US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Thank God for Dick Cheney.

Since the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program — aptly dubbed the torture report — the former vice president has been making the talk-show rounds to defend the program. His appearance on Fox News’s "Special Report" last Wednesday was typical, his body angled in a contemptuous slouch as he batted away questions with sharp dismissals. “The report is full of crap,” he snapped, shortly before shrugging that he hadn’t read it.

But that was a throwaway line. The takeaway line was this, in response to a question about the morality of forced rectal feeding: “I guess the question is, what are you prepared to do in order to get the truth about future attacks against the United States?”

Statements like that show why Cheney is so important to the torture debate. In Cheney, we have a shameless avatar for the immoral logic behind the country’s sanctioned use of torture. He offers clear and unequivocal support for the CIA and its actions, absent the hemming and hawing and hand-wringing so many other apologists offer prior to supporting America’s systematic violation of human rights. In response to "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd’s discussion of Gul Rahman, who was mistakenly arrested in Afghanistan and died while being subjected to illegal torture techniques, Cheney offered, “Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.”

This brazen embrace of torture is an indictment not only of Cheney but of all of us. That we allowed such immorality free rein within the American system is a problem. But even more so is our lack of collective will to demand redress for American human rights violations. This crime without punishment — historian Alfred McCoy calls it “impunity” in his book on America’s “doctrine of coercive interrogation” — means as Americans we cannot think about torture as a Cheney problem or a CIA problem or a Republican problem. They may condone torture, but in failing to hold anyone accountable, so do the rest of us.

In the wake of the Senate report, many commentators framed the CIA’s use of torture as a result of the uncertainty and fear of the so-called war on terror. But it goes back much further than that. In “The Dark Side,” Jane Mayer showed that Cheney, in looking for precedent for the CIA’s program of detention and interrogation, lit upon the Phoenix program, a Vietnam War-era project in which the CIA helped supervise a program of systemic torture and murder.

It is telling that Cheney found inspiration in the Phoenix program, which triggered congressional hearings in the early 1970s. At those hearings, an intelligence operative outlined not only a program of assassination but horrific physical torture, mainly carried out by the South Vietnamese under U.S. supervision, involving starvation, genital shock and “the insertion of the six-inch dowel into the ear canal of one of my detainee’s ears and the tapping through the brain until he died.” William Colby, who oversaw the Phoenix program before becoming director of central intelligence in 1973, testified that information obtained through the program led to “many successful operations against the enemy,” and that the benefits of the program “more than overcome these occasional abuses.”

Widely reported in the newspapers of the day, the hearings resulted in a report, but no further accountability. As late as 2007, Chip Brown, writing for the New York Times Magazine, could only offer a tepid assessment of the Phoenix program as “controversial,” writing that, “Depictions of it range from a flawed but valuable counterinsurgency program to a lawless, terror-for-terror assassination program.” This is what “impunity” looks like. Phoenix taught Cheney he could cross almost any line without consequence.

Cheney’s glibness about torture makes it tempting to turn him into a cartoonish villain, unrepresentative of most Americans. But that is not the case: 53 percent of Americans think torture — torture, not “enhanced interrogation techniques” or some other respectably-dressed euphemism — is justified at least some of the time. And we’re growing increasingly fond of the illegal practice. Three years after the 2001 attacks, that number was a significantly lower (but still alarming) 43 percent. Nor is this a partisan issue. Support for the CIA program and the torture it involved comes from across the political spectrum. While Republicans are more likely to support the use of torture, a near-majority of Democrats do as well. (This excellent piece by "The Week's" Ryan Cooper examines the complicity of political and media elites in making torture acceptable.)

Our comfort with torture is not a result of immediate post-attack fear, but something that goes far deeper. President Barack Obama has denounced torture many times in his presidency, saying, “That is not who we are.” But Obama is wrong. We condone torture, both overtly and in our unwillingness to bring those complicit in torture to justice. And worse, we cling to an American exceptionalism that says our nation is a force of good in the world (which it is) that is uniquely untouched by baser human impulses (which it is not) – this despite our record, in every single war, of violating civil and human rights.

That unwillingness to see ourselves as we are, that failure to recognize the American capacity not only for wrongdoing but for evil, prevents us from properly reckoning with the true costs of our wars, propelling us to go off in search of monsters to destroy without first confronting the monster within.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report