When I was growing up, Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history's villains. A brutal dictator might keep a depraved regime in power with torture. People in foreign countries might suffer inside torture chambers. But U.S. policy reflected the will of the citizenry, not the sadism of an evil-doer. Even folks who knew that the U.S. had tortured in the past never imagined it would do so again.

After al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, our polity didn't exactly embrace torture. But attitudes in the U.S. shifted. The absolutist taboo against torture gave way to a consequentialist debate. Nearly everyone continued to avow that torture was morally unacceptable in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, say a ticking time bomb would incinerate New York City and a terrorist knew the code to stop it. Would it be morally permissible to torture the terrorist?

Over many months, Americans debated that question.

On Sunday, Dick Cheney gave an interview that illustrated why it was so imprudent to abandon the taboo against torture and indulge in implausible hypotheticals. 13 years ago, Americans were arguing over whether it should be legal to torture a known terrorist if we knew it could stop a mass casualty attack on a major city. Now a former vice-president is defending the torture of innocent people.

Here's the relevant part of the transcript from Cheney's appearance on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you, what do you say to Gul Rahman, what do you say to Sulaiman Abdula, what do you say to Khalid al-Masri? All three of these folks were detained, they had these interrogation techniques used on them. They eventually were found to be innocent. They were released, no apologies, nothing.

What do we owe them?

DICK CHENEY:

Well--

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, let me go to Gul Rahman. He was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water, froze to death in C.I.A. custody. And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity.

DICK CHENEY:

--right. But the problem I had is with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield. Of the 600 and some people who were released out of Guantanamo, 30% roughly ended up back on the battlefield. Today we're very concerned about ISIS. Terrible new terrorist organization.

It is headed by a man named Baghdadi. Baghdadi was in the custody of the U.S. military in Iraq in Camp Bucca. He was let go and now he's out leading the terror attack against the United States. I'm more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.

CHUCK TODD:

25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released.

DICK CHENEY:

Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are--

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I'm asking you.

DICK CHENEY:

--you going to know?

CHUCK TODD:

Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY:

I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.

That exchange leaves no room for mistaking former vice-president Cheney's position: better to chain a man to the wall of a cell, douse him in cold water, and leave him there to freeze to death, even if he later turns out to be innocent, than to release that same man and risk not that he detonates a nuclear bomb in Manhattan, but that he ends up "on the battlefield," where there's a chance he could harm Americans. What if fully one-in-four prisoners tortured by the CIA were innocent?

Cheney is still unmoved:

CHUCK TODD:

Is that too high? You're okay with that margin for error?

DICK CHENEY:

I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.

The ends justify the means.

There is no clearer illustration of the morally corrosive nature of torture than the once unthinkable position that Dick Cheney is unashamedly espousing on television. The position is even less defensible than the conceit that the Office of Legal Counsel defines what torture is. It is so indefensible that Cheney himself can scarcely maintain it.

Look what happened moments later in the interview:

CHUCK TODD:

Is there a reason these interrogations didn't happen on U.S. soil? Was there concern that maybe these folks would get legal protections--

DICK CHENEY:

Well--

CHUCK TODD:

--from the United States and that's why it was done at black sites?

DICK CHENEY:

--we didn't read them their Miranda rights either. These are not American citizens. They are unlawful combatants. They are terrorists. They are people who have committed unlawful acts of war against the American people. And we put them in places where we could proceed with the interrogation program and find out what they knew so we could protect the country against further attack.

Mere seconds after confronting the fact that numerous prisoners subject to the CIA interrogation program were innocent, Cheney defends it by saying, "they are terrorists."

He has no defense for the actual facts of the situation.

Last week, I noted the Dick Cheney interview in which Brett Baier of Fox News caught him in a lie. One moment, Cheney claimed that the CIA was fully informing the White House about its interrogation tactics. The next moment, Cheney insisted that he hadn't known prisoners were raped by interrogators who ground up food and forced it into their anuses. He said that tactic wasn't approved.

I hoped Chuck Todd would press him on this contradiction. Either President Bush and Cheney knew that the CIA was engaged in a tactic that even the neoconservative Weekly Standard calls torture, or the CIA kept the White House in the dark.

Here's what happened when the subject came up on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD:

Let me go through some of those techniques that were used, Majid Khan, was subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration. It included two bottles of Ensure, later in the same day Majid Khan's lunch tray consisting of hummus, pasta, sauce, nuts and raisins was pureed and rectally infused.

DICK CHENEY:

That wasn't--

CHUCK TODD:

Does that meet the definition of torture?

