Further Thoughts on Torture

Further Thoughts on Torture December 19, 2014

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. This is what he said when host Chuck Todd asked him about detainees who were tortured and later turned out to be innocent:

CHUCK TODD: Twenty-five percent of the detainees though, 25 percent turned out to be innocent. They were released.

DICK CHENEY: Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are —

CHUCK TODD: Well, I’m asking you.

DICK CHENEY: — you going to know?


CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? You’re OK with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States. I was prepared and we did. We got authorization from the president and authorization from the Justice Department to go forward with the program. It worked. It worked now for 13 years.

We’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. And we did capture Bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys at Al Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

Leaving aside the fact that the Senate report gives the lie to the claim that, even from a purely Machiavellian perspective, torturing prisoners yielded anything but almost uniformly useless “intelligence” — and with the knowledge that torturing prisoners prevented no attacks against the United States — I want to draw your attention to one particular string of words in the above transcript: “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”

Leaving aside the morally bankrupt character of that remark – which is the very definition of consequentialism – the Senate report revealed that our nation, as a result of policies authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration, tortured innocent people — at least one of them to death — and the vice president has no regrets about that? None whatsoever??

I think it is time to say plainly what has been on the edge of a lot of people’s awareness: The previous administration committed war crimes, and there have been no expressions of remorse or regret for those crimes, even after those crimes have been revealed in all their vileness and depravity.

I think the best course would be the investigation and prosecution of every member of the Bush administration who approved these policies, up to and including former President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as those in positions of authority who implemented those policies.

That said, a case could be made that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there were some regrettable actions taken in the heat of the moment, and so on — but that case should be made in a court of law by a defense attorney during a trial, perhaps during the sentencing phase.

Our nation used to take this stance when it came to the question of whether prisoners were tortured. Here is an American propaganda poster from the Second World War:


What we do about the fact that this method became our method in the opening years of the last decade will shape our national character in important ways, both now and far into the future.

When I say, “What WE do …” I mean exactly that. We citizens have a choice before us: we can acquiesce to a new paradigm where torture becomes at least a tacitly permissible activity in certain circumstances — and given the tendency of authoritarian tactics to metastasize, we would be choosing a world where none of us is safe — or we can choose to live in a world where laws mean something, a world where the law holds accountable the president and the pauper alike. The latter possibility will only come to pass if you and I insist on it, in no uncertain terms.

It’s worth quoting legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow here. He said the following at the conclusion of a March 9, 1954 program examining the methods and character of Sen. Joseph McCarthy:

We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’

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