Former vice president Dick Cheney leapt into the news with a snarl this past week, the bloody bone of officially-sanctioned U.S. torture clenched in his dripping jaws. No regret, not from him. "I would do it again in a minute," he said.
And who could doubt him? Not me. People in general are like that. They not only do evil, but then try to justify it—they have to, to preserve the exalted self-image that allowed them to stray so far in the first place. Everything they do is right, because they did it, and had results for the same reason. The idea of complexity, shades of gray, trade-offs, ambiguity, unexpected consequences, it's all noise to them. Much easier just to repeat, "I'm right," over and over, which is in essence what Cheney did in the media.
Some people believe him, and repeat the fiction: these were the 9/11 planners themselves being tortured, they were giving us key information that saved lives.
Yet the report is plain. Mistaken identity, bungling and indifference led to the wrong people being snatched and tortured pointlessly, yielding nothing but another atrocity to lay at the feet of our country. It was wrong, and made us less, not more secure.
A dynamic that reminds me of the one time I set eyes upon Cheney. It was Jackson Hole, Wyoming on the 4th of July, 2009. The boys and I were on our epic 7,000 mile odyssey to the Pacific and back, and had stopped in Jackson Hole to see its Independence Day parade. This is how I describe the scene in The Quest for Pie, my unpublished travelogue of the trip.
Before the parade had started, rather than claim one spot, we explored the downtown strip of shops. From snatches of conversation, filtering in from the crowd, bits of words like cricket chirps, I got the impression the Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s vice president, was somewhere nearby, and the boys and I worked our way toward the thickest part of the crowd — his position marked, ironically, by the big beefy security guys, milling around him. We’d have never noticed him otherwise. Cheney was sitting in a folding chair, wearing a mustard beige leather jacket and a white Stetson hat — he has a house around here — and I figured the boys might enjoy saying hello to such a prominent political figure.
"You want to meet the former vice president of the United States?” I asked them. Kent made a face as if he had eaten something bad. “No!” he said. “Why would we want to do that?” asked Ross, genuinely puzzled. We moved on. I was proud of them for snubbing Cheney — me, I’d have said hello, just for the bragging rights, but I could pass him by with only a faint regret.
Once business took me to the White House, and I had a glimpse of George W. Bush and Laura heading to the Marine One helicopter, which had landed on the South Lawn to take them to Camp David. I waved goodbye like a schoolgirl, happily, sincerely — the president’s the president, at least when he’s standing in front of you. An 8-year-old’s worldview, but there you go. It isn’t like turning your back on the president leads to better policy.What makes this relevant is Cheney's security men. He must have had four, and, ironically, what benefit they brought in numbers they lost by standing around him, giving away his position. If he been sitting in chair with maybe one security guy sitting next to him, he'd have had ample backup in case some citizen decided to angrily confront him about the shame he brought to our once great country. But three or four towering oafs with curly wires in their ears, twitchy Secrete Service types whose body language practically shouted "Attention! Vice president over here!!!" Now I'm sure if you asked Cheney, he'd insist that no, this squad of giant goons was absolutely necessary, considering his countless enemies. But the truth is, he was less safe because of them. Just as his policy of snatching foreigners off the street and spiriting them away to black site torture centers only undermined what it was trying to protect. Were it possible for him to see it now, he would have realized it then. But of course he can't. That's how he is, and we shouldn't blame Cheney too much. We elected him. Twice.