Monday, June 8, 2009

It Doesn’t Matter If It Works

There’s a silly debate going on in this country between former Vice President Dick Cheney and those who haven’t embraced the dark side of the force.

Cheney, in a seemingly endless media tour designed to defend the legacy of the Bush administration – a task that makes Hercules cleaning the Aegean Stables seem like light work – is arguing that “enhanced interrogation techniques” – that’s torture to those of you not fluent in Evil Orwellian Newspeak – worked to keep America safe after 9/11.

Mr. Cheney’s legion of critics says he’s either out of his mind or outright lying and that torture didn’t produce useful intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks. Even Gen. David Patreus, the Bush administration’s designated savior of Iraq, has said the U.S. has violated the Geneva Conventions and called for a panel to investigate.

Basically, by arguing that torture was ineffective, Cheney’s critics also miss the central point:

It doesn’t matter whether torture worked or not!

The United States doesn’t (or shouldn’t) refrain from torture because we think it’s ineffective. We don’t torture because if we do we are not the people or the nation that our children learn about in school.

We don’t torture because it’s wrong. It wouldn’t be any less wrong, if it worked.

We don’t torture because, if we do, we’re not Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City On A Hill” or Abraham Lincoln’s “the last, best hope of earth.” We’re just another country pursing our ends by any means necessary. The United States has always been as much a moral standard as a system of government.

The rule of law and the concept that everyone, high and low, is subject to that law are as important as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

It’s odd that Republicans, usually the party eager to assert American exceptionalism, seem so ready to jettison what truly makes us exceptional.

On Sept. 11, 2001 we were attacked by devotees of the cult of radical Islamic Jihad. They are people with a mindset rooted in the 12th Century. Our culture is rooted in the rationalism of the 18th Century, informed by everything we’ve learned over the past 233 years.

We don’t need to resort to 12th –century methods to defeat them. We’re better than that.

In the national hysteria after 9/11, some of us forgot that. And some in the administration wanted us to forget. With their color-coded threat levels and absurd, totalitarian levels of security at places like the Jamestown Ferry and Virginia Governor’s Mansion that were never valid targets for the terrorists who hit us on 9/11, the administration ramped up the fear. They did that so they could amass more and more power within the “Unitary Executive” – for which Cheney was the principle proponent. That’s power stolen from the Congress, from the courts, from the state’s and from the people.

They used that power not only to violate traditional U.S. and international laws against torture, but also to violate the right of American citizens by electronic eavesdropping and to undermine the rule of law by declaring that administration officials were not subject to the authority of Congress or the courts.

They used the fear they’d generated to start a war in a country that had not attacked us and did not possess the weapons of mass destruction that the administration claimed it had.

That campaign of fear was successful. Even today, some believe that our country is in the greatest danger it has ever faced in its history. Some of these folks even have television programs on what pass for news channels. This is a country that fought and defeated the German and Japanese empires, at the time the second and third most powerful nations in the world, simultaneously. It’s a nation that for forty years went eye to eye with a totalitarian empire bent on our destruction and armed with thousands of nuclear warheads. And we beat back that threat not only through the force of our arms, but by the force of our ideas and ideals.

And we face our greatest danger from a few thousand religious fanatics whose leader lives in a cave? Who not only lives in a cave, but slinks from cave to cave, and safe house to safe house hoping not to be spotted by our remote-controlled weapons platforms so operators thousands of miles away won’t kill him as they have his principal lieutenants? This represents the greatest test that America has every faced?


The threat, while real, has been vastly exaggerated by those who hoped to use our fear to enhance their own power and advance their own interests.

In the process, they’ve violated not only the spirit by the letter of our laws.

And they must be held accountable.

President Obama has expressed his hope that we can put the past behind us and move into the future without punishment for those in the last administration who acted unlawfully. Although that’s consistent with the new president’s style, he’s dead wrong on this.

And, thankfully, it isn’t his call.

Because, if the Department of Justice has been restored to what it should be, and by all accounts it has, it doesn’t need presidential permission to investigate violations of U.S. and international law. It has an obligation to do so.

Once such an investigation begins, it can’t be ended by presidential fiat. That was the smoking gun that would have ended Richard Nixon’s presidency if he hadn’t scurried out of Washington like a lizard running for shelter under a rock.

We’ve had enough of whitewashes in the name of “national healing.”

We’ll heal as a nation when we restore our national values. The rule of law and the principle that not even the president of the United States is above the law are among the most sacred of those values.

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