The 2006 Remarque Lecture by Mark Danner, the Remarque Institute, New York University
I. Introduction: Tony Judt
Good evening. I’m Tony Judt; I apologize for the cold, but you can probably hear through the microphones. I caught it in Europe…well – [shrugs] – not exactly. I’m the director of the Remarque Institute here at New York University, which hosts the Remarque lectures. We’ve been hosting… [Motioning]. Come in, please. Take seats wherever you wish. We’ve been hosting these lectures now for ten years – since the institute was founded in 1996 – and the lectures, like the institute, were always intended in the first instance to bring to New York either a European topic or an issue of trans-Atlantic significance, or indeed, a European to speak to an audience here in Manhattan.
There’s been a slight shift of emphasis in the past two or three years, because there’s been a slight shift of emphasis in world history in the past two or three years. Traveling in Europe, and outside of Europe – I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had this experience – there is a vastly increased level of international interest in and anxiety about the United States. I think this is the first time – I just got back from Europe – that I have been asked in every European country I went to what I thought about the upcoming midterm elections. Most Europeans never knew what an American mid-term election was, much less what its significance might be in local politics, much less what it’s significance would be in international affairs. How the US is governed; how the US is “mis-governed” is now the subject of perennial, daily, international concern. In a way that’s, I think, certainly new in my experience; it may be new altogether.
I…just one brief anecdote to this effect: a couple of years ago, I was in Spain giving a lecture to an impeccably conservative body of Spanish grandees on the subject of trans-Atlantic relations, and at the end I was asked by an elderly gentleman – the chairman of the meeting – how I explained, considering that he and his contemporaries had grown up under Franco, with what he called a “dream of liberal America,” which they contrasted with their own experience of authoritarian depression how I explained Guantanamo. And somehow, this explaining Guantanamo seemed to him – and to many people in the audience – to be the most important responsibility of an American coming to Europe in those days.
This, as some of you may remember, is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the connection between that and what I’ve just been saying is this: it seems to me that one of the glories of American public writing in the 20th century, and something quite distinctively American when you think of other places is the history of what is not always pejoratively called “muckraking journalism” – investigative journalism, if you like. It’s a distinctively American genre, particularly when it’s invested with information and engagement – real information of an intense engagement – and it stands at the intersection of investigative journalism, contemporary history, and the political essay, in a way that I don’t think anything that is written in most other countries quite does.
In recent years here in the United States, it seems to me the established intellectuals – the more conventional academic (particularly) intellectuals – of all political colors have been running for cover, and offering various sweeping theoretical defenses for preemptive war and its consequences. And in a time, also, when media pundits say more – and no less than ever before – first-rate investigative journalism, the kind that might be able to, as it were, explain Guantanamo, informed by local knowledge and driven by moral energy, is an invaluable public asset – one of our most important public assets. And I can only think of a handful of men and women here in the States today who qualify under this heading, and perhaps only one or two of that handful who’s particular skills and concerns place them at the heart of today’s most pressing issue, which combines anxiety over the domestic trajectory of this country, and awareness of the consequences of its behavior – and of that trajectory in far slung countries; in far flung places. And our speaker tonight, Mark Danner, is one of those.
Mark is a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley where – in, I think, 2002 – he established the Goldman Forum on the Press and Foreign Affairs, which he now directs. He’s also the Henry Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College nearby. Mark will be familiar, I imagine, to many people in this room – or to any reader of theNew York Review of Books, the New Yorker, or The New York Times – but most of his work has appeared at one time or another, and often before being published in book form. His journalism has won him numerous awards and honors, including three overseas press awards, one Emmy, and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Back in the 1990’s, his writings included “Beyond the Mountains: The Legacy of Duvalier,” which was published in 1993, and based on his reporting from Haiti; The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, published shortly afterwards, which began as an issue-length report from El Salvador in The New Yorker; and an article called “Marooned in the Cold War: America, the Alliance, and the Quest for a Vanished World” in World Policy Journal in 1997, an article and an essay which turned out to be remarkably insightful in lieu of what was to come. He also wrote during the ’90’s a cycle of absolutely first-rate reports from the Balkans – from Yugoslav wars – which appeared in The New York Review of Books, and perhaps the best investigative essay on the 2000 election, also in The New York Review of Books — The Road to Illegitimacy: One Reporter’s Travels Through the 2000 Florida Vote Recount.
Since 9/11, however, Mark Danner has been one of the foremost observers and commentators upon the war on terror and it’s consequences. His reporting from Iraq and from the home front – and it’s important to understand that they are, as it were, connected in his reporting – has resulted in two substantial works of contemporary history/investigative journalism, both of which, by the way, are outside, and Mark has agreed to sign copies of both, so people do wish to purchase them after the talk. One is Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, the other is The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History.
These books, it seems to me, are required reading for anyone who wishes to know not so much where we now are – we know that – or why we are there – we have lots of theories about that – but how we got here, which is always the most difficult question to answer, and therefore the most important. So it’s a pleasure to welcome on behalf of New York University, on your behalf, and on behalf of the Remarque Institute Mark Danner this evening, who’s going to speak on “The Politics of the Forever War: Terror, Rights, and George Bush’s State of Exception.” Mark. [Gestures to Professor Danner.]
II. Professor Mark Danner
“The Politics of the Forever War: Terror, Rights, and Bush’s State of Exception”
Thank you very much. Thank you, Tony. That was a lovely, really wonderful introduction. I can’t help but think when I hear something like that that my mother was here. My mother’s perfectly well – she’s in Florida – but I want her here to hear that and think I’m not wasting my time. I think one doesn’t get over that sort of sentiment. I am thrilled to be with you tonight, one week after the midterm elections. I’m so glad the Europeans are taking an interest in our midterms, that’s very cheering to hear.
I want to say, first of all, how honored I am to be giving a lecture that bears the name of Erich Maria Remarque, whose novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, was a life-making event for me, when I read it when I was 10 years old. I can remember very vividly sitting in the classroom at John F. Hughes School in Utica, New York – for those Uticans in the crowd. I remember the outside; I remember I had one of those preternaturally clear pictures, and I remember how that world outside gave way to this vision of constant horror, and eventually for this vision of a different kind of war – a war in which those who fought and killed and suffered and bled had between themselves a kind of brotherhood. A brotherhood that faced the enemy, a new kind of enemy, which were the people in the headquarters, the people in the offices, the people in the capitals who were ordering them to do what they did.
And to me, sitting and reading this in 1968 as the Tet Offensive was going on – an event that’s quite resonant, it seems to me, with our present moment – this was a bit of a revelation. I remember vividly that I used to sing when I was a little kid the song “The Green Berets.” Does anybody remember that? Well, thank you, very much. I won’t sing it now, but “…fighting men who jump and die…” was the John Wayne song that went with John Wayne’s movie about the Vietnam War, and of course 1968 was the year in which Walter Cronkite, among others, parted with this vision of “…fighting men who jump and die…” heroically, when it came to the Vietnam War.
I was looking at All Quiet on the Western Front today before I came down to see you, and was struck that the actual title of the novel – and I’m sure Tony will know this – is “Nothing New in the West,” a kind of savage commentary of a war – a war that doesn’t stop. It changed my life by putting war and power at the center of my political and literary interests at the age of 10, and I’ve pursued those interests now for a quarter century – well, more than that. So I’m very proud to have that name on the top of this talk tonight.
We live today, of course, in an entirely different kind of constant war; what I have called in an essay in The New York Times Magazine – which was published on September 11, 2005 – The Forever War, and that gives me my title, also, tonight. That war is now more than five years old. We stand at a wonderfully provocative moment, precisely a week after the elections in which Americans, for only I think the fourth time since World War II, threw out majorities in both houses of Congress. They did this, it is universally agreed, to demand a “new direction” in Iraq. And we hear that phrase a lot.
In doing so, they seemed finally to severe a connection that the Bush administration has labored long and hard to foster, which is that between the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror, which is to say that between a war that is largely a mix of intelligence operations, assassinations, secret kidnappings, and interrogations, and metaphor; and a war that’s attained a terrible and overwhelming reality on the ground. The election means that in Iraq, if only for a time, we have reached a kind of therapeutic moment, the time of solutions, in which the op-ed pages, the think tanks, the cable news shows, Congressional Committee hearing rooms…all of this will be filled in the coming days with talk of “What are we going to do in Iraq?” — which is to say how to get out of Iraq while somehow forestalling the catastrophe for Iraqis, and for American interests in the Middle East that the war has unquestionably become.
The problem now is to somehow withdraw without declaring and recognizing that it’s a complete failure, and of course, we faced a very similar moment in 1968. Just as I left my house today, I looked at Google News, and found the lead item, “Mass Kidnapped at Baghdad Ministry, 15 Missing.” Has anybody seen this? Well, it’s an extraordinary article, and it tells the story of a large group if Iraqi police – men dressed in police uniforms, in any event; probably police, maybe not…what does it matter at this point? – Invading the Higher Education Ministry in Karrada. So this is a government ministry. Karrada is the Times Square of Baghdad. I mean, it’s the major, main shopping place in Baghdad, right in the middle of the city.
