Mark Danner interviewed by Isabelle Masson at the Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Canada.
Mark Danner with Isabelle Masson
Museum for Human Rights
This is an interview with Mark Danner recorded on June 28, 2011 at the studio in Winnipeg. The interviewer is Isabelle Masson.
Q: Where and when were you born?
A: I was born on November 10, 1958 in Utica, New York, which
is a small city in Upstate New York, northern New York state.
Q: Where have you lived over the course of your life?
A: Well, I lived in Utica until I was 17 years old, spent summers in the Adirondacks, an hour north of Utica, the Adirondack Mountains, and then lived in Cambridge when I went to college at Harvard College. Briefly lived in France and elsewhere in
Europe. And then New York City for most of the rest of the time, although I’ve divided my time for the last decade or so between New York City for half the year and Northern California for the other half, where I teach at Berkeley, University of California.
But in the interim I’ve lived in various other places.I’ve spent time in China, various other parts of Asia.I’ll be spending the fall in the West Bank in Ramallah.But mostly I’ve been on either coast for the last decade or so.
Q: Have you been in Ramallah before?
A: I was there in Ramallah in this past December and January. I spent about three weeks there, mostly on the West Bank, but also traveling in Israel as well.
Q: I was wondering, I saw that you have written on Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and I was wondering if you had written anything on Palestine and Israel.
A: I have done some opinion pieces, but I haven’t done any reporting on Palestine and Israel, but I hope to do some in the fall.I’ll be there from late August until sometime in December, so four months, roughly, and maybe traveling a little bit more around the Middle East as well.It’s an interesting time to be there, needless to say.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood?
A: Well, I remember a fairly happy childhood.I grew up son of a…my father was a dentist, now retired.My mother taught school. She taught Spanish at the local Catholic high school. And we lived during the year in Utica, the small town, small city, really. It was a very pretty place in northern New York State. A lot of green, a lot of parks. And during the summer we would go up to the Adirondacks, where my grandfather had built a small, what’s called a camp, a small cottage on a lake, very pretty. And we would swim and canoe and do a lot of things kids do in the summertime.
And did a little traveling.Went to Washington, New York, and made various other trips. But I think it was a fairly conventional childhood, insofar as anyone’s childhood is conventional.Fairly content.I read a lot, but also loved to canoe and
camp and do other kind of outdoor things. So I remember it as fairly happy and enjoyable, mostly.
Q: Do you remember a significant moment from your childhood that would influence who you would become in terms of your career in journalism and reporting?
A: A significant moment…I’m clearly finding that a somewhat complicated question.I was, from early on, a big reader. My father had served in World War II aboard an aircraft carrier.He often told me about that.And this experience in World War II really changed his life, essentially by transforming him from someone who…he was a kid who grew up, he was the son of a plumber and was working in a factory when Pearl Harbor happened and he entered the Navy.
And being part of these worldwide events, this enormous war, conflagration, and not knowing what it was about, this sense of bewilderment, you know, what is going on, why am I a part of this, this could kill me and yet I understand it not at all, really engendered in him a kind of need to read history and understand what exactly he was doing there.
And it’s always seemed to be that kind of dynamic of suddenly being bewildered and needing to understand the great movements of history that you’re a part of but that you can only see from your own very small soda straw, as it were, vantage, has seemed to me a kind of great and typical moment that you find in all kinds of literature as well — Fabrice in The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendahl’s great book that begins with the Battle of Waterloo.
Fabrice famously has no idea what’s going on and is utterly bewildered by what’s happening to him, which was a passage that was much beloved by Tolstoy, and he adopted it for his account of Pierre at the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace, which, in turn, was much beloved by Stephen Crane, who wrote an entire book, The Red Badge of Courage, on the same theme, which is a soldier
wandering around the battlefield in bewilderment about the immediacy of death and the distanced reality of consequences and logic — why am I here, what am I doing? This thing that can have such great consequences for my life, in fact, I have no real understanding about.
So when I think of my father on the deck of this aircraft carrier, and he describes a particular scene where he was commanding a gun crew on the deck and a Zero, a Japanese fighter plane, was shrieking toward them and firing, and he was probably 21 at this point, and he — in fact, he would have been 21, because it was off Okinawa, Battle of Okinawa — and he describes this particular moment
where, at 21, he suddenly realized, as he puts it, “They are trying to kill me. They’re trying to kill me, you know.
He always said that it must be young men who fight wars because they’re the only ones stupid enough to do it. And that’s his moment of recognition, of sudden realization that, in fact, there are consequences, and the consequences are so great, but his understanding of the reasons so little that it really, that gap changed his life, and he became someone who read history and who became fascinated with history, and then someone who went to college, who became a professional, a dentist, and who had an entirely different life than he would have had had the war not intervened, because he was changed.I mean, it’s obviously a commonplace that war changes people, but he was changed in a rather strange way, which is from a factory worker into a professional man and the middle class, and it was solely as a result of this kind of need to understand and to understand history.
So he became — this is a long way of saying that he became fascinated with history, and war in particular, and the earliest stories I remember are things he used to tell me in the car. I grew up with three sisters, so we would be, the four of us would be pushed into the backseat, my parents in the front. We’d be driving from Utica up into the mountains, which was an hour drive, but when you’re a small child an hour seems like an interminable expanse.And he would tell stories.
The earliest ones were “David and Goliath” from Kings, from the Bible, “Sampson and Delilah” from the same source, although I said Kings, and I think it’s…I’m not sure, actually, where “Sampson and Delilah” comes from.”Hector and Achilles,” which is I knew the story until I, years later, read The Iliad and realized it came from there. But he would tell me these stories and I would at some point say, “Dad, tell “David and Goliath,” or whatever. I mean, I had this need for them.
And as I grew older, the stories would become more complicated.One of his set pieces was Sarajevo, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I. And obviously I was older when he was telling this. But in general, I think those early stories were very consequential, and I’m not sure quite how, but they certainly were important to me in instilling in me an appreciation for history and for telling stories, for writing.
I think from early on I assumed, certainly by the time I was in high school, that I would be a writer in one way or another, although I wouldn’t have necessarily enunciated it, but I did assume it. And I think I certainly got from him his…you know, my father always had a book in front of him, and I think I acquired that from him. I mean, after dinner in the living room my parents would both be reading.The
television would also be going at the same time, but they would be reading. And this is still the case.They’re in their 80s and they are reading all the time.So I think that was probably important, and his stories about the war itself were important, and the notion of war as a turning point.
Q: You put yourself in the situation of being on the ground in a conflict zone.Do you feel that those stories prepared you? Was there a fascination to be in that situation, and did you come to it from a different perspective?And what was your experience with that?
A: You know, I think generally the attempt to…Well, almost by definition the attempt to answer a question of why did you do something so large like start to cover wars and so on is really an exercise in trying to reconstruct logic after the fact, which is fine, because that can be interesting, but it isn’t necessarily really that related to a factual question. One isn’t answering, “well, this is how it happened,” one is really trying to come up with an explanation in the present that seems plausible.But, you know, as I say, which is fine, it just isn’t…
You know, if I had to come up with kind of why, indeed, did I do X, Y or Z, it would have to do with the fact of a fascination with politics and wanting to be there when, in a sense, politics are made. And war itself, I mean, the last book I did was called Stripping Bare the Body, and that title is a reference to a particular quotation by a former Haitian president, Leslie Manigat, a very interesting man.He was very briefly president, compromised with the military, became their puppet in the hope that he could, in a sense, turn the tables and seize power, but he ended up losing that wager and was overthrown by a military coup after four months in
power, something like that.
Anyway, his point was that political violence strips bare the social body.I think the quote is “the better to place the stethoscope and hear the life beneath the skin.” So a society, once it’s in a violent cataclysm, whether it’s war or revolution, some kind of internal uprising, lays bare, strips away a lot of the things that obscure its inner workings. And you see it when it’s in a state of that kind of stress in a kind of transparent way. You understand who has power, who doesn’t, and who’s trying to get it.
So I think wars themselves are particularly interesting times, if you’re interested in how power works and how society works. They’re also exciting because there’s a kind of plasticity in the moment. Political violence itself bespeaks that. I mean, people are trying to take power, change things, overcome structures that have existed.In a sense they’re trying to reshape the world.So if you’re looking at it and studying a place, a group of people, a polity, at that moment you’re seeing things kind of thrown up in the air — people who don’t have power struggling to attain it, people who have it struggling to keep it, and there’s an inherent excitement to that.
There is an inherent excitement to being at the…you know, one could call it, in a kind of cliché, the cutting edge of history or whatever, but — and one could throw out a lot of clichés, I guess, about history being made through violent change — but there is certainly a lot of truth to it, as there usually is in clichés.So I think there’s an inherent interest and compelling character to revolution and to uprising and to…
You know, the first foreign story I covered was the fall of Duvalier in Haiti, a 30 year dictatorship coming to an end, and it was a very exciting place to be. And in a sense it was a perfect first story to cover because it’s a relatively small political world, which is to say it’s accessible. On the other hand, it’s immensely complicated, complex, unpredictable, rich in history, rich in character, endlessly surprising, full of eloquent players, all of whom have their own back stories, and very often have a kind of complicated historical view of the country that is not necessarily understood from the outside at all, so a kind of richness is inherent in the situation.
But to get back to your question how does one decide to do something like that, I can chart a kind of…can look back at my own interests as they appear to me now, but it’s a long time ago, and…You know, I can see certain things that I used to talk about with my father when I was a kid.But there, of course, one could choose other things, too — a particular teacher in college.
When I was a senior at Harvard, I had a course with Stanley Hoffman, who’s a great expert on France, among other things, but a political scientist and historian at Harvard, and he was superb, very interesting. He co-taught this course on foreign affairs, international affairs, with Guido Goldman, who is a very well connected political scientist at Harvard. And I loved this class, it was terrific, and did, for the final paper, an essay on the Salvadoran civil war, which was going on at the time.
And there was a great deal of interest on campus in this.There were marches against U.S. involvement in Salvador. In retrospect — so we’re talking about 1980-81 — in retrospect this was kind of the backwash of Vietnam in the United States. That’s how it was perceived, that the United States was going to send troops to Central America. And the large coalition that had opposed the Vietnam War in a sense rose up again on campus to march against American involvement in Central America. And I became very interested in this issue and did this long paper.
And later, when I got a job at the New York Review of Books out of college, I found myself editing a lot of work on El Salvador and on Nicaragua as well, so that was another pathway.And I later found myself writing.My first book was about the massacre at El Mozote, which was a massacre in El Salvador.
So perhaps taking that course was equally important, or how did it relate to the
stories my father told, I’m not sure. But they certainly had, in retrospect, as you’re trying to sort of thread the string through the beads as you look back on your own history, they certainly seem to be related. But can one suggest a kind of factual or causal or logical relationship?I don’t know.
Q: What did you know of Haiti when you first went there, on your first experience of a war zone?
A: I don’t think I knew very much about Haiti.I did some research.I read several books about it, a couple of histories.I read a kind of area study that someone had done that I think was produced within the State Department, a kind of briefing book on Haiti. I read the clips, newspaper reporting. I really didn’t have a clear idea of how to do research before doing a story, so I just kind of vacuumed up whatever seemed interesting and just piled it together and read as much as I could.
One of the things I did learn is that knowing thoroughly the history of a place is extremely important, particularly a place like Haiti, which has a very, very rich history, and where politics are an obsession.It’s a very politically dense place.The elite, at least, are deeply engaged in political conflict, political warfare. And though the political world is small, it’s very complicated.Many people are related in various ways.It isn’t immediately apparent.
Leslie Manigat, who I mentioned a moment ago, who was briefly president of Haiti, for example, his grandfather was a very prominent interior minister during the regime of Salamon, who was a big, powerful noiriste president in the late 19th century, Francois Manigat, and he never became president, though it was thought he would. So there was this feeling of destiny about the family.And Leslie was married to Mirlande Manigat, who very recently came in second in the presidential elections.And her grandfather was also president, quite a prominent president, Hyppolite, in the later 19th century.
And most reporters who cover the country aren’t necessarily that aware of these backgrounds.I mean, some are.I don’t mean to, you know.But many aren’t, in part because if you cover daily politics, you have different concerns. But those backgrounds, and where they’re from, and the political traditions of the area and so on can be very enlightening, and also can help you have a sense of what will happen next, which is always the, you know, what you’re trying to do in a bewildering political situation.
I often thought that you could almost put a formula together — geography plus history equals present action. It’s not quite that stark, but history, and obviously geographical factors, can be very important, too. And when I say geography, I mean resources, road networks, power of different parts of the country. In Haiti during the aborted elections in 1987, I and several colleagues were attacked on the road — I wrote about this for The New Yorker — by some guys with machetes, during a week that a lot of journalists were killed. This was on election day.And we, thank goodness, were not killed, but we were attacked.
