Gonzales termed the quaint” Geneva Conventions don’t apply to his own behavior. To put it another way, Bush doesn’t break the law if he decides that he’s above the law. 

Gonzales doesn’t appear to have a predilection for inflicting pain. He’d rather simply kill people. As death penalty expert Alan Berlow wrote in the Washington Post, before Bush promoted him to the Texas Supreme Court, Gonzales penned the first 57 of the execution summaries” of the 152 men and women whose state-sponsored death Governor Bush then signed off on. Some of Gonzales’ summaries are infamous, like the one that helped send Terry Washington and his 58 IQ points up to heaven.

The fight to defeat Gonzales’ appointment will be a tall order. Just days after his nomination, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) finally got around to taking the famously obscene advice Dick Cheney gave him on the floor of the Senate last June — Go fuck yourself.” Standing side by side, Leahy told reporters that Gonzales is a uniting figure.” I like him,” said Leahy. Judge Gonzales is no Attila the Hun.”

Although the Democrats have lost seats in the Senate, they still have the numbers to support a filibuster. If the Democratic Party is to mean anything to the millions of activists who kept it alive this year, Democrats in Congress should be put on notice that Gonzales’ confirmation is a fight they cannot skip. It is time to play Eminem’s new cd, Encore—at 125 decibels, 24 hours a day — until the Democrats pledge to filibuster.

James Schamus is a screenwriter and producer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm), CEO of Focus Features (Motorcycle Diaries, The Pianist), and associate professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
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