21 May 2009

The Obama-Cheney Debate

In a way, today showed the country at its best. The President went before the nation via television to explain his views on a controversial policy, and a representative of the opposition replied. Leaving the content aside, this sort of exchange should be the ideal for every country.

For once, the two sides in the dispute over the treatment of terror-war detainees weren't talking past each other. The President returned to "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a moral question and a challenge to national character. Waterboarding is repugnant to mankind, and our resort to it besmirches the country's image abroad, undermining American claims to role-model status. He seemed to conceded that the rule of law couldn't accommodate every prisoner of the terror war. Noting that "people who have received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans" may have to be detained indefinitely, he still thinks that something like a rule of law could be established to deal with such people.

Obama emphasized how we defined ourselves over the past century as the country that didn't torture or otherwise mistreat prisoners or dissidents, the one to whom enemies would rather surrender (compared to, say, the USSR during World War II). If someone hopes to change the President's mind on this point, that individual must argue persuasively that waterboarding and other enhanced techniques do not compromise the country's essential character.

The former Vice-President summed up these moral objections as " feigned outrage based on a false narrative." He notes that only three terror suspects have ever been waterboarded and suggests, not implausibly, that many people have Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib mixed up in their minds, so that they imagine the antics in the Iraqi prison being perpetrated on our Cuban base. "[P]eople who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about 'values,'" Cheney grumbled. He usually defends interrogation practices on grounds of efficiency; if they produced information that thwarted terrorist plots, that's all the justification they need. Today, he dismissed the argument that our publicized interrogation techniques have been a "recruiting tool" for terrorists. They would turn no one against the United States, he said, who didn't already despise the country's core values. He was back to the standard neocon "they hate our freedom" argument. For the most part, he seemed not to realize that critics like the President are concerned with how our conduct appears to third parties, the rest of the world, rather than how terrorists perceive them. He did offer such critics this tidbit.

Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.

Cheney didn't attempt to refute the argument that his policies were inconsistent with the country's conduct toward enemies for most of its history. Some people have suggested that going back to the record would vindicate the pro-torture camp, but that will be a project for another time. Perhaps showing a Republican bias, he characterized objections to torture as solicitude toward the rights of the detainees when it is actually, again, grounded in a notion that Americans shouldn't do certain things. Cheney speaks for those Americans who find such a notion absurd.

A distinction emerges between those we can call "liberals" and those who aren't. The liberals believe in establishing a consistent rule of law through institutions that can function effectively at all times, including crises. The other side finds the liberals' regulatory institutions constrictive of both their ordinary individual freedom to get ahead and their assumed natural right to save themselves by any means in emergencies. History may yet prove the liberals naive in their principled refusal to employ certain means for certain ends, or it may prove most liberal individuals hypocrites during more severe emergencies than the present conflict. But their ideal is something people ought to believe in, even if it only ever amounts to a Utopia. Meanwhile, the other side's position isn't hypocritical as much as it's paradoxical. It's increasingly apparent to me, at least, that their ordinary reactionary defense of "freedom" and their readiness to resort to quasi-dictatorship in wartime are two sides of a single coin. These people remain fundamentally alienated from an ideal of social order that seems totalitarian to them to the extent that it seems to limit their assumed natural right to save themselves first. In peacetime, they assert that right by refusing politically-imposed limits on how much anyone can acquire in money or property. In wartime they have no more objection to ruthlessness in national self-defense than they do to killing someone to defend their own property. From this perspective, unbounded executive leadership is simply yet another expression of freedom. It's a freedom that also thinks of itself as civilization, but some people who also see themselves as civilized may beg to differ.

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