They rounded up those inside, 100 people or more. They took the cell phones from the women, and then let them go eventually, and they asked for the men their identity cards. And they went through them methodically, these policemen, and selected out by names the Sunnis, of whom there were about 50. It’s unclear exactly the right number. And then they drove off, in broad daylight, in a government ministry – men in police uniforms with a fully supply of apparently brand new police cars. So they’re in the middle of Baghdad, the capital, and we’re told that the minister himself is questioning all officers in charge – that is, the minister of the National Unity government.
Senior police officials, Reuters reminds us, were arrested after another such raid six weeks ago when the 26 employees of a meat processing factory were taken by men in uniform. Now, this is a line I particularly prize: “The head of Iraq’s Olympic committee has not been heard of since he and 30 other officials and athletes were snatched from a meeting in Karrada in June.” That is, again, men dressed in police and army uniforms, invading an official meeting, kidnapping everyone there in broad daylight in the middle of town, and generally – I hate to say it – these people are found usually beheaded, sometimes with signs of torture, usually inflicted by electric power drills, which is what Saddam used to use on the joints of the body – the kneecaps, the arms, and so on.
There’s a kind of savage torture, after which the bodies are left on the street, to cause a kind of overwhelming terror in the city. It’s a death squad terror familiar from El Salvador a little more than 20 years ago, and it’s intended to tell the population of Iraq that no one can protect them; that in fact, the idea of the government is a charade. It’s a set of politicians quarrelling behind the walls of the American secured bunker in the center of Baghdad – the so-called “green zone” – and in fact in the city, in the country, no one can protect them, particularly if they are Sunnis, at this point. So this attack shows a number of things. Like most terror attacks, it tells – it doesn’t just kill, it tells. And the message it’s telling is that there is no security of any kind in Iraq, and that the American pretense of occupation control is simply that: a pretense.
And here, of course, we have the time of solutions – the therapeutic moment. The point I’m trying to make is that the therapeutic moment has nothing whatever to do with conditions on the ground in Iraq. It has to do wit the weariness of Americans with the war, and the fact, finally, that this election has essentially pulled George Bush by the collar – reached out and pulled him by the collar – and told him he is the last person in the bunker not to know it that Americans will no longer put up with the war, and something has to be done. We will hear much demand in coming weeks for a plan, and a good rule of thumb for our politics, it seems to me, is that when you hear a lot of talk about a plan – “we need a plan, someone has to have a plan…” – we have to look for a plan. That means, in general, there is no plan! [Laughs.]
When you hear that we need to talk to Iran, or talk to Syria, that means there is nothing that we can offer Iran and Syria that they will give us back a cover for a successful war, which is essentially what that is supposed to be about. The demand for a plan simply masks the reluctance to accept the reality of a bitter choice, which has been continued with prosecution of a failed war to cover up its failure, or withdraw from it – which will make the reality of that failure all too evident. This paradox was a central fact of our politics when I was coming to maturity in that little classroom in Utica, reading All Quiet on the Western Front, or as I prefer to call it,Nothing New in the West. The Tet Offensive had already made the reality of this choice in Vietnam quite clear for those who were willing to see it, and also those who were willing – like Walter Cronkite, who made his famous trip, and his broadcast thereafter – those who were willing to say it. But it would be five years and 25,000 more American lives, and uncounted Vietnamese ones before the political class would be forced by events on the ground, both here and in Vietnam, to exceed to that reality.
And sometime after that, notably after the image of a particularly picturesque flight of helicopters fleeing the U.S. embassy roof in Saigon to accept it – the stakes of the Iraq war, a war of imagination, that after President Bush’s Mission Accomplished-stride across the flight deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln on May 1st, 2003. I’m sure all of you remember that; it’s a wonderful television moment, and it was one part of the war of imagination – Karl Rove’s part, in which he viewed it as a political victory and providing the necessary images for the 2004 election. The other parts, of course, were the war of imagination of Donald Rumsfeld, who saw the war as proving his theories about military transformation – the success of a lean and lethal military; the war of imagination of Paul Wolfowitz, who saw Iraq as beginning a democratic tsunami throughout the Middle East, in which the countries in the region, one after another – Iran, Syria, a deal in Palestine, and so on – would become democratic; and one could name other wars of the imagination.
The stakes in Iraq, now, it seems to me, are beginning to attain an undeniable and grim reality, but the stakes here when we talk about Tet and talk about Vietnam are unquestionably much greater. The President is quite right that leaving a failed state in Iraq – which is what his Chief of Staff characterized the risks as over the weekend on one of the Sunday shows – would be a catastrophe. The last to begin to recognize that reality, of course, has been the president himself, and only the elections have led him to recognize, as he said in the news conference the day after his election in a wonderfully, almost planted comment when talking about the elections: “I thought we were going to do all right,” he said.
And I think that was absolutely sincere, and I think it’s important to realize that – that in fact, he expected the American people to give him victory, or at least not to take his majorities from him. For much of the country, and no doubt for many of those in this room, the elections let a much needed bit of light into our lives. Forgive me for saying the political dynamic that has nurtured the Iraq adventure, embedded as it is in the war on terror and embedded as both of those are in a thorough-going politics of fear – that most lucrative of political emotions – may be under stress, but it has been not by any means disappeared. In this morning’s Times, we saw Lindsey Graham, the Senator of South Carolina, a leading member of the Armed Services Committee and a probable Republican presidential contender in 2008 vowing to “adamantly oppose” – that’s a quote – “any effort to set a deadline for a withdrawal, or phase redeployment,” which is the democrat’s chosen term for withdrawal, “…for this would be,” said Senator Graham, “equivalent to surrendering on the central battle front in the war on terror.”
Make no mistake: this rhetoric, and its critical role in our politics is going to remain with us for a very long time, not least because of the lucrative emotion of fear. I take that phrase from a moment in Sarajevo many years ago, during the siege, when underneath my window a group of young children who were sledding during the winter were murdered – six of them were killed, and a Serb who was nearby, who I talked to, said to me when I asked, “How could you murder children?” Because there was a big crowd of children, they were clearly targeting them. He said, “Very lucrative target,” which is to say it’s a target that can cause enormous amounts of terror – children – therefore, a lucrative target. And fear, indeed, is the most lucrative of emotions, as we’ve found out in the last five years.
Election or no, we are still living in Bush’s state of exception. Now, I take that phrase – do people here know that phrase? Is anybody familiar with it? – I take the phrase from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben as the catch-all gathering together of all the terms — “state of emergency”, “state of siege”, “martial law”, among others — one can name others – designating a time of emergency in which normal legal norms are suspended. Agamben takes his point of departure from the Weimar and Nazi legal theorist Karl Schmitt, who declared in the famous first words of his Political Theology, “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”
In other words, sovereignty, or sovereign power, resides in the body or institution or person who decides to impose the state of emergency and suspend the normal law. The sovereign is he who can set aside legality, the sovereign is he who remains when all legality and all law is set aside. Agamben notices, as many other theorists have, the “close relationship” – that’s his quote – of the state of exception to “civil war, insurrection and resistance.” He notes the dependence of both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes on legalized, continuing states of exception. He defines these as “a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries,” – he means not necessarily liquidation, but putting in camps and so on – “but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system.”
And Agamben remarks that “the state of exception…” – he’s talking about these broad phenomena of martial law, state of emergency, state of siege – “The state of exception appears in the threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism.” Hold that thought for a second. I want to return for just a moment to that time in 1968, the young boy sitting in Mrs. Redmond’s class reading Nothing New in the West and marveling, and listening in the evening to the news of Tet. In Washington about this time, or just after it, two slightly older men have begun to move rapidly up the chain of power – so rapidly, in fact, that one of them, Donald Rumsfeld, will soon become at 43 the youngest Secretary of Defense in history, and as many of you know, he also became the oldest, just before he was fired.
His sidekick and ally, Dick Cheney, will become at 34 – an astonishing notion – at 34 the youngest White House Chief of Staff in history. This provided both of these men with an absolutely ringside seat in the great collapse of presidential power that was Watergate — a political scandal that of course had its roots in the determination by President Nixon to stifle the leak of the Pentagon papers, which was the Pentagon’s secret history of the Vietnam War. He created, of course, the plumbers, and the plumbers ended up bringing him down. In trying to comprehend the particular attributes of our present state of exception, one has to look back to those late days of the Nixon and Ford administration, and the collapse of executive power in the face of a losing, protracted war, and a determination on the part of those and other powerful men to retrieve the liniments of presidential power, and to return them to full and proper health.
Vice President Cheney, it should be noted, has been quite candid about this. In fact, everything I’m going to discuss tonight has been in the papers and right in front of us all the time – very little of it is secret. Challenged by reporters last fall after the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program – in which Americans’ telephone calls, emails, and other communications were intercepted without any warrant, and in direct contravention to FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was a law passed in 1978 after similar sorts of abuses by the CIA – Cheney defended it in the following terms during a press conference aboard Air Force Two, flying from Pakistan to Oman.
