To liberal Americans during the Bush years, Vice President Dick Cheney was the apotheosis of evil in the modern world. Four years later, they have decided he was right all along.
In the Bush years they detested Cheney because he prosecuted the war on terror with unapologetic zeal. After 9/11, it was Cheney who said preventing further attacks would require America to go over to "the dark side." It was Cheney who said waterboarding—"a dunk in the water," as he called it—was "a no-brainer."
In fact, Cheney went so far as to say such methods were not only morally permissible, they were in fact morally required: "I think it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation against further attacks," he said. After leaving office, he told CBS the use of harsh interrogation techniques saved "perhaps hundreds of thousands" of lives.
And therein was Cheney's ethical rationale: Individual rights and constitutional rules might be important, but saving lives was more important by far. As David Addison, Cheney's chief of staff, once insisted when the Office of Legal Counsel was threatening to withhold approval of one counterterrorism program: "If you rule that way, the blood of the hundred thousand people who die in the next attack will be on your hands."
To liberals, this was absolute hogwash. The threat of a terrorist attack—even one as horrific as 9/11—did not justify the manifold constitutional affronts, from warrantless wiretapping to demanding library patrons' records under the Patriot Act, that the Bush administration was committing. Yes, saving lives was important—but not at the expense of civil liberties and constitutional law.
All of that, however, was before Aurora.
Since James Holmes murdered 12 people and wounded 58 more in a Colorado movie theater two weeks ago, liberal America has been screaming from the rooftops for more gun control—and insulting anyone who thinks differently.
The failure to pass more gun-control laws, says The New York Times, proves "politicians are far too fearful of the gun lobby to address gun violence." The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne agrees, calling that failure evidence of "eternal gutlessness." To the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, support for gun rights is "a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it." (So, hey, no need to debate the merits—Those People are all crazy!)
Gopnik's take neatly encapsulates the liberal mindset: Massacres make the need for more gun control so obvious there is nothing left to debate. Since the solution is so plainly beyond dispute, the failure to implement it can be accounted for only by something else, such as cowardice or derangement.
Gun-rights defenders have responded mostly on pragmatic grounds, by insisting gun control doesn't work, or that mass killers can be stopped by shooting back. But there is a strong moral argument against gun control—which mirrors the liberal case against waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, and other Bush-era counterterrorism tactics.
Sixty million Americans own firearms, and almost none of them ever will fire a shot in anger. The premise behind gun control, then, is that millions of law-abiding Americans should have their rights and liberties circumscribed in order to prevent a minuscule fraction—something like three one-hundredths of 1 percent of them—from abusing those rights.
Imagine the uproar for a moment if you applied this to, say, Muslim-Americans. Imagine saying, "We know most of you will never commit a terrorist act, but we also know some of you might do so in the future, so we're going to ask every one of you to register with your local police department." Americans, quite rightfully, would erupt in furious outrage at such a proposal. Why, then, do liberals embrace it for gun owners?
Answer: Because—just like conservatives who favor profiling—they consider some rights important and others not.
When the Supreme Court upheld the habeas corpus rights of alleged enemy combatants in Boumediene v. Bush, The New York Times lavished praise on its "stirring defense" of "human decency" and a "cherished right . . . so central to the American legal system that it has its own clause in the Constitution." Two years later, when the court upheld an individual right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment (another "clause in the Constitution," you might say) The Times struck a far different tone. Citing the thousands of lives lost to gun violence, it wrote: "The arguments that led to Monday's decision undermining Chicago's [handgun ban] were infuriatingly abstract, but the results will be all too real and bloody."
Dick Cheney might have said precisely the same thing about the court's rulings on the rights of terrorist detainees. In fact, he did. As he put it in an interview: "How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom?"
Oops, sorry—that was The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, writing about those who support gun rights. But you can see how easy it is to get the two confused, can't you?