05/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ends vs. Means: A Gross Misunderstanding of Our Nation's History

Dick Cheney has discovered transparency. His pious call for declassifying certain memos regarding torture is like Pat Robertson advocating for atheism. The former Vice President has built his career on secrecy and utter disdain for government disclosures. He refused to provide transcripts from meetings on energy policy. To avoid compliance with archiving laws, he made the absurd claim he is not part of the Executive Branch. But now Cheney insists, on the ironic argument that the American people need to know about their government, that Obama release secret memos showing how effective torture can be in soliciting vital security information from high-value captives. He is making this request in an attempt to offset the damage done from recently released memos written by the Office of Legal Counsel to justify torture on spurious legal grounds under the Bush Administration.

As pundits debate the merits of releasing these memos, something important has been lost in the discussion. Cheney assumes that if we find evidence that proves valuable intelligence was gathered as a result of torture, then his actions to support torture require no further explanation. He believes, and has explicitly stated, that the ends (our security) justify the means by which we achieve that security. That perspective denigrates our history as a nation, and ignores the principled sacrifices of those who came before us.

Let's go back to the winter of 1777 in Valley Forge. Following the battle of White March, General Washington had to move his troops to a secure location to over-winter before the next season of fighting began. For reasons of logistics and geography, Washington chose to encamp at Valley Forge, just over 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. His 11,000 troops were sick, hungry, cold, wet, and poorly clothed. If Washington followed the tradition of warfare throughout human history, he would have appropriated by force the provisions necessary to support his troops from local farms. But he did not do so because he lacked legal authority for such actions. Instead, his troops suffered deprivation because Washington knew something that Cheney clearly does not: the ends do not justify the means.

The very existence of the new nation was at stake in 1777, yet Washington did not succumb to convenience or invoke national security to take illegal actions. He chose, instead, to send repeated requests to the Continental Congress for the appropriate authority that came too late due to the limitations of communications, which proved slower than the passing season. If anybody could ever reasonably invoke the idea that the end justifies the means, Washington would be that man. Yet he did not, because he believed to his core in the value of laws in a nation struggling to come into existence on the principles of inalienable rights for its citizens. Cheney's actions are a wicked inverse example of General Washington's stand on principle.

When we appeal to the corrupt idea that ends trump means, nothing constrains our worst instincts. We end up with Japanese detention camps, witch hunts for "communists" by the House Un-American Activities Committee, illegal wire tapping, falsified evidence for war, and torture -- a gross and callous disregard for law that Washington fought specifically to prevent.

Cheney and friends invoke national security as some blanket amnesty for any past or future ethical or legal violations. Our Founding Fathers would find that offensive. Cheney's ideology is a terrible perversion of our founding vision and in direct contradiction to the actions that Washington himself took in the most difficult of times.

The notion that any means can be justified by an appropriate end has been discredited throughout human history. All major ethical theories from Socrates and Plato to Hume to Kant universally reject the idea. Cheney is on the wrong side of ethics, on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of common human decency. We are all fortunate that the man is no longer in power.