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Friday, May 15, 2015

Gaining the whole world: Nixon, Cheney, torture, and Thomas More

That mounting cacophony we hear? It's the expanding field of candidates for the 2016 presidential election. For the most part they identify themselves as Christian (Bernie Sanders is ethnically Jewish but doesn't identify with any "organized religion") and for the most part their Christianity self-identifies around reproductive and gender issues: being against abortion and LGBT equality, and not so much around issues important to other Christians, like poverty, healthcare, peace, and immigration. Still almost eighteen months out from the actual election, the volume of chatter is rising as the candidates, at least one of whom is an ordained minister, try to preach their way into the unaffiliated Christian heart of middle America, hoping to knit together the magical plurality that will earn them four years in the Oval Office. Lord, I want to be a President in my heart, in my heart.

So far though, the United States of America is not a theocracy. The Constitution is not the Ten Commandments, much less the Sermon on the Mount. It’s patently absurd to think that any nation, ever, could represent Christianity at all, because the very nature of Christianity is to break down borders, not to set them up and defend them. So it’s all right for our leaders, Obama, Bush, Clinton, to say that they’re Christian. It’s not all right to do terrible things in the world and to end every speech with “God bless America” and refer to the United States as a Christian nation; that borders on blasphemy.

In the ongoing attempt of the previous Christian administration’s efforts to establish its legacy, Dick Cheney has been out recently defending their decision to allow “enhanced interrogation” techniques to secure information from detainees, some of whom have proven inimical  to our national interests. His justification for what the rest of the world defines as “torture” and harsh treatment of prisoners: the results. In yet another assault on Christian values, now Cheney, following a strategy conceived in the think-tanks of the Reagan era, alleges that for the USA, might makes right, and the end justifies the means. Winners write history; winners define the terms. So they write a new story with a new vocabulary, and go about the strategy of winning at all costs so that their definitions stick.

“What profit is there,” Jesus asks the disciples, “for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life?” What might we lose in this wild grasp at history, at “gaining the whole world” for this moment of rightness, of victory?

First, don’t take my word for it: here are Cheney’s ipsissima verba from his speech at the American Enterprise Institute in 2009, and he hasn't changed his tune in the intervening years. If anything, he's less apologetic.

In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear.  I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program.  The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed.  They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.  (Emphases mine) The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people... And to call this (enhanced interrogations) a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims.   What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme.  It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.

In other words, for Cheney, torture is justified because it was “successful.” The question thus becomes, if the good guys (us) become the torturers, what is it exactly that we’ve succeeded at? Without so much as a “may God have mercy on our souls,” the born-again bullies of Bush 42 set aside the rule of law and international convention to make our “Christian” nation a base of terror wrapped in the rhetoric of patriotism and justice.

But without law, without the imperfect and arbitrated negotiations of men and women of legislative and judicial vision over the years, where does a people stand against those who wish to impose their will upon history? Robert Bolt deals with this question in the person of Thomas More in his Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning work, A Man for All Seasons. In one famous scene, a confused and sycophantic courtier named Richard Rich comes to visit More at his home, and offers him his services in exchange for favors. More dismisses the pathetic Rich, who would become the official who would later perjure himself at More’s trial by giving false evidence. More’s son-in-law, William Roper, and More’s wife, Alice, see through the charade, and after Rich departs they urge the Chancellor to have him brought to justice.

ROPER: Arrest him.


MORE: For what?

ALICE: He's dangerous!

ROPER: For libel; he's a spy.

ALICE: He is! Arrest him!

MARGARET Father, that man's bad.

MORE: There is no law against that.

ROPER: There is! God's law!

MORE: Then God can arrest him.

ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication!

MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal.

ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's!

MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact—I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God . . .
(He says this last to himself)

ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after RICH) While you talk, he's gone!

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man's laws, not God's-and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god.

MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god . . . . (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle . . . I don't know where he is nor what he wants.

ROPER: My god wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else!

MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God? He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God —And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law!

As freshly as the late Bolt framed the question for the world of the 1960s and as immediate as his words sound today, more recently, director Ron Howard confronted some of these same issues anew when he looked at the interviews given by former president Richard Nixon to the British talk-show host, David Frost. Outmaneuvered and outclassed in the first three of the four sessions granted him by Nixon, Frost finally confronts Nixon with a series of readings from the transcripts of Oval Office tapes, cornering the former President by exposing the lie that he was unaware of the cover-up engineered by Haldeman and Ehrlichman before a specific date in the spring of 1972. Frost asks Nixon, if he knew, why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he have the pair arrested by the FBI? This clip is from the movie Frost/Nixon. The entire script is available online here (see page 97 or so).

The very hubris that brought down the President in 1973 is being trotted out by Cheney and other apologists and conservative pundits as justification for torture, suspension of due process and habeas corpus, wiretapping of the phones of U.S. citizens, and whatever other means were necessary to achieve their stated (as well as their unstated and possibly more self-serving) ends. And, I regret to say, President Obama has brought about little meaningful change. The administration's stonewalling and obstructing the Feinstein committee's report on torture subjects President Obama, who campaigned on transparency and an "unwavering" commitment to the principle that torture is "always wrong," to a hermeneutic of suspicion on the subject. He has refused to talk about the accountability of those who authorized torture, and his CIA is not above suspicion on the subject of the transfer of terrorism suspects to US-friendly jurisdictions where torture is carried out by other governments on our behalf.
America, America,
God mend thine every flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
This admonition from Katherine Bates’ beloved “America” is as cogent today as when it was first written. It serves as an intelligent and conscientious counterpoint to Keys’ “Star-Spangled Banner,” with its overreaching imperative that foreshadowed Manifest Destiny and the acquisitive exploitations of super-patriots ever since,
Then conquer we must
When our cause it is just.
And this be our motto:
In God is our trust.
In A Man for All Seasons, at More’s trial for treason, Richard Rich has been made the attorney-general of Wales, and wears the badge of his office while testifying against More on behalf of Henry VIII. After his perjured testimony, as he is leaving the stand, he passes by Sir Thomas, who addresses him:

MORE: I have one question to ask the witness. (RICH stops) That's a chain of office you are wearing. (Reluctantly RICH faces him) May I see it? (NORFOLK motions him to approach. MORE examines the medallion) The red dragon. (To CROMWELL) What's this?

CROMWELL: Sir Richard is appointed Attorney-General for Wales.

MORE: (Looking into RICH'S face, with pain and amusement) For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!

That’s the question for us, it seems to me. What is it that we seek to gain for this loss of our Christian soul that allows us to continue to use violence and threats of violence as the weapons of choice for our national will? What can the legacy of the Bush and Obama presidencies be, if they chose to set the values of the Constitution aside in their own defense? What world is it that we hope to gain by abandoning our soul? 
And if our soul is not confirmed in self-control, if our law is not undergirded by a human decency and ethic of interdependence formed by our exposure to the Golden Rule and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, teachings of the one for whom Christianity is named, won't our leaders continue to feel entitled to sidestep those laws with impunity, since we will have abandoned our spiritual accountability to the gospel?

Politically, in a pluralistic and fundamentally secular society, these are complex issues. But Christians, at least, need to ask and answer these questions. We can’t serve two masters. Once we’ve rendered our integrity, our soul, to Caesar, what is left that we can claim belongs to God?
We live in a political world

Where love doesn’t have any place,

We’re living in times where men commit crimes

And crime don’t have a face.

(Bob Dylan)