He said – now, this is after James Risen publishes the piece; the administration is under great criticism; the Vice President said, “I do have the view that over the years, there’s been an erosion of presidential power and authority; that it’s reflected in a number of developments: the War Powers Act, which many people believe is unconstitutional…” – he doesn’t say who, but many people believe it – “…It’s never really been tested,” he said. “We sort of have an understanding that when we commit force, that U.S., the government, the executive branch will notify the Congress.” This is the Vice President talking. “I am one of those who believe that that was an infringement upon the authority of the War Powers Resolution upon the authority of the President. A lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both in the ’70’s, served to erode that authority.
I think the President needs to be effective, especially in the national security area.” He then sends – this is kind of a fascinating exchange; I won’t read all of it – but he sends the reporters to, as he puts it, an obscure text, which is the minority report of the Iran Contra-Committee, in which… The report, it’s a long argument. Bob Silvers of The New York Review knows it well, because Joan Didion has written about it, in a wonderful piece about Cheney. But essentially, this report claims that the president had absolute power to fund the Contras, absolute power to sell weapons; use the weapons to fund the Contra. All of this stuff that happened during Iran Contra, the president was fully – in Cheney’s view – within his authority to do.
Then, “I served in the congress for 10 years,” said Cheney. “I’ve got an enormous regard for the other body, Title I of the Constitution,” he says helpfully. “But I do believe that especially in the day and age we live in; nature of the threats we face…” And this was true, as well, during the Cold War, so we’re talking about the last 50 years, all but eight or nine of them, “…especially in the day and age we live in, the President of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of National Security. I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it. Watergate and a lot of other things around Watergate and Vietnam, both, during the ’70’s eroded that authority,” and so on.
Now, Agamben has a little book called State of Exception. It’s a wonderful history of states of emergency in the countries of the west. It’s mostly about Europe; his general argument is that the “state of exception” – this notion of ruling by decree, and making a bystander of the legislative branch is a general tendency in European history – in Western history, dates essentially from the turn of the 20th century. He has a little bit of interest to say about the United States, and he summarizes I think very usefully the situation when it comes to states of emergency and presidential power when the country is attacked.
He says, “The place both logical and pragmatic of the theory of the state of exception in the American Constitution is the dialectic between the powers of the president and those of the Congress.” Of course, just what Cheney is discussing. “This dialectic has taken shape historically as a conflict over extreme power in an emergency situation,” or in Schmittian terms, as a conflict over sovereign decision. Who has power? If you wipe out law, who has power? The textual basis of the conflict lies first of all in Article I of the Constitution, which establishes that “the Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” This happened, of course, during the Civil War.
The second point of conflict lies in the relation between another passage of Article I, which declares the power to declare war, and to raise and support the Army and Navy – declares that it rests with Congress; and Article II, which states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Now, it’s interesting when you look at Bush’s discussion of these issues. As President and Commander in Chief, he said again after the NSA wiretapping program was exposed, “I have Constitutional responsibility and the Constitutional authority to protect our country. Article II of the Constitution gives me that responsibility. After September 11th, the Congress gave me additional authority to use military force…” – and I’ll talk about that in a second – now, he says, “Right after September 11th, I knew we were fighting a different kind of war, and so I asked people in my administration to analyze how best for me and our government to do the job people expect us to do, which is to detect and prevent a possible attack. We looked at possible scenarios, and the people responsible for helping us protect and defend came forth with the current program. We’ve got to be fast on our feet, quick to detect and defend.”
Now, among other things, what they came up with was the so-called “paradigm of prevention.” Richard Clarke has an interesting summary of this meeting. The President is talking about a meeting on the night of September 11th in which he gathered his national security chiefs together in a room, and said, “What can we do? Give me ideas.” Richard Clarke, then the Counter-Terrorism Chief, describes the night of September 11th, and he quotes Bush as saying, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we’re going to kick some ass.” Okay. Ronald Suskind remarks that – and this is before I get to actually what was done; what steps were taken – Ronald Suskind, in his excellent book The One Percent Doctrine, which I recommend very highly, remarks with some irony, “It so happens,” – this is on September 11th – “that administration lawyers had for months been incubating theories about how to expand presidential power. The ideas were originally seeded by the Vice President, a believer since his harrowing days in the death throes of the Nixon administration, that executive power had been dangerously diminished.”
This is the days after 9/11; we know from Stephen Brill that John Ashcroft – then the Attorney General – was pushing hard to suspend habeas corpus, habeas corpus being one of the oldest precepts of Anglo-American law, which essentially declares that you cannot arrest someone and carry them off. Produce the body – you have to justify before a court an arrest, in some way. The administration; John Ashcroft pushed for this. Other Justice Department professional employees convinced him not to do it. As it happened, the state of exception as I’m going to describe it was somewhat more subtle. But in describing these laws, it looks as though we’re looking at invisible bars in front of us. They define the limitations on our freedom, and the limitations and the changes in American law under the war on terror. Most of them we don’t notice day to day, but they have a lot to do with how the war is being fought. I’m going to choose about a half dozen of these, which seem to me to be most important.
The very first is the Authorization of Military Force that was brought past on September 14th by the Congress. Now, there’s an interesting history to this. The relevant language is a resolution granting the President “…to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11th, 2001, or acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.” Very sweeping mandate. The fascinating thing about this is at the last minute, White House officials pressed for even more. After the use of the phrase “use all necessary and appropriate force,” they wanted to insert “in the United States.”
They wanted that phrase, which means that this would read, “To use all necessary and appropriate force within the United States against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines, plans, authorizes, or committed a terrorist attack…” etcetera. So the attempt to do that in this law on September the 14th was essentially to declare a domestic state of emergency and the domestic martial law. The Congress wouldn’t let him get away with it; it hasn’t stopped the administration of the time since from essentially claiming justification for the wiretapping, or extreme interrogation for many other things that stunned, that seemed to be in contravention to either domestic or international law by claiming that, essentially, these provisions are included in that authorization to use military force, even though that phrase was denied explicitly by the congress.
The second border of the state of exception: the U.S.A. Patriot Act of October 26th, 2001, which among many other things empowered the Attorney General to take into custody any alien suspected of activities “that endangered that national security of the United States.” Third: Bush’s Military Order of November 13th, 2001, which created the category of an “unlawful enemy combatant” and allowed the “indefinite detention” and “trial by military commissions” of non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities, though eventually citizens were also, as we know, involved or arrested in this.
Fourth, the Presidential Finding of September 200, in which the President created the largest covert action program in the history of the CIA. This is known as G.S.T. You might ask what that stands for – what does G.S.T. stand for? Well, we don’t know. It’s the abbreviation of a code word; it’s secret. So it’s the G.S.T. It includes the programs allowing the CIA to capture al-Qaeda suspects with help from foreign intelligence services, to maintain secret prisons – known as “dark sites” – abroad, to use so-called extreme interrogation techniques, and to maintain a fleet of aircraft to move detainees around the globe. It also gives the CIA enhanceability to mine international financial records, to eavesdrop on suspects anywhere in the world.
All of this, apparently – we don’t know since it’s secret – is dependent on the legal cover on the authorization of the use of military force. Fifth: the National Security Agency eavesdropping program, which I’ve already mentioned. Though this program would seem on its face to violate the law, which established a special court to review wiretap requests, the NSA program entirely bypasses the FISA court and the FISA law. And one could ask, as many have since this program was revealed, “Why didn’t they go to Congress and ask for a law to be written?” Because Congress’ mood was certainly one in which that would certainly be granted after 9/11. And the answer to that is they didn’t want to – they wanted to assert presidential power. In other words, they wanted to de-legitimize the law in the books – not by changing it, which would legitimize it, but by circumventing it through the president’s own power.
And sixth – and this is the final one I’ll mention – the series of memoranda and decisions leading up to the President’s decision in February 2002 that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to prisoners in the War on Terror, though US forces would act “consistent with the principles of Geneva.” I could go on about this; I won’t, there are a lot of lawyers, I’m sure – or some at least, one I know, a very good one present who could talk in much more detail about this. But what we have here, essentially, is a group of blueprints for what administration officials have described as a “new paradigm of prevention”, or in the phrase that became popular after 9/11, “taking the gloves off.”
The first so-called operational use of that phrase had to do with, of course, John Walker Lindh, who was taken prisoner in Afghanistan, stripped, duct taped to a stretcher, and leaned up against a shipping container where he was being interrogated. He had been wounded in the leg, he was refusing to talk, he wanted a lawyer. A call was put through to the Secretary of Defense’s office. The Secretary of Defense said, according to legal papers in the case, “Take the gloves off. Do what you need to do.” This is a fascinating phrase, “take the gloves off.” It was used officially a few weeks later by Cofer Black, who was the Counter-Terrorism Chief in the C.I.A. before the Senate. Cofer Black said – he was a very flamboyant figure; he talked about how we were going to bring the head of Bin Laden back to him in a box – and he said to the Senate, “There was a before 9/11 and an after-9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off.”
