Dick Cheney, Moral Relativist

Just about everyone in the commentary biz has taken a stab at appropriately characterizing the position of a certain former Vice President of the United States on torture. But I’d say Conor Friedersdorf wins the grand prize at the Atlantic:

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the U.S. Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Conservatives are forever accusing liberals of “moral relativism” for refusing to honor culturally conservative positions as eternal absolutes. That’s why the respect shown by many of the same people to Dick Cheney, who is explicit in tossing aside every norm established by the Law of War or Judeo-Christianity, is so inexplicable.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.