Dick Cheney's Flawed Moral Compass

Dick Cheney’s mien is too distinct to be uncultivated, and so distinctly sinister, watching him defend his administration’s record on torture yesterday was a bit like watching a trailer for a summer horror flick. The banality of the image – the starched white shirt, the flat, monotone voice, the precise and considered language of the text – all were part of the scariness, like the movies about the killer who teaches Sunday School. This is not "Terminator" with a bunch of high-tech gizmos. Evil is again banal at the American Enterprise Institute.

And, evil it is in four ways. First, Cheney continues to refuse to acknowledge that his "enhanced interrogation techniques" were torture. Of course, he can’t admit this because torture is illegal, but he is one of five people who seem to think that water-boarding is not torture. Recall that one of the scariest things in Orwell’s 1984 was the way government leaders used language to manipulate. Cheney’s refusal to call torture by its name is dangerous at many levels.


Second, he not only shows no regret for administering torture, he continues to defend it with the most flawed moral logic. I don’t recall at what age my mother told me "the ends do not justify the means," but I am pretty sure I was a pre-teenager. Yet this is Cheney’s defense, that the torture worked. Mind you, many insist that the truly valuable information gleaned from the terrorists came from the non-torture techniques, but that is a technical question for the experts. Even if the torture "worked" that does not justify doing it. This is "a fundamental moral principle" of the Catholic faith so I am hoping that those who protested President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame will be just as vigilant to keep Cheney from the stage of any Catholic university.

Third, Cheney can never quite disagree with an opponent on principle. Instead, the indignation many feel at America’s use of torture is a "contrived indignation" and the moral concerns many of us have raised amount to "phony moralizing." Bless his heart, he does speak his mind, but his mind is so Nixonian, Manichaean in its assessments of the world and chock full of anger and resentment and fear. If Americans rejected anything in the last election, however, it was this brand of "us v. them" politics. President Obama is still fleshing out the "change" and "hope" he promised, but it was a change from the Cheney worldview and a hope for a less divisive politics that drove the electorate, especially young voters, into the President’s column on election day.

Finally, there is the strange combination of lies and fear that were the most discredited part of the Bush-Cheney justifications for the Iraq War. "But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed," Cheney said yesterday. "You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States." But, Mr. Cheney – there are no nuclear-armed terrorists.  To invoke them is mere fear-mongering. And, the Obama administration is not recommending half-measures but better measures, better not least because any measure that violates our values and our laws is itself a half-measure, something that even if it gets the immediate objective of information (which remains a big if) stirs up so much anti-American hatred that it amounts to two steps back as our enemies use our behavior to recruit more terrorists.

What the Bush-Cheney crowd seems not to understand is that there is only one way the terrorists can win, and that is to scare us into abandoning our way of life, a way of life that, for all its flaws, remains part of the "broadlit uplands" of human civilization. The triumph of Obama’s commitment to the rule of law over Cheney’s "might makes right" approach is a moral triumph, and the terrorists want us to abandon such triumphs of decency and freedom. The terrorists cannot invade America. They cannot coerce America. They can only frighten America, and hope that politicians such as Cheney will do the rest.



