Vice President Cheney and Normalizing Torture

 Mark Wilson

Former Vice President Dick Cheney is on a whirlwind tour this week to promote his new book, In My Time. He chronicles, among other things, the tough decisions he had to make in order to keep America safe, including torturing, authorizing torture, legalizing torture, and justifying torture.

Shakespeare said it best: Enhanced interrogation techniques by any other name would be just as sour. Or something like that. But we’ll never know; President Obama, in his quest to look forward, not backward, has said in no uncertain terms that we won’t be investigating Bush Administration officials for their parts in justifying America’s reaction to terrorism between 2001 and 2009.

Vice President Cheney’s lasting legacy is a dark one. Torture suddenly became acceptable, and we talked about its acceptability in degrees. Some kinds of torture were okay, others weren’t, but mostly torture was okay. We even changed the language we used. When The New York Times talks about the United States, it’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But when talking about any other country that does the same thing, it’s okay to call it torture. Just not when we do it. (Is that in the style guide?)

Things like the so-called one percent doctrine have prevented the nation at large from having an adult discussion about the lengths our government has gone to deal with the terrorism problem. The one percent doctrine kept Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob? from ever leaving the house. Vice President Cheney similarly impacted the national psyche, rendering us so terrified of unspecified threats that we gladly looked the other way as innocent people were sent off to other countries to be tortured (with the full, but clandestine, support of the United States).

The prevailing viewpoint now is that “enhanced interrogation techniques” are perfectly acceptable, and the burden rests with challengers of these techniques to demonstrate that they’re not. As Vice President Cheney goes on smile-time shows like Good Morning America to promote his book, it’s unlikely that anyone will seriously engage him in the issues his vice presidency raised. Those who disagree with torture are labeled, as Salon columnist and former civil rights attorney Glenn Greenwald says, “unserious” people who clearly don’t take national security seriously.

In a post-Cheney world, then, torture is a rebuttable presumption, where the burden of overcoming that presumption is about 99% certainty, plus the weight of public opinion that’s in favor of torture, created in no small part by Guess Who.

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