AT least since Watergate, Americans have come to take for granted a certain story line of scandal, in which revelation is followed by investigation, adjudication and expiation. Together, Congress and the courts investigate high-level wrongdoing and place it in a carefully constructed narrative, in which crimes are charted, malfeasance is explicated and punishment is apportioned as the final step in the journey back to order, justice and propriety.
When Alberto Gonzales takes his seat before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for hearings to confirm whether he will become attorney general of the United States, Americans will bid farewell to that comforting story line. The senators are likely to give full legitimacy to a path that the Bush administration set the country on more than three years ago, a path that has transformed the United States from a country that condemned torture and forbade its use to one that practices torture routinely. Through a process of redefinition largely overseen by Mr. Gonzales himself, a practice that was once a clear and abhorrent violation of the law has become in effect the law of the land.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Americans began torturing prisoners, and they have never really stopped. However much these words have about them the ring of accusation, they must by now be accepted as fact. From Red Cross reports, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba's inquiry, James R. Schlesinger's Pentagon-sanctioned commission and other government and independent investigations, we have in our possession hundreds of accounts of "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment - to use a phrase of the Red Cross - "tantamount to torture."
So far as we know, American intelligence officers, determined after Sept. 11 to "take the gloves off," began by torturing Qaeda prisoners. They used a number of techniques: "water-boarding," in which a prisoner is stripped, shackled and submerged in water until he begins to lose consciousness, and other forms of near suffocation; sleep and sensory deprivation; heat and light and dietary manipulation; and "stress positions."
Eventually, these practices "migrated," in the words of the Schlesinger report, to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where for a time last spring the marvel of digital technology allowed Americans to see what their soldiers were doing to prisoners in their name.
Though the revelations of Abu Ghraib transfixed Americans for a time, in the matter of torture not much changed. After those in Congress had offered condemnations and a few hearings distinguished by their lack of seriousness; after the administration had commenced the requisite half-dozen investigations, none of them empowered to touch those who devised the policies; and after the low-level soldiers were placed firmly on the road to punishment - after all this, the issue of torture slipped back beneath the surface. Every few weeks now, a word or two reaches us from that dark, subterranean place. Take, for example, this account, offered by an unnamed F.B.I. counterterrorism official reporting in August, more than three months after the Abu Ghraib images appeared, on what he saw during a visit to Guantánamo:
"On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more...When I asked the M.P.'s what was going on, I was told that interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occasion...the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night."
This is a fairly mild example when judged against the accounts of the "abuses" that have entered the public record. I put quotation marks around the word "abuses" because most of these acts - as the F.B.I. agent acknowledged ("the interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment") - were in fact procedures, which would not have been possible without policies that had been approved by administration officials.
In the next few days we are likely to hear how Mr. Gonzales recommended strongly, against the arguments of the secretary of state and military lawyers, that prisoners in Afghanistan be denied the protection of the Geneva Conventions. We are also likely to hear how, under Mr. Gonzales's urging, lawyers in the Department of Justice contrived - when confronted with the obstacle that the United States had undertaken, by treaty and statute, to make torture illegal - simply to redefine the word to mean procedures that would produce pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure." By this act of verbal legerdemain, interrogation techniques like water-boarding that plainly constituted torture suddenly became something less than that.
But what we are unlikely to hear, given the balance of votes in the Senate, are many voices making the obvious argument that with this record, Mr. Gonzales is unfit to serve as attorney general. So let me make it: Mr. Gonzales is unfit because the slow river of litigation is certain to bring before the next attorney general a raft of torture cases that challenge the very policies that he personally helped devise and put into practice. He is unfit because, while the attorney general is charged with upholding the law, the documents show that as White House counsel, Mr. Gonzales, in the matter of torture, helped his client to concoct strategies to circumvent it. And he is unfit, finally, because he has rightly become the symbol of the United States' fateful departure from a body of settled international law and human rights practice for which the country claims to stand.
On the other hand, perhaps it is fitting that Mr. Gonzales be confirmed. The system of torture has, after all, survived its disclosure. We have entered a new era; the traditional story line in which scandal leads to investigation and investigation leads to punishment has been supplanted by something else. Wrongdoing is still exposed; we gaze at the photographs and read the documents, and then we listen to the president's spokesman "reiterate," as he did last week, "the president's determination that the United States never engage in torture." And there the story ends.
At present, our government, controlled largely by one party only intermittently harried by a timorous opposition, is unable to mete out punishment or change policy, let alone adequately investigate its own war crimes. And, as administration officials clearly expect, and senators of both parties well understand, most Americans - the Americans who will not read the reports, who will soon forget the photographs and who will be loath to dwell on a repellent subject - are generally content to take the president at his word.
But reality has a way of asserting itself. In the end, as Gen. Joseph P. Hoar pointed out this week, the administration's decision on the Geneva Conventions "puts all American servicemen and women at risk that are serving in combat regions." For General Hoar - a retired commander of American forces in the Middle East and one of a dozen prominent retired generals and admirals to oppose Mr. Gonzales - torture has a way of undermining the forces using it, as it did with the French Army in Algeria.
The general's concerns are understandable. The war in Iraq and the war on terrorism are ultimately political in character. Victory depends in the end not on technology or on overwhelming force but on political persuasion. By using torture, the country relinquishes the very ideological advantage - the promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights - that the president has so persistently claimed is America's most powerful weapon in defeating Islamic extremism. One does not reach democracy, or freedom, through torture.
By using torture, we Americans transform ourselves into the very caricature our enemies have sought to make of us. True, that miserable man who pulled out his hair as he lay on the floor at Guantánamo may eventually tell his interrogators what he knows, or what they want to hear. But for America, torture is self-defeating; for a strong country it is in the end a strategy of weakness. After Mr. Gonzales is confirmed, the road back - to justice, order and propriety - will be very long. Torture will belong to us all.
Mark Danner is the author of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror."