The trailer for R.J. Cutler’s The World According To Dick Cheney, which premiered last March:
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.
Mark Danner, in his latest examination of this profoundly evil figure in American history, considers the former vice president’s legacy:
Asked by Cutler whether he considers “a prolonged period of creating the sensation of drowning”—waterboarding—to be torture, Cheney’s response comes fast and certain:
I don’t. Tell me what terrorist attacks that you would have let go forward because you didn’t want to be a mean and nasty fellow. Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your, your honor, or are you going to do your job, do what’s required first and foremost, your responsibility to safeguard the United States of America and the lives of its citizens. Now given a choice between doing what we did or backing off and saying, “We know you know their next attack against the United States but we’re not gonna force you to tell us what is is because it might create a bad image for us.” That’s not a close call for me.
Quite apart from the large factual questions blithely begged, there is a kind of stark amoral grandeur to this answer that takes one’s breath away. Just as he was likely the most important and influential American official in making the decision to withhold the protection of the Geneva Conventions from detainees, Cheney was likely the most important and influential American when it came to imposing an official government policy of torture. It is quite clear he simply cannot, or will not, acknowledge that such a policy raises any serious moral or legal questions at all. Those who do acknowledge such questions, he appears to believe, are poseurs, acting out some highfalutin and affected pretense based on—there is a barely suppressed sneer here—“preserving your honor.” What does he think of those—and their number includes the current attorney general of the United States and the president himself—who believe and have declared publicly that waterboarding is torture and thus plainly illegal? For Cheney the question is not only “not a close call.” It is not even a question.
It’s rare to see such arrogance combined with such indifference to evil. Cheney would have made a great leader of Russia. America? We will live for ever with the acrid taint of his evil.