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Making It at Harvard Law
Distinguished Catholic jurists who preceded Perez at Harvard Law School -- like "where-does-the-Constitution-say-executions-have-to-be-painless" Antonin Scalia, and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- have amply demonstrated the validity of Lord Acton's dictum about how power corrupts. Perez's response suggests to me that some of this may have rubbed off on him as well.
I am grateful for the insights gained during my years of theology at Georgetown (coincidentally, the same years Perez spent at Harvard Law). The one theme wending its way through all the courses was this: what Yahweh of the Hebrew and Jesus of the Christian scriptures care about, above all else, is that we do Justice -- that disciples are called unambiguously, to Do Good and CONFRONT (not merely Avoid) Evil.
I was not surprised that Perez found my question unwelcome. I was surprised that he answered it so dismissively.
His reaction left the impression that, during whatever deliberations on executive accountability for torture he has been party to, he has held his nose in silence -- like his seniors of malleable conscience at Justice and the White House, who choose to duck, rather then confront human rights abuses involving U.S. officials.
Worse still, his taking refuge in "prosecutorial discretion" is flat-out wrong.
The Convention Against Torture
Does he not know that the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1984 (now signed by some 150 nations -- including the U.S., which ratified it on Oct. 21, 1994) has been and remains the supreme law of the land?
The Convention makes no allowance for "prosecutorial discretion."
If evidence of a violation arises, the signatories are obliged to promptly investigate any allegation of torture and, if appropriate, prosecute. The Convention's description of torture certainly includes waterboarding. And, as already mentioned, Attorney General Holder and President Obama have conceded the point.
(For that matter, even if waterboarding -- best defined as "contrived drowning with intentional resuscitation" -- were somehow to be deemed not torture, it would certainly constitute the "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" for which the Convention Against Torture also requires investigation as a matter of law.)
The Convention defines torture as:
"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession."
The Convention also declares torture an extraditable offense, and endorses the concept of universal jurisdiction to try cases of torture where an alleged torturer cannot be extradited.
Jesus and Empire
This may sound somewhat harsh, but it struck me that if Perez was not open to addressing "the way his work for justice is defined by his faith," he ought not to have appeared under that rubric.
Comparisons can be invidious. And the one that follows is probably somewhat unfair. But the exchange with Perez reminded me of another person of Christian faith, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to whom CBS' Leslie Stahl posed a difficult question on May 12, 1996.
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