5/3/2014—I'm writing a book about the effect of nihilism on American law. But people do not really understand what nihilism is and how deadly its effects can be.
So, here is an example. In an article about former Vice-President Dick Cheney—Cheney, "The More Ruthless the Better"—Mark Danner writes about an exchange from the film, The World According to Dick Cheney, directed by R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton: "Asked about waterboarding by filmmaker R.J. Cutler, [Cheney's] retort is... quick and brutal:
'Are you gonna trade the lives of a number of people because you want to preserve your, your honor, or are you going to do your job, do what’s required first and foremost your responsibility to safeguard the United States of America and the lives of its citizens. Now given a choice between doing what we did or backing off and saying, “We know you know their next attack against the United States but we’re not gonna force you to tell us what it is because it might create a bad image for us.” That’s not a close call for me.'"
Now, the point of this for nihilism is the sneer at honor. You can hear Cheney's incredulity by his repeating the word "your"—as if it is incomprehensible that anyone could care about something like honor when lives are at stake.
This is nihilism. Not, of course, that one might sacrifice even honor to save lives—that might be a tragic necessity. But this quote is not about a tragedy. For Cheney, honor is not something worth worrying about. And that is exactly what Nietzsche meant by the death of God. Nietzsche was referring to the death of a world in which things like truth, goodness and beauty really matter. Nietzsche knew that they don't matter anymore.
Nor is this just Cheney's view. It is neither his psychology nor his ideology that leads to this result, though they are relevant. To see that this is not just Cheney, remember the response by the political left to John Yoo's arguments, and the film Zero Dark Thirty's suggestion, that torture works because it led to information that enabled the United States to locate Osama Bin Laden. The left was greatly embarrassed by this claim and went to great lengths to try to show that torture does not work.
But that effort was to concede Cheney's point that you torture if it works. The left is just as disdainful of honor as is the right—or, at least, just as certain that honor does not really matter.
Now contrast both these positions with the endorsers of the Declaration of Independence. Here is its final paragraph:
"We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levey war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
For these men, honor was as significant, maybe more, than fortune and life. And need I remind you that fortune and life were at that moment very much at risk. Yet honor is the last word. And even if some of them were scoundrels in fact, as I have heard, they still knew what was important.
We—you and I—are no longer their equals. Partly we are to blame. But partly, it is the time—the time of nihilism.