Dick Cheney is back.
Just in time for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the assault on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the former Vice President of the United States is out hawking his new memoir, In My Time.
It's become a cliché to say that the attacks on 9/11 "changed everything" in America. There is, of course, a hard nut of truth at the heart of every cliché. In this case, the truth is that 9/11 shook our society down to its toenails.
We Americans are given to self-absorption; our country's size, wealth and military might have contributed to what we have lately come to call "American exceptionalism." Our Constitution and Bill of Rights surely play a part in this sense of self esteem as well, although, it now seems to a lesser degree. This may be one of the more significant ways 9/11 changed us.
Based on his version of events, it seems we can thank Dick Cheney for this transformation.
Cheney has not only been outspoken, he's been proud to take credit for his role in using the 9/11 crisis as justification for the suspension of civil liberties, the breaking of longstanding treaties and the use of torture as an instrument of U.S. policy — or what people in other countries have called war crimes. Recently, on the Today Show, he made torture sound like a new form of contraceptive device, calling it "safe, legal and effective."
At least he's been consistent. In December 2008, shortly before he was due to leave office, Cheney told The Washington Times that he had personally approved the use of torture on high-profile prisoners. "I feel very good about what we did. I think it was the right thing to do," he said, adding that he would do it again.
Then Cheney went even further: "I think it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation against further attacks like what happened on 9/11."
Calling this contention arguable is an understatement. Experts in the field of interrogation, from members of the military and law enforcement to Senator John McCain, who was himself the victim of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, have not only refuted Cheney's assertion, but warned that making torture part of American policy endangers our troops and could inspire more terrorist attacks.
Cheney has never been swayed by these arguments. In 2005, less than a year after the re-election of President George W. Bush, then-Vice President Cheney sought to have Congress adopt legal language allowing the CIA to commit human rights abuses — war crimes — against foreign prisoners being held in undisclosed detention centers.
The Washington Post, reporting on Cheney's proposal, ran an editorial entitled, "Vice President for Torture." It stated: "The vice president has been a prime mover behind the Bush administration's decision to violate the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture and to break with decades of practice by the U.S. military. These decisions at the top have led to hundreds of documented cases of abuse, torture and homicide in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Cheney's counsel, David S. Addington, was reportedly one of the principal authors of a legal memo justifying the torture of suspects."
"The fact is, it worked," Cheney said of waterboarding to Matt Lauer during his recent Today Show appearance. "We learned valuable, valuable information in that process, and we kept the country safe for over 7 years."
Arguments over the efficacy of torture as an interrogation technique have tended to skirt what may, for Cheney, have been an even more compelling reason to inflict pain: it makes people afraid. As far as Cheney is concerned, instilling fear is a good thing.
The 9/11 attacks were a twisted gift for Cheney, a form of vindication and a permission slip. They were vindication because Cheney, like so many conservatives in the post Cold War, pre-9/11 world, were wondering how to keep Americans persuaded the world was as inherently wicked as Cheney and his mates always believed it was. "It's still a hostile and dangerous world out there," Cheney told a group of senior citizens in 2000. The 9/11 attacks proved his point.
And the Hollywood-style audacity of the attacks provoked a level of public paranoia that must have taken even Cheney by surprise. It meant that, for a time, there was no form of revenge considered out of bounds. Americans wanted to hit back and hit back hard. There was hell to pay and Cheney fancied himself the paymaster. He set out to make a dangerous world afraid of the United States.
Whether this has made us safer, or more fearful ourselves, is impossible to say. Seeing Cheney plugging his book, though, makes one thing clear. In the land of the free it takes a lot to be declared a war criminal. If you wonder what American exceptionalism really means, look no further than Dick Cheney.