I used to like Dick Cheney.
I can still remember watching him on NBC's Meet the Press back in the early 1990s, when he was serving as defense secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Whether he was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union or making the case for expelling Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, Cheney was impressive. Unlike so many career politicians and Washington bureaucrats, he came off as charming, sober, smart, unflappable, and sincere.
Today? Well, I'll give him this: He still seems sincere.
Some day I hope some psychologically gifted writer will turn his attention to Dick Cheney and explore just what the hell happened to him after the Sept. 11 attacks. Something about the trauma of that day — perhaps it was the act of being physically carried by the Secret Service into the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House — flipped a switch in his mind, turning him into America's foremost champion of amoral patriotism.
The man interviewed on Meet the Press this past Sunday resides completely beyond good and evil. Despite the manifest failure of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" to generate actionable intelligence, he has no regrets whatsoever. ("I'd do it again in a minute.") He expresses nothing but contempt for the Senate intelligence committee's 6,000-page report, based on 6 million pages of documents, meticulously cataloging forms of treatment that virtually every legal authority in the world and every totalitarian government in history would recognize as torture. Waterboarding, "rectal feeding," confining a prisoner in a box for a week and a half, dangling others by their arms from an overhead bar for 22 hours at a time, making prisoners stand on broken bones, freezing prisoners nearly to death — none of it, according to Cheney, amounts to torture.
What does constitute torture? For Cheney, it's "what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11." (Maybe our military response to the events of that day should have been christened "The Global War on Torture.")
Perhaps most stunning of all was Cheney's response to Chuck Todd's question about 26 people who, according to the Senate report, were "wrongfully detained" by the CIA at its overseas black sites. The imprisonment and torture of innocent people? "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective." The end justifies any means. Got it.
Cheney's hardly the first person to defend such a position. Machiavelli advocated a version of it in The Prince. It's been favored by some of the most ruthless nationalists and totalitarians in modern history. And it's expressed in Book 1 of Plato's Republic by the character Polemarchus (the name means "leader in battle"), who defines justice as helping friends (fellow citizens) and harming enemies (anyone who poses a threat to the political community). This is what patriotism looks like when it's cut off from any notion of a higher morality that could limit or rein it in. All that counts is whether an action benefits the political community. Other considerations, moral and otherwise, are irrelevant.
The problem with this view, which Socrates soon gets Polemarchus to see, is that amoral patriotism is indistinguishable from collective selfishness. It turns the political community into a gang of robbers, a crime syndicate like the Mafia, that seeks to advance its own interests while screwing over everyone else. If such behavior is wrong for an individual criminal, then it must also be wrong for a collective.
But this judgment presumes the existence of a standard of right and wrong that transcends the political community. Just as an individual act of criminality is wrong because it violates the community's laws, so certain political acts appear worthy of being condemned because they seem to violate an idea of the good that overrides the politically based distinction between friends and enemies.
There are many such standards. In the Republic, Plato's Socrates nudges Polemarchus toward the view that true justice is helping friends who are good and harming no one. Then there are the Hebrew Bible's commandments and other divine laws, Jesus Christ's insistence on loving one's enemies, categorical moral imperatives, and the modern appeal to human dignity and rights — all of these universal ideals serve to expand our moral horizons beyond the narrow confines of a particular political community and restrict what can be legitimately done to defend it against internal and external threats.
Against these efforts to place moral limits on politics stand those, like the former vice president, who claim that public safety depends upon decoupling political life from all such restrictions. Friends and enemies, us and them, with us or against us, my country right or wrong — it doesn't matter which dichotomous terms are used. All of them emphasize an unbridgeable moral gulf separating the political community from those who would do it harm. And that gulf permits just about anything. Even torture. Even the torture of innocents. Even redefining torture out of existence in order to exonerate the perpetrators. Everything goes, as long as friends are helped and enemies are harmed.
That's what Dick Cheney — along with a distressingly large number of Americans — understands by patriotism: a willingness to do just about anything to advance the interests of the United States and decimate its enemies.
Just like a lawless individual.
Just like a gang of robbers.