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9 years 6 months ago
Cheney's recent publicity campaign can have only one purpose, building the perception that when he is tried for the excesses he ordered, that they are really going after him for disagreeing with the President.  He is after jury nullification, nothing more. I don't think he will succeed, since enough documents survive to convict him.  I therefore agree with Milbo's wish that Cheney live to 100 years of age, all of them in Allenwood Federal Correctional Center.
9 years 6 months ago
No despot (or government employing in despotic techniques) springs into being fully-formed, without sign. Pinochet, Hussein, Duvalier, Pol Pot were all, at some point, just ordinary people going about doing their jobs and living their lives in ways they felt contributed to the strength and greatness of their countries. The countries they lived in weren’t predestined for genocide, either. What enabled those despotic regimes to succeed were the ways they broke down people’s innate aversion to causing physical and mental pain and damage to fellow human beings; the normalization of torture, deportation, forced relocation and imprisonment; a methodology that cultivated fear (particularly of those cast into the role of  “other”) and the silence born of fear; how they turned subordinates and functionaries into people who exemplify perfectly Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” We all want to imagine that great evil is embodied by psychopaths and sociopaths and fanatical leaders who should have never led – but it is us normal people who allow it to grow. By averting our eyes from it or telling ourselves that what we see doesn’t actually mean the death of something precious – our ideals and our best selves. I, for one, think Article I of the 1984 UN Convention against Torture is crystal clear and needs no redefinition of what constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment: “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”  By those standards (standards we've held other countries to, btw) there is no doubt what the Bush-Cheney administration okayed. Why engage in torture? Better to bring the perpetrators of atrocity to the Court of International Law, to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Where the condemnation can be made public in a well-lit room with hundreds of journalists clamoring to shoot the story off to the ends of the earth. If the U.S. is the beacon of hope to the world we say it is; if we as Christians believe ourselves the children of light – can we condone evil built in the dark?
9 years 6 months ago
Mr. Winters: The end does not justify the means is the moral compass we should use. At the same time you will find in Cheney's speech the following: ''President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair, has put it this way: “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” End quote. Admiral Blair put that conclusion in writing, only to see it mysteriously deleted in a later version released by the administration – the missing 26 words that tell an inconvenient truth. But they couldn’t change the words of George Tenet, the CIA Director under Presidents Clinton and Bush, whobluntly said: “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National SecurityAgency put together have been able to tell us.” What if unethical methods were used to extract informationn that saved American lives? Does the end justify the means here? Your comments welcome.
9 years 6 months ago
I recommend that those who seriously want to debate the use of torture read ''The Dark Art of Interrogation,'' an October 2003 piece written by Mark Bowden for the Atlantic Monthly; it's still available on the web.  Bowden surveys the spectrum of manipulation, coercion, and torture ''light'' used successfully by skilled interrogators to get information (although it's interesting that waterboarding is never mentioned; clearly at the time Bowden thought it went beyond torture ''light'').  In the end he supported what was known at the time of the Bush Administration policy on torture, saying that fear and uncertainty about what will happen to you is one of the most powerful motives to give in to interrogators.  Despite agreeing that torture should always be illegal (experience by Israel security in the '90s shows legal torture can't be managed and always leads to abuse), he described several situations where interrogators might break the law to get information and if prosecuted, claim the necessity defense (e.g., the ''ticking clock'' scenarios that torture supporters often bring up.)  There are documented cases in Bowden's article where a legitimate threat of torture caused subjects to yield valuable information, and I suspect that these cases are similar to the ones former Vice President Cheney now wants disclosed. The temptation to overcome our fears by attempting to control events through any means is a profoundly human impulse.  In his speech, President Obama balances losing some control - the opportunity to use fear and uncertainty to break hardened terrorists with a threat of torture - vs. maintaining a commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.  His is a nuanced, ''middle ground'' approach vs. the profoundly unconstitutional ''ends justify the means'' course advocated by the former Vice President. Despite Cheney's attempts to fan the flames of our fears, no means will fully erase the risks that terrorists may succeed.   If the worst happens, I hope that Americans will look back on this debate and bravely accept that we risked and must continue to sometimes risk harm in return for remaining true to who we want to be.  The previous administration's tragic reaction to fear of another 9/11 is only the latest temptation; it will not be our last one.
9 years 6 months ago
''There is only one way the terrorists can win, and that is to scare us into abandoning our way of life, a way of life that, for all its flaws, remains part of the ''broadlit uplands'' of human civilization. The triumph of Obama’s commitment to the rule of law over Cheney’s ''might makes right'' approach is a moral triumph, and the terrorists want us to abandon such triumphs of decency and freedom. The terrorists cannot invade America. They cannot coerce America''.  They have only to wait until the bills come due for the new debts.They have only to wait until he have exhausted the natural riches of the land.They have only to wait until we have aborted ourselves out of ''the broadlit uplands'' of human civilization. Carthage did similarly with its sacrifices of infants to Moloch. I find it curious to believe that the U.S. is somehow exempt from the verdicts of history. I am also bemused by Mr. Obama's promise to the naval academy graduates: ''I will not send you to war without cause''. I recall hearing Franklin Roosevelt's request to Congress to declare war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. This appears the constitutional way: it is Congress that will have to declare war, not ''I, Barack Obama''.
9 years 6 months ago
Gabriel, do not lose yourself in metaphorical world of infant sacrifice and economic chaos.  That is not the road we are on.  If Bush-Cheney world is your vision of a bright future, I have to ask, who wants to bring children into a world of fear and violence? If you hate Barack Obama, just admit it and acknowledge that it colors your interpretation of everything he does and says - that is, unless you really prefer to live in the world of "1984".
9 years 6 months ago
To be flawed, a moral compass must first exist.  Cheney?  Moral compass?
9 years 6 months ago
God bless Dick Cheney.  It is nice to know that we still have patriots in our country who love God, country and family more than being popular in the liberal press.  May he live a hundred years!


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