Mark Danner speaking at the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark, about the moral history of American power during the last quarter century, current debates about torture and drones, and the November 6 American presidential election.
Robin Schott: Okay. We’ll start now. Thank you all for turning out today on a Friday afternoon. My name is Robin Schott. I’m senior researcher here at DIIS for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. And I’m delighted to host this afternoon’s seminar with Mark Danner. Mark is coming through Copenhagen, and we were able to seize the opportunity. He’s actually here in connection with Josh Oppenheimer’s film. Josh is, today, here in the audience, and he will be our guest next Friday here at DIIS at 2:00. So for those who are interested in that seminar, please check our website for information and registration. And Mark would be visiting Copenhagen, we were able to pulls things together. So we’re delighted, very delighted to have you with us today.
Mark Danner: Thank you.
Robin Schott: Mark Danner is one of the leading writers in the West on political affairs. His voice is extremely well known to those of who read US publications, such the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times. He has written about foreign affairs and American politics for more than two decades, covering Latin America, Haiti, the Balkans and the Middle East. He is also a professor at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He teaches at Bard College. And he speaks widely about American’s role in the world. He has gotten on several planes, I think, this week. And I think he’s a bit under the weather so he may sit during the presentation. We’ll see how he feels.
Among his publications are Torture and The Forever War, which is a [inaudible 00:01:54] on human values forthcoming in 2013. Stripping Bare The Body — Politics, Violence and War, in 2009, which he will also speak about today. Torture and Truth from 2004, and A Road to Illegitimacy also from 2004. He’s just returned from Florida, covering the US election. We were talking about when Florida was called. I know I’m not alone when [inaudible 00:02:21], whose for the election night finally gave up and left at 5:00 in the morning just wanting to call Florida, at which point 90 percent of the vote was called. But they didn’t do it until well into the day. But we know the result now. And he will speak today on the topic the US Elections and The Forever War – Torture, Drones and the Age of Frozen Scandal.
Our format today is simple and straightforward. He’ll have the floor for what he wants, in terms of time, about 45 minutes, after which we’ll take a break. There will be tea and coffee. And my colleague [inaudible 00:02:57], who is head of the unit here at DIIS, Defense and Security will open up the second part of our session with a few comments and then we’ll turn to open discussion.
Mark Danner: Put this in my pocket. Okay. Whoops. I think my pocket is sewn shut. [Laughter] It is sewn shut. I suppose I can hold it or put it down here. Is this the microphone? Can everyone hear me?
Woman: [Inaudible 00:03:46]
Mark Danner: Okay. All right. Can everybody hear all right? Thank you so much, Robin, for that generous introduction. I’m delighted to be here today. It’s my first visit to Copenhagen. An don the way over, my friend, Josh Oppenheimer took me on a beautiful walking tour of the city. And I was — so I feel a bit ravished by its beauty. That’s the optimistic part of my talk. [Laughter]
Robin just gave you the title that I gave to her. The US Elections and The Forever War – Torture, Drones and the Age of Frozen Scandal. This subject was occasioned really by my fascination with Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary documentary. Josh is sitting right over there and, as Robin said, will be speaking here next week. His documentary, The Act of Killing, which treats, on the one hand, a particular incident in the history of Indonesia that deserves to be much better known on its own terms. It was a genocide that took place in 1965-66, a million or so, in a way of such things the numbers are very imprecise. But a million or so Indonesians were killed. But what is remarkable, and there are many remarkable things about this film and I urge you if you’ve not seen, I think there are a few showings left, I urge you to go see it. I think it’s an absolutely extraordinary work. There’s nothing quite like it. But it caused me to think about various concerns that I’ve been writing about for the last decade or so and that I’ve kind of grouped together under the general term “frozen scandal”.
Josh’s film is really about what happens to a society when it commits enormous wrongdoing. It kills vast numbers of its own citizens. And of course, this has happened periodically in human history. It’s not unusual. But what is unusual is the, when you have, as it were, lack of consequence. That is a lack of punishment. No judicial process. No one goes to jail. In fact, what the film details is how the society itself takes on board this enormous act of genocide and repaints it as a time of heroism. And it follows in a very compelling way one of the main killers. And man who with his own hands killed over 1,000 people, if you can conceive of such a thing. And tries to explore through enormously creative means — I just don’t know any film like it — how this man can live with what he’s done, and whether there is something that could be called guilt or existential guilt, whether there is something called self-punishment, or whether you can live freely, as it were, after committing this kind of crime.
