Think about it. At this moment in our history, with the economy in the toilet and our troops deployed in two wars, we're talking about whether or not the United States should continue to torture prisoners of war.
We talked about whether we should waterboard enemy combatants.
Throw men against the wall in an effort to make them talk.
Use state-sanctioned torture to protect the interests of America.
President Obama spoke today on the subject of national security at the National Archives.
This is where the U.S. Constitution lives. Where the original Declaration of Independence can be found. This is home for the documents that outlined the attempts of a new country to govern in a new way - democratically.
Our president spoke at that place on this day to inform the nation of the reasons why we've moved away from the use of torture – and why we want to close a place that has held prisoners without trial for many years.
"But I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world."
On closing Guantanamo:
"There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law.
In fact, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law -- a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.
So the record is clear: Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security."
As President Obama wrapped up his speech, former Vice President Dick Cheney, the Bush administration's most vocal advocate for torture, began his speech defining why torture must continue to be used as a tool of American foreign policy.
"To make certain our nation country never again faced such a day of horror, we developed a comprehensive strategy, beginning with far greater homeland security to make the United States a harder target. But since wars cannot be won on the defensive, we moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take down their networks."
In other words, he has shrouded the use of torture in the ash-laden haze of 9/11.
"So we’re left to draw one of two conclusions – and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event – coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years,and of the policies necessary to protect America for years to come."
And I look at this quote - and I read his speech as a whole - and I say that this man has it all wrong.
He has it all wrong.
The "great dividing line" in our country isn't whether or not some of us believe 9/11 was a "one-off event."
Is there really anyone in America who believes 9/11 was an isolated incident? Does anyone other than Dick Cheney really believe President Obama thinks this?
People who don't want the U.S. to torture do not underestimate the risk of terrorism. Americans opposed to torture feel this way because it goes against the grain of who we are and what we stand for.
When the United States government advocates and uses state-sanctioned torture, it dims the great beacon of liberty and tarnishes our vision of freedom.
What Dick Cheney fails to understand is that the great line of division today in our country is whether we feel compelled to shred the constitution in order to protect it - or whether we believe in the moral authority of the values defined by the founding fathers.
There is a terrible moral hazard when the United States views torture as an essential tool in keeping America safe. We are "the People of the United States," who have worked hard for more than 200 years to "establish justice" and "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves." Thus says our Constitution.
When our government decides to overturn the rule of law to use torture and hold people for years without a trial, we create a mess, not safety.
In the words our president:
"I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts -- they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all."
Dick Cheney believes that people who disapprove of torture are expressing "nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative." His repudiation of the president's move away from torture aligns him with another powerful African American leader - Malcolm X. For it was Malcom X who believed that human rights should be gained by "any means necessary."
After this extraordinary day in American history, a day spent debating the value of torture, one thing is clear. Our president has pointed the nation in a different direction – using a moral compass outlined for us by a group of men in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago.
And Dick Cheney has made it very clear that he is not on board at all with this shift in policy away from torture and toward the pursuit of liberty and justice that defines us as Americans.