And I discovered quite a bit later that this particular spot, the precise spot, had
seen political attacks in 1957, which was another conjunture where Duvalier eventually emerged victorious.And another attack on Father Aristide, exactly the same place, [Freysineau]. Now, this village was of no particular distinction of any kind, but for whatever reason, there was a kind of tradition of political violence there, and I hadn’t known this when it happened, but I learned about it later. So history, geography, can be extremely revealing.
Q: When you said geography, I also thought of the [geography] and the proximity of Haiti to the U.S. and inaudible in the Cold War.Was that already
playing into your reporting when you started?
A: Well, Haiti, like most of the Caribbean and Central America, is inseparable from the political world of the United States.The U.S. is just so predominant that the countries of the Caribbean in particular, but also Central America, of course, and Latin America are, in a sense, in the same economic ambit.
The U.S. is like the planet Jupiter. It exerts this enormous gravitational pull, and these other places are kind of planets, or not planets, moons of Jupiter, in a sense.There’s the truism, the line about Mexico, you know, poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States. And Haiti is an example. It’s a few hundred miles from the United States, so that the market power is enormous.
And the present era of Haitian politics really began with — I’m talking about present, present — it really began with the crisis during the years of Jean Claude Duvalier, in which Haitian boat people started to head toward the United States. That’s kind of the modern era, in a sense. So things had gotten so bad within Haiti that people were just getting into these rickety boats and throwing themselves into the sea, basically, and headed for the U.S., even though they knew that the odds were that the Coast Guard would intervene and they might well not get there.
But this began the present era because the United States then sort of said, during the — this would be during the Reagan Administration — we have to do something, what do we do? And one of the things we have to do is try to intervene in Haiti and take a different attitude toward development, for example. The idea in the early ’80s, one director of AID, the Agency for International Development — which was then a separate agency, it’s now part of the State Department — he was famously quoted before Congress saying that the U.S. had to help make Haiti into the Taiwan of the Caribbean, by which people…I mean, it’s a striking quote, but, you know, by which one…he meant, probably, small export-based development, export for the U.S. market.
And this comes down to assembly industries, where you essentially fly in parts, you have thousands of workers in duty-free zones at the airport in these enormous hangar-like buildings, mostly women, who are assembling these parts, whether they’re softballs or ladies’ underwear, small-scale electronics, other things. So the planes bring them in, they’re assembled, and the planes fly them out. So essentially you’re benefiting from Haiti’s most obvious resource, which is poverty, because these are people who will do this for two dollars a day, very, very low.
So on the one hand this kind of development essentially provides many jobs very quickly, but it’s also a kind of development that isn’t lasting, really.As soon as you have political violence, for example, which is what happened in Haiti, those jobs move to Mexico or they move to the Dominican Republic. Anyway, that’s, in a sense, what began the modern era of Haitian politics, and it was directly related to, as you say, the proximity to the United States.
And similarly with Central America. In the latter part of the Cold War, those final conflicts of the Cold War, post Vietnam conflicts, some of them happened in Central America. Again, in retrospect, you can kind of look at it as the backwash of Vietnam. Kissinger, of course, as President Nixon’s National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, feared greatly the consequences for U.S. foreign policy of a loss in Vietnam, which is why he wanted a decent interval — that’s the quote — before the U.S. actually left, so it wouldn’t seem like a defeat.
And what he worried about was consequences for U.S. credibility, another word of the era, around the globe, by which he meant once the U.S. was shown to be defeated in Vietnam, pressure would be exerted by the Soviets and others, but the Soviets in particular, and their proxies, on other U.S. interests. So if you look at things in this way, you can say, well, the critical U.S. ally in the Middle East, the staunch heart of the Nixon Doctrine, was the Shah of Iran.
The Shah was overthrown in the aftermath of Vietnam, a key act that we’re still…the
consequences of which we’re still living through, because it was the beginning of the Islamic rejuvenation in the Middle East, step one.Step two, the invasion of Afghanistan, which began as the other kind of plot line, where you had the beginnings of, the roots of bin Laden, essentially, among other things, because you had the Mujahideen, which the U.S. funded to try to give the Soviets their Vietnam.
And finally, to get back to Central America, where the Somoza regime was overthrown in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, backed by the Cubans and at second hand by the Soviets, took their place, and an insurgency began in, among other places, El Salvador. And that insurgency, by the time I was finishing college, was coming in range of winning, of overthrowing the government, and the United States, the Carter Administration, later the Reagan Administration, began supporting the government very directly.
And the government became increasingly violent and fought the war by means of large-scale massacres. The U.S. was not supporting those, but — [laughs] — in a phenomenon that you come to see a lot, the United States, great powerful nation, has a client state, and the client state, in a sense, calls the shots.
In other words, there’s a certain point — I remember this quotation from the writer Christopher Dickey. He was punning.There’s a famous moment where Franklin Roosevelt, referring to Somoza — this is the elderly Somoza, not the one that was overthrown, his uncle — said, “Yeah, sure, he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” It’s a famous sort of line in American diplomatic history. And Christopher Dickey, during the Salvador war, said something like, “Yeah, they’re sons of bitches, but we’re their sons of bitches,” meaning that at a certain point, when you have a client state, you become dependent on that client state.
If the United States, as it was during that war, simply cannot permit the victory of the FMLN, the guerilla force, guerilla coalition supported by the Cubans and the Soviets, if that is the worst possible thing, that means that the Salvadoran government can get as bloody as it wants to and the U.S. will still not break with it, so that in effect, U.S. power over the Salvadoran government is in effect quite limited. Even though the United States is funding that government, and funding that army, and giving them arms, and all the rest, it has a limited ability to dictate their
Which is an interesting dynamic, and it kind of was critical to the lead-up to the massacre at El Mozote, which I wrote my first book about.So on the one hand you have this overwhelming superpower of, then, 280 million people, the biggest economy in the world, by far the biggest military in the world, funding this very small country, the generals of which essentially do what they want and tell their U.S. counterparts, well, if you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it?
So one of the interesting things in writing that piece — it was originally an article for The New Yorker— was seeing this dynamic, that you have this very powerful country essentially at the behest of this very small country that the powerful country perceives to be absolutely necessary to its interests. And you see this again and again, this kind of dynamic.
In the Middle East there’s a general perception, certainly in the so-called Arab street, a terrible expression that’s used very often, that the U.S. can just dictate behavior to the Israelis. And of course it’s pathetic, when you look at President Obama, only the latest of American presidents, to find himself with a distinct lack of power when it comes to the Israelis and their friends in Congress.That’s obviously a somewhat more complicated situation, but anyway.
Q: The dynamics you were describing were in the Cold War context.
Q: Do these apply in a post Cold War context as well, and a post 9/11 context, or do you see shifts and changes? Or is this a continuity?
A: Oh, I think there are certainly distinct, dynamic and dramatic shifts in the dynamics of current U.S. foreign policy, if we want to start there, when you compare it to the foreign policy of the Cold War.If you like, I think you could posit three distinct eras, to be simplistic about it.
One is the Cold War itself, during which you had this so-called bipolar world, core and periphery. Each superpower had various clients. Each of them had immediate allies — the Warsaw Pact and NATO, most obviously — and then there was more periphery. The battles, the actual political struggles, which sometimes became armed struggles, were generally fought on the periphery, whether it’s Korea, Vietnam, Central America and so on.
And from the American perspective, that era is dramatically cut in half by the Vietnam War, which we could talk about. I mean, it’s a complicated and obviously very consequential phenomena for the United States. But the end of the Cold War in ’89-’91 brought a very different era, I think, and it also brought the United States a Democratic presidency — the George H.W. Bush Republican presidency and then Bill Clinton, two terms Democrat, the first two term Democrat since FDR.
And I think from the perspective of the American side, you went from an era where the ideological underpinnings, the preconceptions that underlay U.S. foreign policy, were fairly clear, and you saw them enacted in Korea and Vietnam as well. Not necessarily correctly or wisely, but certainly you had some ideological perspectives, having to do with containment of the Soviet Union, that were put into practice in those wars.
When the Cold War was over, there was a period that you can see now that lasted for a decade, between ’91, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the attacks of September 11th in 2001, almost exactly ten years, during which those ideological assumptions had gone away, and there was some ambiguity among U.S. decision-makers about what exactly American interests were, and how they should be pursued.
And ironically, you look back on it, when we look at that period of victory or feeling of victory at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s ironic now to look back and see this as a kind of age of genocide, which is one of the ways to view it. At the time we called it the post Cold War world. But there was a genocide in the Balkans, which I covered and wrote about.And hard upon it, there was a genocide in Rwanda. And in between there was the Somalia intervention. Relatively small-scale, but very consequential when it came to Rwanda, because the United States essentially…I mean, it’s kind of a fascinating sequence.
The U.S. resisted intervention in the Balkans. George H.W. Bush took a lot of criticism during the campaign in ’92, during which he was defeated by Bill Clinton. The footage of the Omarska camps in Bosnia was broadcast, and George H.W. Bush, the so-called foreign policy president, found himself very much on the defensive, saying I’m not going to be pushed into intervening there because
of these images.
Governor Clinton, on the other hand, who had no foreign policy experience, very cleverly attacked Bush and said we should be doing something, if we need to, we should be bombing, etc. He was very aggressive. Unclear how much that contributed to Bush’s loss, but Clinton won, and of course did not intervene, as it turned out, for a long time.
But one of the consequences of that election, of the footage, the criticism of George H.W. Bush and his loss in the election, was while he was still lame duck in December ’92, he announced the intervention in Somalia.There was no national discussion, there was no congressional discussion, he just came on television one day, George H.W. Bush, and said “sometimes America must act.” And within a few days or weeks, the Marines were storming the beach off Mogadishu, and you had this American intervention, supposedly launched to feed the starving.
But of course the starvation itself was an epiphenomenon of a civil war which the U.S., the Bush Administration, the lame duck Bush Administration, seemed to think could be ignored, and you could just feed people and then leave. You know the history.Eventually, under Clinton, the so-called “Blackhawk down” day happened, in which 18 Americans were killed, and you got the word “mission creep,” that we were there to feed the hungry, but then we started to try to find Mohamed Aidid, the so-called war lord.We were going to arrest him. That was mission creep, look what happened, and now we’re going to withdraw.
Well, this whole incident, sort of police incident, wouldn’t be that consequential except it was undertaken, first of all, as a consequence of Bosnia, of not acting in Bosnia, as Colin Powell, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said explicitly at the time. And then because of it, because of the notion of mission creep, when the genocide began in Rwanda, the United States not only didn’t intervene, but it deterred others from intervening, most notably the Canadians, who would have played a role, and probably would have saved hundreds of thousands of people. I mean, there still would have been a genocide, but many fewer people would have died.
So I think it’s kind of fascinating to look at the sequence.It’s rather fascinating, because you see, first of all, not a bad definition of what a superpower is.I hate the word “superpower,” it’s absurd, but one way to define it might be that simply because of its own preconceptions and obsessions with, at that moment, mission creep, two countries, Somalia and Rwanda, were joined together in the mind of these planners in Washington, two countries which had nothing to do with one another, nothing, except they happened to both be on the African continent, and because of 18 dead Americans in Mogadishu, 800,000 Rwandans died. And that’s obviously a very stark and too simplistic way to put it, but there is a kind of trail of causality there.
And that large trail of causality, it seems to me, is a good kind of starting point to look at the kind of post Cold War ideological confusion of American foreign policy — what are our interests, where do we intervene.During the Cold War it would have been inconceivable to have had an armed conflict in the Balkans. Both the United States and the Soviets would have prevented it, and indeed, did prevent it.The Cold War allowed these conflicts, whether it was in the Balkans, most obviously, or in Central Africa, in Zaire and Rwanda and various other conflicts, to become armed conflicts, in a sense, because it’s almost like the system had been frozen by these two superpowers, and suddenly this deep freeze began to melt.
And there were decisions that had to be made in Washington, most notably about well, gee, what should we do about this? How does this implicate our interests, if it does at all? If there aren’t geo strategic or geopolitical reasons to intervene, are there human rights reasons to intervene? And if there are, what does that mean exactly? Does the U.S. have an obligation to stop mass murder?
The question was posed fairly starkly in the Balkans, and the answer, basically, that Americans arrived at was no, we don’t have an interest in stopping mass murder. Even though there was a convention against genocide to which the U.S. was a signatory, the U.S. responded to this by essentially denying that there was a genocide going on. I mean, it’s fascinating, when you look at the consequences of the genocide convention, the first is that the very existence of a genocide was denied in Bosnia.
