[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
I am regularly amazed that public officials can say things in public without experiencing what should be obvious repercussions. The latest example? This doozy from former vice president Dick Cheney regarding his sanctioning of torture (we have prosecuted waterboarding as torture in the past, so Cheney was defending torture), reported on the front page of yesterday's New York Times:
"The fact of the matter is the Justice Department reviewed all those allegations several years ago."
Okay, on its face, it seems like the most innocuous of statements, but there are two aspects to Cheney's latest outburst of lunacy that I find particularly outrageous.
First, and more obvious, is his blase acceptance that the United States of America could endorse torture. As I have argued many times, if the U.S. accepts the use of torture, it is spitting in the face of the very values of justice and due process that have made the country a beacon of democracy. If we torture, how can we oppose the behavior of oppressive regimes that do not respect the basic rights of human beings? If we maintain facilities like Guantanamo Bay and subject suspects to rendition, knowing full well they will be tortured in other countries, how are we any better than, say, North Korea seizing two journalists for committing no real crime?
As I noted when discussing the case of Lakhdar Boumediene, who was held and tortured in Guantanamo Bay even though courts in both Bosnia and the U.S. (one before his detention, one during) found he had committed no crime, Boumediene's experience with the U.S. government was substantively no better than than what Laura Ling and Euna Lee faced in North Korea. (Actually, based on accounts of how Ling and Lee were treated, and on their early release, their interaction with North Korea was most likely better than what Boumediene lived through with the U.S.) Is that the country in which we want to live? Do we want to live in a country whose values are closer to North Korea than, well, the United States in the pre-George W. Bush era?
It is even more infuriating when the overwhelming evidence is that the torture committed by the Bush administration didn't even help much, creating more terrorists than securing important data. And when a guy like retired general (and current National Security Adviser) Jim Jones says that the Obama administration has been more effective in fighting terrorism than the Bush crowd had been, it really should give people pause as to why it's even a debate that the country made a grave mistake in sanctioning torture.
But the thing that really bugs me about Cheney's quote (again, he said, regarding torture, that: "The fact of the matter is the Justice Department reviewed all those allegations several years ago.") is that in using the Justice Department as justification, he brings to mind the old story used to define the Yiddish word chutzpah: Someone who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan.
Let us review. The Bush administration, breaking with long-held policy and practice, politicized the Justice Department, moving it from an independent, apolitical defender of the laws of the country to a politicized arm of the Bush campaign. Candidates for positions that were supposed to be nonpolitical were judged to ensure they were conservative and Republican. Choosing ideology over merit, the administration hired 150 graduates of Regent University, Pat Robertson's school, which ranked in the lowest tier in the annual survey by U.S. News and World Report. Among the Regent alums in the Bush administration was Monica Goodling, the 33-year-old lawyer with no prosecutorial experience who was installed in the number-three position in the Justice Department, overseeing more than 90 U.S. Attorneys, who, in turn, managed thousands of lawyers under them.
And, of course, the Bush administration, in an unprecedented move, fired eight U.S. Attorneys, in the middle of Bush's second term for wholly political reasons (namely, failure to go after Democrats and voter fraud issues that the administration wanted pursued). (Three articles on the topic are here, here and here.)
By the time the dust had settled, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Justice Department Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson, and Goodling were among the group of top Justice officials who resigned in light of the scandal.
The reason Bush's politicization of the Justice Department angered so many observers was that our democratic system relies on the dispassionate execution of our laws by the government, which is carried out by the Justice Department. To corrupt Justice is to corrupt the nation, putting the members of the executive branch above the law. The idea that U.S. Attorneys would be fired for not carrying out politically expedient prosecutions, or that candidates for Justice positions would be tested for their party loyalty, impugns the role of Justice as an impartial guardian of the law.
And a politicized Justice Department meant that Bush was able to secure opinions from the department that justified the use of torture. (A good survey of the issue is available here.)
So let's circle back to Cheney. Essentially, Cheney was drawing on the decades-old idea of the Justice Department as an independent body enforcing the law when he said the department had approved the use of torture, thus making it okay. But the gall of Cheney's statement is that he was a key part of an administration that deconstructed the very objectivity on which he now relies. Like the parent-murderer who now wants sympathy for being an orphan, Cheney wants us to trust the objectivity of a Justice Department he helped politicize.
How is it that Cheney was allowed to make such a baldly hypocritical and self-serving statement without being challenged? It's outrageous.
I don't know why I'm surprised. We have a gubernatorial candidate in Virginia who argued in a thesis that women shouldn't work, the U.S. Supreme Court shouldn't have legalized contraception for unmarried people, and religion should be more prominent in schools, while decrying homosexuality and "fornicators." If Robert McDonnell was in the running for a position at Fox News, he would be an excellent candidate, but someone who espoused these extreme views shouldn't be aspiring to any office in a purple state like Virginia. And yet, according to the Washington Post, he his ahead in the polls.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite expressions: Democracy works, just not always like you want it to. If the people of Virginia elect this guy, they will get what they deserve. And if Americans take Dick Cheney seriously (or elect him president, as a bats*!%-crazy Wall Street Journal editorial called for), we, too, will have to live with the results.
We are currently dealing with the devastation that eight years of Bush rule did to the economy and our international standing. I can't imagine why anyone would take anything Cheney has to say seriously, especially when he engages in such hypocritical practice as relying on a Justice Department he tainted for justification of his actions. That is, simply put, chutzpah.