07/02/2007 04:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Strange Justice of Alberto Gonzales

The great charge of justice is not to redeem history but to make it possible. The great failure of Alberto Gonzales is his refusal to heed that charge.

To see what I mean, let's start with the former statement. Redemption no doubt has its place, but human justice isn't it. The problem is that redemptive justice requires too absolute an authority: it cannot acquire a political character without seeking to eclipse the public sphere. Redemptive justice, that is, demands such a moral, religious or even secular absolutism that it will invariably contest the authority of any public realm it enters. And since history depends on that realm, redemptive justice thus risks history itself. That's why the purpose of justice must never be to redeem the wrongs of the past, but to restore our trust in the society of today -- for only from within such trust, by contrast, is history able to emerge.

Which brings us back to our current Attorney General. Thanks to his own incompetence and some great lead reporting, his specific failures are now famously legion. They include the widespread misconduct of his staff, the pathetic dramaturgy of their congressional testimony and his, and the surreal irony that he is now under investigation by the department he runs. Yet again, however, his greatest failure lies far deeper: namely, in the conviction that justice ought to redeem history rather than initiate it.

Admittedly, that's not a particularly original conviction. Every religious and political utopia ever attempted has harbored a similar one. Yet somehow even here Mr. Gonzales has managed to distinguish himself. In short, his justice is unique insofar as its redemptive power derives from neither religious sanctification nor moral justification alone. Instead, it owes to a curious combination of the two: it merges the certainty and absolutism of the divine command with the secular legitimacy of constitutional democracy.

The religious aspect of that combination is most evident, of course, in pawned acolytes like Monica Goodling. But it's perhaps most saliently revealed in the new priorities of the department's Civil Rights Division, which has begun to focus less on race or gender and more on religious discrimination. The logic underlying that focus is supremely telling: it betrays an understanding of politics, rooted in the letters of St. Paul, in which human freedom is inherently pre-political. The primary role of the state, in this view, is merely to allow the spiritual freedom we already enjoy to manifest itself in temporal terms. For Christians in government office (a la Mr. Gonzales) that means they must safeguard the surety of purpose that religion affords precisely by contracting the political sphere. They must be absolutist, that is, about instituting a non-absolutist state.

For the rest of us, the good news is that that paradox has always held American Christianity in check. From the colonial era on, there was never going to be the kind of theocratic state that we see in the Iran of today or the Judea of the Old Testament.

Yet the bad news is that it's still absolutist. As such, it's as prone to abuse and overreach as any instance of political absolutism. In fact, it may be even more so: the overt emphasis on restraint seems to lull those who fail to grasp their own contradictions into dismissing, almost out of hand, any allegation that they might be overreaching themselves.

In that regard, Mr. Gonzales is nothing if not true to form. Once you know what the will of God is -- in his case, "constitutional" democracy -- then any number of transgressions become justified. Being less than honest, as he so clearly was in the congressional hearings this spring, barely even registers. Nor does blatantly politicizing the justice department -- political appointments are in fact necessary, because only conservatives understand what "impartial justice" truly means. Likewise, advocating state surveillance of political opponents, which he seems to have done in his previous capacity as White House counsel, probably didn't cost him much sleep either. In fact, if I had to guess, about the only thing Mr. Gonzales so much as regrets is the use of torture and the denial of habeas corpus -- and that not because either is intrinsically wrong, but because the world must be in a sorry state indeed if we have no recourse but to resort to them.

The sheer bankruptcy of such logic places Mr. Gonzales in a remarkably tenuous position. He is too wedded to democracy and freedom -- albeit very narrow conceptions of each -- to be able to defend his justice in either the prophetic terms of the theocrat or the Machiavellian terms of the tyrant. Yet at the same time, he is too wedded to a species of absolutism, however delimited, to avoid the same totalizing pretensions of power to which all those who would redeem history succumb.

In the end, that tension is precisely what has purged the justice of Mr. Gonzales of any substantive meaning. Far from redeeming, atoning for, or even completing history, he has instead compromised its emergence. By imposing justice so unilaterally, he has exposed the ideals of our democracy -- without which our actions cannot acquire historic weight -- to be little more than power masquerading as virtue.

Whether we recover from that obliquity will depend on how well we resolve the impasse it's yielded. Since Mr. Gonzales has refused to resign, a public long accustomed to the swift indulgences of democratic power will now have to endure, for the next eighteen months, an unaccustomed impotence.

The dangers of that impasse are twofold. The first and most obvious is apathy: if President Bush has made it clear that there is no political calculus -- shy perhaps of an indictment -- in which the liability of supporting Mr. Gonzales is greater than the liability of removing him, then the temptation is to shrug our shoulders, note there's nothing more we can do, and move on. Yet just because we lack the power to remove the Attorney General outright doesn't mean that we are powerless altogether. Far from it: the Bush administration can still be forced to make a variety of concessions elsewhere. So long as President Bush refuses to replace Mr. Gonzales, we can still exact the full political cost of that refusal.

Conversely, the other danger is what might be termed moral amnesia. The longer Mr. Gonzales continues as Attorney General, the greater the temptation will be to demonize him so thoroughly that we all but exculpate ourselves. Yet Mr. Gonzales didn't become Attorney General all on his own. President Bush appointed him only after an election in which it was clear that Mr. Gonzales, who had long since suggested that the Geneva Conventions were "obsolete," may well be given the office. To neglect that fact -- to distance ourselves completely from Mr. Gonzales' failures -- is to risk repeating the same mistake.

And therein lies the rub. At 27, I more or less take it as a given that my generation will again find itself in a context not unlike that of 2002 and 2004. Once more we will have suffered a major terrorist attack, and once more we'll have to choose between candidates who merely profess the virtues of robust security, and others who also offer the easy allure and false clarity of redemptive justice.

How we respond to the present impasse will prefigure our response to terrorism in the future. If we manage to protest the failures of Mr. Gonzales while also admitting our responsibility for them, then we should be able to restore the integrity of our judicial system over the long term. But if we fail to do so -- which is to say, if we become apathetic, or if we refuse to recognize and learn from our mistakes -- then I'm not so sure.

For when the time comes, we'll need to remember that this strange justice of Alberto Gonzales was in fact no justice at all. Our history will depend on it.

-Chris Meserole