I think this phrase is rather fascinating, and bears a little bit of scrutiny. We’ve become unnerved to it, in a way. It’s become so common, it’s easy to miss the clear implication, which is that before 9/11, the gloves were on. Obvious, but what exactly does that mean? I would argue that it essentially suggests, rather strongly, that the normal processes of government, and the normal laws that we rely on – including the protections that we rely on as citizens – in fact contradicted the notion of safety. That is, these laws essentially were in some way responsible for the attack. And I think that insofar as you can look at what the administration did after the trauma of 9/11 – and it’s important to remember that this is an administration with a lack of legitimacy.
My piece on that, The 2000 Election: The Road to Illegitimacy, I think says that. This is an administration that for the first time since 1888 that a president had been elected with fewer votes than his opponent; than the other guy. After 9/11, I think insofar as we can look at the psycho-political factors here, there was a great deal of what might be described as guilt, and in a more complicated sense, a great deal of defensiveness about being accused of being responsible for these attacks; of letting America be attacked. And in fact, if you look at the history of the attacks – George Packer’s book, [Lawrence] Wright’s book, The Looming Tower, you can see how close the government came to preventing these attacks, and the kind of extreme mistakes that were made that essentially did let the country become attacked, or be attacked.
The point I want to make about this, however, is that the moment at which fear was injected into the political process in enormous amounts – that is, it became the driving fact of our politics – was the moment at which Democrats, in the spring of 2002, started to talk about investigating the attacks, and started to put forward the idea of what became the 9/11 Commission. I don’t know if anyone remembers this, but the immediate reaction by the public – and particularly by the White House – was to say, “You had better not investigate these attacks.” There’s a wonderful quote from Cheney, where he said publicly in New York after Democrats had raised the idea of a commission, “What I want to say to my Democratic friends in the Congress is that they need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11.
Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and,” this is the key phrase, “totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.” And that phrase, in a sense, will become the driving force of Bush administration politics, and it will get them through the 2002 elections and let them seize control of the senate, and will get them through the 2004 elections in the face of a war that already was obvious to many, many people a war that had become a disaster. Okay. What I’ve just given you is the legislative and administrative skeleton of the so-called new “paradigm of prevention”, which we can contrast with the old model.
I’m going to quote David Cole here, which we might refer to rather in an old fashioned way, or quaintly as the rule of law. “The rule of law reserves coercion, detention, punishment, and the use of military force for those who have been shown, on the basis of sound evidence and fair procedures, to have committed some wrongful act.” Under its new “paradigm of prevention”, the administration has imprisoned 5,000 foreign nationals in anti-terror preventative detention; subjected 80,000 Arab and Muslim men to fingerprinting; issued 30,00 national security letters, which, if one has been issued about you, you will not know about it – it’s to obtain information about you; financial, internet, and communications information – they don’t need to disclose it.
They’ve wiretapped Americans, both their phone calls and their e-mails, and so on. In the War on Terror abroad, meanwhile, the administration has detained a massive number of prisoners. We don’t have accurate figures on this, so far as I know, but the best estimate – which was made more than a year ago by the Associated Press, entitled…well, the title says it all: “US Has Detained 83,000 in War on Terror.” Is anybody surprised at that number? The piece noted, in a wonderful bit of journalistic craft in the lead that this number was just enough to fill the NFL’s largest stadium – where the Redskins play, to make that “real to the readers,” which is what journalism teachers always say. Thousands of these prisoners were held in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and many hundreds more in the offshore prisons set up at Guantanamo Bay.
And here, I get to Tony’s point about talking about Guantanamo – not only Guantanamo, but the prison systems of various allies, including Egypt and Jordan and Pakistan, and in a secret network of so-called “dark sites” set up by the Central Intelligence Agency in various countries around the world, including – apparently – Jordan, Pakistan, Diego Garcia, Romania, Poland, Morocco, among others. Now the story of these prisoners, and of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and others is a very large one. But the point I want to raise here tonight is that of their status, which is that the case of many of these people – almost all of these people – and especially those in the dark sites, President Bush’s military order, in Agamben’s phrase, “…radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being. Neither prisoners nor persons accused, but simply “detainees…” – they are the object of a pure de facto rule, they have no legal existence whatsoever – “…of a detention that is indefinite not only in the temporal sense, but in its very nature.”
It’s entirely removed from the law and from judicial oversight. Now, Agamben compares the status. He says, “What can we compare this to?” The only thing he can think is of Jews in the lagers during World War II. But then he points out – he means, of course, not that the detention sites or the “dark sites” are necessarily like the concentration camps, but that the prisoners within them have in common that they have no legal status, no legal existence. He then says, of course, that the Jews at least did have their identity as Jews; these prisoners don’t. I want to talk a little about this world of the detention sites, and of what I’m going to call the “dark world,” because it seems to me – and I hope we’ll have a little time, as well, after this to talk, to answer questions, or to argue with one another – but it seems to me that the dark world itself is what we have to confront if we’re going to talk about where we have come since 9/11.
And though this dark world has been described in many, many newspaper articles – though the first extensive articles on torture are now four hears old; more than four years old, the torture dark sites and other phenomenon that are associated with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere are very familiar to us now. I still think most people don’t like to pay much attention to them, just as Remarque pointed out in his remarkable novel, most people don’t like to think about the western front. I want to begin simply by talking about an event that happened in December 2001, in Stockholm, Sweden. I want you to imagine for a second a frozen airport. It’s below zero, it’s dark, it’s deserted, you’re in a darkened part of the airport where no one goes, and in a waiting room there are several Swedish policemen in uniforms – high ranking members of the national police – and they have with them two prisoners who are handcuffed.
These prisoners have been searched, they are in prison garb, and they are waiting. And at a certain point, a plane arrives far off from this little building, it taxis up. The senior member of the Swedish police, who’s the deputy head of the National Police, goes to the little stairway up to this Gulf Stream 5 jet, walks up to the top, the door opens, he looks inside, and he sees a number of men – it’s unclear how many; a half dozen or so – who are dressed entirely in black and are wearing black masks over their face. He can see nothing of them. When he greets them and begins to talk to them, they will not respond – they simply make hand motions motioning him away. He finally, in some confusion, goes and talks to the pilot. The pilot tells him that things have to be done as these men want; he shouldn’t worry about talking to them, he should simply comply.
The policemen leads these black guard people – silent people – back to the terminal, and what happens then is they fall on the two prisoners and they begin cutting away their clothing with surgical scissors. The clothing is bit by bit put in plastic bags, where it will be examined later. They then do a full body search of both prisoners, who are, as I say, handcuffed – they were arrested on the street, they weren’t hiding in Sweden; arrested on the street – full body search, full cavity search. In both of the prisoners, narcotic suppositories are inserted, knocking them out. They are dressed in jumpsuits and have black hoods put over their heads, and they lose consciousness. In the report of this incident, which the Swedish assembly carried out some time later, the assistant director of the National Security Police… Remember, this is all happening silently, no words are spoken of any kind.
“We were surprised when a crew stepped out of the plane. They seemed to be very professional. They had obviously done this before. One agent quickly slit their clothes with a pair of scissors; examined each piece of cloth before placing it in the plastic bag. Another checked the suspects’ hair, mouth, lips while another took photographs from behind.” According to Swedish officers, “As the prisoners stood there naked and motionless, they were zipped into gray tracksuits, their heads were covered with hoods that, in the words of one Swedish officer, ‘covered everything like a big cone.’ Swedish police later marveled that the whole search procedure took less than ten minutes. CIA agents tranquilized the prisoners by inserting suppositories during the search. The two prisoners were forced to wear diapers.
The were then taken into the plane and handcuffed and manacled to mattresses in the back of the plane, and were flown off.” Now, why do I read you this at such length? It’s because it seems to me this is the entryway to the dark world, and what is striking to me is that the security procedures have no relation whatever to risk. That is, if the Swedish officers protested – “We’ve searched them, they’re not armed. We’ve searched them fully, they…” etcetera, etcetera, they received no answer. These procedures themselves are autonomous, and because there is no countervailing force – which would be human rights – because there’s no countervailing force, the prisoners, in effect, don’t exist as human beings.
I think we get here – and this is where we’re getting to Guantanamo – to a pure anti-Kantian world, which is to say that Kant said, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,” and also, “Treat human beings always as ends, never as means.” And we’re looking at a world here that is pure means. That is, these human beings are pure means – they are no longer ends; they have no autonomy. They are being shipped to a place called “Bright Light,” which is a secret dark site – a secret prison, “Bright light”/dark site…the C.I.A. has a strange sense of humor – and one of the striking things about these prisons is that, in fact, none of these people were supposed to emerge from them.
James Risen, in his book State of War, talks about the C.I.A.’s very good sources, but “…in the agency, C.I.A. officers soon learned one thing for sure – prisoners sent to Bright Light and to other facilities handling high-value detainees were probably never going to be released. The word is that once you get sent to Bright Light, you never come back. The C.I.A. was building a dark infrastructure that no one wanted to talk about.” So, we’re in this remarkable place where the president – an executive who was elected for four years – can condemn people without any procedure to banishment in perpetuity to a secret prison. Those people, of course, have emerged recently. Now, what does this have to do with where we are right now?
