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Thinking of Dick Cheney as Cicero

by David R. Carlin on May 20, 2009

Everybody agrees that some prisoners held at Guantanamo received a certain amount of rough treatment. Those on the American political left call this treatment “torture.” They say it was criminal conduct, and they want somebody held accountable for this wrongdoing. Above all, they’d love to see former Vice President Dick Cheney branded a criminal.

Those on the right, by contrast, call the rough treatment at Guantanamo “enhanced interrogation,” and they hold that valuable national security information was obtained as a result of these not-very-gentle sessions.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the left is correct when they say that it was in fact torture, a violation of U.S. and/or international law. And let’s make the further assumption that the right is correct when they say that this “torture” elicited information helpful to national security. In that case, what do we do with Cheney? Should he be stigmatized as a criminal, either formally by a court or informally by a non-judicial “truth commission”? Or should he be applauded as a patriot?
Look at an analogous case, that of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great orator, politician and philosopher of ancient Rome. It was the year 63 B.C. and Cicero was Roman consul. In that office he had to deal with Catiline — a talented, ruthless and ambitious Roman senator from an old patrician family, who was plotting to seize power.
Catiline hoped to do what Sulla had done before him and Caesar would do after, that is, make himself sole ruler of the city and the Roman Republic. Catiline had confederates at key places throughout Italy, including Rome itself. One of his men headed an army assembling near what is now the city of Florence. In Rome the plan was to throw the city into a state of panic by means of widespread arson and assassination, including the murder of Cicero. With the city in chaos, the army from Florence would attack, power would be seized and Catiline would become dictator.
Cicero, however, foiled the plot. By adroit detective work he learned what was happening, arrested a number of key conspirators and revealed the plot to the Senate. The Senate, convinced that strong measures were urgently needed, passed what is known as “the Ultimate Decree” — that is, a resolution that urged the consul to take whatever steps might be needed “for the safety of the republic.” That was a euphemistic way of saying: “Put the conspirators to death — without trial.” To the mind of the Senate, the need for Roman security did not leave room for the niceties of due process (an attitude similar to Cheney’s).
So Cicero, following the Senate’s advice, put the prisoners to death. Strictly speaking, the executions were illegal (as we are supposing Cheney’s actions to have been), since Roman law did not permit the execution of a citizen without trial. And the fact that the Senate had authorized the executions didn’t make them legal, for the Senate was neither a legislative nor a judicial body. It was simply an extraordinarily influential advisory body.
Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d’etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero — a reprobate named Publius Clodius — indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.
There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.
The ancient Roman left should not have attempted to punish Cicero for his patriotic illegalities, and neither, I submit, should the present-day American left attempt to punish Dick Cheney for his patriotic illegalities.

David R. Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island and author of "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?"