It was admitted in Rwanda, but the consequence, which should have been intervention, was not admitted. And it was finally admitted starkly. I think in Rwanda, Warren Christopher, then Secretary of State, said this is “tantamount” to genocide. And then in the Sudan, of course, it was by Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, it was, indeed, called a genocide. But the consequence, the logical consequence, which should have been action needed to be taken to stop it, was not fulfilled.
Anyway, you had a kind of decade interregnum, as it now looks, from ’91 and the fall of the Soviet Union to 2001 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in which U.S. ideology and the American sense of its own interests were evolving and somewhat inchoate. And it was an interesting period, and a horrible period, in some ways, because the United States did have to sort of hash out the question of why it should intervene, if at all, in these local wars, and the answer all too frequently was we don’t have an interest here. But then the Balkans is a good example of a place where you may not have an interest, but it has an interest in you. And eventually, the U.S., of course, did intervene, in ’95, after the Srebrenica massacre.
We’re still seeing the consequences of that, and these same questions debated, as we sit here speaking in 2011, by the Obama Administration. Only a few months ago, President Obama made the decision to intervene in Libya. And it was not a secret at the time that one of the key reasons was a fear of a massacre that would have come about in Benghazi, as the Libyan regime got ready to liquidate the opposition in Benghazi, and as Colonel Gaddafi himself was issuing bloodcurdling predictions or vows about what he would do to the rebels in Benghazi.
There was, by all reports, a great deal of apprehension at the top of the U.S. government, including those who had written a lot on human rights issues — Samantha Power is the most obvious — who wrote the book A Problem from Hell, and who also reported on the Balkans — there was a great deal of apprehension about a massacre happening there. And that clearly seems to have been one of
the reasons, along with the pushing of the French and British allies, that President Obama approved an operation there. And he said quite explicitly in his speech on March 28th that as president, I was not going to wait until scenes of slaughter and mass graves.
Now, are those presumptions true, and should they have guided policy? I don’t know. But the fact remains that those massacres and genocides during the ’90s still loom over U.S. policy. They also were particularly important, I think, during the run-up to the Iraq war, when the Bush Administration referred repeatedly to Saddam Hussein as a genocidal dictator.And many of my colleagues, people who had reported on the Balkans, as I had, surprised me, shocked me, by supporting the war in Iraq, essentially on humanitarian grounds.That is, you have to remove this genocidal dictator.
And it’s one of the reasons, I think, for one of the most surprising aspects of the Iraq war, which is that so many liberal, on the liberal side journalists and parts of the liberal elite supported a war of choice because they seem to have been sympathetic.I’m talking about The New Yorker, for example, David Remnick, George Packer, Christopher Hitchens, one could go down a whole list — many of whom I debated in the run-up to the war. They were apparently persuaded by these arguments about human rights, that American power should be used to do good in the world and protect people and avoid massacres.I found these arguments to be very unconvincing because…and indeed, most of them were…
Q: Can you start back up to the debates between journalists on human rights as a reason to intervene?
A: Yeah.It seemed to me that one could make an argument that one could trace one of the most surprising aspects of the Iraq war, which is that a great part of the so-called liberal elite of the United States supported a war of choice in the Middle East, a war that didn’t need to be fought, an aggressive war, if you want to put it that way. One can trace it back to the ’90s and to the debates over the obligations of American power in that post Cold War era, and in particular back to the wars in the Balkans.
And at that time a lot of my colleagues, and me as well, were appalled by the slaughter going on in the Balkans, and appalled by the fact that the West, notably NATO and NATO patrols overhead, was essentially watching while people were being massacred. And the most obvious example is the siege of Sarajevo, in which…I was there in February ’94, during the so-called Market Massacre, and the scene of incredible carnage. As it turned out, 68 people were killed by a single mortar shell in a very densely packed market, where I had interviewed people shortly before, so many of the bodies and parts of bodies I recognized as people I had seen.
And this happened under the eyes of American war planes.I mean, you literally saw them circling around. I was there for ABC News with Peter Jennings, and he did a stand up piece afterwards in which he pointed to these planes circling overhead, you know, they were watching, but doing nothing. So there was a perfect model of the West having a presence, and supposedly trying to do something to alleviate the suffering and prevent the violence, but in fact doing nothing consequential, or nothing effective.
And Sarajevo, a city which a few years before had seen the Winter Olympics, suffered 20,000 or so casualties — civilian casualties — during this ongoing siege. Srebrenica, of course, was a safe area, an area that had been designated safe by the United Nations, and in which troops of the United Nations were there — Canadians, to some degree, at a certain point, and then Dutch — and a massacre happened under their eyes, literally under their eyes at Srebrenica, in which 8,000 men and boys were murdered. And I wrote about these things.
And during the run-up to the Iraq war, I think the Bush Administration very cleverly played on these arguments that Saddam was a genocidal dictator. He had twice attacked his neighbors. That was one argument. A second was that he was a genocidal dictator, had committed genocide. A third was that he was making weapons of mass destruction that would threaten the United States. And of course these arguments, each of them, it seemed to me, were repeated by the press in a rather unquestioning way. And the press, of course, the New York Times and the Washington Post in particular, have apologized for their coverage.
But I think each of these points bears scrutiny and were not credible arguments. And this, it seemed to me, was obvious during the run-up to the war, and I said so publicly, repeatedly. But this was not the case with a lot of my colleagues, and I was a bit shocked by this. And in retrospect, since this is what we’re talking about now, I understand how Bosnia, in particular, and Rwanda, to some extent, too, loomed over and essentially influenced them in their thinking that the U.S. must act to protect people. And of course, again, this was in the wake of 9/11, and 9/11 loomed over everything as well, that we can’t afford to risk Saddam out there after 9/11.That was also an argument.
So there were a lot of different arguments entering in, but it seemed to me some things here were taken in very bad faith. One of them was that, for example, the line repeatedly that Saddam had twice attacked his neighbors. Well, one of those attacks was on Iran, and the United States had supported it. I think it’s very questionable whether it’s a credible argument that you’re saying this man is unpredictable, he attacks his neighbors — yeah, one of those attacks you supported.
The United States thought of Saddam as a check on the Khomeini regime in Iran, so we supported that war. We tilted toward Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War, and we supplied billions of dollars in cash, disguised as agricultural support. We provided them weapons, trans shipped through the Egyptians and the Saudis.And we also gave Saddam’s regime satellite photographs which allowed them to target their chemical weapons, the highly vaunted chemical weapons. We supplied
So when this was repeated again and again by President Bush and in the press, I thought there’s something wrong with the press when it can’t contradict this. And but for one piece in the New York Times, which talked about these chemical weapons, the press almost didn’t contradict it.
So that was one argument, he twice attacked his neighbors. The second was that he had committed genocide. Well, there are two occasions, arguably, where Saddam committed genocide. One was at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the so-called Anfal campaign against the Kurds, and the second was in the wake of the Gulf War, the attack on the Shi’a in the south.
And on the first of those occasions, the U.S., in the Reagan and then Bush administrations, was supporting Saddam, as I just said, and supplying them with weapons, intelligence and money. And the same officials who were talking about the genocide in the Bush Administration — Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, various others — had been in office during the time of this genocide, and it seemed to me absolutely unbearable that they were then making the argument that he was a genocidal dictator, and weren’t contradicted. I mean, it doesn’t change that he killed all those people, but it did seem to me significant that the United States was supporting him at the time and said almost nothing about it.
And of course the second of those mass killings the U.S. had an army in Kuwait and southern Iraq. And within artillery range, virtually, of that army, Saddam attacked this uprising of Shi’a and killed perhaps 100,000, a very large number of people. The United States could have prevented it with a word.It didn’t need to actually send troops.It could have just prevented it, and chose not to.
So to me these arguments were almost too horrible to bear, and it seemed to me the role of so-called intellectuals, writers, journalists, not to parrot them, but to contradict them, and to say, well, it may be the U.S. should attack Iraq, but these reasons are not credible. And of course eventually the administration focused on weapons of mass destruction, which was an argument that had the great advantage, from their point of view, of being based on intelligence information to which most of the press didn’t have access. And they did leak, in strategic ways, bits of information to reporters they found to be sympathetic, like Judith Miller of the New York Times, and were able to control the discussion.
But to get back to the reason for all of this, it seemed to me that the background of this was this confusion during the ’90s about U.S. obligations around the world and whether, indeed, the United States had some kind of responsibility when people were being killed, particularly civilians, in the tens of thousands, as they were in the Balkans, to intervene, whether the United States had some sort of responsibility to do something.
And I certainly came to believe, although I didn’t at the beginning — I mean, I remember discussions at the Council on Foreign Relations, one in particular with George Kenney, who was a diplomat in the State Department, who was one of several who had resigned over the Balkans — it’s very unusual in U.S. diplomacy to have people resign on principle, it almost never happens — but he was one of
several who resigned because the United States wasn’t intervening or didn’t do anything in the Balkans.
And I remember him coming to the Council on Foreign Relations, and I remember, to my…I wouldn’t say shame, but consternation, when I look back at it now, my arguing with him and saying we have no obligations there, we shouldn’t do anything. This was very early. But I came to believe, as the conflict
continued, that it was simply unacceptable for Western countries to watch while a strategy was put in place by the Serbs to clear territory using widespread massacre and rape as the tools, and I believed that the U.S., with its allies, should have intervened to stop it.
And it was an interesting moment where — and I’ve written about this extensively — where, in a sense, the lack of a so-called “exit strategy,” which itself is a term from that era, I think used originally by Warren Christopher, the late Warren Christopher, who just died, but Clinton’s first Secretary of State, that the lack of an exit strategy was used to essentially prevent any action at all. That is, it was, to me, a kind of critical moment, although it wasn’t noticed much at the time, when the Serbs were shelling Dubrovnik, which is a beautiful city on the Adriatic, a classic UNESCO site and all the rest of it, a gorgeous place that I had actually visited a few years before the war, and they were shelling it using small gunboats and killing a lot of people. And the NATO supreme commander, General John Galvin, put forward a proposal to send the Fifth Fleet up the Adriatic and get rid of these gunboats.
It would have been very easy to do. They were very small ships.The U.S. had overwhelming power there.And Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, by Galvin’s account, said no, there’s no appetite for intervening. And Lawrence Eagleburger, then Deputy Secretary of State, when asked about this, essentially said yeah, we could have moved out the gunboats, but then what do you do? What’s the next thing you do? And what if…so then if you don’t stop the war, American prestige is wounded.
So in a sense this is kind of a self-deterrence, that because you can’t end the war completely, anything you do short of ending the war completely engages American prestige and would damage it; therefore, you do nothing. And that was the kind of train of logic, what you might call post Vietnam, post Cold War logic that led to a kind of paralysis there, and that I’m arguing, because of the consequences of that paralysis, later helped enlist a number of surprising people in supporting the
Iraq war, people who you wouldn’t have expected to do so.
Q: Tell me more about the impact of your reporting in the Balkans.
A: Well, I went to Sarajevo, [Biolina], [Pollay], various other spots, working originally for ABC News for a program called “Peter Jennings Reporting.”Jennings, who was then the anchorman on ABC, had this other shop which allowed him to do hour documentaries, and I was hired by his then executive producer, David Gelber, to write these programs. So we went, and went around Europe as well, interviewing various people who were involved in diplomacy at the time, and then went to Sarajevo itself.
And I later, after writing this hour of television, which was very well received, and the heart of it was the Market Massacre, which I mentioned, of ’94, it won an Emmy and various other things, it got a lot of attention, in the wake of that I wrote a series of articles, quite long articles, for the New York Review of Books , I think 11 in total, and it came to probably, I don’t know, 100,000 words. It was a lot of reporting.
You ask about the impact. I mean, it’s very hard to judge what the impact of anything is, I think.There was no lack of coverage of the Balkans at the time, and people were aware of it. I think maybe one useful aspect of the writing I did was I tried to pull together a situation that was very complicated and to make it comprehensible. And I had, thanks to Robert Silvers at the New York Review of Books, the space to do that.
I also did a lot of writing about Srebrenica in particular, because I thought Srebrenica was extremely important, since it was this single example of a massacre, a planned genocide, if you want to call it that, certainly a planned massacre, that was just planned very minutely, carried out with great skill and
dispatch. About 8,000 people, probably, maybe a few fewer than that, were killed in a couple days.And that’s very hard to do, very. So I thought this event was extremely important, and very complicated.
But I don’t know the impact.It’s a good question. I mean, anyone writing about these matters, and particularly from the perspective of American foreign policy, has to cope with, or at least confront a central aspect of U.S. politics, which is amnesia. I mean, even before you get to amnesia there’s the general aspect of disinterest on the part of…or lack of interest, I should say, on the part of a large part of the American public, that Americans, in general, aren’t that interested in foreign policy unless it affects them very directly, unless it’s a war where people they know are being injured or killed or put at risk.
