Understanding isn’t the same as forgiving. The history-be-my-judge interviews that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been giving recently help me understand why they acted with such contempt for our Constitution and our values — but also reinforce my confident belief, and my fervent hope, that history will throw the book at them.

The basic argument that they’re making deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t think either man would object to my summing it up in one sentence: We did what we did to keep America safe.

That terse formulation of the Bush-Cheney apologia leaves out important details. Cheney came into office with preconceived ideas about restoring executive branch powers and prerogatives that he believed had been lost after Vietnam and Watergate; Bush either shared Cheney’s views or was willing to go along. But the main narrative of the Bush presidency began with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida terrorists — the worst such assault on American soil.

In a not-for-attribution chat with a member of the Bush Cabinet a couple of years ago, conversation turned to 9/11. I said something like, “I can imagine what that day must have felt like for you.” The response was immediate: “No, you can’t.”

The official went on to describe the chaos and anguish — the shock of seeing the 110-story World Trade Center towers collapse into rubble, the fear that other hijacked planes might still be in the air, the gut feeling that the president and those around him were personally under attack. The official talked of how administration officials racked their memories to think of anything they might have done differently to prevent the 9/11 attacks. I doubt that anyone in the Situation Room actually quoted Malcolm X, but essentially a vow was taken to protect the country from another assault “by any means necessary.”

These were human reactions, understandable and appropriate at the time. The truth is that the administration had missed signs that an attack was brewing — most famously, the president’s daily brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” But these portents were lost amid the avalanche of information that buries every president every single day. Anyone in Bush’s position would have been filled with grief, anger and resolve.

Initial reactions are supposed to give way to reasoned analysis, however. For Bush and most of his top aides, this didn’t happen until far too late.

For Cheney, apparently it never happened at all. In an interview broadcast Sunday, he invited Fox News’ Chris Wallace to “go back and look at how eager the country was to have us work in the aftermath of 9/11 to make certain that that never happened again.” People have since become “complacent,” he said, but the administration’s actions have “produced a safe 7.5 years, and I think the record speaks for itself.”

That record, admirably, includes the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the dismantling of al-Qaida’s infrastructure and the killing or capture of some of the terrorist organization’s most important operatives. Shamefully, however, it also includes the violation of international and U.S. legal norms by subjecting terrorist suspects to indefinite detention and cruel, painful interrogation; the creation of a mini-gulag of secret CIA-run prisons abroad; and unprecedented domestic surveillance without court supervision — all justified, Cheney maintains, by a state of “war” that has no foreseeable end.

The Bush-Cheney record also includes the invasion of a country — Iraq — that had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. This misadventure has claimed more than 4,000 American lives, wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and grievously damaged our strategic position in the Middle East. In an interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News earlier this month, Bush claimed credit for vanquishing al-Qaida’s forces in Iraq. When Raddatz pointed out that there were no al-Qaida forces in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion, the president answered, “Yeah, that’s right. So what?”

Here’s so what: Bush and Cheney, understandably shaken by an unprecedented act of terrorism, declared and prosecuted a “war” without specifying who the enemy is. Rather than focus on the architect and sponsor of the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, they turned away to lash out at others in pre-emptive blows that dishonored our nation’s most precious ideals.

History will note that the point of the Constitution is that the ends don’t always justify the means — and that nowhere in the document can be found the phrase “so what?”

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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