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.