And Americans weren’t particularly interested in the Balkans.It was a very complicated war, very far away. There were various references — Warren Christopher made one — to a war far away of which we know little that inevitably brought back Chamberlain’s line about Czechoslovakia during the run-up to the Second World War. But this was the case, that most Americans didn’t know about it, weren’t that interested in it. It was much debated among the elite.
So I think you have to cope with the fact that very few people know much, and then, what I said a moment ago, American amnesia. That is, there is a capacity or an ability to forget these things very quickly, so that in living memory, you can write about this and then be shocked to discover George W. Bush, for example, in the wake of 9/11, during the run-up to Iraq, arguing that the United States is a friend of Muslims. Why are we a friend of Muslims? Because we saved them during the Balkan Wars.
And anybody who’s covered the Balkan Wars knows that the Muslim world has a very different impression. The United States intervened only after three years of war, and after a hundred to two hundred thousand dead. But it becomes possible for an American leader to say this largely — he could say it with a straight face largely because nobody remembers. So there is this lack of memory.
We’ve seen similar references during the Arab Spring back to the U.S. and how much it helped Muslims during the Balkan Wars. Americans don’t know that the U.S. was a key supporter of Mubarak.There are all of these things that just…it’s not because it’s not in the press; it is in the press. It’s just that there is, in general, a lack of interest and a lack of familiarity with U.S. foreign policy.
And Americans also have the impression that the United States gives massive amounts of foreign aid.It’s a truism of public opinion surveys that if you ask Americans how much does the U.S. give in aid, they will always choose this phenomenally large number, like a quarter of the U.S. budget is foreign aid or something, whereas it’s less than — obviously, as you know, less than 1%.So you have these preconceptions that distort the value of public opinion, because Americans don’t know much, and what they do know, they have forgotten, very often.
So the impact of writing on the Balkans, or the Balkan Wars themselves, I don’t know. I would say, as I’ve tried to suggest, that the major impact really had to do with its effect on the elite of the country.And you’ve seen it most recently with Obama and some of his senior aids when it comes to decisions
I mean, it’s been reliably reported, and I certainly believe it, that Srebrenica has loomed in their minds. If that’s true, I think it’s somewhat unfortunate, because I think the parallels aren’t very specific at all.Srebrenica was a safe area, it was guarded by the UN, it was during a long war.Benghazi was not a safe area, there were not international forces there.
On the other hand, it’s quite possible that there would have been a massacre in Benghazi if the West hadn’t intervened, if NATO hadn’t intervened, and that poses the question pretty starkly, the same question that the U.S. was facing in the Balkans in the early ’90s, which is, well, 20 years later, if there could be a massacre in Benghazi, does the U.S. have an obligation, and do its NATO allies have an obligation, to do something to prevent it? And I think it’s a difficult question.
And Obama answered it by saying yes, we do. Particularly if our NATO allies will take the lead, we’ll make it possible for them to take the lead and we’ll stop this. But you see the consequences. One of the consequences is you get into a war the end of which you don’t know. And a second consequence, just for the United States domestically, is that the administration has taken the position that these are not hostilities, therefore they don’t need the approval of Congress, which I think is a laughable argument, but they’re taking it in all seriousness.
So this has had consequences for congressional power and the balance of power
between the executive and Congress, a debate that goes back to Vietnam, in particular in the War Powers Resolution of ’73. So who knew that we would end up there? It’s a strange consequence, but an important one.
Q: You’ve talked about the role of the press and about the American public and misconceptions to be challenged, and the role of the press, and your surprise at seeing journalists not contradicting what could be presented as reasons to intervene. What triggers your interest in writing a story?
A: In writing a story?
A: I think it’s a difficult question, and we’re back to does one answer a question with some kind of facts or do you simply reconstruct an answer. I don’t know. The Balkans, I was at The New Yorker. I was a staff writer at The New Yorker, and I was invited by an acquaintance to come to Bosnia to write for ABC News. I hadn’t written for television before, so I was interested in doing that. Would I have gone to the Balkans otherwise? I’m not sure. But an opportunity cropped up, and I took it.
I think I began writing about Iraq during the run-up to the war in part because I was astonished at all of the disinformation and the fact that the country seemed to be, to me, in a kind of furor, in a way, in which arguments that were very weak or misleading were taken as true. And I was first of all surprised, then shocked, then outraged by this.
And I got into the first big discussion about the upcoming Iraq war in August of 2002 with Christopher Hitchens. We were both at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and we were both doing public things. I was interviewing…I think I was there for McNamara. No, I think that was the next year I interviewed McNamara for “Fog of War,” for Errol Morris’s movie that was just coming out. That year I
was there actually talking about the Balkans. There was a movie called “No Man’s Land” about the Balkans, and its director was there, and my job was to interview him. And Christopher was there doing a dialogue with Michael Moore, I think.
Anyway, we got into an argument — a discussion and then an argument. And again, this is the end of August, so Vice President Cheney probably had just spoken to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He gave this famous speech — it was really the beginning of the argument for the Iraq war — in which he said, put briefly, there is no doubt that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. There’s a famous film clip from that speech.
And Christopher essentially argued that we’re going to attack Iraq, it’s going to happen, and I support it, he said. And he claimed he had inside information that the Iraqi nuclear program was up and running, and he made all these claims. And I was surprised at his vehemence and also at the weakness of his argument, and we had a very, I’m sure for the others at the table, a rather boring but quite heated discussion at dinner one night about it. And that was the beginning of the discussion about Iraq, for me.
And we later, in January, Christopher and I did a debate about the Iraq war at Zellerbach Hall at Berkeley. About 3,000 people, and I think we turned away another thousand. It was a very large event. And this was a couple of months before the war began. And we did a series of debates. We did another in L.A. at the Wiltern Theatre, which Michael Ignatieff also took part in. He was Christopher’s second on the side of the war, and my second was Robert Scheer against it, so we were four people, which ran live on CSPAN. That was about four days before the war began.
So the reason I started writing about that was really, as I say, surprise and shock at the level of the debate. And shock, I guess, that the U.S. public could be swept by kind of war fever. I mean, to me…I suppose I believe, if I had to state it clearly or starkly, probably too starkly, that you don’t go to war unless you’re about to be attacked or have been attacked, that war is a last resort, with one exception, as we were just discussing — if, indeed, a genocide is going on, and very large numbers of civilians are being killed. Those are simple principles, and they become
rapidly much more complicated, but they’re simple.
And it seemed to me incontestable that Iraq, that that was a mistake. Not only did I think you don’t go to war with a country that hasn’t attacked you, I also thought, in a more practical way, that this war would be a disaster, that Iraq was an extremely complicated place full of sectarian tensions.
And I remember having a discussion with George Packer, again in January 2003, so about three and a half months before the war began, at a private dinner party — we were part of the same reading group in New York — in which I was arguing with him and saying, what about the sectarian tensions in the country, blah-blah-blah, and he was very much for the war.So I thought it was a very bad idea.
And I think partly my other reporting contributed to this, that Haiti, in particular, even though Haiti and Iraq are nothing like one another, they did have some strange parallels — a very long dictatorship, a dysfunctional political system, a dictator in Saddam Hussein who was a product of that dysfunction, not a reason for it. The assumption in the United States was, well, you get rid of the dictator and everything will be fine, which I thought a ridiculous point of view.
And I think people who believed this in the administration, particularly in the Defense Department, were people who looked at Eastern Europe as the model, that, gee, as soon as you removed these terrible Soviet backed regimes, freedom broke out all over. So democracy and freedom are the default condition of humanity, and if you just remove the bad people at the top of these regimes, everything will be fine, which, again, is a kind of puerile way of thinking.
And the Iraqi regime was, as I say, in a sense a kind of expression of a very deeply troubled polity in which 20% of the population, the Sunnis, were ruling over the majority of Shi’a.So I thought it would be extremely bloody and terrible, and it would go on a long time, and I also thought, from the geo strategic point of view, or geopolitical point of view, that one of the consequences would be bad for the U.S. It would be you’d end up with a Shi’a majority, Iran sympathetic regime, which is exactly what’s happened, and was fairly predictable.So that’s what got me interested in Iraq.
And the New York Review sent me over several times to report on it. And it was a fascinating place to report, although very hard to cover because it was so violent, and because for a certain amount of time, particularly around 2004-2005, there was a major, you know, as soon as you crossed into Iraq you became a kind of commodity worth about a million dollars to kidnapers, which meant that the actual logistics of covering the war became very complicated. You needed an armored vehicle and various other things. But it was a fascinating place to work.
Q: Tell me about a day trying to do your work from the ground in Iraq.
A: Well, I can tell you a particular day that I can think of offhand when I was there in 2003. That is the fall.It was a fascinating time to be in Iraq because essentially it was the moment when the Americans sort of had to admit that there was an insurgency going on. It was a moment of transformation where the Bush Administration and Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, in particular, had been arguing that these were dead-enders.
The people who were staging attacks on American forces were simply dead-enders, remnants of Saddam’s regime. And by late October of 2003, the so-called Ramadan Offensive, which is when I was there, the frequency of the attacks, and especially their coordination, made it undeniable that there was a real insurgency.
And I’m thinking in particular of several days at the end of October 2003 in which you had coordinated attacks. There was one set of attacks in which the Al Rashid Hotel was attacked with a rocket launcher, this amazing thing where the insurgents simply drove up. They were right underneath an American guard post, machine gun.
The Al Rashid is a very tall hotel in the Green Zone. And they drove up with a…it was a pickup truck with a generator trailer behind it, which is very common, since electricity was so bad in the capital at the time, and they drove up right under the guard post, sort of turned the trailer in a particular direction, opened it up, and then ran away, and the trailer started shooting these rockets out. They had clearly aligned it in some way beforehand, and it successfully attacked the hotel and killed one military officer and wounded a bunch of people.
Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the so-called architect of the Iraq war, was in the Al Rashid at the time, and in fact the rockets came very close to his room, within a room or two of his. The Americans claimed, of course, that it had nothing to do with Paul Wolfowitz, and he was not in danger. It was completely not true. But that was the first attack of the Ramadan Offensive, and the following day you had five…
I was on my way to interview an American general, a kind of coup, because she had not been interviewed before, and so I was there very early trying to get to her, driving with my driver on the way, and suddenly — it was maybe seven in the morning — the car just sort of leapt off the ground. And it was an explosion that was very close that I didn’t even really hear because it was so loud, if that makes any sense. But your hearing starts to come back and you hear…I remember hearing the windows kind of tinkling in their sashes, the windows on the street, and seeing this enormous ball of, plume of oily smoke, black smoke coming up behind the row of buildings.
And we raced toward it, and arrived at this enormous fire, where you could see the orange flames were maybe 15, 20 feet in the air, and in the middle of these orange flames was the frame of an SUV, of a four-wheel drive vehicle, which was the suicide bomb that had driven up. It was, I found out later, the Red Cross, office of the Red Cross, killed about 12 people, so there were bodies all around. And we were virtually the first on the scene. There we were.And this car had — I think it was…it was an ambulance, I believe, simply drove up to the gate, blew itself up, and killed these 12 people.
And this essentially was part of the strategy of the insurgents, among other things, to isolate the American effort. And one of the consequences was all of the NGOs moved out of the country, that was it.There had already been…at that point there had been two attacks on the United Nations, one of
which killed Sergio De Mello, a wonderful diplomat who I had met in the Balkans as well, and he was killed, that was in August. But this was October.
So that attack, which I sort of witnessed, I mean, I saw the immediate aftermath and was very near the explosion just by happenstance, was the first of five that day.There were five suicide bombings in one day.The other ones targeted police stations. But this was the first — even though this became commonplace in the Iraq war, these multiple suicide bombings, and indeed, one month, you know, you started to have an average of two or three a day.
I mean, it’s incredible, when you look back on it, in the worst days of 2004, 2005. This was the first day of multiple attacks, and it was shocking, and exciting as well.You’re suddenly in the middle of a kind of new kind of warfare that’s fought…asymmetric warfare that’s fought with IEDs, improvised explosive devices, VBIDs, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, all of these terms the American military has.But this was, in a sense, the launch of it. And the Americans were still denying that it was happening, but in fact it was happening.
And it’s proved to be an extremely effective form of warfare.I mean, you have this enormously complex, enormously expensive army, which takes ten…well, in Afghanistan, $10 billion a month to deploy, and against it are essentially these homemade bombs which, I mean, I remember seeing one that we recovered when I was on a patrol a couple years later in Iraq, and it’s an artillery shell, of which there were millions in Iraq, with duct tape secured to the base of a mobile phone, the kind of phone you use in your house that you can walk around with, and taped together. And then you take the ear piece of the phone, what you talk into, and somebody’s standing up in the building and they simply press a button and blow it up. That’s a line of sight. But they’re extremely simple, they’re very cheap, and they’re very effective.