DICK CHENEY:

--that does not meet the definition of what was used in the program as--

CHUCK TODD:

I understand. But does that meet the definition of torture in your mind?

DICK CHENEY:

--in my mind, I've told you what meets the definition of torture. It's what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved. I believe it was done for medical reasons.

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, medical community has said there is no medical--

DICK CHENEY:

If you go and look, for example, at Jose Rodriguez book, and he was the guy running the program, he's got a very clear description of how, in fact, the program operated. With respect to that I think the agency has answered it and its response to the committee report and I--

CHUCK TODD:

--but you acknowledge this was over and above.

DICK CHENEY:

--that was not something that was done as part of the interrogation program.

CHUCK TODD:

But you won't call it torture.

DICK CHENEY:

It wasn't torture in terms of it wasn't part of the program.         

CIA officers assigned to the interrogation program forced food up the anuses of prisoners. And what's Cheney's answer to whether they perpetrated torture? It "wasn't part of the program," so no (as if that makes any sense). And they shouldn't be punished either. "I believe," he says, "it was done for medical reasons."

Does anyone think that he really believes that?

His attempt to redefine torture as "what the 9/11 hijackers did" is no more coherent. The point came up repeatedly and seemed to be something that Cheney prepared.

​​CHUCK TODD:

Well, let me start with quoting you. You said earlier this week, "Torture was something that was very carefully avoided." It implies that you have a definition of what torture is. What is it?

DICK CHENEY:

Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. There's this notion that somehow there's moral equivalence between what the terrorists and what we do.

And that's absolutely not true.

This is unusually naked nonsense.

Cheney is dodging questions by invoking the 9/11 dead. It would be as if O.J. Simpson said, "You think I murdered my wife and her friend? Murder is what al-Qaeda did to 3,000 New Yorkers on 9/11. The notion that there's a moral equivalence between my actions and what al-Qaeda did is an insult to the American people."

Here's a variation on the argument that is as weak:

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you this, we've got Riyadh al-Najjar. He had handcuffing on one or both of his wrists to an overhead bar, would not allow him to lower his arms. Twenty-two hours each day for two consecutive days in order to break his resistance. Al-Najjar was also wearing a diaper and had no access to toilet facility. Was that acknowledged? Was that part of the program that you approved?

DICK CHENEY:

I can't tell from that specific whether it was or not.

CHUCK TODD:

And then--

DICK CHENEY:

I know we had--

CHUCK TODD:

--page 53 of the report.

DICK CHENEY:

--the report is seriously flawed. They didn't talk to anybody who knew anything about the program. They didn't talk to anybody within the program. The best guide for what in fact happened is the one that's the report that was produced by the three C.I.A. directors and deputy directors of the C.I.A. when this program was undertaken.

And, in fact, it lays out in very clear terms what we did and how we did it. And with respect to trying to define that as torture I come back to the proposition torture was what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There's no comparison between that and what we did with inspect-enhanced interrogation.

The logic is absurd.

Torture is what al-Qaeda did to America on 9/11. CIA interrogators did not fly planes into buildings with prisoners inside. Therefore, the CIA did not torture prisoners.

Later still, Cheney again invokes 9/11 to avoid answering a slightly different question:

CHUCK TODD:

So if an American citizen is waterboarded by ISIS are we going to try to prosecute for war crimes?

DICK CHENEY:

He's not likely to be waterboarded, he's likely to have his head cut off. It's not a close call.

CHUCK TODD:

If another country captures a U.S. soldier, the Iranian regime, water boards--

DICK CHENEY:

Chuck, he--

CHUCK TODD:

--is that going to be an accepted--

DICK CHENEY:

--you're trying to come up now with hypothetical situations. Waterboarding, the way we did it, was, in fact, not torture. Now when you're dealing with terrorists, the likes of al-Qaeda or the ISIS, I haven't seen them water board anybody. What they did is cut their heads off. What they did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11, that was brutal, bloody murder. It absolutely can't be compared with what we did with respect to our enhanced interrogation program.

It's worth reflecting on this exchange, because it contains Cheney's actual position, and it's important to understand how he and his allies want America to operate.

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the U.S. Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn't want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn't want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Now that Cheney is stating all this explicitly it must be rejected as moral madness. Torture was the ticking time bomb. It exploded. And a city on a hill was destroyed. I hope it is rebuilt in time for my unborn children to grow up in a place that abhors torture, regarding it as a dark curiosity perpetrated by history's villains.

We've got a long way to go.