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Alberto Mora '74

Alberto Mora '74

Alberto Mora, you called for justice, at a time when the cherished values of this country were being severely compromised by the use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo. In so doing you became a model for all who would stand up for liberty and the rule of law.
President Bloom's complete charge.

President Bloom, Members of the Faculty, Fellow Honorees, Swarthmore Graduates and Students, Families and Friends:

My deepest thanks for this exceptional and unimagined honor. Having strived for and earned one Swarthmore degree, I never entertained the prospect that I might earn a second, perhaps because the scalding memory of the level of effort required for the first blocked thoughts of such impossibility. That the College should have found it fit to recognize some of my actions and judge them to constitute accomplishments is profoundly moving and humbling.

The 34 years that have elapsed since my own graduation ceremony have only served to magnify my gratitude to — and respect, affection, and appreciation for — this remarkable institution. Swarthmore shaped the person I am. Perhaps more importantly, it molded the person I aspire to be. Few Swarthmore students will, I know, be much surprised by this statement: No Swarthmore student I ever knew felt wholly comfortable that he or she measured up to the academic, societal, or ethical standards of excellence the College demands of us. And, I can assure those who graduate today, when you return here 10, 20, or 34 years from today, you will still wonder whether you lived up to those expectations in your lives or careers.

The College honors me today for my actions, while serving as General Counsel of the Department of the Navy, in opposition to the use of cruelty in the interrogation of detainees taken captive in the War on Terror.

Whatever else may be said about this war in the future, this war will be regarded as historically significant because we as a nation — despite our laws, values, and traditions — consciously applied cruelty against captives and sought to amend or reinterpret our laws so as make this, which was illegal, legal.

This policy was first adopted in the summer of 2002. At Guantanamo and elsewhere, U.S. authorities held in detention individuals thought to have information on other impending attacks against the United States. It was believed that, unless this information was obtained, more Americans could die. And, in response, our government made legal and policy decisions providing, in effect, that for some detainees labeled as "unlawful combatants," harsh interrogation methods could be applied. Many of the methods approved constituted cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and lesser forms of abuse although, with the recent admission that waterboarding was among those methods, we now know that torture was also explicitly authorized and applied.

These authorizations rested on five beliefs or assumptions. Each of them was false:

First, the use of harsh interrogation techniques was necessary if our nation was to be protected against further loss of life.

Second, no law prohibited the application of cruelty. Thus, the government could direct the use of cruelty as a matter of policy depending on the dictates of perceived military necessity.

Third, the President's constitutional commander-in-chief authorities included the unabridged discretion to order cruelty. Any existing or proposed law or treaty that would purport to limit this discretion would be an unconstitutional limitation of his powers.

Fourth, the use of cruelty in the interrogation of unlawful detainees held abroad would not implicate or adversely affect our values, our domestic legal order, our international relations, or our security strategy.

And fifth, if this abuse were disclosed or discovered, virtually no one would care.

Not all unlawful combatants in custody were mistreated, but it is enough to say that some were. Not all who were mistreated were abused as a result of official policy, but many were. And not all were tortured, but some were. No matter how circumscribed these policies were, or how short their duration, or how few the victims — for as long as these policies were — or are — in effect, our government adopted and practiced what only can be labeled as a policy of cruelty.

Before 9/11, the national consensus held that neither cruel treatment nor punishment could be applied to human beings. Now, there is no longer a consensus. Now, many Americans are of the view that cruel treatment or even torture may and should be applied against our enemies, or those who may possibly be our enemies, if doing so could make us safer. Cruelty, once held in disrepute, has been — astonishingly — rehabilitated in the minds of many. What was once unspeakable is now a subject of polite conversation.

But not here. I like to think that there is no member of the Swarthmore community who could countenance the embrace of cruelty. No one educated here could fail to recognize that a person's right to be free from cruel treatment is a fundamental human right and that the observance of this right is central to our nation's values and constitutional order. All of us here know that to adopt and apply a policy of cruelty anywhere within this world is to say that our Founders were wrong about their belief in the rights of the individual, because there is no right more fundamental than the right to be safe from cruel and inhumane treatment.

If we can lawfully abuse detainees the way some were abused — however reprehensible their acts may have been — it is because all individuals do not have the inalienable right to be free from cruelty. And if that is the case, then the foundation upon which our own rights are based starts to crumble, because it would then ultimately be left to the discretion of the state whether and how much cruelty may be applied to any person.

Whether we resort to cruelty is a defining issue for us. It is about who we are as a nation. It is about remaining faithful to our heritage and constitutional order. It is about who we wish to become and what kind of world we wish to live in. It is about protecting human dignity at home and abroad. It is about mounting the most effective defense to the terrorist threat, knowing that we weaken our defenses when we depart from our values. And it is about our understanding — to use Albert Camus' formulation — that cruelty is a weapon whose use would destroy the very values we seek to protect.