Sully on Cheney and Rumsfeld

Here’s a great example of why, despite his sometimes irritating grandiosity and other flaws, I still really respect Andrew Sullivan. In two recent posts he takes on Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and the fact that neither of them has the slightest inclination to ever question themselves or their decisions. On Cheney:

What has long struck me about Dick Cheney was not his decision to weigh the moral cost of torture against what he believed was the terrible potential cost of forgoing torture. That kind of horrible moral choice is something one can in many ways respect. If Cheney had ever said that he knows torture is a horrifying and evil thing, that he wrestled with the choice, and decided to torture, I’d respect him, even as I’d disagree with him. But what’s staggering about Cheney is that he denies that any such weighing of moral costs and benefits is necessary. Torture was, in his fateful phrase, a “no-brainer.”

Think about that for a moment. A no-brainer. Abandoning a core precept of George Washington’s view of the American military, trashing laws of warfare that have been taught for centuries at West Point, using the word “honor” as if it had no meaning at all: this is the man who effectively ran the country for years after 9/11, until he was eventually sidelined in the second Bush term. Here is the true Nietzschean figure – beyond good and evil, motivated solely by his own will to power and hatred of those who might thwart him. Here is the politician Carl Schmitt believed in: one for whom all morality is subordinate to the exercise of power, and whose favorite form of power is overwhelming physical violence. The other word for this is sociopath.

And on Rumsfeld:

Arendt’s point was not that evil was banal as such, but that it could be committed by individuals who simply did not think much about it. They made no anguished decision; they were unaware of any moral constraints; they just did it, and never began to absorb what it meant. The most penetrating recent investigation into this is Errol Morris’s brilliant documentary about Don Rumsfeld. With Rumsfeld, as with Cheney, you have the same refusal even to conceive of immorality in government. It’s all semantics. The grin almost never wavers. You get the impression that this is a morally unserious person, or someone who cannot even begin to believe that there were consequences to his own actions for which he might bear some resp0nsibility.

So in the critical scene when Morris links Rumsfeld’s authorization of torture techniques to the exact same torture techniques used at Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld simply says that no report of any kind had ever reached such a conclusion. Nothing that happened at Abu Ghraib or anywhere in the American gulag of torture camps had anything to do with him at all. He submitted his resignation after Abu Ghraib came to light not because he was in any way responsible for it in fact, but merely because he was responsible for the war in general. There’s a glibness and absolute certainty to Rumsfeld’s answer.

But Morris has done his homework – unlike so many “journalists” who have interviewed Rumsfeld on this question over the years.

He recites a passage from exactly one of the reports that Rumsfeld said had exonerated him – and it plainly concludes that the torture tactics at Abu Ghraib had indeed “migrated” from Rumsfeld’s waiving of Geneva and authorization of torture at Gitmo. What does Rumsfeld say in response? Nothing. He smiles nervously. He seems to get the brink of facing up to his own responsibility for evil and then decides to go get a cup of coffee. He never confronts his past. He just shrugs it off. He has obviously never even considered the question of his own moral responsibility for anything.

But yes, there is a banality to this, in the sense that it’s something we all could easily do in the same situation. The human mind is a rationalizing machine, not a rational machine, and we have an extraordinary ability to engage in self-justification. What is at work here is far more routine than we’d like to admit.

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  • “… might bear some resp0nsibility.”

    Zero? Coded message to the Illuminati!!!!

  • Albert Bakker

    Self-justification, group-think and the schizophrenic attitude toward whistleblowers.

  • I watched “Jack Reacher”, last night*. Aside from the obviously mis-cast Tom Cruise (hearing him utter some of Reacher’s iconic lines is like listening to Led Zeppelin on a $Store FM radio. Same words, completely different effect) the movie was moderately entertaining.

    My favorite scene was the denouement where Reacher shoots, “The Zek” in the head, because he knows that no court will put him in the sort of hellhole that he deserves.

    No, really, I had a point to make.

    * It took approximately 30 re-boots to see the movie as it kept freezing during streaming. Fucking Netflix, the fuckin fuckers.

  • Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and the fact that neither of them has the slightest inclination to ever question themselves or their decisions

    To be a political maneuverer at that level, you have to be a horribly detached human being who pretty much doesn’t actually believe anything other than that you’re completely right all the time. It’s no surprise that we wind up with horrible assholes like these – the system is designed to select for horrible assholes.

    The other night I re-watched “For Of War” (2 hours of interviews with Robert S McNamara) and was struck by how all the mistakes that were made in the escalation of the Vietnam conflict were, mysteriously, someone else’s. McNamara appeared incapable of saying the three simplest and most important words (after “I love you”) i.e.: “I was wrong”

  • colnago80

    Re democommie @ #3

    Aside from the fact that 5′ 7″ 160 pound Tom Cruise was playing 6′ 5″ 250 pound Jack Reacher.