Now why did this capture my imagination so dramatically? First and foremost, because it’s such a compelling film. But secondly, because I’ve been writing over the last decade on a subject I’ve called or have named “frozen scandal”, which is part of my title today. Frozen scandal is my way of talking about instances of wrongdoing where the society again is forced to live with it. And I think this is particularly relevant to the United States. Well, let me go back slightly and be a bit autobiographical for a second because I think I’m, in a sense, throwing myself on your mercy with a lot of thoughts that have been occasioned not only by the film but by the election results, which, as Robin said, I was just covering.
My own political awakening, my own political consciousness really goes back to the Watergate Scandal of the late ’60s and early ’70s. And that scandal in American history, it’s almost the American Oresteia. It’s this kind of processional of American guilt and American expiation of guilt that has to do with the crimes of Richard Nixon, the revelation of journalist — so part one of this process is revelation — the investigation by committees of Congress on television, sort of investigating what exactly happened, what Nixon’s crimes actually were, and then finally expiation, the third category in which people go to jail, people lose their job. Richard Nixon was forced to resign. He, of course, didn’t go to jail. But you have this kind of grand procession of American scandal in which journalists reveal, Congressional committees investigate, judges hand down judgments, and finally the scandal, the wrongdoing is expiated from the society in some way.
I remember vividly watching these hearings on television. In fact, I remember my mother yelling down, “Mark, go outside. What are you doing in front of the television?” She thought it was very unhealthy somehow. But I was completely fascinated by this. And I realized since September 11th, because this is really the period we’re talking about, that my own political consciousness was formed by an absolute conviction that wrong-doing, such as it was, relied on, the persistent of wrong-doing relied on secrecy. It was the job of reporters and writers to reveal. Once revelation happens, the society itself is able to then take on board this wrong-doing and eventually, through various processes, connected to its institutions to purge it, to purge it. Now this seemed my entire life as a journalist and a writer to be a rather unquestioned assumption. But over the last decade, we’ve seen — and the subject that most compels me in this regard, is torture. We’ve seen a number of acts of wrongdoing on a grand scale that American society has essentially learned to, taught itself to acquire the capacity to live with.
As I say, torture is the most obvious of these. But there are a number of other things we can point to, I think, delineate when we talk about the last decade. I’ve called this time, and it continues, the state of exception. This is a term used by Georgio Agamben the Italian philosopher. But I use it in perhaps a slightly broader way than he does. State of exception with group, under it state of siege, martial law, state of emergency. All of this different categories of, the Roman dictatorship, for example, of emergency law, that in the United States has been the de facto condition since September 11, 2001 and in particular since the Authorization for the Use of Military Force on September 17, 2001.
So we remain in a kind of strange state of emergency in the United States, except we’ve reached a point now where very few people notice. That is, there is a kind of substratum of war going on. The most obvious sign of this, if you’re paying attention, is the drone war going on Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa in which the United States is killing, has killed, by most recent counts — anybody want to estimate the number who have died in drone attacks? I’m always curious. Yes.
Man: Three thousand five hundred.
Mark Danner: Well, that’s not an estimate. I think you’d know. [Laughter] Yes, that’s probably the best estimate we have is 3,500 people have been killed by drones. You know, how accurate? That’s probably accurate within a few hundred in any event. And perhaps a quarter of those — again, these terms are contested very quickly — are civilian or non-combatants. You can have a lot of arguments about this. But so this was, is going on. If you’re in the human rights business, you tend to refer to these things as extrajudicial killings, EJKs, or assassination. I’m very happy to talk about this in detail. But I bring it up now simply as a list, as one of a list of items that have become permanent parts of the society. One is torture. Now this doesn’t mean that the United States is now torturing people in offshore prisons, although there are some claims that it is. It does mean that the United States has for a period of year, did set up a regime of torture, tortured probably a couple of hundred, depending on your definition of torture, a couple hundred, several hundred people. Did it under the color of law, under a highly elaborated system that was developed within both the Department of Defense and the CIA, and approved by the Department of Justice. We have very elaborate documentary evidence of this, piles of documents. And though these activities themselves probably are not going on now, the society, when I say, has consented to live with it. There has been no accountability. There has been no punishment. And in fact, within the United States, there are now at least two different realities. There’s the reality of the current administration, which says that water-boarding is torture. The current Attorney General Eric Holder is absolutely decisive when it comes to this. Is water-boarding torture? Yes, it is. Highest law enforcement official in the United States. The president also considers water-boarding torture. And you have , at the same time, the ex-president, George W. Bush, who writes in his memoirs about the decision to water-board, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed when he was asked by the then Director of the CIA whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be water-boarded. By his own account, President Bush said, “Damn right!” And we have the former vice president, who goes on television frequently, talks about torture, the necessity of torturing. Of course they don’t call it that. They call it EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques. But during the campaign only about a month ago, you had a memo leaked to the New York Times from the Romney camp, from its foreign policy gurus, all of these were familiar people from the Bush Administration, which was a memo advocating the restoration as soon as Romney, a Romney Administration would take power of enhanced interrogation techniques. In fact, it advised within the memo that the new President Romney must make it clear as soon as he took power that he was going to rely on enhanced interrogation techniques to make sure the bureaucracy had no doubt of his determination. So torture has become not simply a technique of interrogation, but a kind of pledge of seriousness in the war on terror. That is it has a reality and a symbolic reality as well that, you could say, are knitted together as it were.
