Two scowling faces fill my head this morning, the result of taking in Dick Cheney's sudden flurry of media appearances, and Clint Eastwood's new film Gran Torino.
At first glance, the real-life vice president and Walt Kowalski, the fictional retired autoworker portrayed by Eastwood, seem to have a lot in common.
They are both gruff, prickly, taciturn, sandpaper-voiced men, given to conservative views, short, clipped responses, macho posturing, and a narrow view of right and wrong. And they both always seem on the verge of telling people around them to go fuck themselves.
But dig a little deeper and major differences appear, especially when it comes to questions of morality, justice, repentance, the willingness to examine long-held beliefs, and the limitations of violence -- the last of these being the core theme of Gran Torino.
Looking back over the debacle-filled landscape of the last eight years, Cheney sees little to feel bad about.
Asked if he has regrets, Cheney says, "Not a lot at this stage."
Does he feel the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used against "high-value" prisoners went too far? "I don't." Does he think the use of waterboarding was appropriate? "I do." Bush says his biggest regret was the bad intel on WMD. Would Cheney agree? "No, I wouldn't." Rove says if the intel had been better, we probably wouldn't have gone to war with Iraq. Would Cheney agree? "I disagree with that...we made the right decision in spite of the fact that the original NIE was off in some of its major judgments."
All right then.
In Gran Torino, a Hmong shaman does a reading on Walt and tells him he is "not at peace." Cheney, on the other hand, "appeared relaxed" during his interview with the Washington Times -- even when pressed on the Bush administration's use of torture. "I feel very good about what we did," he said. "I think it was the right thing to do."
Waterboarding, stress positions, hooding, and prolonged sleep deprivation are not torture because, well, because the vice president says they are not (and was able to strong-arm the Justice Department into agreeing). "I don't believe it was torture," Cheney said. "I thought the techniques were reasonable."
Reasonable? Remember, these are techniques originally used to train American soldiers how to resist abusive interrogations by enemies who refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which last week released a bipartisan report on the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody, said the Bush administration's adoption of these techniques was a "particularly disturbing part of the story."
Or as Gen. David Petraeus put it: "What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight... is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect."
And Alberto Mora, the former Navy general counsel, told Levin's committee that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq -- as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat -- are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo."
But Cheney utterly refuses to consider the cost to our national security - and to our moral authority in the world -- that his approach has exacted. Indeed, he defends it as "moral" and "ethical." "I think it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation."
Cheney, of course, has no problem making stuff up - including stuff about the effectiveness of torture: "Did it produce the desired results?," he asks. "I think it did."
The Armed Services Committee has another view. Its bipartisan report was highly critical of the information obtained through enhanced interrogation methods, noting that they were similar to Chinese Communist techniques regularly employed to obtain false confessions.
A quick recap of The World According to Dick: the ends justify the means, the invasion of Iraq was right (even though the justification for it was wrong), Guantanamo is a "first-rate facility" that should remain open until "the end of the war on terror" (though, he admits, "nobody knows" when that will be). What this reveals is an abiding, unshakable belief in the use of hard power.
At the beginning of Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski clearly feels the same way. He's quick to pull a gun and has no problem using his fists and the heel of his shoe to make a point. ""I blow a hole in your face and sleep like a baby," he tells one troublemaker.
But as his tough guy methods ignite a cycle of escalating violence, Walt rethinks his approach. I don't want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that its take on vengeance and violence as the ultimate answers is not what you might expect from Dirty Harry.
Perhaps Walt's more nuanced take on violence is a result of his blood-soaked experiences as a soldier in Korea. Cheney, like Bush, like Rumsfeld, like Rove, and like so many of their fellow chickenhawks -- have a far more theoretical approach to war and its ravages.
The Bushies have always had a detached response to the human cost of their policies - be it the unwillingness to attend military funerals, the head-in-the-sand treatment of injured veterans, or the fly-over handling of Katrina's aftermath. Walt has killed and watched his friends be killed - and has spent his life haunted by both. On closer inspection, his "sleep like a baby" boast is revealed as false bravado. Cheney's insistence that he "feels good" about what he has done rings chillingly true.
Gran Torino, in some ways, is Eastwood's mea culpa for Dirty Harry. I won't hold my breath waiting for any such contrition from Cheney.
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