So on that day, that particular day, by about 7:30, standing in front of this burning car and all these bodies, and then went and interviewed this particular general, who was the chief of intelligence in Iraq, who was fascinating, who, among other things, said to me — I remember this interview very well — she said, you know…I said, what do you do to stop this stuff?
And she’s the intelligence person and she said, we could stop it in an instant, are you kidding?It’s no problem in stopping it. I could stop it just like that. And I said, what do you mean?She said the problem isn’t stopping it, the problem is not shutting down the city. If you want the city to operate, these things will happen.We could impose martial law and stop this tomorrow, and we have the forces here to do it, but that isn’t an option. It’s not an option to impose martial law.The city has to operate, and so we have to try to deal with this individually.
And of course one of the effects of this kind of warfare is, and at the heart of this kind of warfare you’re trying to provoke the occupying forces to respond in a bloody way.The whole point is to…it’s not simply to kill Americans. That’s not the point.The point is — and I remember the same month, out near Fallujah, kind of a cloverleaf traffic, you know, cloverleaf, Fallujah, finding a tractor-trailer truck, and in the tractor-trailer truck was the body of the driver, who had been shot.
And then down underneath the cloverleaf was another truck that had been blown up and a body in it, and the Americans had been attacked by an IED there. I shouldn’t say it was a truck, it was a Jeep, a Humvee, had been blown up.There was a roadside bomb.
And the Americans, the others who hadn’t been killed, got out of their vehicles and started just shooting at the buildings, because they were convinced, and they were probably right, that the person who had blown up the bomb was in the buildings. So they started “hosing” it, as they said, using their automatic weapons and simply shooting. And they probably killed 20 people or whatever, killed some, wounded others.
And those people, as the insurgents knew, have families, and once someone in your family is killed or wounded by an American, it’s your obligation to go kill and wound an American. And the more you do that, the more you get the Americans to respond, the more insurgents you get.That’s how you build the movement.
So the movement relies on provocation. It relies on provoking the occupying forces to kill civilians, or to, in another move, the Americans could just as easily have surrounded that neighborhood and gone door-to-door, which they often did, kicking down doors, confiscating weapons, taking anybody in those houses who was a male between the ages of 14 and 50 or 60, and sending them to Abu Ghraib, which is what often was done as well.
And the idea was not just punishment, but we don’t know who the insurgents are, we don’t know how to fight them, how do we get intel? Well, one way is to send these people to Abu Ghraib and interrogate them. Now, out of every hundred sent to Abu Ghraib, maybe one person knew something worth knowing.But the whole machinery of interrogation was completely overwhelmed by these huge numbers.
So that also worked to the insurgents’ advantage, because you have your father or your brother in Abu Ghraib, you’re much more inclined to fight in the insurgency yourself. So there was a certain dynamic there, a dynamic of provocation, that was very effective.And it succeeded, also, in putting the occupying forces on a hair trigger feeling of alert in which they shot first and asked questions later.I mean, there were just a huge number of Iraqis who were killed because they didn’t
understand the directions that were being given to them as they drove up to a checkpoint.
I remember being at the Baghdad airport once, and I think this was 2005, and a colleague came up. I didn’t really know him, but he worked, I think, for NBC News, and he was pale.He was just coming into the airport.And he told me a story.
He had been in this convoy, or he had been driving to the airport, and a military convoy sort of went around them, a line of Humvees, and there was a van in front with an Iraqi driver, and this guy, this all happened in front of this guy’s eyes, and the American in the Humvee just — pkkw! — just shot him because the guy was not moving out of the way. And who knows whether he heard them, who knows? And the van just kind of — rr-rr — and went to the side, and the guy was dead. And the last image this TV producer had was the trunk of the guy’s body leaning out of the van. He’d just been shot through the car.
And that happened a lot.And there’s a logic to it. It’s not that the Americans were brutal.It’s more that any car that got close, particularly on the airport road, which was extremely dangerous at a certain point, could have been a car bomb, and they got close and people shot them. And this, again, worked very much to the advantage of the insurgents. I remember another point near…we were at a vehicle checkpoint on the road, also the western road, the one to Fallujah, and we were standing there waiting.
I remember the pilgrims, the retired SAS guys who did security for — I was with CBS News at that point — saying, “VCPs, VCPs,” vehicle checkpoints. We’re in this line just waiting while people were checking cars. And suddenly we heard a huge explosion, and a bunch of Humvees that were in front of us, these Jeeps, sort of went running in that direction, and we jumped in the car as well and went running in that direction.
And by the time we got there, it was maybe…not anything more than a mile away, same road, there were a scattering of vehicles, vehicles that had just driven by us, that had been shot up, SUVs, and there were several bodies, people who had been shot and killed, all civilians, and there were these Jeeps that had just come up.
And the survivors said this American convoy had been going by, an explosion happened nearby, an IED went off, and the Americans, they turned to the side and they saw these civilians in cars, one of them was talking on a cell phone, and they just shot them all. And these were mostly…they were Americans, Canadians. They were not Iraqis. And a couple of them, as I say, had survived.
And by the time we got to them, the original shooters, the Americans who had shot them, were gone. This happened extremely quickly — boom. And the Americans who were on the scene pulling security, there was shooting coming from the tree line, from insurgents in the tree line that were shooting.The Americans who were there who had just arrived hadn’t actually been in the original…you know, were not the shooters.
Anyway, this is a complicated story and I’ll try to end it quickly, but I spent several days trying to find the original Americans who had shot these people, because I wanted to know what exactly had happened. It happened, really, almost within sight of us.And I eventually…it became extremely difficult to track down who these people were.
I remember one guy, one American military planner saying to me…we were looking at a map trying to figure out what unit would have been there, and he said, “Oh, you know what you’re dealing here? You’re dealing with an IBU.This is a whole IBU situation.”You know the military loves to abbreviate, you know, those kind of abbreviations. IBU. And I said, “IBU problem? What’s an IBU problem?” Itty-bitty unit problem. Itty-bitty unit problem, meaning that there are these large AORs, areas of responsibility, for large units and then these little units go around patrolling. So I had this IBU.
I eventually found this guy, this lieutenant, who had been part of the original people, and I interviewed him. And all he knew, he didn’t even realize they were civilians or who they were or anything else. All he knew is he heard an explosion and they opened fire. These people were next to them and they opened fire. Why were they next to them? Simply because they happened to be next to them, that’s all.And so…and he told me this at some length.
I remember this guy really well because he was an amazing guy. His name was Todd Bryant, actually. And I was interviewing him on film about this particular incident. And someone was jeering him from off camera, saying, “It’s great you’re interviewing this guy. You know, Todd, man, the L-T, man” — he was a lieutenant. Young guy, he was probably 22. “It’s good you’re interviewing him, because you know who he is. He’s the fucking IED magnet. He’s a fucking IED magnet.” By which they meant that every time he went out on patrol, an IED would hit their patrol. He’s an IED magnet. And he was apparently notorious for this, that always…
And I said to this guy Todd, who was this young guy, beautiful, you know, West Point, probably 22 or whatever, sleepy face, kind of puffy eyes. I remember his face very well. He said to me…I said, “What does that mean you’re an IED…?” He said, “Ah, they just mean that we’re attacked every time I’m out.” And I said, “How do you feel about that? I mean, are you fatalistic about it? I mean, if you’re attacked every time, if you go on enough patrols, eventually you’re going to get hit.”
And these things cause the most grievous injuries, you know, you lose legs, you lose arms, you have extreme mental trauma, brain trauma because of the concussion of the explosion. And I said, “Well, how do you think about it?Are you fatalistic about it or what?” And he looked at me like I was a complete idiot, you know, I had no idea. He looked at me across this kind of gulf, like I was just not in his world at all. And in a certain way, even though I was in the same place, I would never be part of it.
And he sort of paused, he looked at me kind of pityingly, in a way, and then he said, “Hey, you know, this is war. We shoot at them, they shoot at us. We shoot at them, they shoot at us. Sometimes they shoot better than we do.” And I was there, and the cameraman, too, and we were both kind of like…There was something about the way he said it that was so stark and that…I don’t know, just like you’re right, we don’t get it.
Well, the sort of coda to the story is I got back — this is one of the last things I did on that particular trip and I got back to the U.S. and I got an email at a certain point with his name on the thing and I thought, oh shit, you know, I’m getting a note saying when is this going to run, when is this going to air, and
I knew it probably wouldn’t air, it wasn’t part of the thing, probably.
And I clicked on it and it turned out to be from his father, and he had just been…he was killed two days later, I think, but he was killed shortly afterward, and the father wanted the tape of the interview, which I was able to get him, I was happy to say. Although I thought, what is he going to think when he sees that particular quotation. And he later…the New York Times op-ed page a couple of times published letters from soldiers, and a couple of times his, or once, I think, his were among them, Todd Bryant, so…
Yeah, anyway, those people, I’ll tell you, you know, you’re in this…when you think what they were doing, which is basically, you know, these guys go out on patrol several times a day sometimes — they go out on night patrol, they go out on day patrol, they’re under enormous stress, they’re very busy — and they’re going out on patrols the point of which is essentially to engage the enemy. And you’re engaging the enemy essentially by being blown up. And you look around, you closely survey the ground and try to…any bag that you see or a dead animal or whatever, any of that can be an IED.
I remember I was in [Dora], which is in southern Baghdad, south of Baghdad, on a patrol in, I think it was, 2005, and I was in a Bradley, an armored vehicle. You can’t see very well out of them. But we stopped and there was a garbage bag lying on the ground in front. And the main way, by that time, the troops had sort of, were able to detect something was going to happen, very often streets were deserted.
You’d be driving along and suddenly there’s a deserted street, and it’s like, hm, something’s happening here. And in fact there’s this kind of, this sort of garbage bag blowing in the wind up there, it was quite small, and a couple of guys got out with their…they had, by this time, these kind of mirrors, these telescoping mirrors that they could prod something with.
So they went out, and I’m watching and taking notes or whatever, and they’re kind of prodding things. And this little kid walks up in a track suit, like about three feet tall, you know, it’s probably an eight-year-old or something like that. And you can’t hear, you can just see. And they start talking to this little kid, bending over, sort of talking to him and pointing to this thing. And then both soldiers start laughing, they both are cracking up.
And they come back to the vehicle and I said, “What did the kid say?”And the kid’s still standing there. And this guy said, I offered the kid a dollar if he’d pick up the bag. I said to the kid, what is this, and he said I have no idea, and I said was it here earlier, and he said I don’t know, it might have been, I’m not sure, or whatever. And I said, well, you have no idea what’s in it? He said, I don’t know, garbage, whatever. And then I said I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll pick it up, and the kid said, I’m not going to pick it up, that’s a fuckin’ bomb! [laughs] So they both cracked up, you know. It’s like only by offering him the dollar did they actually get information.
And then, by that time, what would happen was the street was then cut off. They’d put…these armored vehicles had barbed wire wrapped around the back, so they would take barbed wire and cut off both ends of the street. And at that point they actually had these units that came with these little robots. So I remember this particular incident because I was standing there sort of with a notebook kind of watching, and the robot goes down there and you’re watching to see what happens.
And I remember it because the robot…the robot usually detonates it, but on some occasions it can actually find the wire and cut it and disarm it, which is quite unusual, at least it was at that point. And it did, indeed, snip it and disarm it.
And I remember hearing — I was watching and hearing from behind me, at that moment, this kind of groan from behind me. And I turned around and there were these probably ten soldiers, like arranged as if they were a shooting squad behind one another, all of them with digital cameras. Like everybody was standing there with a camera about to take a photograph of the exploding IED, and so
they all groaned because they weren’t going to get the picture.
So yeah, it’s a heavily photographed war, you know, everybody…the age of digital
cameras. Anyway, blah.It seems like a long time ago.
Q: You talk about the stress that the military [are under], and told us stories about bodies dismembered and attacks and how chaotic it can be on the ground.How do you cope with that?
A: I think that the soldiers who are at direct risk day after day are under, or were under, and are, I’m sure, in Afghanistan as well, under a lot of stress because of the kind of warfare it is.I’m not saying they’re…I’m sure there are all sorts of other kinds of warfare under which people suffer enormous stress as well, obviously.But we’re talking about a kind of asymmetric warfare that really relies on these explosions that do cause catastrophic injury of the sort…indeed, it costs people limbs, and very
often brain damage.
And I think that is enormously stressful, that kind of warfare.Is it more stressful than sitting through artillery barrages in the First World War, in which, indeed, if your number was up, your number was up? I don’t know. But I think it is, at least I certainly perceived, when I was with soldiers who, in general, were very impressive — and it’s a big word, but — in their competency.
