America the Hideous

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

America the Beautiful is refuge for some 400,000 torture victims from around the world — a safe haven for them to heal and rebuild their lives. America the Hideous is about to confirm the legal architect of Abu Ghraib as its new attorney general.

About the only suspense left is to see how many Democrats — and democrats — wind up voting against the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales and standing for the America that will survive George Bush.

The gnawing unease in my gut is not so much from anything that happened or failed to happen at last week’s confirmation hearings, e.g., Gonzales’ refusal to disavow memos he either crafted or wrung from others that gave legal underpinning to the U.S. torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and Iraq — and trace directly to the court-martial trial of Charles Graner that is now under way — but from a sense that nothing he says matters at this point. His job is done.

I still believe enough in this country — in America the Beautiful — to be appalled at the direction it’s headed and even stoically confident that we will, in our collective common sense, return eventually to course. But job one right now is more urgent than wresting “candor” out of Alberto Gonzales or even holding high-level Bush Administration officials to the same standard of accountability we demand of Graner and his fellow fall-guys in the lowest ranks of the war on terror.

All that would be great. So would denying the nation’s top legal post to the man who, far more than Graner or Lynndie England — the two public faces of Abu Ghraib — symbolizes the flaunting of international law to the rest of the world. But job one is stopping the torture.

I mean, you think?

The scandal has come and gone. The ghastly images — the naked men in piles, the hoods, the electrodes, the dogs, the smirking prison guards — have seared themselves into the national consciousness (they’re the Iraq war’s Iwo Jima, you might say). Everyone, including George Bush, has condemned those shocking scenes captured on digital camera. And now what? Has anything changed? Do we know?

There’s no oversight on this, my fellow Americans — no one whose job it is to rein in the ruthless or oversee the omnipotent. (Apparently it’s not the media’s.)

Remember the 2000 election? Now there was a brouhaha. Yet after four years of debate, outrage, demands and promises, nothing much changed, and 2004 featured pretty much the same abuses: nakedly suppressed minority vote; flawed counting procedures; results out of sync with exit-poll data; a state attorney general’s shameless conflict of interest; a Democrat’s quick concession.

What really matters is decided in secret and quietly implemented, and then the rest of us — the Democrats, I mean — are left, when we find out about it, to demand accountability, and maybe get it at the same pace that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney are getting justice. It’s called impotence, and it’s power’s best friend.

So what’s going on in the gulag of America the Hideous these days? Are its randomly arrested, mostly innocent detainees now at least called “sir” and “ma’am” and served Happy Meals every night at 6?

“Former detainees released from U.S.-run facilities around the world continue to come forward with disturbing reports of torture or degrading treatment during their interrogation and detention,” Amnesty International recently reported.

And Mark Danner, writing the other day in the New York Times, quoted an FBI counterterrorism official’s account of his visit to a detention facility in Guantanamo three months after the torture scandal broke:

“On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more. . . . On another occasion . . . the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.”

Let’s stand tall, America. Maybe we’re not winning the war on terror, but we’re proving that neither scandal nor Democrats can stop us from losing it our way, with maximum degradation, and bringing the cause of global human rights down with us.