A reader writes:
Permit this slow reflection from an avid Dish reader over many years, who has tended to skim your Sunday stuff. But two threads recently caught my eye and, as I pondered them over a lazy weekend, I’ve found myself (to the amazement of this life-long agnostic) pushed towards a re-appraisal of Original Sin.
First, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld: men who commit evil without “thinking much about it” (as you write) because it’s something “other people do.” Reflecting on this it suddenly struck me that Original Sin (which I’d long mocked as an absurdity) serves precisely as a prophylactic against this kind of complacency.
I’m no theologian, but an assumption that one is evil – because we are all inherently fallen – makes it one’s job as a human being to meditate on the evil (or, if you prefer the term, “error”) permanently inherent in oneself. Our obligation is to identify it and to try to root it out. Or at least (since rooting it out is by definition impossible) to moderate it, to channel it positively, to restrict it. Hence your passion for Pope Francis: “I am a sinner” is his first reply.
Nothing one can do, as a being born into sin, can be a “no brainer” (as Cheney describes his decision to permit waterboarding). A profoundly Christian obligation to meditate on his own evil would have led Cheney (and the grinning Rumsfeld) at least to the point of “wrestling with the choice” of whether to torture, as opposed to the glib certainty you, and so many of us, find, well, evil. (I guess there’s an argument that the deliberate choice of evil is morally worse than unreflecting self-deception … but we’ll leave that for another time.)
In other words – if I may be permitted briefly to mix religion and politics – Original Sin is a concept that liberals can embrace, from an epistemological if not a theological perspective. Perhaps after all it’s not something that should be “laundered out of our culture” (to quote today’s post on Sam Harris). We need Original Sin as a restraint against our arrogant – and possibly evil – self-certainty.
Another reader gives Cheney a civics lesson on Presidents’ Day:
The quote taken from Cheney reveals part of the problem in this thoughtless man’s life-long failure and/or inability to think. He said:
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.
But his job wasn’t to safeguard the United States of America. And it wasn’t even his job to safeguard the lives of American citizens. Presidents and Vice-Presidents do not swear to defend America or Americans. They swear that they will “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution. The putative “no-brainer” would seem to become rather brain-intensive when this critical difference is taken into account.
To recap: No Constitutional obligation whatsoever to protect the borders, the soldiers, the buildings, or the people. On the other hand, an obligation to protect the Constitution that is as close to iron-clad and unambiguous as anything to be found in the document. He evidently never read the job description. The “honor” he sneers at is the entire point. It’s not one desideratum among many; it’s the only one.
Update from another reader, who doesn’t think it’s that simple:
Your smugly ill-informed “civics lesson”-giving reader has compelled me to do the unthinkable: stand up for Dick Cheney. (Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to shower afterwards.) To suggest that the job of the chief executive of the country does not include protecting its people and property is simply not true.
First, the presidential oath of office is not an exhaustive list of presidential duties. But even if it were, the oath is not limited to preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution. The first obligation of the oath is to “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States” – protecting the Constitution is mentioned second as an additional obligation. The Office of the President of the United States, per Article II of the Constitution, includes wielding the “executive Power” of the federal government and being the Commander in Chief. Article II is, fortunately or unfortunately, silent about the contours of the “executive Power,” which is why we’re still debating the powers of the executive branch 225 years later. But as the first – and possibly the only universally agreed – role of the state is to be a “night watchman,” it is absolutely within the job description of the President and Vice President to protect citizens from enemies foreign and domestic.
None of this excuses Cheney or Rumsfeld, or the dime-store Eichmanns they employed, for torturing in violation of settled U.S. law and basic morality. I just can’t abide smug sermonizing by people who don’t know what they’re talking about and reification of the Constitution by people who can’t actually have read it. Thanks for letting me vent.
A reminder of the veep’s oath of office:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
One more reader:
No doubt a level of security is necessary for democracy. Figuring out where to draw constitutional lines is often difficult. But the point about the no brainier line is that he doesn’t even consider the constitutional issues valid. This is what drives so many of us nuts whether liberal or conservative: who are you to decide for me what liberties to take away for my safety? We are entitled to make these decisions as a nation and not have the security apparatus hide behind top security clearance telling us “you can’t handle the truth” a la Jack Nicholson.