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Jeff Schweitzer Headshot

Fighting the Ghost of Cheney Past

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How do you fight a ghost?

That is the dilemma we face as the bitter battle for rationalism and sanity rages on in the era of Cheney-Palin-Beck. The radical right of the GOP has perfected the art of misinformation, honing the Big Lie to a masterpiece of fiction that makes Dostoevsky look like a hack in comparison.

In this fantasy world of the right, defending the Constitution becomes a sign of weakness; prosecuting terrorists transforms into an act of reckless treason; respecting the rule of law is proof of malfeasance. That is why Palin can before an enthusiastic crowd disparage criminal trials of suspected terrorists with such gems as, "We need commander-in-chief not a professor of law standing at the lectern." This is the same Commander-in-Chief who upon taking the oath of office swears to uphold and defend the Constitution. Not to sometimes defend the Constitution arbitrarily for those people he likes but to defend it always.

I would not be surprised to learn that Palin has never heard of Benjamin Franklin, who once said something akin to, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." But surely Dick Cheney, who is supposed to be the adult in the room, is familiar with the great man and his contribution to our history, so Cheney's eager desire to trample our rights protected so carefully under the Constitution is a willful act that cannot be attributed to ignorance.

No, Franklin's sage warning can be dismissed so readily by Cheney because the GOP has created an imaginary world and a new reality that they define at will. In this dream version of reality our safety can only be secured by sacrificing our rights, the same ones our founders foolishly thought were inalienable. Far right supporters do not question the validity of this flight of the imagination or the conclusions derived therefrom; Beck and Palin, with approval from godfather Cheney, say we must abandon the principles embedded in our founding document, and therefore we must. So we find ourselves in the odd situation in which those most loudly proclaiming patriotic fervor are the ones doing the most to undermine the very rights they seem so eager to protect.

Only Cheney, Palin, Beck and their supporters can see the imaginary friend they conjured up to save the country from the liberal plot to surrender to the enemy. How do we argue with a castle in the sky? This invention, this malleable reality, this invisible straw man, gives the GOP enormous advantage in the battle for truth because they simply redefine truth as a matter of convenience to fit the need of the moment. In this new world there is no objective truth, only what Palin, Beck et al. decide is true. Pause for a moment and consider how powerful this approach really is: regardless of what actually happens, no matter how embarrassing, no matter how much evidence of wrong or wrongdoing on their part comes to light, the modern disciples of 1984 simply deny that anything happened, or redefine the actual events to their advantage. They create their own reality out of thin air; and then their followers accept the new version as gospel.

If you think this conclusion is an exercise in hyperbole, consider that Cheney said on TV (later parroted by Giuliani) with a straight face something along the lines that, 'We had no domestic attacks under Bush; we've had one under Obama." When challenged on this bizarre surrealist assertion, the response was that we of course are talking "post-9/11." In a world of objective truth, this is crazy talk because not only did the worst terrorist attack in our history happen under Bush, so did the subsequent aborted attack by shoe bomber Richard Reid. But when you can create your own reality, 9/11 does not count, and somehow Reid is an example of how Bush successfully foiled further attack on the country. Because he is tough on terrorism.

Consider though that the "one attack" under Obama breathlessly brought forth as an example of liberal weakness is the Christmas underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Weak because the attack was allowed to progress so far and weak because the suspect is to be tried in civilian rather than military court. So let us compare side by side how Bush and Obama treated Reid and Umar, respectively, since this is the basis for much of the angst and anger emanating from the far right on the issue of fighting our extremist enemies.

Exhibit A: Reid successfully boarded a plane with a bomb in his shoe, only to be thwarted by passengers. The security system failed, and the plane was saved only by the quick action of the passengers. Reid was arrested and read his Miranda rights, and given access to a lawyer. He was tried in a civilian federal court, convicted, and given a life sentence. Oddly, Newt Gingrich has claimed multiple times in public that Reid was an American citizen, and therefore that is why he was read his Miranda rights. Reid is not an American citizen. But when you can create your own reality, such truths matter not.

