The war of words between President Obama and Dick Cheney has exposed a rancorous divide over national security. Mr. Cheney states flatly that there is no middle ground on the issue. There is no such thing as being half-safe, he declares. On the face of it, his statement is nonsensical. Unless he has a way of screening the thoughts and intentions of every potential enemy in the world, we will always be half safe. But is that the real issue? Aren’t we talking about our right not to be afraid as much as our right to defend ourselves? Better be safe than sorry is common sense. Better be afraid all the time is toxic politics at its worst. When the Senate voted overwhelmingly to deny funds for closing Guantanamo, they acted out of toxic motives. President Obama accused them of being irrational, and he was absolutely right.

The issue of national security was a Republican gold mine for eight years, during which time not enough objection was raised over waterboarding, domestic surveillance, and holding detainees indefinitely without bringing them to trial. The tide turned with the new President, but the underlying dilemma remains with us.
Can we be secure without resorting to fear?
The Bush administration profited from fear to a huge extent; therefore, they couldn’t resist the temptation to wield it. As if the 9/11 attacks were not terrifying enough, they created bogeymen with no justification. The primary one was Saddam Hussein, who posed no threat to the U.S., had no weapons of mass destruction, and made no alliance with Al-Qaeda. But the detainees being held without trial at Guantanamo were also a bogeyman. We still have no idea who among them was or is a danger to this country, but in a massive refusal to be fair, adult, and rational, we allowed all of them to be lumped together and treated as imminent threats.
Cheney’s round defense of torture is morally bankrupt, but the right wing knows — as it knew in the McCarthy era — that scapegoating an unpopular minority works. Fifty years ago it was Communists; now it is Muslims of any stripe, including the most harmless. We have been detaining harmless Muslims at Guantanamo for years without due process; we have also been imprisoning dangerous Muslims and others who fall between the extremes. The only way to sort them out is with fair trials, adequate evidence, and rational consideration of potential threats.
Or you can just play the fear card.
In his ongoing efforts to treat the American public as they have rarely been treated — that is, as adults — Obama pointed out several rational things:
– Our supermax prisons are safe. No one has ever escaped from them.
– America stands for constitutional principles.
– No one’s fate should be decided by one man, even if he is President.
– The issue of releasing potential terrorists is difficult and troubling.
Notice the one thing he left out: fear. That’s the difference between him and Cheney. If he didn’t play the fear card over and over, Cheney’s vision of national security would fall apart, just as McCarthy’s argument about Communists infiltrating the federal government fell apart when he couldn’t find any. The show of smoke, mirrors, and fear collapsed. In a decent moral scheme, Obama would have pointed out the cruel injustice of holding anyone in prison without charges or the chance to defend themselves. How would any of us like to be in such a position, knowing that we were innocent? It doesn’t matter if the accused happens to look like a bogeyman. He’s a human being and should be treated like one.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
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