Okay. I’ve just come from, as Robin mentioned, just come from covering the elections in the United States. I was in Florida and in Ohio during the last few days. IN fact, I spent Election Day in Florida. And one of the points, and we can talk about the election as much as you’d like in the discussion period. But one of the points I want to make about the election when it comes to frozen scandal and the forever war is that these matters, the ones I’ve just mentioned, during this kind of grand national debate that went on for the last six months were not mentioned. That is, the discussion of what I just mentioned when it comes to the memo leaked to the New York Times about torture was the only mention of torture at all during the campaign. The drone campaign, which is the current way the forever war is being fought, that is the current version of the war on terror, was not mentioned during the campaign. Only did it come up briefly during the last debate when the moderator of the debate, of the foreign policy debate, Bob Schieffer asked both candidates about drone warfare. And Mitt Romney, Governor Romney in his kind of one bit of eloquence I think during the entire campaign, said, “Well, it is true that we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” He then proceeded to support entirely President Obama’s drone war.
One of the reasons why, and I suggested a moment ago, that we’re not talking about it essentially because it’s taken for granted. The other reason is a reason of political dynamics. That is President Obama has moved himself so far to the right when it comes to the war on terror that the Republican candidate had absolutely no place to stand. He found himself — did anyone here see the third debate, watch the foreign policy debate? you might have noticed that when it came to that question about drones, for example, that Governor Romney, after he said, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” said, “We need to have a program of development for the Middle East.” You suddenly have the Republican candidate speaking like an inner-city liberal when talking about the Middle East. And it’s one of the strange evolutions that’s happened when it comes to the war on terror over the last ten years that we had, first, President Bush, who obviously in the aftermath of 9/11 adopted several techniques. I’ve mentioned torture. A second is indefinite detention, which is synonymous of course with Guantanamo where 150 to 160 prisoners remain and will be kept indefinitely. Extraordinary rendition, which is basically kidnapping suspected terrorists off the street and shipping them to places like Guantanamo. Warrantless wiretapping. All of these techniques were instituted by President Bush, and have essentially remained under President Obama.
Now it’s a cause of fascination to me covering these matters. I mean, my colleagues in the human rights business are enormously disappointed with President Obama. They believe that essentially he’s been co-opted by the National Security bureaucracy. That on entering office, he decided that the one thing he couldn’t afford was to be, as it were, unpopular with the CIA. And that he must indeed show them absolute, ultimate support. And one of the necessities in doing that was to not move in any way against torture. That is one of the sensitivities of the CIA was any move in the direction of prosecution, investigation, anything. They felt that they went out on a limb to torture prisoners. They got legal permission. And if the president had moved in this direction at all, there would’ve been essentially a rebellion in the ranks. I think there’s some reality to this. But I also think there’s a political dynamic that’s extremely important. And we can talk about it. I have a piece actually in the current New York Review under this title, “The Politics of Fear”, which is to say that after — and this is really a matter to some extent of domestic American politics — that is the 9/11 attacks restored to the Republican Party an advantage that they had enjoyed really since 1949-1950 with the loss of China with certain superiority and dominance when it came to taking the hard line on national security. In other words, the Republicans were the party that was going to keep you safe. At the end of the Cold War in 1991 took away that advantage from the Republican Party. It removed all of the kind of apparatus of hard-line foreign policy: red-baiting, various attacking people for being soft of Communism and so on. All of this was removed. Ten years later, the United States is attacked. And the Republicans see in this an opportunity to restore their advantage in foreign policy. Now this isn’t simply my analysis. Karl Rove, who was President Bush’s main domestic policy guru, two months after 9/11 said to the Republican National Committee, “The country trusts us to protect it when it comes to national security. We can use the war on terror as a political trump.” And I think indeed this can be demonstrated that the Republicans not only thought of this, but were successful in this strategy. In 2002, President Bush led the Republican Party to something very unusual in American politics, which is during the first off-year election of a president’s first term to victory in those elections. The Republicans took back the Senate in the fall of 2022, in part, by running a campaign that was the equivalent of red-baiting, terrorist-baiting. There’s a particularly notorious Senatorial election in Georgia in which a Vietnam veteran, this man who is a triple amputee, Max Cleveland, who was the Senator in Georgia was — an ad was run in which his face was then superimposed with the face of Osama bin Laden. And he was in fact defeated.