Exhibit B: In stark contrast, under Obama, the Christmas Bomber Umar successfully boarded a plane with a bomb in his underwear, only to be thwarted by passengers. The security system failed, and the plane was saved only by the quick action of the passengers. He was arrested and read his Miranda rights, and given access to a lawyer. He will be tried in a civilian federal court, and given the known facts of the case, almost certainly convicted just as Reid was under the same set of laws. Like Reid, Umar is not an American citizen.

The only difference in the two scenarios is shoes and underwear. So given the horribly divergent approaches to the two cases you can now easily understand how Bush is tough on terrorism while Obama is weak. Compare the two stories and you could not conclude otherwise -- if you accept the twisted truth as defined by Cheney, Palin and Beck. There could be no stronger proof than the faux-outrage about Umar that to our opponents objective truth is optional and verifiable facts nothing but an inconvenience.

Then we have the case of Jose Padilla, who is an American citizen, charged with taking part in an Al Qaeda plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" within our borders. Padilla was incarcerated for more than three years in solitary isolation in a military jail as an enemy combatant. But in November 2005, to avoid the consequences of a court challenge to his status, the Bush administration suddenly announced that criminal charges had been filed against him in federal court. Padilla's civilian indictment made no mention of the dirty bomb or most of the other original charges. In support of moving Padilla from the military to civilian judicial system, here is what Newt Gingrich had to say: "Well, I think if they believe they have enough evidence to convict him, going through the process of convicting him and holding him, I suspect, maybe for the rest of his life without parole would not be -- would hardly be seen as a loss." Reality is no barrier to Republican assertions. They just make up anything they want, ignoring all facts. Reid magically becomes an American citizen, and Padilla a good example of how trying terrorists in civilian court dangerous to our very existence.

Given the terrible contrast in how Bush and Obama treated Reid and Padilla and Umar, we can also now finally comprehend why Tea Party enthusiasts have expressed such outrage and hatred toward Attorney General Eric Holder for his decision to try Umar in federal court; for doing his duty as specifically defined by the Constitution that he too is sworn to uphold. In the GOP sci-fi universe of inverted truth, Holder's actions are radically different from his predecessor under Bush. We know that in fact Holder is doing exactly what was done with Reid (and Padilla) under Bush, but when you create your own reality that inconvenient fact can easily be forgotten. Instead, based on a false premise and a series of blatant lies, Tea Party enthusiasts were whipped into a frenzy of loathing for Holder to the point that they actually called out in public to "kill him" and "lynch him." Holder's crime was doing exactly what was done under Bush with shoe bomber Reid, and for honorably fulfilling his duty as the chief law enforcement official in the country. As an aside, the fact that Holder is our first African American Attorney General has nothing to do with the call to "lynch" him; the same call would cry out if he was White. Welcome to the GOP version of Avatar. And the altered reality is in frighteningly realistic 3-D.

The GOP's willful dissociation from reality, imaginary straw man, fantasy world, pseudo-patriotism, and perfection of the Big Lie mean that the rules of engagement have changed. The other side is winning because we have not yet adapted. We are still engaging under the assumption of fair play. They are playing chess while we lamely try to move a piece on a Checkers board. They fight with swords and we respond with limp willow branches. With a deft hand the far right has created bad fiction that has been fully accepted as fact. In this GOP world of mirrors intelligence and knowledge are bad. The ability to speak eloquently is elite and suspect. Reading a TelePrompTer is laughable but cribbing notes on a hand is a sign of authenticity. History is whatever you want the past to be. Cheney-Palin-Beck have created a phantom menace, forcing us cleverly to battle an invisible enemy that can morph into anything desired, and then transform into a new truth with no connection to reality.

The only way to slay this phantom, this ghost, this apparition of falsehood is to accept that we are now fighting a different beast than in the past. The enemy is killing us, and the Tea Party growing like a cancer, because we have allowed them to define the terms of engagement and remove objective truth from the equation. They have made impotent our most powerful weapon of reason.

We now have two Americas, two realities, two visions for the future, one based in truth the other in Orwellian double-speak. The two Americas cannot co-exist forever. We are now as divided as a nation as we have ever been. Something has to give.