Gonzales and the Torture Cult

Ms. Anne Applebaum is shocked – shocked! – at conservatives’ blasé attitude toward torture. Don’t they know that attorney general-designate Alberto Gonzales wrote memos seeking ways to legally immunize U.S. government officials from prosecution under the War Crimes Act? Perhaps, she suggests, they don’t remember Abu Ghraib?

But of course they remember it all too well: and, with the notable and honorable exception of the editors of The American Conservative, they downplayed and even excused it at the time, and continue to do so.

In his extensive remarks on the Abu Ghraib abuses, David Frum, former presidential speechwriter and noted enforcer of neoconservative orthodoxy, nowhere mentioned the necessity of investigating how high up these disgusting practices were sanctioned – although he does believe that “nothing says ‘sorry’ quite like a thick brick of cash.” Pay them off, shut them up, and “I wouldn’t worry overmuch whether those who were abused were ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty.'”

Conservatives of Frum’s ilk believe that such arcane constructions as “guilt” and “innocence” invariably invite ironic quote marks.

“You may have missed this in the Abu Ghraib commotion,” Frum wrote on May 12, “but the preliminary job report for May shows employment up by 288,000.”

Forget all that gloom-and-doom stuff – happy days are here again!

Listen to National Review writer and contributing editor John Derbyshire, responding to Senator Carl Levin’s contention that the administration knew about and approved abuse of prisoners:

“Define ‘abusing.’ Some of these prisoners are ruthless terrorists with the blood of Americans – and, of course, many Iraqis – on their hands. Most of them have done something or other to end up in custody. If U.S. interrogators yell at them, is that ‘abuse’? If they threaten or intimidate them, is that ‘abuse’? If they prevent them going to the bathroom for a couple of hours, is that ‘abuse’? If they smack them upside the head, is that ‘abuse’?”

When the members of Congress were shown videos and still pictures that constituted solid evidence of abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison facility – images that the rest of us are still not allowed to see – they came out of that room visibly shaken. Derbyshire, no doubt, is made of sterner stuff. Although I suspect some of those images would surely get to him: Derbyshire hates us queers, as he spends an inordinate amount of time telling us, and even he might get a little green around the gills if he’d been allowed to listen to the videotaped cries of a young Iraqi detainee being violated by an Iraqi translator while American GIs look on giggling. Aha! Another argument against gays in the military!

National Review, the fountainhead of conservative orthodoxy in America, is teeming with writers who would no doubt relish the opportunity to give vent to their inner Torquemada. Clever little Jonah Goldberg, online editor of National Review, has made a special point of “proving” that torture isn’t such a bad idea after all:

“Today, we’re getting shovelfuls of platitudes about how, if we become torturers, we will be no better than those we are fighting. It’s a nice flowery argument, and one with more than a kernel of truth to it. But at the same time, if we pulled out the fingernails of every single member of al-Qaeda, we wouldn’t magically become a society where women have to wear burkas, homosexuals are crushed to death, and statues are blown up. In other words, the certainty we’re now hearing from enlightened liberals that torture is manifestly wrong stems not so much from critical thinking or empirical evidence (France did not become an evil regime at home because it tortured Algerians abroad, for example), but from good old-fashioned dogmatism. A man who says torture is wrong in a ‘ticking time bomb’ case isn’t a man bereft of dogmatic certainty, but one weighed down by it.”

Yeah, we’re getting shovelfuls all right, but it isn’t platitudes that Goldberg is shoveling.

Opposition to torture is “flowery” – presumably only flower children and the gender-confused are the primary objectors to what, after all, is unlikely to turn us into the Taliban. Which is too bad, in a way: Goldberg wouldn’t look too bad in a burka – at least not as bad as he does now – and it might even muffle his voice so we wouldn’t have to hear his obnoxious smart-boy rationalizations for practices normal people regard as monstrous crimes.

That “ticking time bomb” Goldberg hears is a widespread auditory hallucination, experienced by many neocons, including some liberals like Alan Dershowitz: but the key thing to remember is that it isn’t real. In the unlikely event that we were in a position to torture the truth out of someone who had specific knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack, the unreliability of information extracted by such means would defeat us. New York City would go up in a puff of nuclear smoke anyway, because there is nothing to prevent the subject of torture from lying just to stop the pain.