So when President Obama came to power, he had taken positions during the campaign that there would be accountability for torture, warrantless wiretapping would be stopped, various other extreme steps that the Bush Administration had taken in dealing with the September 11 attacks would not only be corrected, but there would be punishment. “We would return,” which was his phrase, “to the state of law.” He said this frequently. Having come to power, on the second full day in office, he issued three executive orders. One of these was an order to the government that within a year Guantanamo would be closed. One way or another, the prison would be closed. A second was an executive order eliminating torture, stopping torture. And a third was an executive order putting together a new interrogation program that would not use torture. I remember vividly watching this news conference and thinking, “My god, this is actually going to happen. He’s actually going to do what he said.” You’re going to have a kind of, as it were, moral cleaning of the stables. Strangely enough, this was the high-water mark of Obama reformation, that effort on the second full day in office.
Now what exactly — oops, I’m sorry. The question is: what exactly happened? One of the things that happened, which shocked me rather profoundly, was that you had within ten days of the new administration taking office — and remember, if you look back to 2008, the enormous excitement, the enormous idealism, the wave of idealism that greeted President Obama’s ascension to office. I went to that inauguration. You know, you had three million people on the Mall, cheering. I’d never seen a crowd like that. It was extraordinary. So there was this enormous ambition and enthusiasm for a kind of moral renewal. Okay. So he makes this press conference among other things, declares that torture is at an end, declares that Guantanamo will be closed and so on. And within about ten days, the Vice President of the United States goes on television. Let’s see if I can find this quotation. Yes. Yes. Dick Cheney goes on TV, a CNN interview. Now remember he’s been out of office ten days. CNN interviewer asks him, “…whether by taking those steps, the President of the United States has made Americans less safe?” We’re talking about Obama’s press conference in which he says no more torture. And Cheney says, “I do. I think those programs are absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that led us to defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. I think that’s a great success story.” Ten days after the inauguration. Obama is asked a few days later the same question. And he says, “I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of the movement, whose notion is somehow that we can’t reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don’t torture with our national security interests. That attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world.” So you have the new president engaging in this kind of high-level, televised debate or back and forth with the ex-vice president. A couple of days later, Cheney goes on television again and talks about, “…the ultimate threat to the country,” which he calls and I’m quoting, “a 9/11-type event where the terrorists are armed with something much more dangerous than an airline ticket and a box cutter. A nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind. That’s the one that would involve the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. And the one you have to spend a hell of a lot of time guarding against.” He goes on, “I think there’s a high probability of such an attempt.” Okay, so we’re going to have a nuclear attack on the United States. “Whether or not they can pull it off depends on whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts since 9/11 to launch mass casualty attacks against the United States.” Now he goes on. Remember that the president has just said we’re going to close Guantanamo. “If you release the hardcore Al-Qaeda terrorists that are held at Guantanamo, I think they go back into the business of trying to kill more Americans and mount further mass casualty attacks. If you turn them loose and they go kill more Americans, who is responsible for that?” This is the vice president, “Who is responsible for that?”
And I will give a final a few days later in talking again to CNN, to John King on CCN. He says, “John, I’ve seen a report that was written based upon the intelligence that we collected that itemizes the specific attacks that were stopped by virtue of what we learned through these programs.” That is through torture. “It’s still classified.” Again, this is very much the kind of apparatus of the Cold War. That is, I have proof of what we learned through these things, but, alas, I can’t show you. It’s secret. It’s all secret. “It’s still classified. I can’t give you details of it without violating classification. But I can say there were a great many of them.” So in other words, the United States had it not tortured would have been attacked repeatedly, frequently, using nuclear weapons, using biological weapons, you name. Not only that, so that’s the look back and then there’s a look forward. The look forward says, “If you stop doing this, these things will succeed.” Therefore the new president by closing Guantanamo, by stopping torture, it’ sonly a matter of time before the country will be attacked, and you’ll have these mass casualty attacks.
