Yesterday was a terrible day in the history of the United States. I am referring to the decision of the Senate Judiciary Committee to endorse the nomination of Michael B. Mukasey for attorney general despite his refusal to state that waterboarding was torture. We should not declare that this is a point of no return–quite the opposite is required–but there is no doubt that American government has been stained.Not that you would know it from this photograph of the two Democratic Senators who voted for the nomination.
The photograph was taken after the vote. I can’t stand it. Feinstein (on the left) and Schumer (on the right) are so into the political schmooze, so full of themselves–having a great time, really. They’re allies on this one, political friends in the full glow of their complicity. Eye to eye, hand to hand, each turned to the other, enjoying the pleasure of their company. But for the difference in gender, they are almost identically arrayed: hair swept back, dark suitcoat, red tie/blouse, lighter pearls/shirt collar. . . it goes even further: they have the same wrinkles and smile lines, the same smile. They are each perfectly at home in the same mask, the same role.
And that’s the hell of it. This is just another vote, another moment of political frisson among those at the top, another day in the life of the successful pol. They have no idea of what they have done. How could they? They have no shame.
I am not bemoaning a loss of innocence, for much more than that was destroyed yesterday. The question is not whether US personnel have used, condoned, or supported torture; they have. Nor is it a question of whether this has happened only in Iraq or in other conflicts; it has happened before. In every case, however, those awful, ugly acts were done as part of the savagery of combat or the vicious calculations of Cold War terrorism, and they were hidden from view.
The Bush administration has gone much further: They have done nothing less than try to make torture an explicitly condoned, legitimate state practice. They have done so through several means: by expanding the practice of torture, including extraordinary rendition and prison interrogations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay; by crafting the legal and administrative measures to institutionalize this immoral and dangerous extension of executive power; and by using their propaganda machine to make their practices appear to be the normal exercise of power during a time of peril.
And until yesterday, one could say that this was happening only because they controlled the White House and didn’t have to secure the approval of the Congress. But when two leading Democrats voted with all nine Republicans on the panel to approve the nomination, the devil’s bargain could no longer be disguised. The Republicans should not be excused for one instant, for their votes counted just as much and they could no more claim ignorance of what was on the line, but surely the blame has to placed above all on Senators Feinstein and Schumer.
They will have arguments justifying their decisions, of course. We will hear about the exceptional integrity of the nominee and the need to have a figure of accountability at the head of the Justice Department. That is nonsense. The confirmation hearing had already exposed Mukasey’s lack of integrity on the most important matter he would face as attorney general, and the institutional concern should not be the administration of a department already made useless. This is more than a matter on which reasonable people can disagree. No, the deeper problem is that the two Democratic Senators have endorsed the habits of public distortion that hide torture and in doing so destroy a society’s capacity for collective moral action. This is why the nominee’s evasions had to be stopped rather than condoned: they are as important to the practice of torture as the thugs recruited to inflict pain.
The committee vote is another demonstration of the effect torture has on a society. It destroys not only those being tortured but also those who do it, condone it, or otherwise allow it to continue. The loss is not of innocence, but rather of our capacity for moral life. Michael Mukasey represents not personal integrity but rather the habitual distortion of public speech–distortion that is essential for immoral government.
This is not the first time a society has begun to lose its fundamental sense of right and wrong, and more than that, its capacity to understand suffering and act on behalf of justice and compassion. The Biblical prophets saw the same thing, and they appealed to what sense of shame might yet remain among the leaders and the people. To see what they meant, you need look no farther than the figure between Feinstein and Schumer: Russell Feingold clearly knows better. He not only voted against the nomination, you can see that he is feeling the unseen darkness spreading around him.
Photograph by Doug Mills for the New York Times.