The American military in Iraq seemed to me, unit by unit, quite impressive — well organized, competent. Not necessarily the leadership, and certainly not the political leadership.I think that the soldiers were especially impressive when compared to how they were led. I don’t mean unit by unit.I’m talking about at the top.
But as far as stress on…you know, I was there. I made several trips to Iraq, and I was, on certain patrols and so on felt fear, but also a mix of excitement as well, seeing what was going on. But apprehension oftentimes just driving in traffic in Baghdad, not with the military, but in civilian cars, and hoping that people wouldn’t recognize me as a foreigner during the time that there were a lot of kidnappings. That was somewhat stressful just because the…you have physical fear yourself, but also what something like that would do to your family and to colleagues and so on. It’s just an awful prospect.So that worried me to some degree.
But on the other hand, I was there in a few widely separated trips.I mean, there were correspondents who were there every day working all the time who I’m sure had those sorts of apprehensions to a much greater degree. So, I mean, I was quite conscious of the fact that sometimes I was fearful, but in general, the odds were with me. I mean, I wasn’t there all the time.
I mean, it was dangerous, but it wasn’t…you do everything you can to reduce the odds of danger, and you hope that if something does happen to you, people won’t be saying afterwards that he was stupid or he made some stupid mistake. The fact is, though, that you are frequently in the position of making decisions about things when you simply don’t have enough information. You just don’t know. And you have certain instincts about whether things are safe or not.
And there are also…I went, a couple times I went under the kind of auspices or collegial help of CBS News because of my friend David Gelber who was then at “60 Minutes,” moved from ABC back to “60 Minutes,” so you also benefit from their security people. And they employed people. Mostly they were retired SAS Brits, professional soldiers who are very smart and very cautious, so you have their
expertise and advice, and on some occasions physical protection.And later I went and stayed with theNew York Times, who also have very able security teams.So you have a lot of support and a lot of help.
My experience, in general, in reporting in places that are dangerous is that you don’t, at least I don’t, tend to feel fear at the moment of something happening.You might later feel stressed or shocked or in some way affected, but not at that moment. The times I’ve felt most apprehensive in reporting have usually been in crowds. For example, in Haiti, where you’re in a large group of people that soldiers suddenly start shooting at, and you feel that you might be trampled. Things like that. That can be very worrying.
Or times in Haiti…I actually remember right after the American occupation in ’90…when was that, ’94, I think, sort of attachés, ex-Duvalierists who were supporting the government, the Raul Cedras government, the coup government in ’94 were shooting people and were shooting…you know, there were these armed confrontations on the street. And you’re among these people being shot at, and again it’s completely arbitrary that you might get hit. And that is somewhat
But again, the odds are very much with you. And I’m very much a sometime reporter. I’m not somebody who is stationed in Iraq or the Balkans, for that matter, every day, for whom the risks are much, much greater. And in these places, in Iraq a fair number of people were killed, mostly Iraqis, of course, of reporters, but a fair number of reporters were killed.
So I guess your question is about dealing with stress.I don’t really think it’s a major part of my life when reporting on those things. I think the more difficult psychological things have had to do with policies that the government has undertaken that — [laughs] — from the Iraq war on, really, that have tended to shame me. I’ve felt certain things that my country has done in, oh, certainly in post 9/11 America certain decisions it’s made, its leaders have made, that I have found very hard to cope with. I thought the Iraq war, as I mentioned, was a very great mistake, a mistake of policy.
Even more I think the decision to torture detainees was a severe mistake.And that, I think, has been somewhat stressful simply because I…the first writing I ever did that could be described as on human rights issues was when I was in college.I met, when I was a senior at Harvard College, a man named Robert Cox, who had been the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald.He was a Nieman Fellow.
And the Nieman Foundation at Harvard very often will, in a sense, welcome journalists who have gotten into difficult situations abroad and have had to flee. Benigno Aquino, for example, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, the political leader in the Philippines who was later assassinated when he returned to his country, and whose widow became president, Corazon Aquino.
And Robert Cox had been the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, which was an English language newspaper that actually published the names of the disappeared. It was the only newspaper in Argentina that, you know, someone would disappear, the Spanish language newspapers, the big papers, ignored it, just didn’t write about it at all, and Bob would actually run articles — not always, but often. And I think there was a perception that the paper, because it was English language, because of certain connections, that it was protected.
And at the time — this was in the late ’70s — and so the so-called dirty wars were going on in the southern cone of Latin America, and I was quite interested in these. And in retrospect those wars are an example of certain things. One is terror provoking counter-terror, because they were wars that you had certainly guerilla groups, terrorist groups, guerilla groups using terror, whatever you’d like to call them, like the Tupemaros, for example, and others, both in Argentina and Uruguay and elsewhere, and then governments responding with counter-terror, if you want to call it that, including intelligence operations, large-scale kidnappings, disappearances, use of torture. So you had this dynamic in a very kind of pure form.
And this was the time when Jacobo Timerman, the editor of La OpiniÃ³n in Argentina, was arrested, disappeared, tortured, and wrote a book, a very controversial book, called Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, which is a classic account of torture.
So I had learned that Robert Cox, having been the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, one day he received, by his account, an envelope that had five sheets of paper in it, each of which had this strange diagram, different diagrams. And he looked at them and looked at them and looked at them and finally realized that they were diagrams of the routes his five children took to school, which has always struck me as a particularly effective form of sending a message.
Shortly thereafter, very shortly thereafter, the entire family came to Cambridge, and he became a Nieman Fellow. And I learned he was there, I forget through whom, but called him up and arranged to have lunch with him. And I remember he told me you’ll recognize me, I’m carrying an “aluminium” briefcase, an “aluminium” briefcase. It was such a funny pronunciation, I’ll never forget it. Anyway, we became friends, and I came to like him very much, and met Anthony Lewis through him and various other people there.
But I did a piece, as a result, for a class, this class in the law school, actually, for Lloyd Weinreb — this is when I was a senior — that was about the dirty war. And I mention it at such length because I remember, I think that piece was the first time I came across el submarino, you know, the submarine, which is a torture technique that has come to be better known as waterboarding. So I wrote this article, and this would have been 1981, so 30 years ago.
And I would never have dreamed, at that point, that I would ever be writing about these issues not only as perpetrated by Americans and by the U.S. government —and of course one can’t be naÃ¯ve here, I mean, the U.S. has been involved in torture in various ways, and indeed, had some involvement in the dirty war, although that is a complicated question, not an easy one.And the U.S. certainly had involvement in interrogations in Salvador, for example, which I wrote about in The Massacre at El Mozote.
But I never would have anticipated that the United States would not only use waterboarding as a policy, but because of various quirks of history, would make it officially approved policy. That is, have the entire panoply of legal support within the government, including legal decisions issued under the authority of the Attorney General, that described at length, waterboarding and other techniques and identified them as legally permissible tools of interrogation.
Which I think is, you know, the current era, and this current period in which torture has been used by the American government, beginning in 2001, 2002, is striking not simply for the use of torture, but that the U.S. went through this internal process, elaborate internal process, by which all of its legal resources — or I shouldn’t say all of it — but the legal resources of the country were used to
approve these techniques and declare them legal.
Which means, among other things, that as we sit here, ten years later, torture has gone from being a kind of anathema, as it was when I wrote that piece, even though the U.S. may sometimes, through the CIA or whatever perpetrator it may be, or train others to do it, to being, in effect, a policy choice, to being something that can be ordered because it’s had official approval.
And as we sit here, President Obama, of course, those legal permissions were withdrawn, some of them under President Bush and now under President Obama. But Obama, when he went and accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 2009, one of the big applause lines was the need for the U.S. to follow accepted guidelines on human rights; that’s why I prohibited torture, he said, and everybody applauded. And I found this to be a remarkable statement since, of course, he did prohibit torture when he came into office, and said that any interrogation must conform to the field manual of the military, which was rewritten in 2006 explicitly to forbid these techniques, so in effect he forbade them.
But at the same time, he can’t prohibit torture. Torture is prohibited by the convention against torture, to which the U.S. is a signatory, and by federal statute that was passed to put that into American law. So he lacks the power to forbid torture or to prohibit torture. I mean, torture is prohibited.And to me
that statement was a kind of affirmation of the same assertion of power by his predecessor.
Bush had asserted the power to order it, he’s asserting the power to prohibit it, and obviously those are two different things, particularly if you’re the person being tortured. It makes a difference to not do it. On the other hand, both of them assert that there is a presidential prerogative to do this, and I think
that is a highly significant change that we’re still living with, that the U.S. is still living with.
So when it comes to questions of stress or whatever in reporting, the reporting I’ve done that’s arguably war reporting or whatever, to me has always been, in a sense, interesting, intriguing, absorbing, exciting, sometimes frightening, although usually, if you feel that, it doesn’t happen until afterwards, at least in my experience. And there are a lot of people who have done a lot more of it than I have — John Burns at the New York Times, the great war reporter. I mean, a lot of people have done it all over the world. I’ve done a relatively small amount of it.
But I think the more stressful kind of writing I’ve done has to do with things like torture, for example, in which you kind of feel not only…on the one hand you want to report clearly what’s happened, and you believe that that’s important. And the writing I’ve done on this I think is important, and writing about the Red Cross report, for example, which I think is important. And it’s important to put out and make readily available clear descriptions of what was done, and to be precise about that. I think it’s extremely important.
But I also feel, at the same time, I think, with this story, unlike any other, a kind of shame about what it is I’ve reported. Shame just as an American. Because I think these decisions have been catastrophically mistaken. And I do feel, you know…I mean, it’s very telling that…the case of Maher Arar is a good example of a case where…you know, it was essentially a case of mistaken identity. I mean, it’s complicated. Obviously it’s a very complicated case one can talk about, but it comes down to getting the wrong guy and then sending him to Syria to be tortured.
And to me what’s important is the difference in treatment, that in Canada eventually an investigation was held, a white paper was put together, an apology was issued, a payment was made, a very substantial payment for damages. And that doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t erase what was done at
all. But it comes as close as probably you can to righting what was done. And in the United States he can’t get into court, he can’t get a hearing in court.And I think that is shameful, just shameful.
So we are, and we like to think we’re in the period of aftermath of these things. And in fact, in my opinion, they’re still…we’re still in the actual period of them because there is a question. President Obama, whose campaign I covered, and for whom I have a lot of respect, has said, has used the phrase frequently, “we have to look forward, not back.” And he uses this when he talks about not prosecuting interrogators, or not bringing cases against policy-makers, and in general not
revisiting these issues.
But I think there’s a real question of whether it is possible to look forward and not back. I think that construction is somewhat questionable. Can you really, in a sense, simply change policy and bracket a certain period in the nation’s history and say, well, you know, mistakes were made in the bureaucratic construction?
On the other hand, if you are going to prosecute or do anything, who do you prosecute? Which is, again, another complicated problem here, because these decisions, it’s very clear — and if it weren’t clear by the documents, it’s now clear from the memoirs, including President Bush’s, that these decisions were ordered at the highest level, that you had the political leadership of the country ordering people to be tortured. And again, that’s a matter of record. Okay, so you have that.
And those people, when asked, or freely say, as Bush does in his memoir, we asked our lawyers and we were told…we got the best legal advice that said this was legal. And of course he’s right. They did get legal advice that said it was legal. Now, you can say, well, actually, that was crap and they were telling them what they wanted to hear, blah-blah, or you can say whatever.
But in fact they did get these documents that said this stuff’s legal, don’t worry. So…wait, so it’s the lawyers who…? I mean, who…? So in other words, where do you…? It’s as if World War II ended and there was no invasion of Germany and you still had the Nuremberg Laws on the books, because these things were legal, right? And that’s obviously a very extreme example, but nonetheless, where is the purchase, and what do you do about it?
And I’ve argued for a commission of some kind, truth commission, truth and reconciliation commission, etc. And I was very disappointed that they decided not to do it. In fact, it became…it’s clear they never really considered it, the Obama Administration. But Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, had put forward the idea for a truth and reconciliation commission to go into these matters.
One of the problems you have, of course, is that torture has been reported on extensively, beginning in 2002, so we have a history of nine years in which we’ve known a lot about this stuff. The problem has not been in the knowledge of it. One wants to think, particularly a journalist or writer, that revelation is the key to everything. But one of the interesting things about the present era is that revelation, we’re perfectly willing, apparently, to live with the facts of this and not do anything about them, not have a completely thorough investigation and not prosecute.So we live with these facts.
And as I said, I had thought that if you had a commission modeled after the 9/11 commission, it could at least arrive at a societally agreed on narrative of events. I think the other thing that needs to be done is to have a thorough accounting of what information was gained and whether there was anything that couldn’t have been gained through other means, which is how President Obama has formulated the issue, and it is how you should formulate it.
