- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009



Washington is a company town, and what the company makes best are politics and policy. Sometimes the politics is “unprecedented,” as certain historians called the duel between President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Cheney argued in dueling speeches over how best to keep the country safe from terrorists and about Mr. Obama’s continuing campaign against his predecessor. However, at root was a philosophical discussion about who we are as a nation and how the nation can be true to both the rule of law and the survival of the country. What should the people know about the way the country is kept safe, and when should they know it?

Predictably, the dueling arguments were melted down quickly by McMedia into glib nuggets of distorted facts, misinformation, moral preening and pious pretense that merely reinforced everyone’s established opinions and positions. The former vice president was derided as the Darth Vader of the George W. Bush administration, but the president still won’t release the evidence Mr. Cheney says validates his defense of the interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay as “legal, essential, justified, successful.”

An Obama aide tells The Washington Post that the president “gets frustrated when arguments get distorted or dumbed down” because he wants to lay out a comprehensive vision about what he wants to do with the Guantanamo prisoners. Yet the president contributes to the dumbing down and offers no assurance that he understands the manipulative nature of the Guantanamo scoundrels or the reasons why nobody, Democrat or Republican, wants them released in his or her neighborhood.

The Pentagon did offer this week a summary of a study revealing that 74 one-time detainees who have been released from the military prison at Guantanamo - 1 in 7 of those freed - returned to violent careers in terrorism. The list includes men accused or convicted of terrorist offenses in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia. These are men who never formed the habits of decency fundamental to civilized society, violent combatants still at war against the United States. Who can blame the friendly countries that refuse to relieve us of the grim task of dealing with them? Yet deal with them we must, and the public is entitled to know exactly what Mr. Cheney meant when he said the comprehensive strategy “has worked” and has been crucial to keeping 300 million Americans safe since Sept. 11, 2001.

We can have that philosophical discussion of ethics and who we are if we keep in mind that survival comes first. On the very day that the president and the ex-veep dueled, Leon R. Kass, a professor of the humanities and the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, cut to the ethical core in the 38th annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities at a former movie theater within sight of the White House.

Mr. Kass spoke to the issues of human distinctiveness and dignity that underlie those identifying values, offering arguments that the Founding Fathers certainly would have recognized as seminal to the complexity of the American experiment. He spoke to the political process that is the be all and end all in Washington, but accompanied by the philosophical reflections crucial to engaging the Washington wonkery that often passes for considered judgment.

“For most Americans, ethical matters are usually discussed either in utilitarian terms of weighing competing goods or balancing benefits and harms,” he said, “looking to the greatest good for the greatest number, or in the moralist terms of rules, rights and duties, ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots.’ ” The focus, he said, must be on the larger picture before anyone can condemn or correct policy.

The language is lofty and above the fray in the war against the terrorists who would kill us, but the words appeal to that ethical core derived from knowledge of the best that has been said and thought by those who have gone before, “not because they are old and not because they are ours, but because they might help us discover vital truths that we would otherwise not see on our own.”

He offered no judgments on the competing moral claims of either Mr. Obama or Mr. Cheney, but identified the human dilemmas he first examined as a bioethicist. The good citizen, being human, must reflect deeply on how to find cures for disease at the same time paying homage and respect to life itself, where the evils to avoid are thoroughly intertwined with the good the prudent citizen ardently pursues. Nothing glib about that.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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