Well, the beginning… Everyone now has agreed that this election campaign had to do with Iraq; getting out of Iraq, but in fact, of course the administration would have had it otherwise. What did the administration wan this election to center on? The administration wanted this election to center on the War on Terror, and the administration’s campaign was rolled out on September 6th, 2006, with the President’s speech from the white house. Did anybody see the speech? It was televised nationally. Did anybody here at all see it? Well, I think it’s one of the historic speeches of not just the Bush presidency, but of the post-war era. And I would urge anyone who is interested in these subjects to take a look at the speech. The president gathered a number of 9/11 families in the White House, and gave a speech in which he announced that these prisoners in the dark sites – 14 of them – would be sent to Guantanamo.
And he asked Congress to give him a law in the wake of the Hamdi Decision the previous summer, which essentially required the president to conform to the Geneva Conventions. He demanded that the president pass a law which would allow him to try these prisoners, and the speech itself is a remarkable document, in which he describes the president of the United States in some detail the alternative set of procedures which C.I.A. has employed to get information from these prisoners. He does not specifically talk about them, but we know fairly specifically what they are, and he appeals to the Congress to make these procedures legal. Now, what is fascinating about this event is that in essence, the White House wanted – and hoped – that the election campaign would be about the War on Terror, and about things like extreme interrogation.
That is, they thought torture was a winning issue – and they were right, by the way. It’s just that they didn’t get the kind of press that they wanted it to get, because the Democrats refused to play along, and refused to object. Let me say a little bit about the alternative set of procedures that are being used in the dark sites and elsewhere. We know what they are; they’ve been made public for years. There’s six of them that we know specifically about. The “attention grab” in which the interrogator forcefully grabs the shirtfront of the prisoner and shakes him. The Israelis used this for many years until they started to lose too many prisoners, because you can break someone’s neck – shake them very hard.
“Attention slap” – an open handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear, so slapping them in the face. The “belly slap” – a hard, open handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause internal damage. “Long time standing” – this technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an I-bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions. The “cold cell” – the prisoner left to stand naked in his cell, kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell, the prisoner is doused with freezing water.
“Waterboarding” – this, of course, is what has gotten the most publicity – the prisoner is downed to an inclined board, feet raised, and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face, and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in, and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleads to bring the treatment to a halt. Now, when I first started writing about politics, I was writing about Salvador, Argentina, and other places, and this was a favorite technique there. In Salvador, it was called “el submarino”; slightly different method. Usually, the prisoner was beaten rather substantially first, naked, strapped to a board. The board is inclined, the head goes back into a bucket of water, the water runs down the nostrils into the lungs – usually it’s some kind of fetid water, urine sometimes, soapy water. And it is done repeatedly – up, down, up, down. It was also used extensively by the French in Algeria; very well known. It goes back a long, long, long time.
This is the alternative set of procedures that the President was talking about. Well, I’d like to read you… The difficult thing about understanding all this stuff is you need to have some degree of empathy about what is happening in these rooms, in these dark rooms. And the interesting thing is that, as I mentioned before, the administration viewed this as a winning political strategy, to talk about these things, and the Democrats essentially agreed with them. I’m going to read you a little bit about Detainee 7. I’ll warn you, it’s a little difficult to hear, or a little difficult to bear, as it were. But I think it’s worth saying, as long as we’re talking about this subject, and talking about Guantanamo, which I’m going to say a word about in a second.
Detainee 7 was an intelligence hold. He was a guy who was arrested at a checkpoint and interrogated. This is his deposition:
“The first day, they put me in a dark room and started hitting me in the head and stomach and legs. They made me raise my arms and sit on my knees. I was like that for four hours.”
This is called a stress position —
“Then, the interrogator came, and he was looking at me while they were beating me. Then
I stayed in this room for five days, naked, with no clothes.” This is adjustment of personal environment. These are the names that are used by the Army, and also by the intelligence agencies. “They put handcuffs on my hand; they cuffed me high for seven or eight hours.”
This, again, is a stress position. The idea is to put you up on your toes, and essentially dislocate the shoulder. It’s very painful. So that was for seven or eight hours.
“That caused a rupture in my right hand; I had a cut that was bleeding and had pus coming from it. They kept me this way on 24, 25, 26 October.”
[Mr. Danner demonstrates the position.] So he’s like that.
“And in the following days, they put a bag over my head…” This is sensory deprivation – use of a hood. “Of course, this whole time, I was without clothes; without anything to sleep on. One day, in November, they started a different type of punishment where an American military policeman came into my room, put the bag over my head, cuffed my hands; took me out of the room into the hallway. He started beating me – him, and five other police. I could see their feet only from under the bag.”
So the hood is used to increase the effectiveness of the beating, because you can’t feel or see the blows coming. You can’t cringe; it’s quite terrifying.
“A couple of these police, they were female, because I heard their voice, and I saw two of the police that were hitting me before they put the bag over my head. One of the police was telling me to crawl in Arabic, so I crawled on my stomach. The police were spitting on me when I was crawling, and hitting me. Then, the police started beating me on my kidneys. They hit me on my right ear and it started bleeding; I lost consciousness.”
He loses consciousness a number of times in this account, and his ear is mostly torn off. It’s been sewed back on by one of the interrogators.
“When I was in Room #1, they told me to lay down on my stomach. They were jumping from the bed into my back and my legs. The two were spitting on me, calling me names; they held my hands and legs. After the guy with the glasses got tired, two of the American soldiers brought me to the ground…”
He’s nude, all this time, of course —
“…and tied my hands while laying me down on my stomach. One of the police was pissing on me and laughing at me. Then, the policeman was opening my legs with the bag over my head. They wanted to do me, because I saw him and he was opening his pants. So I started screaming loudly. The other police started hitting me with his feet on my neck. He put his feet on my head so I couldn’t scream, then they put the loudspeaker inside the room and they closed the door, and he was yelling in the microphone.”
That’s called use of noise to induce stress.
“They took me to a room, they signaled me to get on the floor. One of the police, he put a part of a stick inside my ass. I felt it was going in about two centimeters, approximately. I started screaming, he pulled it out, then two American girls that were there…”
He means, again, military police; females —
“…they were hitting me with a ball made of sponge on my dick, and when I was tied up in my room, one of the girls with blonde hair – she’s white, and she was playing with my dick – and they were taking pictures of me during all these instances.”
This stuff…there are a lot of depositions going that are very convincing in that this was, however grotesque and appalling it sounds, was a fairly set procedure. It wasn’t people on the night shift playing Animal House on the night shift, as it’s been called by various people. One brief account from Guantanamo, this is an account written by an F.B.I. agent who, having been down to Guantanamo, was appalled by what he saw. He wrote, among other things,
“On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms…”
This, by the way, is after Abu Ghraib, about six months after the scandal.
“…I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained, hand and foot, in the fetal position to the floor, with no chair, no food, no water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been there for 18 to 24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far, and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. When I asked the M.T.’s what was going on, I was told that the interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occasion, the AC had been turned off…”
This is Cuba in August! –
“…making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out during the night.”
There’s more about rap music being played, etcetera. Alternative sets of procedures… The interesting thing about this is when you think about those guys dressed in black, or the interrogators for that matter, one wants to look at them and say, “This is horrible, how can these people do these things?” But I’ve met people – some of these people. I’ve probably met some of the people who were dressed in black, or certainly people who do similar jobs.
They tend to be patriotic, they’re family men very often. They’re doing their jobs; they’re protecting the country. And the strange thing is – again, something I think Remarque was extremely aware of, and instilled in me when I was 10 years old – is this division of responsibility from the people who do the killing and the suffering, both, and the people in the offices. I want to say a word about that, which is a famous comment by Donald Rumsfeld, a famous document in which he initials, he approves a lot of these procedures.
This was in December 2002, and at the bottom in which he’s checked all these things – use of noise to induce stress, yadda, yadda, yadda; all the euphemisms that I tried to give you – at the bottom, in his own hand, it reads, “However, I stand for 8 to 10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?” Now, you laugh, I laugh. But the question is what does it mean? Does it mean he’s a sadist, or does it mean that he has a very distant view of what the consequences of his orders are? A view that, in fact, focuses entirely on results, on executive decision and results? There is a study that the C.I.A. did of forced standing. This was a major Soviet method. The C.I.A. studied it, they’re now using it. Remember, it’s approved up to 40 hours. The study the C.I.A. did talks about the consequences of forced standing -just that, simple as that. No gouging out the eyes, no cutting off the nose – none of the things that you would call torture, I suppose.
“After 18 to 24 hours of continuous standing, there’s an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the legs. This dependent edema is produced by the extra fluid from the blood vessels. The ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice the normal circumference. The edema may rise up the legs as high as the middle of the thighs. The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop, which break and exude watery serum. The accumulation of bodily fluid in the legs produces impairment of circulation – the heart rate increases, and fainting may occur. Eventually, there is renal shutdown.”
We’re talking about after 24 hours, not the 40 that is allowed.
“There is renal shut down; urine production ceases. Urea and other metabolites accumulate in the blood. The prisoner becomes thirsty. Ultimately, they develop a delirious state characterized by disorientation, fear, delusions, and visual hallucinations. This psychosis is produced by a combination of circulatory impairment, lack of sleep, and uremia.”
