September 2011, Week 3


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Wed, 21 Sep 2011 22:27:27 -0400
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Extreme Injury

Elaine Scarry


In a 2008 television interview, former Vice President Dick
Cheney addressed complaints about the overreaching of the
executive branch. In order to defend the Bush
administration, he might have argued that reports of
presidential overreaching were exaggerated. Instead he
argued the opposite: the public, he suggested, has an
insufficient appreciation of how truly vast that
presidential power is. Accompanied around the clock by a
military aid carrying the nuclear football,

	[The president] could launch the kind of devastating
	attack the world has never seen. He doesn't have to
	check with anybody. He doesn't have to call the
	Congress; he doesn't have to check with the courts. He
	has that authority because of the nature of the world
	we live in. It's unfortunate, but I think we're
	perfectly appropriate to take the steps we have.1

Cheney makes the transition from the first three sentences
to the fourth as though his conclusion followed
effortlessly from his premises: the president's license to
launch nuclear weapons (accurately described by Cheney,
and true of every president living in the nuclear age from
Eisenhower to Obama) makes his otherwise illegal executive
actions --however "unfortunate"--"perfectly appropriate."
What Vice President Cheney seems to be saying is this: if
you keep in mind the vast level of injury the president is
permitted to inflict on the world, it will help you keep
in perspective the lesser injuries he has actually
inflicted: the 350 people allegedly tortured, the 83 times
Abu Zubaydah was water boarded, the 183 times Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed was water boarded,2 the 3x6x7-foot cell
(rat-infested and latrine-free) in which the wholly
innocent Canadian citizen Maher Arar was kept for a year
during which time he was periodically beaten with a two
inch-thick cable and threatened with being suspended
upside down from a tire and subjected to electric shock.3
Each time you think that the perpetrators of such acts
should be prosecuted, replace that picture of prosecution
with a picture of what is always in the president's field
of vision: the nuclear football.

Of course, neither picture should displace the other.
Prosecuting the architects of U.S. torture is critical to
restoring the rule of law, as I and countless others have
argued and continue to argue. But we should also, as Dick
Cheney counsels, think about the 40-pound titanium
briefcase that accompanies the president (as well as, in
one format or another, the executive officers of other
countries) and enables him to launch a nuclear strike.
Nuclear weapons need to be gotten rid of first and
foremost for their own sake and also for the "lesser"
brutalities they license.

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