As an Illinoisan, I was struck by how the side-by-side speeches of Barack Obama and Dick Cheney this past Thursday paralleled those of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates 150 years ago.
How we fight to keep Americans safe from terrorism, like that long ago debate, will define who we are as a people for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
Like Lincoln, President Obama gave the American people principled answers to a complicated and divisive issue. Invoking the letter and spirit of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, Obama showed how we, the American people, can have security without abandoning our core principles.
Like Douglas, who sought temporary political gain with his backward looking views, Cheney defends a failed past, one destined to fall on the wrong side of history.
In a speech teeming with falsehoods, Cheney's core argument presents dishonest and false choices: that to secure America you must embrace not only the mistaken war in Iraq but also a use of torture that has put our troops at risk, undermined our moral authority in the world and violated our national values. He suggests that, wracked with fear, we as a nation must choose between the security we need, and the principles that have kept us free and inspired the world for over 200 years. But that is not the America I know.
President Obama is taking on the Taliban more aggressively than Bush and Cheney ever did, his swift actions defeated Somali pirates, and his relentless pursuit of terrorists and the defense of this great nation remain at the top of his agenda. At the same time, he rejects, as do I, the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney years. He is not only ending the War in Iraq, he also dismantled those policies that have questionable value but have done unquestionable damage to our standing in the world. President Obama knows that this nation has been most successful when it has led not by the example of its power, but by the power of its example.
While Obama is moving forward with a plan to protect the American people, respect the rule of law and clean up the mess at Guantanamo Bay, Cheney wants to drag us back through the failures of the past, based on failed arguments of the past.
His continued embrace of the Saddam canard -- the false claim that Iraq was linked to the Middle East terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 -- shows again that Cheney will use any tactic to justify the unjustifiable. In fact, the torture and false confession of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was the source of the faulty intelligence that Cheney used as a pretext for that misguided war.
While he offers empty tributes to them now, few have done more to undermine the morale and effectiveness of our intelligence officers than Dick Cheney himself. His top aide earned a felony conviction for obstructing the probe into the outing of a covert CIA agent. Cheney continues to show his contempt for the intelligence community every time he tries to blame the CIA for what he did to mislead the American people in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Moreover, few top military officers, intelligence experts or leaders in either party agree with Cheney on the effectiveness of torture on detainees.
Senator John McCain, General David Petraeus and top intelligence officers have made it clear that Cheney was wrong on torture then, and he is wrong now. They believe, as I do, that simulated drowning is illegal, immoral and ineffective.
In addressing those who support the use of these techniques, General Petraeus said,
"Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary."
McCain, himself a victim of torture as a POW in Vietnam, said
"Waterboarding is torture, period. I can assure you that once enough physical pain is inflicted on someone, they will tell that interrogator whatever they think they want to hear. And most importantly, it serves as a great propaganda tool for those who recruit people to fight against us."
Perhaps the strongest rebuke to the Cheney world view came from no less an expert on American values and security than George Washington. Even as American POWs died at the hands of a sometimes sadistic enemy, Washington issued firm orders regarding the humane treatment of prisoners. Similarly, Winston Churchill, in the midst of a Nazi blitz that was killing thousands of innocent civilians in the hopes of terrorizing England out of the war, resisted torturing captured German pilots.
Washington and Churchill knew what President Obama and most Americans know: that torturing prisoners is morally indefensible, doesn't work, puts our security at risk, and flies in the face of the very values that our soldiers are fighting for. We as Americans should remember that free nations have stared down ominous threats before without closing their eyes to the principles that guide us. We should do no less today.
Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is exploring a run for the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Obama. You can learn more at www.alexiforillinois.com