I have seen some people on the Internets comparing Dick Cheney to Adolf Eichmann, the notorious “architect of the Holocaust” and of whom Hannah Arendt was referring when she famously described the “banality of evil.” Yet Eichmann was no mastermind. He was selected, groomed, promoted, and empowered by a bureaucracy that had already committed itself to the extermination of the Jews. He was an artifact of the bureaucracy. If you want a modern parallel to Eichmann, then John Brennan, the Director of the CIA, is probably a better choice.
If you are looking for a parallel, then Dick Cheney is probably much closer to Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was one of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, was a leading member of the Nazi Party, was the man who grew the Schutzstaffel (otherwise known as the SS) into the notorious force for which it is remembered, was the man who actually ordered the creation of the extermination camps, and is, along with Reinhard Heydrich, considered one of the true masterminds of the Holocaust. And Himmler, like Cheney, never experienced actual combat.
Why is this distinction important? Because Eichmann, unlike Himmler, was merely doing what the bureaucracy expected him to do. Not an excuse, certainly, as he could have quit and left the job to someone else. And because he didn’t quit he was rightfully tried and hanged as a war criminal. But, ultimately, Eichmann was only doing what he thought any good German would have done at the time, and if he had quit, the bureaucracy would merely have found someone else to replace him.
Himmler, on the other hand, was one of the masterminds. The bureaucracy reported to him. He was a key player in transforming the German government into a murder machine. Without Himmler, there would have been no need for an Eichmann or anyone like him. The idea of the Holocaust undoubtedly sprang from the warped mind of Adolf Hitler, but it was Himmler who nurtured it and transformed it into reality. The extermination of some six million Jews can be traced straight back to him. He was one of the members of Hitler’s inner circle who legitimized the roundup of the Jews. He was the one who turned the concentration camps into death camps. Eichmann was a war criminal, but Himmler was his boss.
Enter Dick Cheney. The CIA did the torturing. That much is true. And in doing so, it certainly committed crimes against humanity. There are people involved who should be tried for that. By Cheney was not a bureaucrat of the machine: he was a mastermind of the machine. It was under his orders that torture was legitimized. It was under his orders that the CIA was turned into a torture machine. It was under his orders that torture became an official policy of the U.S. government. It is because of him, and his media enablers, that we are still discussing torture in terms of its legitimacy. The torture of CIA detainees can arguably be traced straight back to him.
So, when history judges Dick Cheney, it will not judge him as a bureaucrat, but as a mastermind. And when it comes to torture, so should you. Cheney is not Eichmann. He’s worse.