Now, so you have a particular — and remember this was a time when the Republican Party was very much had its head down. Barack Obama and his administration had taken office. There was this enormous surge of idealism, etc., etc., as I mentioned a moment ago. And then you had the face of Dick Cheney basically saying we’re going to be attacked again, watch out. So we had an evolution over the first six months of that administration, which began with this idealistic attempt at reformation and ended up with the president trying to propose the closure of Guantanamo, and it becoming stranded in Congress. Why? Because closing Guantanamo in the words of Republicans would be putting terrorists in our neighborhoods. Putting terrorists in our neighborhoods. So we’re putting together a kind of rhetoric of fear that again, I don’t mean to belabor this, but that dovetails very well with certain concepts in American history that the American public is very familiar with. That is the concepts that were grown up during the Cold War: external threat, fifth column within the United States, people who are soft of terrorism, you know, soft on Communism, soft on terrorism, etc., etc.
And President Obama, I think, during the course of this — these are rather complicated stories. Guantanamo itself — and again, in the question or discussion period if you want to talk about this in some detail I’m very happy to do that — Guantanamo itself is a fairly complicated story. But I think the general plot line here was that it became very clear to Obama and to the Democratic Party in office that these issues could be absolutely fatal in the event of another attack. And when I say “these issues” I’m talking about abolition of torture. I’m talking about investigation of those who tortured and punishment that would follow there from. I’m talking about the actual closing of Guantanamo. I’m talking about ending of indefinite detention, which instead of being ended has become institutionalized. That all of these things, if restricted or eliminated in the way President Obama originally said it was his desire to do, would represent enormous political vulnerabilities.
So consequently and, you know, whoo-whoo, cut forward three years, we have a president who, when it comes to national security policy in the war on terror — what I call the forever war — the war that began on September 11th and that is with us still, we have a president whose policies are much more restricted, much more focused than the Bush Administration, but that are, in many of the essentials, continuous with them. There’s been no accountability or punishment when it comes to torture. Guantanamo remains open. Indefinite detention has become institutionalize. Military commissions are continuing. Warrantless wiretaps have also been institutionalized within Congress. And what you have had is an ending of the large military engagements in Iraq and increasingly in Afghanistan. President Obama, of course, expanded the Afghanistan War but now is drawing it down. At the same time, you have a relentless focus on the use of drones to track down and kill terrorists. Now I want to put air quotes over that because the fact is that we have relatively little knowledge of who exactly is being killed in these strikes. It is the insistence of the administration and, in particular, John Brennan, who is the Counter-Terrorism Advisor of the President, that the people being killed in drone strikes, so-called personality strikes, that is people who are being directly targeted by name, are leaders of militant groups that threaten the United States. There are also, what are called, signature strikes. On the one hand, we have personality strikes. On the other, signature strikes. Signature strikes are strikes that are launched because of the signature of people’s behavior. That is, we don’t know who they are, but they’re acting like militants. Okay? So some of these strikes are not targeted against individuals. They are simply, here are people acting like militants, we’re going to kill them.
Now who exactly is being killed? We don’t know entirely. WE know certain people who had some militants groups are certainly being targeted and killed. We know that because the administration in one way or another announces them, even though of course — and this is another attribute of the forever war — “these strikes are secret”. I use air quotes here because one of the attributes of the forever war is a strange kind of secrecy. That is a secrecy in which the government leaks the names in which the New York Times publishes, you know, “Drone strike last week, Killed X, Y and Z”. But in which the government officially does not take responsibility. Just as Abu Zubaida or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or some of the other high-value detainees were captured and then tortured, the announcement was made that they were captured. We knew that they were in black sites somewhere. Sometimes there were even leaks about their interrogation, but all of this was secret. You know, it was an official matter. The United States was not responsible, did not claim responsible, official responsibility.
