So Dick Cheney has revealed to a CBS News interviewer that his cardiologist once had the wireless component of his heart defibrillator disabled in order to prevent terrorists from sending a signal that might kill him. Apparently something similar happens in the Homeland series, which I don’t watch, but the former vice president and eminence gris of the ‘war on terror’ does.
In the interview he compares the fictional scenario to his own experience, declaring ‘I was aware of the danger, if you will, that existed, but I found it credible…I know from the experience we had and the necessity for adjusting my own device, that it was an accurate portrayal of what was possible.’
Cheney’s revelations suggests once again the interplay between the real and the imagined which has so often been a feature of the 21st century terrorwars, in which both writers of fiction and politicians conjure up the darkest and most devious sinister scenarios of what is terroristically ‘possible’.
For scriptwriters and film directors, this willingness to imagine the unimaginable makes for bracing entertainment. For foreign policy hawks like Cheney, imagining the worst possibility provides a justification for taking even the most extreme action to prevent it.
Of course it must have been theoretically possible that a member of al-Qaeda might have found the frequency of Cheney’s defibrillator in order to kill him, though it is far more probable that Osama bin Laden would have preferred to keep him alive, given the enormous benefits that he and Bush brought to his organization.
In any case, there are many other ways in which Cheney’s heart might have been affected. We are, after all talking about a man who had his first heart attack at the age of 37, and has since had four more requiring major surgery, including a quadruple bypass and a heart transplant last year.
Yet Cheney did not stop drinking or overworking. He did not look for a less stressful job, and rejects any suggestion that stress might have contributed to his heart disease. But a terrorist attack on his heart was clearly a different matter, just as it is for many of his countrymen.
It’s no use telling Americans that they are more likely to be stung to death by bees, drown in the bath, get run down by a car, or get shot in the face by a boozy vice-president than they are to be killed by terrorists.
One could also point out, as Muriel Spark once said of one of her characters, that Americans are most likely to die of death. None of this is likely to have much impact on many people, for whom terrorism is not only uniquely evil and uniquely dangerous, but also persistently innovative in its evilness, always looking for more horrible and more spectacular ways to kill and murder us, either individually or perhaps altogether.
Cheney clearly believes that too. And just as he once disabled his defibrillator to eliminate even the remotest possibility a terrorist might use it to kill him, so he helped transform American foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks into an instrument of ‘preemptive’ counterterrorism in an attempt to eliminate all terrorist-borne risks and dangers from the outside world – regardless of whether such dangers were probable, possible, or simply imagined.
According to the journalist Ron Suskind, Cheney devised the principle known as the ‘one percent doctrine‘, which stated that ‘if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction — and there has been a small probability of such an occurrence for some time — the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.’
For Cheney, the importance of this principle lay not so much in ‘our analysis,’ but in ‘our response.’ In practice, this meant that the administration simply dispensed with ‘analysis’ altogether, and simply presented its own suspicions and assumptions as a justification for a ‘response’.
More than any other single official, Cheney was instrumental in driving the Bush administration’s ‘preemptive’ wars and covert operations programs of the last decade – many of which have been continued by his successors. Torture, kidnapping, assassinations, extrajudicial executions, indefinite administrative detention, death squads, preemptive war – all these events formed part of what Jeremy Scahill calls the ‘Cheney agenda’.
Much of this was justified – at least to the administration itself – by Cheney’s one percent principle. There is no doubt that Cheney’s ‘doctrine’ was politically convenient. But now I wonder if he didn’t really believe it.
At first sight revelations about his heart, and his forthcoming book about his medical problems, suggest a more sympathetic side to the hard-faced cynic who once promised to take America to ‘the dark side’ and celebrated the virtues of waterboarding. We know see a man who has suffered, and who has lived with the proximity of death, and is frightened at the prospect of mortality.
In 2010, lying in a hospital bed in a state of delirium after one of his operations, Cheney had a ‘near-death dream’ in which he was walking, a little like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, in a villa in a ‘beautiful place in Italy’ where he ‘walked stone paths to get coffee and newspapers’.
From his own perspective at least, Cheney is lucky to be alive, though many Americans and Iraqis may feel differently. But his health problems do not appear to have made him courageous or philosophical about the presence of the Reaper. Only last year refused to speak in Canada because it was ‘too dangerous.’
Cheney was one of many ‘chickenhawks’ in the Bush administration who were among the most ardent supporters of the Iraq war, even though they had no military experience, who dismissed the reservations or doubts expressed by Colin Powell and others who did, and who systematically and cynically used the September 11 attacks to manipulate American public opinion to support the war.
In his youth, Cheney once got five deferments to avoid the draft, yet even when the occupation of Iraq descended into bloody chaos, he insisted that Americans should not abandon the ‘battleground’ to the ‘terrorists.’ When presidential candidate John Kerry once called for a more ‘sensitive’ war on terror that was more consonant with American ‘values’, Cheney mocked him and suggested that his approach was not masculine and tough enough.
Nor has Cheney’s personal experience of the frailty of his own flesh made him empathetic toward the hundreds of thousands of bodies who died in the wars that he organized, or even towards the American soldiers who were killed, wounded or committed suicide as a result of them.
Paul Mitchell, the director of a recent documentary on the Iraq war interviewed Cheney and a number of other US officials, and found the former VP resolutely unapologetic, but reluctant to talk about the ‘bad decisions’ that turned the war into a disaster. According to Mitchell, ‘getting people, including Cheney, to even talk about it was incredibly difficult, not because they didn’t want to talk about it, because they just didn’t seem terribly interested in it.’
That, tragically, appears to be par for the course, nor are American officials the only ones to show such indifference. But Cheney bears more responsibility for that catastrophe than most, and for many other things besides, yet he has never shown the slightest indication that he gives a damn.
And that really doesn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic towards him. And no amount of discussion about his new heart will prevent me from wondering if he ever really had one to replace.