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Cheney Is No Joke

Jane Smiley

One of the most irritating editorials of the week-end was the New York TImes piece on Dick Cheney, entitled "Dick Cheney Rules". On Monday, it was one of the Times' most emailed pieces. Surely the reason for such popularity is the list of Cheney's crimes, not the tone of the piece, which is ironic, but not, I am sorry to say, bitterly ironic. The tone is, in fact, playful. Among Cheney's major transgressions, he "seems unconcerned about little things like checks and balances and traditional American notions of judicial process. At one point, he gave himself the power to selectively declassify documents and selectively leak them to reporters. In a recent commencement address, he declaimed against prisoners who had the gall to 'demand the protections of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution of the United States'." And it points out Cheney's tens of millions of dollars in profits from his Halliburton connection. But then editorial limply observes that "Mr. Cheney is in step with the times. He has privatized the job of vice president of the United States," and ends. What? Where's the call for impeachment? This editorial makes Cheney the monster sound like an eccentric but meaningless old coot like the Dad on Frasier.

Not a page or two from the Cheney editorial is an op-ed by Edward Wong called "Iraq's Curse: A Thirst For Final, Crushing Victory", in which the author reflects upon the desires on the part of most Iraqi groups to see their enemies killed, dismembered, and dragged through the streets. Well, excuse me, but, I have to say, I can sympathize.

I've been reading lately about my home state, Missouri, during and after the Civil War, and it's enlightening these days to think about those days. The similarities of the Civil War in Kansas and Missouri (between 1856 and 1865) to the war in Iraq are striking. Just to refresh your memory, when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise and giving "Kansans" the right to choose whether as a state, Kansas was going to be slave or free, settlers poured into the territory from the north and the south, and many of those were from the two most extremely ideological states, Massachusetts and South Carolina. These immigrants hated each other on sight, and Kansas was soon known all over the country as "Bloody Kansas". Radicals on both sides gained experience in violence and hatred. One of these was John Brown, who murdered five slaveholders in southern Kansas Territory in 1856 and another was William Quantrill, a Missouri border guerrilla who massacred a hundred and fifty Union sympathizers in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863. The Union sympathizers, in particular, made sure to be armed with the latest technology--Sharps rifles. If they had had IEDs, they would have used them. The Civil War in Kansas and Missouri was terrifying to both sides exactly for the reason that the Iraq War is terrifying--no side predominated, neighbor hated and distrusted neighbor, revenge was a primary motivator, and everyone was well-armed. All due respect to Mr. Wong, but the Iraqis aren't unique in their thirst for reduction of the enemy to nothing. Civil wars, and especially civil wars in territories where loyalties are divided, like Missouri and Kansas, inevitably produce just such sentiments.

Since this is a long standing human pattern, witnessed with perfect clarity in the nineties in the Balkans and elsewhere, you might have thought that the Neocons would have paused to consider what they were unleashing in Iraq when they started the current civil war there. But no. When Cheney decided he had to have control of Iraqi oil, no amount of blood--whether shed by Americans or by Iraqis themselves--was considered to be too high a price to pay. And, unable to learn, feel remorse, or admit error, Cheney persists in his quest. Still, the New York Times considers this all a bit funny. He's privatized the vice-presidency, but hey, so what, life goes on.

Lots of Americans don't consider this funny at all--Dennis Kucinich has a Resolution of Impeachment before the Congress, and Cheney is the one to be impeached. If you want to add your name to the petition supporting it, you can go here. They need money, too, for ads. The thing is, it's important that Cheney be impeached, and, hopefully, investigated, indicted, and imprisoned. His crime of flouting laws and undermining, if not destroying, the American government we thought we had is equal to his crime of causing the death and injury of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. To put it simply, Cheney has been instrumental in rolling back the rule of law in both the US and Iraq and returning both nations to a state where vengeance is the only recourse people have to redress the wrongs done to them. He has enhanced his own power, limited the legitimate power of the government over his actions, and flouted every sort of rule that might inconvenience either him or his pocketbook. He has operated in secrecy, and shown indifference to even the appearance of legitimacy and fairness.

When those in power exercise it in an unjust manner, they destroy the sense of trust that average citizens have in their own government and their own society and they open the society to the return of revenge as a sentiment and as an act. American history is replete with examples of how long it has taken and how difficult it has been for us as a nation to escape vengeance as a social mechanism--Kansas and Missouri, vigilantes and lynching, gangs and outlaws. Cheney's specific crimes are reason enough for the New York Times to take impeachment seriously, but his larger crime against the nation has been to roll back the clock and infuse people like me, liberals like me (whom we all know are wimps, right?) with vengeful sentiments and fantasies. We have the crimes, then we have the arrogance--since the 2000 election, Cheney has been adding insult to injury, here and in Iraq. The combination is a potent one--the injuries damage our lives; the insults make us mad (both angry and crazy). The antidote is the exercise of laws, such as Kucinich's articles of impeachment. I have news for the New York Times--if you assume that this is all going to pass away with another election season, you are dangerously wrong.

Jane Smiley is a novelist and essayist. Her latest book is Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

© 2007 The Huffington Post

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