I don’t think Rumsfeld ever read anything like that, is my estimation. Now, I’m coming to the end of my happy talk – it’s supposed to encourage you a week after the election. I was – about a month ago just after Bush’s speech, in which he talked about the alternative set of procedures from the White House – and I was there, actually, to talk to the famous Baker Commission, that everybody now knows about, that’s supposed to deliver us from Iraq. I got up in the morning, went outside my hotel room, found the Washington Post, and found the lead article. This is a few days after President Bush’s speech.
John McCain had taken the position that we had to conform to the Geneva Conventions – a position against the President. The lead article in the Washington Post; banner headline: “McCain’s Stand on Detainees May Pose Risk for 2008 Bid.” This was the banner headline in the Washington Post. Now, this is a fascinating phenomenon that seems, to me, we all have to try to cope with, which is that the political dynamic was such that McCain’s position on torture – which is that he was against it – was going to hurt him in getting the nomination. And true to this article, which is kind of a planted article, he capitulated a couple of days later, and in fact the Democrats also capitulated completely, playing it smart, knowing that they could win the election, not being baited into being weak on the War on Terror.
And the consequence is that the Military Commissions Act was published, which will go down in history – it seems to me – as one of the horrible laws ever passed in the United States. And I think our descendants will look back at this the way we looked back at the Palmer raids; the Korematsu case by which the Japanese were interned, and say, “How, exactly, did this happen? How could they do it?” And that brings me to the final moments of my talk, which is that it seems to me that we have to try to cope with exactly that question. How did this happen? How have we done this? Does anybody here watch 24? Raise your hands, come on. Come on, come on!
Well, for those of you who don’t know, 24 is a remarkable program. It’s a huge hit on Fox TV – enormously popular, one of the top 10, I believe, easily, which means that 20 million Americans watch it every week. It concerns someone named Jack Bauer, a character named Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland, who is the key agent in something called the Counter Terror Squad, I think – C.T.S. And almost every episode of this program shows Jack Bauer torturing someone. It is very often the climax of the program. In fact, one program I saw coming back on a plane, which had an archive of all of these luckily enough, the President of the United States was shown asking his secret service chief to torture the head of the NSA, who was brought down to a room in the basement of the White House, and tortured using a defibrillator. And the President watched on a video hookup as his NSA chief was being tortured.
Now, every episode has torture. It is essentially a program built around the idea of the ticking bomb. The question I would put to you as we finish tonight is: why is this program so popular? Why did McCain threaten – or risk losing the nomination – by taking a position opposite to extreme interrogation, until he, as I said, folded? It’s a complicated story, but he – in effect – folded. Why does the political dynamic move in this direction? I wish I could give you the answer to that, but I’m going to say a couple things. One is that I’d ask you to think of the Dirty Harry Phenomenon, which of course is a Clint Eastwood in which Clint plays a San Francisco cop who’s trying to stop a serial killer.
He’s the hero, but he also tortures. He breaks all the rules. The villains are, in essence, the liberals and the red tape, and the hero of the movie is the notion of untrammeled power, just as the hero of Dirty Harry revisited – which is 24 – the hero is untrammeled executive power. I think that the notion of contained power, which Americans feel they have to live with, and certainly have felt they had to live with since the Cold War – the United States is in a position to destroy the world, and yet, we don’t, “we’re the nice guys” – causes a great degree of anxiety. An anxiety that mutates into fear, and into aggression after we’re attacked. I looked back at the Palmer raids, the Koramatsu case, and various other things in American history, and it strikes me that we tend to condescend to our forebears.
We look back at those cases, and we say, “My god, the internment of the Japanese? What were they thinking! How could they do that?” And it strikes me that our forebears are now looking forward at us, and saying, “In fact, we haven’t changed much at all, as Americans.” We react to fear in certain predictable ways, and you’re seeing it now. I want to end, because I need to be somehow positive, with a quote from George Kennan, who was a young diplomat; he was, of course, the “father of containment.”
As a young diplomat between the wars, he saw the European order fall; deteriorate, and he stood after the war in Hamburg. He looked up across the ruined landscape of Hamburg, were 60 or 80,000 people had died in allied fire bombings, and he had a reflection that he committed to his diary. He said,
“If the Western world really was going to make a valid pretense of a higher moral departure point of greater sympathy and understanding for the human being as God made him – -as expressed not only in himself, but in the things he had wrought and cared about – then it had to learn to fight its wars morally, as well as militarily, or not fight them at all. For moral principles were a part of its strength. Short of this strength, it was no longer itself. Its victories were not real victories. The military would view this as naive. They would say that war is war – that when you’re in it, you fight with everything you have, or go down to defeat. But if that is the case, then there rests upon Western civilization, bitter as this may be, the obligation to be militarily stronger than its adversaries by a margin sufficient to enable it to dispense with those means, which can stave off defeat only at the cost of undermining victory.”
In other words, if we are to fight morally, we need to have a much greater power. Now, I was going to title this talk “Into the Light,” after a scene in Fidelio, a favorite opera, which Lady Dudley – who is here in the second row – made me think about when I saw her earlier. At the end of Fidelio, there’s something near the end of “Prisoners’ Chorus” in which the prisoners rise up and come out of the fortress, and seek the light. And there’s a very beautiful complicated imagery in the libretto that in the end is simple: autocracy is dark, it’s cold, it’s far from the light and human fellowship; and freedom is light, it’s warm, it is part of humanity.
The opera is a very forward-looking and very optimistic opera of Beethoven’s. About 20 years later, Byron would remark, and Don Juan, that autocracy, some day soon, would be like the woolly mammoth. We would hear about it; it would be a terrible idea, but we wouldn’t quite believe it ever existed.” So, you had a kind of optimism, forward-looking optimism. And it strikes me today, as we try to be optimistic a week after the elections, that we have to keep learning the same lessons, and keep pushing forward relentlessly into the light.
Thank you so much for listening. [Applause.]
III. Q & A: Professor Danner Answers Audience Questions
[Tony Judt]: Thank you very much, Mark. We are open for questions; we have time for a discussion. Mark will take it over. Put your hands very clearly up. There seems only, for some reason, to be one microphone over there… Oh, there’s one over here, as well. If you can come to the microphone, it makes it much easier to hear you, and if you can speak briefly, and please, no counter-lectures from the floor.
Q: Thank you very much. The two questions that occurred to me… One I still don’t understand is about your explanation why. It isn’t peculiarly an American thing – why torture. I mean, torture, we know, isn’t of use. It doesn’t actually get information. That’s the one question. The second question is a bit more complicated. How do you roll this back? You’ve written very powerfully about the semantics about the whole thing, about the linguistic background. This phrase, the “War on Terror…” I thought September the 11th, that was an allegory, like the War on Drugs, and then it turns out it’s a literal war. At one point during the campaign, John Kerry said what’s obvious to a lot of us, which is that this is not a war, it’s a police action, and this is a bunch of criminals we’re fighting – you don’t have wars against criminals, you lock them up. Is there any use in going back to the semantics and trying to unwrap the War on Terror, reverse it, not use that phrase anymore? Is it useful at this point, and if it is, can we do it? And how? Thank you.
A: Thank you, those are both very good questions, and also immensely complicated ones – both of them. The first one about the utility or effectiveness of torture, I think I want to just say very briefly that your argument that we know it doesn’t work is not simply universally shared. There are people who believe it does work, including interrogators who’ve had a good deal of experience with it. I’d recommend a book to you called The Interrogators by Chris Mackie. It has very interesting discussion of the use of pain at the end of the book, and he’s somebody who’s appalled by Abu Ghraib; he’s an Army interrogator – that’s a pseudonym, actually, and not his real name.
But it would be very helpful, especially to sort of the liberal position, if you want to call it that, if torture simply didn’t work – and then it would be insane; “why are they doing this?” and simply to demonstrate power, and pose power. But it can’t be a useful one where you get into the ticking bomb scenario, and the scenario on which 24 is based – a popular idea of torture, that is, there’s a bomb on this plane! There’s a guy! We know he knows which plane it is! We have five minutes to get the information! People generally have that idea of torture, even though a ticking bomb is completely insane, it’s a rhetorical, not a practical construction.
But there are people who believe that some forms of pain are useful, and these are professionals. So on the naming of the war on terror, it’s interesting. Your question brings up a sort of flutter of controversy about a year ago, in which the military – which is feeling at the moment very abused; they feel like they’re going to take the brunt of the resentment and the political damage that will come in the wake of Iraq; that they’ll be blamed for it as many senior officers who were junior officers in Vietnam feel they were, then – they pushed a rhetorical movement within the executive branch to change the War on Terror to the War Against Global Extremism. It was G.W.A.T. Global War…
Anyway, they pushed this for about a month, and everybody was cooperating in the Executive branch except the President, who kept using “War on Terror”. So they folded their cards. The President liked War on Terror; he used it. The administration has responded in a particular way, and has emphasized throughout – George Bush, first, among others – that this is not a police action, that this is a war. They have insisted on the militarization of this in rhetoric, and in some degree in reality, and to such an extent that, as I said a moment ago, the military has essentially pushed back a little.
