Describing the unfolding torture of Guantanamo detainee Abu Zabaydah, Mark Danner paints a vivid portrait with unsettling bodily and material details. But this portrait is not presented simply for us to condemn; it serves to crystallize a larger political condition. Sometime on or about September 11, 2001, Danner argues, our political condition changed. The events of Zabaydah’s torture were the consequence of a set of political choices that created what Danner calls “the style of the exception.” That style coalesces around distinctive features that have become familiar in our-post 9/11 world and have not changed in the transition to a new administration: a declaration of an unending war against an enemy positioned outside the bounds of all legality; a war guided by a legally unbounded executive, who controls the public release of information and uses partisan domestic politics as a continuation of the war by other means, in an improvisational style, and without guidance from history or legal constraints.
But in describing this new condition, placing blame is not Danner’s most pressing concern. Those who created the style of the exception, he argues, surely knew that a moment of judgment would come. Could it be that they thought we would affirm the rightness of their choices, and that in identical circumstances we would have done the same thing? Danner invites us to consider how, if we reject those choices now, we might extricate ourselves from the style of the exception. Scholars Elaine Scarry, Eric Posner, and Stephen Holmes and Colonel Steven Kleinman, Senior Intelligence Officer U.S. Air Force, respond to Danner’s conclusions and explore the implications.