The problem is, of course, it’s very hard to answer questions like that.How do you tell if Abu Zubaydah would have given up X, Y and Z if he hadn’t been tortured? These are historical account or factuals that are very hard to determine.You can pull forward experienced interrogators who will say, well, of course he could have, we’re against torture, and others who are for it.
But such a commission at least, I think, would begin to answer these questions and confront the real…one of the remaining problems that the society has as a result of this, which is that torture apparently is becoming more popular. If you poll people on whether the United States needs to be able to torture on certain occasions, the numbers seem to be going up in the U.S.Again, it depends
when you ask, it depends how you phrase the question and so on.
But from this fact arise a whole raft of consequences, which is that you have, in the United States now, one major political party of the two that is unabashedly pro torture, which is the Republican Party, and you have a second political party that’s kind of unsure — [laughs] — basically. So you have one pro and one kind of wishy-washy. And you have no real lobby, except for the ACLU and human rights organizations, that are against it. That’s not true entirely.I mean, there are people in Congress who care about the issue and so on, like Senator Leahy.
But as a political matter, this has become, to some degree, accepted within the U.S. that these things might be necessary, and that further feeds the lack of interest in doing anything. After President Obama was inaugurated, there was a period when the vice president, the recent Vice President Cheney, who had just left office, within ten days he began attacking the administration because they were unwilling to use these techniques, you know, right away. So you have a political dynamic surrounding this so-called human rights legal issue that’s very noxious.
And how that changes, I don’t know, because I think it arose out of an atmosphere of fear. Politicians recognize the power of fear. And getting back to the original issue of terror and terrorism, it’s very relevant here, that fear ispowerful, you know, the most lucrative emotion.
The most lucrative political emotion is fear. It’s like lighting a match. So you have this technique, terrorism, the product of which is fear.I mean, death, destruction, all these things are only a means to an end. What you’re really trying to create is fear. And if fear benefits terrorists in some way, it also — and I think this has been proved by the last decade — benefits politicians.
So, you know, you have terrorists creating fear for their own reasons, usually to provoke some kind of action — 9/11 to provoke the U.S. to attack Afghanistan, among other things, which was one of the intentions, to provoke an occupation of Afghanistan. At the same time the fear itself is quite helpful to Bush and the Republican Party, as they recognized, by the way, right away. Karl Rove, Bush’s brain, famously made a statement in January 2002 that Americans trust Republicans when the country is under threat.So torture itself is bound up in this dynamic of attack and fear.
And that is one thing that the United States has not escaped at all.As we sit here, if someone put a bunch of explosives into an SUV and drove it into Times Square and actually got it to go off and killed ten people, say, it would be a cataclysmic political event, and it would bring, in its wake, demands that people be tortured, and attacks on the administration for not being tough enough and so on.And insofar as that’s true, and the country politically remains that vulnerable — I’m not talking about militarily, but politically — this era has been deeply worrying.
And I think, in that sense, the so-called war on terror has been a failure, in that sense, that politically the country, it seems to me, is less able to deal with the consequences of an attack rationally than it was even in 2001. And that seems probably like an extreme statement, but I feel it’s true. There is such a complex of interested actors, including the press, of course, when it comes to terrorism, that the consequences are likely to be way out of proportion to the event itself. It’s as if we’ve installed a set of permanent magnifying glasses around these events, and it represents, I think, a real failure of the U.S. as a polity.
The only person who ever said anything sensible publicly as a public figure is, weirdly enough, John Kerry, who, running for president in 2004, said terrorism must become, at some point, the level of a nuisance, a recurrent nuisance.And of course he was attacked vehemently for saying such a terrible thing, but of course he’s right, that…and nuisance is not the right word, but that the country has to reach a point where an attack like this would not…would be taken, in some sense, proportionally. And I don’t think it’s come close to doing that yet.
And some of the uglier phenomena introduced by the Bush Administration, I fear, are likely to return in the event of a further attack.And I think that is very, very sad, and the consequences, even following 9/11, for the Fourth Amendment, for example, when it comes to search and seizure, when it comes to all sorts of issues of personal liberty that we thought were settled matters, have been very grave.
And the Obama Administration has, in a sense, continued this trend, it’s not reversed it. Which has been one of the more startling realities of the Obama Administration, that not only — I mean, most people point to the failure to close Guantanamo, but in fact, the administration has tended to codify a lot of things, for example, indefinite detention, that it was expected it would change or reverse.It’s essentially moved to make legal…you know, Bush set in motion a whole train of things, in a sense, on his own dime, on the premise of executive power.
And in a sense it was one of the luckier — the obsession with executive power was, in a sense, lucky for the country because he didn’t put things in place permanently, and instead asserted that he had the power — warrantless wiretapping is a good example. And Obama, in general, has moved to make these things permanent and codify them, with exceptions. But I think in that sense I’ve been quite surprised at a lot of what they’ve done and not done.
Q: You broke the Red Cross report in ?
A: The Red Cross report I published in 2009.
Q: Okay, 2009.Tell me about that experience.Tell me about that article, about its impact.
A: Well, I published an article in, I think it was, April of 2009 called “Voices from the Black Sites,” and that piece had extensive quotations from the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is empowered by international statute, by the Geneva Conventions, actually, to visit prisoners.
And representatives of the Red Cross visited 14 detainees, including fairly well-known people like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had been captured early on, after the attacks on 9/11, in Pakistan, and had been imprisoned — disappeared, in effect. They had been imprisoned in the system of secret prisons known as the black sites, and had been tortured, Abu Zubaydah being the first, probably, to be subjected to these techniques developed by the CIA. And essentially they were used first on him in the late spring and summer of 2002.
And in 2006, President Bush did a speech, September 6, 2006, from the East Room of the White House, a very wonderful speech in the sense — I say wonderful in the sense that it set out rather clearly some of the issues involving torture and enhanced interrogation. And it was a historic speech in that you had the president, from the White House, talking about enhanced interrogation just before the anniversary of 9/11. This was September 6th.And in the audience were a number of survivors, 9/11 survivors and so on, families of those who died.
And among other things, during the speech, after he defended the use of these techniques — and the speech bears reading. It’s a very fascinating document, and historic. I don’t think there’s another occasion on which a president of the United States has defended, extensively, the use of torture.
He doesn’t use that word, of course. He talks about the program and Enhanced interrogation. During that speech he announced that 14 high value detainees, HVDs, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, thought to be the mastermind of 9/11, and Abu Zubaydah, another figure associated in high levels of Al Qaeda, although there’s dissension and disagreement about what his history actually is, that they would be moved to Guantanamo, taken from the black sites and moved to Guantanamo, where they remain.
And so after they came to Guantanamo, representatives of the Red Cross visited them, interviewed them, and did a report in which they describe the techniques that had been used on them, with extensive quotations from these prisoners, who, it’s important to underline, had not had any contact with one another, so the descriptions themselves completely confirmed each other, basically.
And in this report the Red Cross said that these techniques constitute torture and shouldn’t be used — said quite explicitly that they constitute torture. This report was compiled and then given directly to the CIA through its general counsel.
And the ICRC, when it visits prisoners, it then communicates directly with the governing authority who’s holding the prisoners. So the attempt is not to publicize their situation, but rather to correct the violations of international law regarding treatment of prisoners, which, in this case, as I said, the Red Cross found there to be extreme violations of the law, including the use of torture. So this was given to the general counsel of the CIA, Mr. Rizzo, in February of 2007, if I’m not mistaken. I may be wrong about that, but I believe that’s the date.
And this document was secret.It was not made public.It had been referred to on a number of occasions, including by Jane Mayer, in a piece in The New Yorker and later in her book The Dark Side. And she had described it fairly extensively, but she hadn’t actually gotten the document itself.So later it came into my hands, and I published two articles in the New York Review of Booksabout it, and then actually published the report itself, which still can be found on that website, and which I think is an invaluable document.
In fact, I would sort of, if I had the choice, I would trade everybody reading anything I’ve ever written for a guarantee that they simply read this document, because it’s 23 pages long, very clearly written, includes extensive quotation from these prisoners, and describes in very graphic terms what was done to them. And it’s somewhat horrific to read.
It also has quite extensive descriptions of waterboarding, for example, walling, beatings, high cuffing, long-term sitting. Abu Zubaydah describes essentially being cuffed in a chair and not being allowed to move for, he thinks, about three weeks — it’s likely to have been 11 days — where he was kept awake for 11 days, we know from other supporting documents, including from the legal documents.
So this piece came out and it caused, I guess, a bit of a stir in the New York Review in April of…the first one in April of 2009. The administration, which, of course, had just taken office, the Obama Administration, subsequently released all of the legal memos that had been put together by John Yoo and other colleagues in the Department of Justice, the Office of Legal Counsel, which is essentially the kind of think tank of the Department of Justice. I mean, think tank and also, in a sense, the kind of moderator of the Justice Department. It’s kind of the place within the government where the executive branch goes to get a legal opinion, in this case a legal opinion about what kind of interrogation could be used legally.
So John Yoo, in the spring and summer of 2002, while Abu Zubaydah was being interrogated, was putting together the first of what became rather notorious memos that essentially said, yeah, waterboarding, you can do that, you can do all of these things.And those documents are justly notorious. John Yoo’s was later withdrawn and replaced with another one. Anyway, all of these…John Yoo’s document, I originally had published…it had been released earlier, but I published it in the first book I did about torture, Torture and Truth. Along with a lot of other documents, that memo had come out, and I published it.
But in the spring of 2009 the administration decided to publish all of the legal memos, and they used as reason — Rahm Emanuel, then President Obama’s chief of staff, David Axelrod, his communications director, in televised interviews, used as the reason, one reason, the publication in the New York Review of my articles about the Red Cross report, essentially saying, well, these things don’t need…you know, it doesn’t matter if these legal documents are made public now because the techniques themselves have already been public in the New York
Review of Books.
And Jon Stewart, in comedy, or what’s it called, “The Daily Show,” made fun of this, this kind of reference to the New York Review of Books. So whether or not the administration really took this into account, and whether it really was one of the reasons that they actually made public these documents, I tend to doubt.I think that this was simply one of the public excuses they made. I think they were probably going to bring the legal documents out anyway, and it became rather handy to say, well, you know, this stuff is public anyway, so we’ll…you know, it was a way to shield themselves a little bit.
But if it did play a role, I’m happy. I just wish that more people would read the document itself, because the ICRC report is extremely clear and graphic about what was done, and about the fact that what was done does constitute, under the law, under the Convention Against Torture, torture. And it’s admirably
explicit about how exactly these techniques were used. And I think it’s very hard, if you read this whole report, to then argue that these are enhanced interrogation.I just think it’s difficult to argue, in good faith, afterwards, that these things are legal.
One way to…you know, to me, if I ever encounter people who are adamant in asserting this, I ask them, you know, if you look at all these things, not just the waterboarding, but the chaining people with their hands on the ceiling for weeks at a time, hosing them down with cold water, smashing them repeatedly against the wall with a brace around their neck, beating them, and all the other things that are done, would you think, if this was done to American POWs, that this was legal under the Geneva Conventions?
A similar question was asked of then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Myer, I believe, Dick Myer, in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, and he said no, it would be illegal. And I think that’s indisputably the case. But you still have people who argue that these things are legal, and not least the former President, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense. So this is the official position these people take, although it seems to me very…I just can’t see it as credible, if you read the descriptions of what exactly was done.
Of course there comes a problem that I’ve mentioned before, which is that we’re in a situation where we know more and more about this stuff. There’s much more to be learned, of course. There’s the internal documentation and so on. But the problem isn’t knowing about it, the problem is doing something about it.
There’s a sense in which it’s not…I mean, I remember thinking this when I wrote The Massacre at El Mozote, and I said this, actually, in accepting an award for that article, originally in The New Yorker, that sometimes you realize it’s not the information, it’s the politics. Writers, journalists, have an institutional bias that, well, once we get this stuff out then it will be corrected, or something will be changed, or it’s taken as a given that secrecy of certain things are what enables them to happen.
But we are in an era now — I’ve called it the “era of frozen scandal” before — that, you know, we’re stuck. We are stuck with a refutation of that particular presumption, which is we’ve had the revelation, we know about this. The first extensive article about torture in which techniques were described appeared on the front page of the Washington Post in December, 2002. And we’ve known about this stuff for a long time, and it’s long since become impossible to argue that if people only knew about it, they’d be appalled and people would be prosecuted and it would be stopped. That’s clearly not the case.
And I’ve written about this before, that when I look back autobiographically at my
own life, I realize that I kind of came to political consciousness with the Watergate hearings of ’73-’74. I remember distinctly watching them on television, lying on the sofa in the camp I mentioned in the Adirondacks in the summer of ’73, and I remember my mother in the background saying, “Mark, go outside, do something, stop watching television.”