  • jameshanley

    My undergrad mentor worked in the Ford White House, an administration in which Cheney and Rumsefeld were important figures. A lifelong Republican, not some flaming liberal, and a man not given to hyperbole, after Bush’s election in 2000, he told me bluntly, “those men are evil.”

  • You Darwinists should be cheering instead of booing. This is the end result, the peak, of an intensive program seeking to breed the perfect asshole. And we ended up with not just one perfect asshole, but an entire administration of them!

  • Wylann

    And yet, Sullivan still (last I checked) affiliation with the RCC. I wonder if he still puts money in the plate.

  • ianeymeaney

    The banality of evil…I could swear someone had mentioned that before…

  • @5:

    I believe I covered that, sorry if it wasn’t clear.


    Banality of Evil? Didn’t they open for the Clash, way back when?

  • ffakr

    Re democommie @ #3

    I also just watched “Jack Reacher” within the last couple days. I don’t think you got the ending.

    Perhaps I read too much into it but I took the subtext to be.. ‘Go ahead and arrest me.. your justice system won’t stop me from killing her and her father [the DA]’.

    I don’t think it was a matter of the appropriate method of justice from Reacher’s perspective.. I think it was the acknowledgement that the villain was too evil for the justice system to handle. Only the protagonist was capable of addressing the threat, by killing him. It makes sense from the perspective of the story.. Reacher was the human-equivelent of a super-hero. The antagonist had to therefore be a super-villian. In the end, an unarmed old man, in custody, missing 3/4 of his fingers wasn’t much of a threat. It was a let-down.

    At that point in the story arc.. all the henchmen are dead and it’s the big-boss scene.. but the big-boss is a frail old man who’d clearly going to jail for life. His last statement brought back the idea that he really was the most dangerous person in the story and Reacher only had one remedy at that point.

  • “But yes, there is a banality to this, in the sense that it’s something we all could easily do in the same situation.”

    you’ve come to this note a number of times in the past. It’s one of the few times I have to disagree with you. I think its better to say SOME people would be capable under X conditions, but the notion that everyone would morally break under the same conditions is wrong I think. Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning’ is a good example of what I mean

  • As in, you don’t just wake up one morning and find yourself the VP of the USA in a republican administration. You GET there by a series of very likely very questionable steps…

  • colnago80

    Re ffakr @ #11

    Anyone who reads the Reacher books is aware that he is not a nice man. In fact, he is a bit of a sociopath who has no compunction about killing. The fact that all those who he kills deserved it isn’t, IMHO, much of a rational.

  • Darkling

    I haven’t watched it recently but in the Jack Reacher film, doesn’t he only take a moment to consider his decision to shoot “The Zek” in the head? How is this any different from Cheney or Rumsfeld making their decisions?

  • Michael Heath

    Wylann writes:

    And yet, Sullivan still (last I checked) affiliation with the RCC. I wonder if he still puts money in the plate.

    It’s so easy to quit, and for many, that certainly is the most effective action they could take to promote justice, morality, and marginally better outcomes. However, reform of a large, powerful, entrenched institution won’t come from abandonment alone, because so many won’t quit.

    Overt, energetic, vociferous advocacy for reform is often the most heroic course of action an individual can take. And I know of no more effective single critic of the Catholic hierarchy, and effective advocate that the hierarchy be legally held to account for their crimes, than Andrew Sullivan. He’s also a far more effective advocate for justice arguing as a devout Catholic on the outs with the hierarchy than just another ‘none’ who left the church.

    I think the “quit” or “fight” conundrum is a difficult choice for people with integrity and some influence in their operational sphere. I eventually chose to leave the GOP in 2008 because the group I belonged to, Christine Whitman’s band of moderates, were simply ineffective and had become effectively irrelevant. But it’s also the moderates like me leaving the party altogether that’s also caused the GOP to become ever more harmful to all of humanity. So as I said, we can’t merely have quitters and hope for good results.

  • Michael Heath “But it’s also the moderates like me leaving the party altogether that’s also caused the GOP to become ever more harmful to all of humanity.”

    Allow me to point out that you’d have inevitably been pushed out eventually.

  • Mark Weber

    @#12 I would say that he is correct that the brain is intrinsically a rationalization machine more than a rational machine, but I agree with you that it is poorly stated that most of us would make the same choice as Cheney and Rummy. What is fair to say is that most of us, more frequently than we would like to admit, make decisions and then rationalize our choice after the fact.