NEW YORK—Al Capone served six years at Alcatraz—for tax evasion. The true Original Gangsta was never held to account for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre that left seven men cut in half by machine gun fire. Or the two disloyal wiseguys he ordered beaten to death with baseball bats. Or the corruption and mayhem his gangsters inflicted during the years he terrorized Chicago. Eliot Ness was cute, but the justice system failed. Capone won in the end.
Like Capone, Alberto Gonzales has gone down for a mere misdemeanor: firing U.S. attorneys for investigating Republican politicians. What led to his resignation as attorney general was his smearing them as incompetent. Hell hath no fury as a man fired without a positive recommendation. (Gonzales, a buffoon on his best day, perjured himself in spectacularly inept style in testimony about domestic wiretapping before Congress—an outfit that has forgotten more about lying than lesser lights will ever know.)
Gonzales' crime was a doozy: He created the legal framework for American fascism. No punishment could suffice for America's Eichmann, author of infamous pseudolegal rationales for torture and the end of habeas corpus. And none will he face.
"Fredo" (Bush's nickname for him) quit over a procedural personnel matter. If he ultimately faces justice, it will be for mere perjury. Even his critics don't care about his monstrous role as the legal architect of our post-9/11 gulags—proof positive that the master corrupter of democracy has triumphed, that we Americans are not a decent people.
"Are we being forward-leaning enough?" Gonzales used to ask his colleagues. "Forward-leaning" was Bush administration jargon for toughness in the war on terror. It didn't mean bending the rules. The Bushies were radicals. Trashing centuries-old constitutional protections—the right to an attorney, to face your accuser in a court of law, not to be tortured—wasn't enough for our suburban Robespierres. They longed for an American Rome ruled by a harsh, omnipotent emperor over legions of troops standing ready to destroy all who challenged them, foreigners and Americans alike. They said 9/11 had changed everything. The new order required new laws.
One of the first steps down the road to perdition was a January 25, 2002, legal memorandum advising Bush to deny legal rights to Afghan prisoners of war. "There are reasonable grounds for you to conclude that [the Geneva POW Convention] does not apply ... to the conflict with the Taliban," wrote Gonzales, then working as White House counsel. Deploying his characteristic blend of ignorance, arrogance and illogic, he called the Geneva Conventions—which have saved the lives of thousands of captured American soldiers— "quaint." He then argued "that the Taliban and its forces were, in fact, not a government but a militant, terrorist-like group." Actually, the Clinton and Bush administrations had treated the Taliban regime as a government, negotiating with its leaders over oil-pipeline transit fees and subsidizing it with millions of U.S. tax dollars. U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, had embassies in Kabul. History was collateral damage in the war of terror.
Having denied captured Afghan soldiers POW status—"detainees," newspapers began calling them—the Bush administration looked for "forward-leaning" ways to abuse them. Children as young as 12 were beaten, shipped in shackles, their heads shaved and covered with gunny sacks, to Guantanamo Bay. Years have passed; they've grown up in Camp Delta. These kids—rural conscripts who couldn't have attacked the U.S. even if they'd thought of it—still haven't been allowed to see a lawyer or their parents.
Worried that the American people might someday return to its senses and prosecute them for their monstrous crimes against humanity, the Bushies again turned to their affirmative-action poster child—this time for a CIA memo validating torture. The CIA wanted permission to use six "pressure techniques" against prisoners. Mock burial, Gonzales and his legal staff thought, was a mite "too harsh." The medieval practice of waterboarding, on the other hand, was OK. Another practice, "open-handed slapping of suspects, drew much discussion," reported Newsweek. The idea was "just to shock someone with the physical impact," one of Gonzales' staffers said, with "little chance of bone damage or tissue damage." Gonzales approved it.
The discussion resulted in an August 1, 2002, memo to Gonzales, which he passed on to Bush. The CIA and U.S. soldiers were free to subject prisoners to "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment. All they needed was permission from the Emperor. "Those committing torture with express presidential authority," The Washington Post reported about the memo, "were probably immune from prosecution." Abu Ghraib followed.
Slippery slopes are usually cited as cautionary tales. Gonzales saw post-9/11 fear as an opportunity to be exploited. He pushed for the USA Patriot Act. Foreign detainees, he decided, would get military kangaroo courts. Using Gonzales' advice as back-up, Bush signed an executive order authorizing himself to declare any U.S. citizen an "enemy combatant" and have him assassinated. Next came the terrifying Military Commissions Act, which allows a president to declare martial law, seize control of the National Guard from the states and throw U.S. citizens into concentration camps for the rest of their lives.
But no one objected to any of these attacks on our freedom. Not the news media. Not the Democrats—they voted for them.
After Torturer-in-Chief Gonzales announced his departure, Ted Kennedy slammed him—for perjury. "He has exhibited a lack of candor with Congress and the American people and a disdain for the rule of law and our constitutional system," said the liberal stalwart. "The rampant politicization of federal law enforcement that occurred under his tenure seriously eroded public confidence in our justice system," added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, focusing, like everybody else, on the fired U.S. attorneys. The word "torture" didn't come up.
Gonzales will be remembered as corrupt and intellectually deficient. Nevertheless, his legal legacy will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future. Torture isn't in the news because it isn't news. It's normal.
The monster dragged the rest of us down to his level. We are all Alberto Gonzales.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.