In early 1860, Alexander Lydy was a hard-working farmer living
with his wife Sarah Ann and their three children in a small log
house in Washington Courthouse, Ohio.
Lydy is an ancestor of mine. His story is vitally important to
hear now as the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings of
attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales are under way.
In early 1860, Alexander Lydy was a hard-working farmer living with his wife Sarah Ann and their three children in a small log house in Washington Courthouse, Ohio.
Lydy is an ancestor of mine. His story is vitally important to hear now as the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings of attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales are under way.
Soon after the American Civil War began, Lydy volunteered with the Union Army. He served six relatively quiet months with the Ohio regiment. After re-enlisting with Company F, First West Virginia Cavalry, his life took a dramatic turn.
During a scouting mission, he came across a band of Confederate horsemen. Lydy rode a fast steed. He thought he could easily escape. But while jumping a ditch, his horse hit soft dirt. The two fell into the water. The young man gave himself up as a prisoner of war.
The Confederates took Lydy to Libby Prison, a converted brick tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Va. Cells were overcrowded. Guards shot prisoners poking their heads between the bars for fresh air. Prisoners endured brutal beatings and humiliations from their captors. Some Union officers were confined in pitch-black underground cells for as long as half a year. During that lengthy time, mold accumulated on their gaunt bodies.
But the hell of Libby Prison was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what awaited Alexander Lydy. He was transported by train to Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Andersonville was an open stockyard where Confederates kept 50,000 Union soldiers locked up in a place intended for only about 8,000 men. Union prisoners endured hot, humid summers and cold, rain-drenched winters. Guards scattered corn bread – when available – on the ground for starving prisoners to scavenge like animals. A small, putrid stream provided water and cleared human waste.
Sadistic Confederate guards treated the POWs with indescribable callousness. During the years Lydy spent as a POW, an international movement began to attempt to humanize the treatment of wounded and imprisoned soldiers of war. In 1863, sparked in part by Civil War atrocities at prison camps such as Andersonville, a merchant named Henry Dunant brought together representatives from 16 countries to Geneva, Switzerland, to initiate “The International Committee for Relief to the Wounded,” later renamed the “International Committee of the Red Cross.”
In 1864 a diplomatic conference convened in Geneva in which nation members of the International Committee adopted a treaty entitled the “Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.” At a later meeting, they amended this document to include humane treatment of POWs.
Since 1884, when the United States signed the Geneva Convention, most American presidents have upheld the sanctity of this historically respected international treaty. Unfortunately after 9/11, our current Commander in Chief chose to ignore its humanitarian tenets. Under George W. Bush’s watch, Muslim POWs in the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba and the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq have suffered brutal treatment and torture at American hands.
The Red Cross and U.S. military personnel have extensively documented men, women and even children prisoners being humiliated, sexually assaulted, tortured, beaten and killed.
What possible benefit can the United States gain from the flagrant disrespect of Geneva Convention mandates? Is it worth the price we pay to gain possibly useful “national security” information through our savagery toward prisoners?
The cost is too steep. The cost includes the decline of our integrity and credibility with foreign nations – who now see us transforming into a tyrannical monster as malevolent as the evil dictators we despise.
Our inhumane treatment of political prisoners also creates a powerful propaganda tool for Al Queda and the Taliban to recruit fresh terrorist members.
But far beyond that, the Bush administration’s disregard for the Geneva Convention has damaged the principles we Americans pledge to protect. The imperial arrogance of George W. Bush contradicts our national values of liberty, justice and human rights. Do we want our nation to become the anti-democratic horror we claim to hate?
Bush desires to reward his friend Alberto Gonzales with the powerful position of attorney general, replacing the odious John Ashcroft. As White House counsel, Gonzales served as the chief architect behind America’s breaking the mandates of the Geneva Convention. Gonzales stands behind the abuse and torture of Muslim prisoners. The infamous memo he sent Mr. Bush on Jan. 25, 2002, assured the president that America’s war on terror “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners.”
Can Americans trust an attorney general responsible for protecting our nation’s laws – when he so blatantly advocates breaking those laws? The Senate’s raising Gonzales to such a high seat of power would be a colossal error of judgement. It plants the seeds for another 9/11.
That’s why, in an unprecedented partnership, military generals and veterans have joined with human rights groups to oppose Gonzales’ nomination.
At Andersonville, I once walked among the Georgia pines in the dust of Alexander Lydy’s footsteps. Andersonville is now a national historic site serving as a consecrated place to reflect on the torture and abuses prisoners throughout time have faced. I wonder what Alexander Lydy might tell Senators in regards to nominating Alberto Gonzales. My ancestor might remind them of how vitally important the Geneva Convention is in protecting POWs.
Perhaps in their questioning of Gonzales, our leaders might find it beneficial to listen to the words of history’s most famous prisoner – a man whose spiritual teachings President Bush himself claims to believe and faithfully follow. That political prisoner was arrested one night 2,000 years ago. A corrupt imperial government held him captive without due process of law. He was humiliated, tortured, beaten and killed. That prisoner might tell President Bush and the Senators these simple words: “That which you do unto the least of my brethren, also you do unto me.”
I hope President Bush – unlike Pontius Pilate – does not try to wash his hands of the matter.