Attorney Gen.-designate Alberto Gonzales will in all likelihood be approved this week by the Senate, which can certainly be justified. A president is permitted a certain latitude in appointing the members of the Cabinet, and this president has a solid majority in the Senate. And there is a certain double standard in arguing that a lawyer of great ability and a generally distinguished career is “unfit” to hold an office previously occupied by the likes of Janet Reno and John Ashcroft, both of whom made many decisions and recommendations we disagreed with.
Nonetheless, some of the reasons mentioned by the Democratic senators who delayed the vote on Gonzales are worthy of further consideration, whatever their political motives. We hope the discussion that precedes the vote involves a minimum of partisan posturing and focuses instead on the serious question of what constitutes torture in a military interrogation context and whether the United States should ever engage in it.
It is too little appreciated, although a dozen retired admirals and generals reminded us just before Gonzales’ hearings earlier this month, that the laws and international treaties against torture that the United States has passed and signed were approved not only because of general humanitarian feelings.
Part of their purpose is to deny enemies in combat situations any remote justification — as in, you do it, too — for torturing Americans who may be captured.
To be sure, this reciprocity didn’t prevent the torture of Americans during the Vietnam War, and some of those who have declared themselves enemies of the United States in the ill-conceived “war on terror” have already shown themselves capable of extreme barbarism. Nonetheless, depriving terrorists and other enemies of any justification for barbarism and torture is important, and an unequivocal ban on torture is crucial insofar as the U.S. mission is the defense of civilization against barbarism.
Besides, the evidence that torture furnishes usable intelligence is scant at best; many interrogation professionals believe it is counterproductive.
The debate over Gonzales’ appointment should furnish a valuable forum in which these admittedly difficult questions can be discussed openly and intelligently.
In any event, we hope that once he is confirmed, Gonzales will remember that his previous position in the White House was, in a sense, the president’s lawyer. The U.S. attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States of America. As such, his loyalty should be not to the president or the administration, but to the people of the United States and the U.S. Constitution. We trust he will be able to make that crucial distinction.