In the requisite television circuit for his memoir In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, Dick Cheney astutely described with a quick wink and a smile the reaction he expects to receive: "Heads will be exploding all over Washington." In the same NBC Nightly News segment he says he has "no regrets" about the "enhanced" interrogations used against terror suspects, specifically remaining a stalwart for water-boarding. Hindsight is usually 20/20, but in the case of the former vice-president, it's nearly blind.
What makes this lack of realization even more troubling is that Cheney has succeeded in sidestepping public and legal sanction. For a man who openly admits to being the architect of a war that has cost 100,000 Iraqi men, women, and children, we've certainly done a disturbingly good job of letting him off the hook. Attacks against the Bush administration are seen as nothing more than hollow talking points against a vast right-wing conspiracy. Instead we choose to debate otherwise extreme actions like wars of aggression as if they are policy disagreements and not the shameful acts of injustice and illegality that most of the global community agrees they are.
Perhaps this all started in 1975, when new president Gerald Ford granted a complete pardon to Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate Scandal. Nixon was a willing participant in crimes that would have led to a conviction had it not been for President Ford, who felt that Nixon and the country had "suffered enough." In granting this reprieve to a man awaiting trial, Ford showed the public that certain people are indeed above the law, chipping away at the bedrock of our legal system.
The kangaroo court of public opinion is just as troubling an arena. Over the past few months several members of Congress were thrown out of the chamber not for legal matters or incompetence, but from personal failures. In contemporary American society it matters not what illegal actions you take while in office. To feel the wrath of public scrutiny one must engage in socially impermissible behavior, usually with details more fitting for E! News than C-SPAN.
Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush represent prime case studies for this. All recently published memoirists, we've chosen to treat them like benign statesman as they make the rounds between television appearances and release parties. A dangerous moral vacuum exists among our nation's leaders. They know certain things they can always get away with, and certain things they cannot. Indefinite detention? Fine. Infidelity? Your head on a platter.
This hopeless unaccountability has created a culture in which entirely valid, well-reasoned criticisms against public figures are seen as petty and dismissed as empty partisan rhetoric. We're left with ineffective methods of communicating dissent. Portraying Dick Cheney as Darth Vader promotes an unfortunate comical discussion of his choices in office.
Dick Cheney is a direct advocate for and past implementer of torture (not enhanced interrogation), wars of aggression (not liberation), and a domestic spying program (not surveillance). The first two are widely considered illegal in international law, and the latter was formally denounced by the American Bar Association in 2006.
We'd like to think that we're better than this. That crimes against humanity and corruption only happen in other countries. Maybe this is why we don't want to examine the crimes of our leaders. When Ford pardoned Nixon he set a dangerous precedent. From then on, executives in the highest office of our country knew that no matter what they do, the threat of legal or social deterrents would be nonexistent. Take Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra. Illegal for sure, yet only one low-ranking official was ever prosecuted. The Obama administration's treatment of political prisoners and its adoption of neoconservative military policies unfortunately offer us little respite from the norm.
Instead of taking a serious look at what occurred during the Bush years (and other past presidents), we simply take them as policy mistakes, or factional disagreements between Republican and Democrat. Just about every classroom I've ever been in rehashes this narrative of compliance, stifling challenges to the status quo from students. Those who seriously try to report real crimes committed by our leaders are pushed to the fringe and labeled as extremist conspiracy theorists or progressive journalists, when much of what they have to say is true.
The notion that we should be afraid to discuss this openly speaks to the unfortunate culture of normalization propagated over the last 40 years. Cheney and others should at the very least be forced to answer for what went on during their tenure in a court, like any other American would have to answer for their crimes.
My generation, the Millenials, has grown into political consciousness with this unfortunate specter of acceptance hovering over us, permeating a justifiably apathetic culture dissatisfied with government. The mistakes and crimes of our past should not be swept under the rug, but allowed to be openly debated in a public forum. The time is now to make our democracy real again, to make all levels of government liable for illegal actions, and to reengage an entire generation of dissatisfied citizens.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to George W. Bush as George H.W. Bush.