I could go on listing the many defenders of torture on the Right, but for the definitive explication of this innovation in conservative theory let’s look at how Rush Limbaugh, the man who invented right-wing talk radio, shrugs off Abu Ghraib as just some of the boys letting off “a little steam“:

“This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it, and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You [ever] heard of need to blow some steam off?”

Limbaugh isn’t being facetious: he’s expressing the real soul of today’s “conservative” movement. His loud braying over the airwaves is the voice of what Lew Rockwell rightly calls “red-state fascism.” How is it that Ms. Applebaum has failed to hear it?

The torture issue did not arise out of the ether, although the abstractness of the Goldberg-Dershowitz “ticking time bomb” argument lends itself to this illusion. It was the inability of the American occupiers to get any useful intelligence on the burgeoning Iraqi insurgency that set the whole torture machine into motion: the war is what motivated the writing of the Gonzales memo, and the Bybee memo, which gave the Justice Department imprimatur to the legal rationale for discarding the Geneva conventions. Nor was all this memo writing just an idle literary-legal exercise. Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker in the middle of last year, reported the existence of a secret Pentagon elite force drawn from various branches of the military and intelligence agencies, and a clandestine international network of prisons. The operating principle of Rumsfeld’s secret army, as one former intelligence official told Hersh, is,

“Grab whom you must, do what you want.”

The task set for this army of budding nihilists was, at first, narrowly focused on al-Qaeda and the Afghan war, but as the administration’s attention began to turn toward Iraq, this shadowy force was unleashed on Iraq. Code-named Operation “Copper Green,” it was a program of systematic abuse instituted as a supposedly necessary tactic in the “war on terrorism.” This is what was being defended by Gonzales in his memo: this is the meaning of the obscene debate over the exact meaning of the term “torture” – does it mean only debilitating and potentially deadly bodily harm, or does sticking lit cigarettes in someone’s ear also qualify?

Ms. Applebaum is surprised by the lack of conservative conscience when it comes to the issue of torture. Yet no one is shocked when the same people suggest we ought to invade most of the countries in the Middle East and engulf them – their cities, their homes, their children – in a flaming sea of “creative destruction.” In the Gonzales nomination, reality is finally catching up with neoconservative rhetoric. The secret torture chambers presided over by this administration are now being embraced and even sanctified by red-state fascists as shrines to wartime necessity.

Gonzales is one of the high priests of this torture cult, as is made clear by the legal briefs drawn up by him and his compadres in the Justice Department. In the militarized version of conservatism that now dominates the Right, the civilian aspect of the president is subordinated to his role as commander-in-chief, which – according to our Justice Department legal theorists – gives him the power in wartime to override all legal and moral considerations, immunizing himself and his subordinates from prosecution for war crimes. This is what the president and his men believe. The perverted “constitutional” principle that Gonzales and his Justice Department will uphold is the fascist Leader principle dressed up in “patriotic” drag.

The red-state fascists who run the “conservative” movement today could care less about torture as a moral issue: after all, Israel officially condones torture. What else do we need to know?

They also are secretly pleased that Gonzales was instrumental in getting the Justice Department on record defending biological diversity as a criterion for college admissions. While opposition to race-based affirmative action is supposed to be a core conservative principle, the neocons are willing to make an exception in this case just as long as the GOP can pander to Gonzales’ Hispanic constituency. Forget immigration reform: just let us torture whatever terrorist suspects manage to get over our open borders. Bush can explain to them in Spanish why torture is necessary – you know, just like it is in Mexico.

Excuse me for being culturally insensitive, but America is fast becoming a banana republic. Our arrogant caudillo swaggers across the national stage wearing a variety of outlandish military uniforms, while adoring crowds of red-state fascists roar their approval. And every known principle of American political culture – the rule of law and the Constitution, the balance of powers, the right of due process, and the inviolability of our homes – is thrown overboard in the name of fighting a war without end.

War is torture inflicted on large numbers of people. The war-worshipping blood lust that is the central organizing principle of present-day “conservatism” not only excuses but encourages such barbaric practices as electroshock, beatings, and the unleashing of dogs on helpless prisoners, as well as sexual humiliation and other forms of degradation. It’s the Black Mass of the War Party: a ritual evocation of the spirit in the new secular religion of power.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].