Cheney: Chief of Churls

I feel sick to my stomach as I write this.

This morning I read the interview with the former Guantanamo guard who describes in excruciating detail how Gitmo prisoners were allegedly subjected to anal rape as well as other forms of sexual abuse, torture, humiliation, and other atrocities, all at the hands of their U.S. captors, in some cases under the supervision of U.S. medical personnel. It is a ghastly account.

Over the weekend, I decided to view Alex Gibney's 2007 documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, a film that narrates similar detainee maltreatment -- in some cases, resulting in outright homicide -- at Bagram prison in Afghanistan and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The film incorporates gruesome Abu Ghraib photos that have not been widely displayed to the general public. I guess the reason I hadn't yet watched Taxi to the Dark Side is that, like many others, I just wanted to move on past this dark national episode, especially once the Bush perpetrators were out of office: Who, after all, really wants to dwell on the topic of U.S. torture? Besides, I knew that my former Pomona College colleague, the late Frank Gibney, makes a cameo appearance at the end of the film - -which is dedicated to his memory, as the filmmaker recalls his father's principled patriotism - -and I just didn't want to engage in double grieving, personal and political.

Evidence of these Bush-era war crimes will, no doubt, continue to leak out. It's becoming clearer and clearer that these official acts of cruelty had little to do, either in intent or effect, with enhancing national security or producing reliable intelligence. Those rationalizations, those cover stories, will not pass the test of time, the scrutiny of history, the light of evidence and reasoned judgment.

Let me put a general name to today's sickening news: These were acts of government-sponsored sadism. In some cases, especially at Abu Ghraib and now, apparently, also at Guantanamo, the sadism was explicitly sexualized. But by identifying U.S. policy as sadistic, I also mean to cover a more general range of perverse behaviors in our recent past, all united by a wanton delight, to call it that, in dominating, degrading, bullying, browbeating, and threatening others, as a matter of policy.

The initial tendency will be to try to personalize, in order to contain, such sadism, as a supposedly isolated aberration perpetuated by bad-apple individuals. It is easy, perhaps a natural temptation, to depict, for example, Dick Cheney -- the clipped-wing bird hunter -- as the poster boy of U.S. sadism. He became the bragging ringleader for policies that exceeded the bounds of respectable military strategy (and/or domestic partisanship) in order to inflict special psychological damage on all perceived adversaries within earshot: the terrifying talk about WMD, ticking time bombs, and mushroom clouds; the bombast about the need for preemptive war; the lying about an incontrovertible link between 9-11 and Saddam; the shocking and awing; the insistence on waterboarding; the indecent disdain for the Geneva Conventions; the Plamegating of critics; the spying without warrant; the legal approval for squeezing a child's testicles; and so on. Last week, several commentators roundly condemned Cheney's most recent remarks as a macabre exercise in domestic fear mongering, a not-so-subtle ill-wishing for calamity to be visited upon the body politic. They wished in turn that he would simply remain quiet, or else just go away, sinking into oblivion, never to be heard from again.

But I'm more concerned about Cheney's (and others') sadism as government policy (not with his personal pathology as such) and with the lingering question about what we are to do about it now. Cheney insisted again last week that the U.S. must use dastardly and extra-constitutional (and un-Christian) techniques because, "These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek." And he faulted the new administration for being naive about all of this: "The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I'm not at all sure that that's what the Obama administration believes."

Let's be clear about Cheney's devious words here, which hardly conceal his underlying sadism: He thinks the U.S. will be "respected" if and only if it is willing to meet evil with evil. That position goes well beyond Machiavelli's infamous "it is better to be feared than loved" maxim or Hobbes' "covenants, without the sword, are but words" or Carl Schmitt's contention that modern politicians ought not extend liberal tolerance toward their enemies. Cheney and his ilk clearly abide by an unchecked belief that our adversaries must be beaten, raped, degraded, and humiliated, not just thwarted and defeated. He condones torture, not because it makes us safer (he knows better), but because it produces the kind of "respect" he seeks.

Let us put aside the obvious rejoinder that such imaginary "victories" are Pyrrhic. Instead, what are we to do now with the residual current of compliant, complementary masochism that condoned, sustained, perpetuated, and even celebrated Bush and Cheney's sadistic horrors? I don't agree with those who believe we can repress and postpone indefinitely confronting such national crimes against humanity. In my view, it would be better for the days of such reckoning to come sooner, rather than later (the election wasn't sufficient to that gravely moral end). If we wait too long, who among us will still have the resilience to be able to write the next Oresteia, the next Beloved, or the next Eichmann in Jerusalem?