Alberto Gonzales, Victim

Steve already wrote about Alberto Gonzales’ interview in the WSJ. I just wanted to add one thing.

Atrios says:

“I’m actually not even entirely sure why I feel extra disgust for the people who rationalized evil instead of the ones who ordered and committed it.”

Obviously, I have no idea why Atrios, in particular, feels that way. But I’m tempted to feel something similar, though in the final analysis I tend to loathe the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in ways I don’t think I’ll ever loathe Alberto Gonzales. And the temptation comes from something like this:

Whatever you might think about Dick Cheney, he does have the courage of his convictions. That’s what makes him so uniquely despicable: he not only did abhorrent things that badly damaged our country, he actually believed that those things were right, and bent his considerable talents to achieve them. He considered the problems around him, weighed various responses, chose some of the most abhorrent and disastrous options available, and bent the administration to his will.

Alberto Gonzales is, in many ways, Cheney’s polar opposite in the Bush administration. I have never seen any evidence that torture or secrecy were his ideas, or any aspect of his personality that would resonate with them, the way Bush’s obvious cruel streak does. For that matter, despite having read a lot about him, I have never seen evidence that his personality so much as exists, unless a kind of dim amiability and eagerness to please can be considered a personality. The problem with him isn’t malevolence; it’s that he seems to come as close as a healthy living human being can to nonexistence.

There’s something spooky about that. We normally try pretty hard to attribute agency to people — to attribute what they do to forethought and planning rather than stumbling in the dark, for instance. We recognize that none of us is deliberate all the time. But surely, we tend to think, there are limits to what you can do, or let happen, without thinking and choosing. Therefore, we tend to assume that when someone does the kinds of things Alberto Gonzales has done — preside over the creation of the torture memos and the politicization of the Justice Department, for instance — he had to have had some sort of intention, or at least decided not to assert himself.

I honestly don’t think Gonzales is enough of an agent to have done either. I just don’t think there’s enough to him. And that’s scary. Moreover, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with this. Throughout the WSJ interview he portrays himself as uninvolved in what happened there while he was Attorney General. And it’s not as though those bad things were, say, the work of some low-level employee with whom there was no reason for him to come into contact. If it wasn’t done by him, it was done by his immediate subordinates, with his approval.

I keep wanting to say to him: Stop! Stop talking as though not being involved would make everything OK! Can’t you see that if, in fact, you were just a bystander to all this, a little piece of flotsam bobbing along in the ocean of the DoJ, if the most important things that happened in your department somehow had nothing to do with you, that fact in itself would be shameful? Don’t you see that no one with any self-respect would want to admit publicly to being such a passive nothing of a person?

At the end of the day, I think Cheney is by far the worse of the two. But I do see Atrios’ point, and I think the word ‘disgust’ is apt. Gonzales’ interview, on its best possible construction, involves a lack of basic self-respect and a capacity for willing degradation that makes me want to turn away.

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