I think there are complicated reasons for this, and I tried to discuss a few of them in relation to presidential power. I think this is very important for this administration. I also think that the quote I read at the end from George Kennan is something that George Bush I think – or Dick Cheney for that matter, and Dick Cheney I think is a very intelligent man – could not fundamentally understand, and certainly wouldn’t agree with. He would be among those who in the military would say, “War is war.” He believes that, and this idea of restrictions that would prevent interrogations and so on, it’s fairly clear from his press conferences – and there are many discussing about this, particularly in September after his speech that he doesn’t see anything wrong with this kind of interrogation.
That if it is protecting the security of the country, it is a no brainer, that there is not a moral problem here for him at all. And I think that’s a fact, and that’s the way he views it. Now, within the executive branch, the situation is a lot more complicated. One of the reasons we have all these documents is because people are worried about it, and they’ve talk to reporters, and they’ve handed documents out, and we know a lot about it because a lot of people hate what’s going on. I’m talking about permanent employees in the C.I.A.; Army interrogators. The Army recently in its new field manual eliminated all this stuff – at least officially. It doesn’t do it anymore.
Interestingly enough, in the hour before George Bush’s speech on September 6th, the senior intelligence officer in the American military came forward in Washington – it was carried live on CSPAN – announced the new field manual, listed all the activities that are expressly forbidden, including all of the ones I listed – expressly forbidden – and said, “We have learned that abusive interrogation does not work.” He said this publicly, just before the President came forward and gave his speech. It was a remarkable moment!
Q: Pushing forward from the last question, and then I have a question about Saddam Hussein. Whether or not torture is effective, and the methods we’ve used to fight the War on Terrorism, there have been very reasonable, preventative notions put forward by liberals – notably Jerry Nadler – who said let’s spend a lot of money and buy up all that loose uranium in the former Soviet Union, let’s inspect all of our containers coming in – expensive, but doable.
So my first question is: would this ever have any political traction? And my second question has to do with Saddam Hussein. Why do you suppose it is that during the trial, our connivance in the creation, or at least the feeding of that monster known as Saddam Hussein, the United States…at least partial responsibility for creating this regime, or supporting it, couldn’t come out into the discourse?
A: Okay, both, again, really good questions. I think the uranium issue is a very complicated one, and I agree it’s bizarre that the administration hasn’t been more interested, although they have been of late, in supporting the Nunn-Luger program to buy up uranium. I think the shortest, but maybe clearest answer I can give you is that if you look at Ron Suskin’s book, there’s a fascinating discussion of Iraq as a demonstration model. We can’t keep weapons of mass destruction from going to terrorists, if that’s what states want to do. What can do is show rogue states that the U.S. will unleash astonishing military force, and destroy them if they do that – and destroy the regime.
And Iraq was supposed to show that, and I really recommend Suskind’s book. I have a review of it in the forthcoming New York Review of Books. It’s a very fine book. The Saddam question, I think, it didn’t come out because the trial… First of all, the people at the trial…the prosecutors weren’t interested… The trial was being held in the American controlled Green Zone. It was not an interest of the prosecutors to talk about American complicity or American relations with Saddam Hussein.
It might have been an interest of the defense attorney, although it’s unclear what that would’ve gotten them anyway. Saddam, essentially, seemed most interested in speaking to an Iraqi audience, and participating in the political rhetoric of the insurgency. And he did a fairly good job, given the restrictions. They kept turning off his microphone, essentially. Iraqis would be watching this trial, Saddam would stand up, everybody would be yelling, and he’d say, “_____.” [Mr. Danner imitates Saddam attempting to speak to an audience without a microphone.] And that would be it. So if you read some of the blogs out of Baghdad — River Bend, for example, she has an interesting blog about this – about how frustrating it is to watch the trial.
Q: I was hoping you would talk a little bit about the Gates nomination to replace Rumsfeld, and what – if any – changes we could expect on the War on Terror.
A: Boy, that’s a huge question. Gates was part of the Baker Commission, and when I went and talked to him, he was one of the more solicitous people, when it came to what I said, and asked me a lot of questions. So, of course, now I like him, but he has a rather interesting and checkered past, having to do with Iran-Contra, among other things, and had a very difficult time being confirmed as D.C.I. – as Director of Central Intelligence. He did squeak by, but there were more “No” votes. He had to go through twice. He went up twice, and he went through once, but a lot of the people on armed services now voted against him – notably, Carl Levin.
Jim Webb, the Senator elect from Virginia – he’s a very interesting man – has argued that this confirmation should not happen until the new Congress is seated, and I tend to agree with him. I think that this should be a discussion of what future policy would be. It would be very good for the country if that happened; it should be on C-SPAN. In fact, it should be carried by the networks. It looks like instead, they’re going to try to push him through in a lame duck session. I think that’s wrong. Having said all that, I don’t know how to answer your question.
He clearly is, as everybody’s saying in the press, a pragmatist. He’s not an ideologue. He doesn’t have any history in the defense department at all. I think the senior leadership in the defense department, the uniform leadership, is going to come and just kiss him, because they’re so upset and so bedraggled after these years of Rumsfeld. So he will be given a very enthusiastic reception. The problem is, as I tried to say at the beginning of this talk, there’s no solution to Iraq. People say, “We have to talk to Iran.” Well, we’ve been talking to Iran! We haven’t been doing it high level, but we’ve been talking to Iran.
The ambassador in Baghdad has been talking to the Iranians; have talked to Syria. It’s as if we call them up, “Oh, you need help? Fine! Well help you out.” They have this conundrum, which I tried to get to at the beginning of the talk about, you know, you withdraw, you admit it’s a failure. You stay there; you still have hope that it might eventually be a success. And that’s a paradox that Johnson and Nixon confronted in 1968. It’s a paradox they’re confronting now. Gates is very interested in P.R.T’s – Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
He sends these Americans out to the provinces to help work there. He was very interested in that; he was very interested in the way the military should become much more of a training mission in Iraq – I’m sure you’ll hear a lot about that. And the fact that he’s a pragmatist, that he wants to do something that works, is very much to the good. One of the things I argue in this piece that Bob Silvers is publishing the new issue of the New York Review is that you have leadership that essentially clung to a war of the imagination – they weren’t looking at what was going on on the ground, because they couldn’t bear to recognize it.
And this doesn’t mean they didn’t change policies, and they have tried a lot, but there’s a simple fact. The place is coming apart. There’s a sectarian civil war going on, which we did a lot to promote, and somebody’s eventually going to win, or the country is going to break up. It could get worse, or it could possibly stay the same, but it’s not going to get better any time soon. So I’m glad he’s coming; I think he’ll be a lot better. But I don’t think he’s going to be able to save the situation.
Q: My question piggybacks on what you just said. What do you ultimately think is going to happen with Iraq? Will it break up into three different parts? Will Muqtada al-Sadr come to power, and have another strong man in Baghdad? What, ultimately, do you think is the solution?
A: [Laughs.] Boy, I don’t know! I’m laughing because Muqtada al-Sadr, at the beginning of the occupation, was known as the Atari Mulla. He’s thought of as kind of a dummy by a lot of people, who will compare him to his famous father and uncle, and he’s very into, apparently, computer games. And the notion of him coming to power is an amusing one. On the other hand, as you imply, he’s a major power now – he’s the power behind the throne, and the government.
His army is probably the most powerful militia; it depends how you judge power. It’s also unclear how much control he has of it, depending on the regions of the country. I’m stalling because I’m not sure how to answer your question. There’s clearly a dynamic of separation going on, now. On the other hand, Iraq – if you look at a so-called ethnic map, even though the differences between Shia and Sunni are not ethnic, as they were in Bosnia, for example; we talked about ethic cleansing, but it wasn’t ethnic cleansing – you see that there is not an easily discernable breakup.
There’s going to be a lot of enormous bloodshed, which is happening right now. And the idea that partition would end there, I think, is an illusion. I mean, a lot of people I respect who believe this strongly – among them, Peter Galbraith, who’s an extremely smart man, but I think he thinks of it very much, not surprisingly, from the perspective of somebody who was an ambassador in Croatia, and has a long time relationship with the Kurds. I don’t see how his solution… Maybe he’ll talk about what will happen, eventually, but I don’t see it as a solution to the current bloodshed.
It should also be pointed out that the Shia before this is not true. The Shia themselves are divided. You talk about Muqtada; Muqtada does not want a divided Iraq. He is a nationalist. He is an Iraqi nationalist. He doesn’t want the country to divide up; he wants to run an integral Iraq. So I’m sorry, I wish I could give you a better answer.
Q: All night, we’ve talked about Iraq. Would you care to comment on Afghanistan?
A: Just to go to some optimistic… Well, Afghanistan shows a very interesting phenomenon, which is that the techniques that are being developed in Iraq on a jihadi side… If you’re interested, you can get on the web, you can find out how to make an improvised explosive device, you can find out, step by step, how to make a suicide vest. It’s all there. You don’t need training camp, you don’t need anything.
