When you listen to Alberto Gonzalez answering questions in his confirmation hearings before the Senate, you have to remain aware that you are listening to a lawyer. Because a lawyer's profession, is words. And lawyers are very aware of the difference between the common definition of a word, and the specialized definition of a word, one that may, in fact, be defined by circumstances.
"Torture," in this circumstance, is such a word. Under Mr. Gonzalez' direction as White House Counsel, "torture" was re-defined; narrowly defined, in fact, to mean only "pain tantamount to major organ failure." Coercive techniques that did not inflict such pain were, by legal definition, no longer torture. Such techniques were, therefore, no longer illegal under U.S. law, or in violation of international law. So when Mr. Gonzalez answers a question about torture, and says under oath that torture is not condoned under the policies of the Administration of George W. Bush, Mr. Gonzalez is not guilty of perjury.
But, as President Clinton said, it all depends on what the meaning of "is," is.
Are the actions that occurred at Abu Ghraib torture? Mr. Gonzalez condemned them, but again, he was a very good lawyer. He never called them "torture," either. Mr. Gonzalez said he was disgusted by the photos from Abu Ghraib. No doubt he was. But Mr. Gonzalez held discussions in the White House about coercive interrogation techniques, such as "waterboarding" and "fake burial." It's far easier to discuss these matters in the abstract, and such discussions do not preclude being disturbed when you are faced with the physical results of your technical discussions.
So, did what is known to have occurred at Abu Ghraib constitute torture? Not according to Mr. Gonzalez' previous definition (the memo setting out that definition was, just a week before these hearings, offically revoked). It is all, as the comedians say, a matter of timing. But this is not a joking matter. Neither is it solely a legal matter. Robert Bolt put the right words in Thomas More's mouth regarding the protections of the law. God's "law" should never be invoked to override the protections of a just and fair legal system, even in the name of protecting the people. But neither should any legal system be used to circumvent clear, humane, and universally recognized standards of moral conduct.
And language should never be used to shield monstrous conduct.
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