Rejecting Vice President Cheney’s Talk on Torture

Two opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post today respond to Vice President Cheney’s recent comments and his place in history.

The Times editorial focuses on Vice President Cheney’s rewriting of history, pointing out that Mr. Cheney’s claims that he has stopped short of repeating two of the “most outrageous abuses of power in American history — Roosevelt’s decision to force Japanese-Americans into camps and Lincoln’s declaration of martial law to silence his critics” hardly make the Bush Administration’s actions okay. In Mr. Cheney’s version of events, however, everything went just fine, and “the horrors at Abu Ghraib were not the result of the Pentagon’s decision to authorize abusive and illegal interrogation techniques, which Mr. Cheney endorsed. And only three men were subjected to waterboarding.” As the Times points out: Future truth commissions should take note.

In his Washington Post column, Eugene Robinson is confident that history will throw the book at President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Robinson is actually empathetic; he takes seriously the context of fear, grief, and anger that filled the days following the attacks of September 11 within the Administration, and is ready to hear the Administration’s basic defense “We did what we did to keep America safe.” Even granting that a reactive sense of fear might readily cause our leaders to protect the country “by any means necessary,” Robinson points out that initial reactions are supposed to give way to reasoned analysis, however “For Bush and most of his top aides, this didn’t happen until far too late.

For Cheney, apparently it never happened at all. In an interview broadcast Sunday, he invited Fox News’ Chris Wallace to “go back and look at how eager the country was to have us work in the aftermath of 9/11 to make certain that that never happened again.” People have since become “complacent,” he said, but the administration’s actions have “produced a safe 7.5 years, and I think the record speaks for itself.”

That record includes the violation of international and U.S. laws, “by subjecting terrorism suspects to indefinite detention and cruel, painful interrogation; the creation of a mini gulag of secret CIA-run prisons abroad; and unprecedented domestic surveillance without court supervision — all justified, Cheney maintains, by a state of “war” that has no foreseeable end.” Robinson says that history will show that the point of the Constitution is that the ends don’t always justify the means. Vice President Cheney has yet to identify any specific examples of foiled terrorist plots in the last 7 ½ years, and the assertion that torture produces actionable intelligence has been called seriously into question by high-level military leaders, intelligence professionals, and the director of the FBI.

In this case, history will show that the purported “ends” – keeping the country safe – have not only not justified the “means”, but they have been challenged extremely by them. As Matthew Alexander has asserted, at least half of U.S. soldiers who have died “have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse.” The policies that grew out of the initial reaction to September 11 – without careful reflection or reasoned analysis – have made our soldiers much less safe. The rest of us are less safe too, as U.S. detention practices have helped diminish our country’s standing all over the world. There’s also the damage we have done to our own sense of what it means to be American. This is a country of ideas and ideals, and the diminishment of those ideals embodied in the Constitution seriously challenges our collective sense of American identity, and the idea of America around the world.

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Published on December 23, 2008

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