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Torture with the Stars, Part II: Cheney's "Get Out of Jail Free" card

Now, as promised, Part II of my reaction to today's "Torture with the Stars" showdown between President Barack Obama and Dick Cheney.

Although I could, I won't go into detail about the various misstatements, straw men and out-and-out lies contained in the ex-vice president's -- yes, the word is valid -- extraordinary speech to the American Enterprise Institute defending torture (torture must have something to do with "American Enterprise"...who knew?.) I would strongly urge everyone to read this article from the award-winning McClatchy News Service, which serves as a kind of "ur text" for demolishing Cheney. And truth be told, we've heard so much of this before -- even the false conflating of Iraq and al-Qaeda and waving the bloody shirt of 9/11 -- just never in this context.

Which is what I briefly want to get into here, the context. So many people have asked, and understandably so, why -- after spending so many years when he could and probably should have been more visible, literally hiding inside an underground bunker -- is Cheney so omnipresent now that he's out of power? Even those who agree with him have to concede that the speed with which Cheney began criticizing the Obama administration -- along with the high visibility -- is what is so unprecedented here? Does he really feel that strongly that Obama's torture and detention policies (while not so different from Bush's as Cheney would have you believe) are misguided and dangerous? Or is something else at play?

I think the latter. I think from Day One, Cheney's PR campaign and his high visibility has been his effort to get a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for him and his closest cronies in the Bush-Cheney White House, to make sure the horrible things that happened at Gitmo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere under his watch are perceived as a "policy" -- even by moderates and some liberals who will think it was a "bad policy" -- and not what torture really was under U.S. and international law, a war crime.

And the sad news is that it worked. When I listened to and watched the Big Media news in the aftermath of the Obama and Cheney speech and heard all the framing of it as "a great debate" or, in Dana Milbank's ultimate jaded Beltway insider analysis, a prize fight, it was Cheney who hit the jackpot. It was all about "policy." Obama presented his "policy," a sometimes muddled invocation of the Constitutional rule of law and of human rights, and Cheney presented his "policy," which was...torture, a war crime.

You see, that's been the GOP talking point since Day One, that the idea of a criminal prosecution of Bush administration for violating the Ronald Reagan U.S.-enacted ban on torture, among other statutes of law, would be "criminalizing policy differences." And according to their argument, it's un-American to criminalize "policy differences," that "this is what they do in banana republics." Now, if Cheney and his co-conspirators hid in their private-citizen bunkers all this time, with new info about the torture practices including their push for false confessions to justify the Iraq war swirling all around, even the Beltway media might latch onto to call for criminal prosecutions, as happened with the Watergate-era abuses of power. So, no, Cheney & Co. would instead continue to make waterboarding, long held as illegal under U.S. law, into a "policy difference" by publicly pushing for a different policy, even though they are no longer in power.

Today was Mission Accomplished Day for Cheney and his ilk. Ironically, as several legal experts have noted tonight, one interesting element of the Obama speech was that he did not seem to close the door on Justice Department investigations of the Bush-era abuses. But I think politically and in the media, the success of the Cheney "charm" offensive has made this extremely difficult -- certainly as far as Cheney himself and probably for his top aides like David Addington are concerned.

What if Cheney were indicted? Conservatives would be shouting for months from their 50,000-watt flame throwers that the ex-vice president had been indicted not because he ordered waterboarding, "walling" or other torture practices but because he dared to criticize Obama in a speech. Even though the truth as that it's been reported since 2004 that Bush officials were very concerned about the prospect of war crimes charges (why do you think John Yoo wrote those memos) and so today was the culmination of that campaign.

This also gets back to Topic A around here the last two weeks, and the hiring of Yoo as a monthly Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed columnist (now also picked up by at least one other major paper). The purpose of Yoo's constant pro-torture, anti-empathy campaign on the fair-and-balanced pages of America's newspapers is exactly the same as Cheney's purpose today, and that was to normalize torture, and thus not only to save the reputation but the actual hide of top Bush officials.

The truth is, there should not be a "great debate" about torture on the op-ed pages and inside the Beltway hyper-media bubble anymore than there should be a "great debate" about kidnapping or embezzlement. Torture is ineffective, produces false confessions and false leads, puts Americans at risk by inspiring new terrorists and motivating the ones that already exist, and all of that pales before the fact that torture is immoral and wrong, terribly wrong.

End of debate.

You know, all the fuss about the Obama-Cheney debate got me to thinking about what's considered the real great debates in American history, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the Illinois Senate race that was a prelude to the 1860 presidential election. Those debates were long, they were passionate, and they intensely covered by the local newspapers that sent "stenographers" (see, some things haven't changed!). And the subject matter of the debates was...slavery.

And in the short run, it was the slavery apologist Douglas who carried the day, and who won that 1858 election. And so there was another election, and then a dark divide in America, so dark that -- in that case -- it led to a long and bloody civil war. But in the end, we understand today what should have been clear in 1858, that there is no debate about slavery, just as it should be with torture.

It is good to recall Lincoln's words, even as he was losing that election. He spoke of...

the eternal struggle between these two principles-right and wrong-throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings.

The eternal struggle played out yet again today. It will take time for the right principles to win. It always does.