And the techniques that are going on in Afghanistan now – the increasing number of suicide bombings, and the increasing number of improvised explosive devices, which have been incredible. The American Army, the most technologically advanced army in the world, is being defeated by these artillery shells that are strapped to cell phones and put in garbage bags on the side of the road. Now, they’re getting more intricate, because the Iranians are apparently helping.
Anyway, you see the technique of warfare in Afghanistan owes a lot to Iraq, and owes a lot to the techniques the jihadis have developed there. And the second point I’d make is the obvious one that the administration, as the phrase is, didn’t “finish” Afghanistan before they went on to Iraq. I’m not sure they could’ve finished it in that sense. I think the Pentagon saw and knew what had happened to the Soviets there.
They knew that Bin Laden wanted explicitly to get the U.S. into Afghanistan, and the United States stayed out, essentially. They fought with Masoud’s people. Osama Bin Laden had assassinated a couple of days before 9/11 expecting justice. The U.S. fought with Masoud’s people on the ground – very few soldiers – and used air power. But you can’t reform, remake, redesign, politically transform a country with air power, and the U.S. seems to need to learn this every generation or so. And it’s learning it now, again. I haven’t been to Afghanistan, I should say, although I’d like very much to go.
But my point of view is that things are fairly bleak there, and of course, the real risk is Pakistan, in which the Musharif government, and the real risk, is Pakistan. They came very close to knocking him off a couple of times; they came very close to killing him, and God knows what will happen to Pakistan if that regime is overthrown.
Q: I just wanted to ask you where you think this is all going. You set the table up for a pretty inauspicious future. The U.S. has been engaged in this rather vicious, hegemonic strategy since WWII, and a lot of what’s coming back to us now is blowback. And there are things to be afraid of, because the bombs are real.
But do you feel that the American public – the American society – is being conditioned to accept this kind of civil society as a necessary way to carry on in the world? Or do you think there’s a chance that people can learn to re-orient the way this country goes about its place in the world?
A: Boy, that’s a very good question. It’s a whole other talk. Is the U.S. ready to re-orient its place in the world? The U.S. has had this constant dialectic between overwhelming power and vulnerability, and it’s interesting if you read Kennan. There’s a beautiful little book he wrote called American Diplomacy. It’s 100 pages or so, it’s elegantly written, and it’s a great pleasure to read – I recommend it. But he begins – it’s written in 1950, I believe; it’s a series of lectures – and he says look at this moment.
We are the most powerful country in the world. We have the kind of power that no one else in the history of humanity has ever had, and yet, we are at a moment of extreme vulnerability. This is obviously in the wake of the Chinese Revolution and of the Soviets exploding their own atomic bomb. And he tries to cope with this notion of vulnerability and power. At the end of all that, I’m not sure that he comes up with a very good answer to your question. I don’t necessarily think that what happened on 9/11 was blowback, and I also think that a different administration – though subject to many of the same political stresses – may have responded differently.
Let’s say Al Gore, on some other Supreme Court, was chosen president. I think his war would’ve been much different than the one we’re looking at. Of course, it’s difficult to calculate, since the Republicans would have looked at him as the cause of the attack, and they would not have been so forbearing in not criticizing him for having let Al-Maida do this attack, in the way the Democrats were, in essence. But I think the war would’ve been different. I don’t think you would have had this extreme militarization.
I don’t think you would have had the Iraq War. People disagree with me on that. And to me, the Iraq war was the real catastrophe of this. I talked all about interrogation – I think that was certainly a horrible part, but I think the Iraq war, when you look at the broader strategy, and the place of the United States in the world, Iraq War was essentially giving the jihads what they wanted. The attack on 9/11 was, among other things, a provocation. It was to try to get the United States into the Middle East, knocking down Muslim doors, sending tanks rolling down the streets of an Arab capital.
And that’s exactly what the administration decided to do, and for the same reason in a way – to show its power; to show its overwhelming power. Well, that’s what they did in this enormous gamble – that the war would be quick, successful, and send us waves of democracy rolling everywhere. It did not work – it couldn’t have worked, I don’t think, but its possible to conceive of a different kind of war. So part of this, it seems to me, is dependent on the particular regime that was in power.
I think the Bush regime is a very, very radical regime. I don’t think there’s any regime or administration that’s been like it, certainly in my lifetime. There’s a wonderful quote in their first national security strategy: “Powers will continue to attack us using the weapons of the weak, including international fora, judicial processes, and terror.” So they’re listing international courts, the United Nations and other international organizations, and terror together as weapons of the weak. Now, that is a very radical view of American power that I can’t think of any administration – Republican OR Democrat – would have embraced. Thank God!
Q: I had, actually, a more theoretical question about the use of the Agamben. I really enjoyed your use of Giorgio Agamban’s state of exception in relation to George W. Bush’s actions. I was really intrigued by the moment in which you were talking about the detainees in Sweden who got taken away. You said that these people were “pure mean,” by referring to camps, and that pure mean should always be thought of as ends and never be thought of as means.
A: Yes, I’m afraid I blew the Kant quote. I hate it when that happens!
Q: To make it very brief, it was really that Giorgio Agamban’s argument is very much taken from and inspired by Benjamin’s article “A Critique of Violence”, in which he distinguishes between a politics that is based on a just end, in which a just end would justify all the means that preceded.
Or, that politics is based on just means, where the only end you will hopefully end up with is a just end, because every step is being taken, in effect, just means. What he ends up arguing is that only by taking things as pure means are we ever going to get away from violence. So I’m wondering how your use of means in that sense relates to where Agamban is coming from, because otherwise…
A: Right. Well, Benjamin was talking about revolutionary violence, of course. And this is a well known argument that goes back. There’s an earlier version of it – at least that argument was earlier – between Dewey and Trotsky, way back when. I guess it would be the late ’30’s. I don’t know how to answer that question briefly. When violence is used by the state, almost by definition, the quantification you’re talking about is very difficult to make. I think this administration has done something…
You bomb someone from the air… In the first three weeks of the Iraq operation, the best death count – civilian death count; first three weeks, when everybody was watching on television – was done by the A.P. They went to every hospital in Iraq, and they counted 3,240 civilians – a number of cities which mixed military dead in, they didn’t include, including Basra – second largest or third largest city in the country. That’s a very low count, but it’s a minimum of the number of civilians that were killed at the beginning of the war by American bombing and artillery, mostly.
Now, looking at that, and looking at what modern war does, I would find it very hard to advocate the war of the imagination that so many, frankly, of my friends and colleagues and politically sympathetic friends advocated. And one of the interesting things that strikes me – and I’m not answering your question, but this strikes me as a result of it – is that the people, many of the people I knew, and know, who advocated this war were essentially on one side putting all of those people who they didn’t want to think about, and on the other side, putting an imaginary goal that was in no way justified as an expectation; as a rational expectation of what this war would be.
That is simply an appeal toward a rational judgment of what you advocate and what you don’t, when it comes to overwhelming violence. And I’d like to talk more about Agamben and Benjamin Schmidt discussion, but that’s the best I’ll be able to do.
Q: Mark, I understand they do extraordinary rendition, but what I never could understand is how they send these people to Syria, which is our enemy, and they participate against us in Iraq. Who’s doing this torturing in Syria, and giving us information? Are the Syrians just currying favor? Is this just politics?
A: Well, the famous case is the one of Arar, the Canadian who was grabbed at Kennedy. And I think there’s a very extensive dossier, now, that the Canadians have put together. And he was taken to Syria – they kept him for about a year. They put him in a cell that was a coffin-like cell, and beat him with electric cord. He was very savagely treated. Well, it’s a favor for your buddies in the intelligence business. I don’t know what “just politics” means.
I mean, they do things for us, we do things for them, and one of the interesting phenomena after 9/11 was the various regimes that the U.S. cozied up with, and which might have led to some kind of entente with Syria. Which now Baker is talking about – he talked about “flipping Syria” and so on. But the attack on Iraq put many of these intelligence relationships out of business. [Seymour] Hirsch has a wonderful piece, an extensive piece about this, that particularly has to do with Syria – that after the Iraq attack, the Syrians shut it down completely. Not surprisingly, they now have half of the Baathist regime living in Damascus.
If you want to buy property, don’t do it in Damascus! The property values have shot up. If I’d been smart before the war, I’d have bought some real estate there. But we have this idea of friends and enemies – the Syrians, the Iranians, they’re bad people, they’re these other people. And things are a lot more complicated than that. It’s one of the interesting things about traveling to these places and learning about them, because what we know of them is a caricature. What we know of it is a cartoon.
Q: [Inaudible question shouted from the back of the room.]
A: [Laughs.] You know, I think the American troops will leave, and yeah, I think they probably should be brought out. But frankly, the notion that that’s the key issue…I mean, that’s an issue that has to do with American politics, as much as anything. I think their departure…
The U.S., now, has to somehow cash in the value of their presence, because the Americans are there, in order to try to do something to avert the transformation of what is this very, very bloody and significant failure into a regional catastrophe. And that’s the job, right now, of the Baker Commission, of the New Democratic Friends in Congress, and of Americans. And I hope that happens, and I’m very grateful to all of you for coming and paying such close attention. It’s been a pleasure.