Let's assume Bush and Cheney were right -- right to torture, right to wiretap without warrants, right to set up secret prisons where suspects can be held forever without being charged with any crime whatsoever.
Assume all that and more.
I realize it's hard. It's hard for me, too. See, I have a functioning memory. I remember Cheney going on TV in 2002 and saying -- quite sensibly -- that another terrorist attack is "not a matter of if, but when." It's tough for me to square VP Cheney's grim, sober words back then with what ex-VP Cheney asserted on CNN just a few days ago: that President Obama's planned closure of Guantanamo and repudiation of waterboarding will "raise the risk to the American people of another attack."
But let's go all in. Let's assume Cheney's right about that, too. Let's assume it's not gibberish to make a distinction between an inevitable next terrorist attack and a more inevitable next terrorist attack.
We need to go all in. We need, if only for a moment, to assume that Bush and Cheney were right about everything.
Why do this to ourselves?
Because it's the only way to take in the Bush-Cheney fiasco in its full panoramic splendor. It's the best way to understand why nothing -- not even a 9/11 during Obama's presidency -- can ever make these guys look any better in the history books.
This boils down to what leaders do. Real leaders.
When real leaders see a need for change, they charm and plead and teach and bully. Even if they ultimately lose, they do everything they can to make the change happen. If they win, they work to make the change permanent. Cheney didn't do that. And that is why his latest pronouncements amount to so much yapping.
If allowing CIA interrogators to go all Jack Bauer on suspects is, as Cheney now suggests, "absolutely essential" to America's safety, then Bush and Cheney should have used their time in office to sell the country on the need to amend the Constitution and legalize torture. They should have demanded that Americans either stand with them on torture or stand with that naive, al-Qaeda-loving coward George Washington. Instead, Bush told us soothing lies: "I've said to the people that we don't torture, and we don't."
If America's safety depends on gutting American values and becoming a nation that jails people in perpetuity just in case they might be guilty of something, then Bush and Cheney should have made their case to the country and pushed for a constitutional amendment to take care of that. Instead, they just got pseudo-permission for their acts from creatively incompetent lawyers like John Yoo and David Addington.
I don't want to hear excuses about how difficult it would have been to get constitutional amendments. I don't want to hear about what White House pollsters would have found when they asked citizens to choose between a constitution based on George Bush's vision of America and one based on George Washington's vision. Change is hard. But when change is needed, leaders lead.
Cheney, to his everlasting disgrace, did not lead.
Bush, to his everlasting disgrace, did not lead.
Thank goodness for that.
But I hope when the inevitable next terror attack does come, no thinking American will imagine that the carnage redeems Bush and Cheney. These guys had their chance to remake America. They had their chance to take their perverse, radical notions of justice and set them in concrete. Instead, they set them in papier mache.
That, put simply, is dereliction of duty.
Huffington Post blogger David Quigg lives in Seattle. Click here for an archive of his previous HuffPosts on terrorism, civil liberties, and the perils of self-destruction. Click here to follow his obligatory Twitter feed.