The politics of cruelty: a lecture by Alberto Mora

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Friday, at the annual Thomas B. McCabe Lecture, a packed Science Center 101 eagerly awaited the arrival of the night’s speaker, Alberto Mora, Swarthmore Class of 1974. Mr. Mora is no liberal lion, but rather part of the great tradition of non-partisan civil servants fighting for the better angels of America’s nature, and used his experiences to elaborate on the loss of authority that has come with this nation’s demonstrations of strength in the so-called War on Terror.

His talk, entitled “Law, Foreign Policy, and the War on Terror,” was as reasonable and nuanced as the man who delivered it and represented the sort of discourse many find missing from American politics. Mr. Mora, now vice president and general counsel for the International Department of Wal-Mart Stores, was appointed as general counsel of theDepartment of the Navy by President George W. Bush in 2001, a post he resigned from in 2006. He previously served as general counsel to the United States Information Agency under President George H.W. Bush and on the Broadcasting Board of Governors under President Clinton. He received his J.D. from the University of Miami in 1981 and worked in the foreign service in Lisbon from 1975 to 1978. Prior to that Mr. Mora was an RA, the president of the Amos J. Peaslee Debate Society, the Features Editor of the Phoenix, a basketball player, and the portrayer of Banquo in “Macbeth,” all at Swarthmore.

Mr. Mora was instrumental in the inter-administration battle against the use of cruel coercive measures used as interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay, having recently been awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his efforts. The fact that he opposed the administration from within is not so much the point however as the solid philosophical, moral, legal, and practical underpinnings to his opposition. For example, while agreeing that the War on Terror is unlike any other war, as Mr. Bush’s administration posits, he counters that one of the key reasons that is so is that “we as a nation consciously applied cruelty to other individuals and sought to make that which is illegal, legal.”

Mr. Mora made an important point of the distinction between cruelty and torture; the law recognizes cruelty as an activity of a lower intensity, but morally, in his view, there is no distinction to be made. This led into a lucid delineation of the four mistaken assumptions of Mr. Bush’s administration. First, the administration assumed that no law prohibited the application of cruelty. Second, it assumed that the president’s constitutional authority as commander-in-chief included the authority to be cruel. Third, Mr. Bush’s policy makers assumed that if the program of cruel treatment were disclosed, no one would care. Fourth, the policy would not jeopardize our international relations, domestic law, moral standing, or national security. In Mr. Mora’s view, all of these assumptions proved to be tragically wrong from both a moral and strategic standpoint.

Mr. Mora strongly emphasized that before 9/11, there would be no debate on this subject; the view from all parts of the political spectrum would be that torture was wrong and illegal. Today, however, “what was once unspeakable is now the subject of polite conversation.” This openness to cruelty damages our constitutional structure based on rights that form a “shield of innate dignity that we accord to all persons.” To say that these rights are sometimes irrelevant and do not apply to all “is to say that our Founding Fathers were wrong,” and thus “rights are no longer inalienable.”

Also, Mr. Mora elucidated that these assumptions damages the law itself, for if policy is made beyond the scope of law, then the rule of law is diminished, as are “the strength of our example, the strength of our economy, and the strength of a foreign policy that was successful largely because it was congruous with our national beliefs.” He gave this last point some resonance by recounting how, while he was in the foreign service, Portuguese citizens would tell him how much they admired President Carter for his stands on human rights. That kind of standing is crucial to having any sort of global authority. As a counter-example, Mr. Mora recounted one of the moments in his life when he felt the most shameful, when at an international summit, he was the ranking American in the room, and he was berated for having “led to an increase in prisoner abuse worldwide and making it legally and politically difficult to persist in alliances” with the United States.

Many today make the point that in order to win this war, we must not relinquish the moral highground. While the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, as endorsed by the civilian leadership of both the military and the CIA, make this difficult, Mr. Mora’s argument that “to their savagery, we should offer justice” is a persuasive one for this need. For the question still remains whether these horrific incidents represent an aberration or the start of a new policy trend. Mr. Mora’s response to one of the questions he was asked is perhaps the most important thing to take away from his lecture. Mr. Bush’s administration was not motivated by hatred or malice, but “a potent overwhelming desire to strike back.” Our guest lecturer was in the Pentagon when it was struck by American Airlines Flight 77; he witnessed President Bush personally speaking to the personnel of the building on the day after. While only some, most notably administration officials at the highest levels, believe the terrorists have “forfeited the right to humane treatment,” Mr. Mora gave us the unreassuring assurance us that “the greatest threat to our civil liberties is another terrorist attack.” In that event, “this kind of discussion would become academic.” With any luck, in that horrific event, policy-makers would still be able to recognize the need to play defense smart, as Mr. Mora does, and did.

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