And I was fascinated by these hearings, which led, of course, to the resignation, eventually the resignation of Richard Nixon, the only American president ever to resign, because they seemed to me to embody a kind of grandeur of process, among other things, that you had first a kind of revelation, in the press, mostly, in the Washington Post, with Woodward and Bernstein, but as a result of leaks from public officials and so on.So you have revelation, step one.
Step two is investigation.And that was the Watergate hearings themselves, also carried out by Judge Sirica and other people in the judiciary. But real investigation, investigation that was societally sanctioned, by means of which you come to a societally agreed on version of what happened. That’s the second step.
And the third step is expiation, right? You have some kind of reckoning — people lose their jobs, people are tried in court, people are sentenced to prison, whatever it might be. But at least there is a societally agreed on process by which you return from state of sin to state of grace, if you want to put it that way.
And so I think I was greatly inspired by this. It seemed like a model of what the U.S. was about and how its various institutions are supposed to work when confronted by what was, after all, a regime that committed very significant wrongdoing. It had broken into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to try to smear him.
And, you know, people from the White House had broken into Democratic headquarters and done various other things that were very significant. And this was the way the country dealt with it. It seemed to me quite inspiring. I mean, there are a lot of down sides to it, and mistakes, and all the rest of it, but in general, that arc. And I remember this very well, when I was whatever, 14 or 15.
And I look at our era and see something very different, which is that, in a sense, at least according to the description I’ve just given, we’re stuck between stage one, revelation, which I and a lot of colleagues have taken part in, you know, revealing this, and stage two, really, which is investigation. There’s been a lot of investigation. In fact, there’s been too much investigation and not enough, at the same time.
There’s a massive amount of investigation of Abu Ghraib, for example, but none of those investigations, with the possible exception of the first, the Taguba Report, by General Antonio Taguba, was credible. And a handful of very low down figures went to jail because of this stuff. In fact, the proliferation of investigations were essentially one of the bureaucratic techniques to avoid a real investigation.
And so we’re not yet at stage two, and we certainly aren’t even in shouting distance of stage three. And that seems to me, in a sense, true in particular of torture, but also there’s a broader sense in which it’s true of the era. We had weapons of mass destruction. We fought a war…still fighting a war — there’s still 50,000 Americans in Iraq — in the quest to destroy weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. That’s a rather remarkable fact of history, and yet here we are.
So I’m not sure how you get back to, or whether we ever will get back to the expiation stage.I don’t see the clear pathway to it. But I know that what I thought of as this kind of grand American dynamic of self-cleansing and self-righting that I saw as a teenager, and really did make this strong impression on me, has ended.
And the irony is that I think some of the aftermath of that, one part of that era was the Pike Commission and Church Committee investigations of the CIA in which a lot of wrongdoing was exposed — the plans to assassinate Lumumba, for example, the CIA coup against Arbenz in Guatemala, various other things, these reports from the Church Committee of the mid ’70s.
And I mention these because they are directly, it seems to me, implicated in what has happened, the kind of frozen scandal that we’re in now, in a very particular way, which is that the CIA, when asked to do these interrogations — and we know this now as a matter of record — they first demanded letters of
declension, which is a legal term of art simply meaning that they wanted from the Justice Department a pledge beforehand saying that they would not be prosecuted.
And members of the criminal division of the Justice Department refused to give them this. And that led to the drafting of the memos by John Yoo and his colleagues, afterwards replaced by other memos, which essentially said that these techniques that they wanted to use were legal.
And it seems to me incontestable that one of the reasons that the CIA was so adamant about this was because of memories of the Church Committee. That is, the mid ’70s, which saw the unveiling of this former era of dirty tricks. The CIA was intent that if they were going to undertake, at the order of the president, interrogation and torture of prisoners, that there be a clear legal record that it was legal and that they couldn’t be prosecuted.And they were given this.
So one of the reasons the country finds itself in this situation, in part, is that you have these “get out of jail free” cards that were issued by the Department of Justice, which the former president refers to in his memoir, you know, these are legal. And these themselves were a direct consequence of this earlier period that I thought was so glorious in which the CIA wrongdoing had been investigated.
And it’s fascinating to think that those CIA people, in 2001 or so, when confronted with this question or order to interrogate these people, essentially looked into history, looked forward into this moment, you know, they’re looking at us, saying, well, what about ten years from now, when suddenly they’re going to think this is horrible, we’re going to prosecute? We’re going to prepare the ground for that right now. So they’re looking forward at us just as we look back at them. And it’s fascinating to me that we’re both sort of frozen in these mutually crossing gazes across history. And the whole country, in a sense, is frozen in that same paralyzed deer in the headlights position.
So who’s responsible for it? I wonder if Richard Helms and the other members of the CIA who suffered because of those earlier reports would have taken — I mean, Helms is dead now, obviously, as is William Colby, and other CIA officials — but I wonder whether they would have taken some satisfaction from this. I don’t know. They felt that those investigations of the mid ’70s were grievously unjust, because they had undertaken these things at the order of the president and so on, and why should they be prosecuted.
But one of the consequences is that their successors vowed never to be prosecuted, and in so doing have put the country into the situation where they can’t be used as scapegoats. But we’re left with the question of…and I happen to agree with them. I think if we reach a point sometime in the future where simply the interrogators were prosecuted for doing what they did, that would be unjust, because we’re in this position now where, because of these decisions and because of the insistence on explicit permission, whereas before the watchword was deniability, protect the president from a record of saying this, because of the insistence on explicit permission, you have a situation in which the highest officers of the government are directly implicated in these crimes, explicitly.George W. Bush, Rumsfeld, the others, Ashcroft, are explicitly implicated in putting together and approving these policies.
So what does a country do that has not been defeated in war that finds itself in the position of having ordered these things done? And further, that most people in the country now who take an interest in public events know that they were done.I wonder if, indeed, we ever reach a point where we’re talking about prosecuting people.
You can imagine Dick Cheney or somebody looking at you and saying, fine, you want to prosecute? Go ahead and prosecute. But don’t lie to yourself and think you’re rendering justice.In fact, at the time I did these things, everybody wanted me to. And now, ten, 15, 20 years later, you want simply to punish your own worst instincts. You’re able to separate those instincts from yourself after this passage of time to put them on me and to punish them, and to delude yourself that you are rendering justice. But in fact you’re doing something else, something rather hypocritical. Of course I don’t think Cheney will ever be in
that position, needless to say. And we don’t seem close at all toward…
But it does suggest the kind of horrible dilemma that the country is in at
present. And I think it’s that dilemma that Obama essentially has decided to circumvent. He’s decided simply to avoid it or not face it. And I think that’s a mistake. I think he would have been much better to appoint a commission of some kind to try to investigate these matters and give an authoritative view of them to the country. I mean, that would have been very hard to do, of course.
The problem with a truth and reconciliation commission…you know, people in the
human rights community, many of them, will say about any proposal like that,
well, you can’t bargain and…In South Africa, for example, the truth and reconciliation commission led by Judge Richard Goldstone, the dynamic of it was if you came forward and admitted what you had done, you were awarded amnesty. It was a little more complicated than that, but that was the essential dynamic.
If you had a commission to investigate torture or whatever, or interrogation, colleagues in the human rights community often think that would be very unjust that you would give people amnesty, essentially. And I look at it and think, well, one of the problems with it is that in order, of course, for that sort of system to work, for the incentives to work, you need to have a credible threat of prosecution, which this country does not have.
But I think, to me the point of such a commission, and the much greater point, is
political education. It’s not only investigation but political education, and to try to get past this era, and to persuade, to some extent, the country that one of the most egregious consequences of this period is, in fact, not true. And when I say consequences, I mean the presumption that Americans, many of them, seem to have now that you can’t protect the country while following the law, which clearly a lot of people believe, that you need to torture people.
And that’s an egregious reality if a large part of the citizenry, and on any given
day maybe a majority, actually believe that. So I think to return to state of grace, which is maybe not the right…may be too religious a kind of rhetoric, part of returning to that state of grace is not necessarily prosecuting people, but educating the country that these things were a mistake. And as we sit here now, many, many Americans don’t seem to believe that.
Q: Do you see your work as political education?
A: Well, political education. You know, I think what I do is essentially try to write what happened.I think that’s the most important thing I do, trying to write what happened. And my work, maybe increasingly, has had more of an argumentative side to it. I think, insofar as I can see it evolving, I maybe was much more of a pure reporter earlier. I’m not sure that’s true, because I’ve done opinion pieces throughout as well. I did comments for The New Yorker and lots of other opinion stuff.
But I think my stuff of late has been…you know, “Voices From the Black Sites” and those pieces were very much pieces arguing something as well as revealing. But I hope the arguments, in a sense, were made through the revelation. Yeah, I suppose there’s some element of education there. There has to be. But as I’ve argued earlier, I think there’s an extent to which, if you read what was done in torture, if you read what was done in these interrogations, I think the argument makes itself, that these things do very much fit into the category of things that have been legally forbidden, and that the United States should not be doing them.
I don’t know whether I think of myself as educating or not.I certainly think of myself as telling a story and trying to tell it coherently and reliably. The story, unfortunately, has become grimmer and grimmer.
Q: Will you continue writing on torture?
A: Yes, I will.But there is a sense…and we’ve, I guess, been essentially talking about this, that my view is that so much of this has become public, and a lot of people…you know, the press…I mean, there’s a lot one can say about coverage of this issue. But I think it’s very hard to argue that the press has ignored it.
There’s the fact that the televisual press, which is extremely important in the United States, for most of this period hasn’t had an interest in this issue. Abu Ghraib kind of burst into televisual reality because you had images. But most of the time the televised press wasn’t particularly interested.
On the other hand, the print press — the Washington Post, especially, and the New York Times, The New Yorker, Jane Mayer, especially, there have been a handful of reporters who have been extremely able and active and resourceful and industrious when it comes to this issue, so it has been
reported thoroughly. And you do reach a point where…I mean, I mentioned it a moment ago.It’s sort of revelation, revelation, revelation, and at what point do you continue writing about it?
I mean, you can write about things that emerge, you can write about…But at what point does it become not news anymore?I mean, is torture news? That the U.S. tortured prisoners? The U.S. tortured prisoners. I’ve written a lot about it. So I can continue to write about it, and I probably will write more about it.
I did a couple of lectures last spring, the Tanner Lectures at Stanford — it will come out as a little book — that is more not just about torture, but the state of exception in general, the idea that the United States has essentially been in a kind of state of emergency since 2001, since September 11, 2001, and that one of the fascinating things about our time, another distinction, as it were, the other side of the frozen scandal part, but part of it, is the unending state of exception.
States of exception, called state of emergency, martial law, state of siege, are really defined by the fact that they end. That’s the sort of essence of exception. And the original codification of it was the Roman dictatorship, which lasted six months.It could be renewed, but lasted six months. Of course it kind of broke down under Caesar. Julius Caesar was dictator for life, and that didn’t work out too well for him. So states of emergency are about the ending of the emergency.
And one of the weird things about the so-called war on terror and the current state
of exception is that there’s no end point. Osama bin Laden was just killed, almost two months ago, and this would have been, perhaps, an opportunity to declare an end to the war on terror, a term that President Obama doesn’t like to use, but the main liniments of which he has persisted in. But we see no sign of the ending of this.
In fact, as I mentioned, many of the essential lines of the state of exception — indefinite detention, powers of interrogation, increased powers of surveillance, we could go on — have been institutionalized, they’ve been made permanent. So it’s hard to conceive how the state of siege is going to come to an end. What seems to be happening is that it’s becoming more palatable.It’s being codified and put into law and we’ll live with it.
And Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher who publicized the phrase “state of exception,” although it goes back to Carl Schmitt and others, was essentially making a broader argument, that Western states in general were becoming administrative-executive states, that increasingly the legislative function was by the by, that you were having much more executive power codified. And certainly the last ten years suggest that he was completely right.
Look at even the recent controversy between the executive and the legislature over the Libya intervention. It suggests that the executive not only can assert the power to go to war, he can assert the power to declare it’s not war. It’s kind of an almost absurd point, that not only can I order bombing, and not only can I order strafing, but I can determine that this is not hostilities. Which is a remarkable thing. It’s kind of through the looking-glass.
And this is President Obama. And Congress apparently is going to go along with it, which is rather remarkable, I think, and is kind of another feature, in a strange way, of the state of exception — you know, executive power, [de-fanging] of the executive, and, as I say, all these codified, what seem to be infringements on pretty basic civil liberties. There they all are. And I think we’re stuck with them permanently.
The country has gone through periods like this before — World Wars II and I, both of them, the Civil War, most obviously, when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus unilaterally, among other things, the phony war against the French under Adams, the first President Adams. So we’ve been through it before. But I’ve never seen a similar situation where it looks like there’s no way to get out of it. And that, it strikes me, is distinctive about our era.
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