So we have a war going on in which roughly 3,500, it’s our best figure, “militants” have been killed. We’re not quite sure who they are. A fairly credible study was published in the Washington Post or leaked to the Washington Post about six months ago that suggested that 94 percent of these people were not leaders. Ninety-four percent to me is such a funny figure. But roughly nine in ten were not leaders. That they were simply militants, members of these groups. But our basic policy in the United States now is simply to kill them and kill them and kill them some more. And the drone war is expanding. The American Military now has about 19,000 drones. Almost half of the pilots within the US Military are now drone pilots. The US Military has about 19,000. The CIA has about 40,000. So this is a war that’s being fought on the one side by the military, on the other side by the CIA. The one other thing we can say about the forever war is that over the last decade there is an evolution of the CIA from an intelligence organization that occasionally was responsible for covert actions, like overthrowing governments and so on, that now is a paramilitary organization, whose business is the repeated, the widespread killing of people on the other side of the globe either with drones or with various paramilitary techniques.
Anyway, I don’t want to — let’s see. It’s 40 minutes. Okay. Let me just say a couple of words here in summary. I began with the notion of frozen scandal. What has struck me in covering the presidential campaign when kind of, as it were, switching gears to domestic politics, after writing about national security affairs for quite a while, is the silence. That is, when we’re talking about these matters, high matters of state, which they are, there is no place for a discussion of them in the American Presidential campaign.
And let me make a couple of observations about that. The first is that the political, as it were, arrangement of forces, which I mentioned a few minutes ago, which puts Obama very far to the right, has essentially left no room for the Republicans to attack him. I don’t think that’s any accident. I think it’s no accident that President Obama went into a political campaign as the first Democrat since Harry Truman to be absolutely unattackable on national security, which is an extraordinary thing. I think this — I’m not saying that his policies were developed solely for that reasons. But I think there is certainly a political inertial force that has held sway when it comes to President Obama’s national security policies.
The second point to make is that in this tenth, well, actually eleventh year of the forever war, which is still being fought under the Authorization of the US of Military Force, which was voted by Congress on September 17, 2001, that the United States is essentially, the American people, have settled into a situation where they’re not particularly interested. That if you’re going to kill people in large numbers by remote control on the other side of the world, that’s just fine. There’s just not any appreciable controversy when it comes to, for example, drone warfare in the United States. There isn’t. Some human rights organizations track it, write about it, talk about it. But as far as a political, a matter of political discussion, it doesn’t exist. There is no controversy in Congress about it. There are, you know, not people with political weight criticizing it. It simply goes on. And the same true when it comes to torture. That is that we now have two political, two major political parties in the United States. One of those parties has a very clear position when it comes to torture. It supports it. It calls it enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs. But the Republican Party supports torture, not only supports it but — and I mentioned this before — that it supports it not only as a technique for interrogation but also I would say as a symbolic, in a sense, pledge of seriousness when it comes to the war on terror. The second major political party, well, it’s position on torture is not particularly clear. The party actually in power, President Obama having, you know, declared that he would stop torture, so far as we know, has stopped it. But his stopping it co-exists with a very clear record, documentary record of torture by the previous administration with extensive wrong-doing that has not, in any way, been addressed or punished. And in fact, they are particular individuals who have come for a hearing before the United States, Maher Arar is one in particular, whose case you may know here. A Canadian who was grabbed at Kennedy Airport, sent to Syria and tortured extensively. In Canada it was a white paper. There’s an investigation of his case. He was paid $10 million. In the United States, he can’t get into court. The court will not, you know, federal courts will not accept it. So the United States, even when it comes to very clear errors that led to torture, is still absolutely unrepentant. I’m not sure that’s quite the right word, but you know what I mean.
So as I said, this is why I said after telling you how beautiful I thought your city was [laughs] that this was the end of the optimistic part of my talk. The forever war goes on. I am not sure that we will see any escape from it any time soon. When I look at the war on terror and the fact that the president’s advisor on counter-terrorism has, on the one hand, said that Al-Qaeda has been decimated, that the group has almost been destroyed. And at the same time that we do not know how long — that the war on terror might well continue indefinitely. Those two statements in as sense are co-existing from the American government because it’s politically impossible for any administration and particularly a Democratic one, I think, to declare that the war on terror is at an end.
And this would be my final observation. Josh and I actually were talking about this on the way over here. That is the power of fear. The power of the politics of fear. One thing we’ve learned in the United States about terrorism in the last decade, I think, is what do terrorists actually produce. They obviously produce death, mayhem, killing. But their major production is fear, is fear and the motivation that begins to create certain secondary attempts. Fear, I’d call, the most lucrative political emotion. And one of the things we’ve learned in the last decade is that not only terrorists benefit from the fear that they sow when they launch attacks, the politicians who “rise up to defend against them” — again I want to use air quotes here – also benefit from the use of that fear. They also, in a sense, mine the political gold inherent in the fear that those attacks bring. And we’ve seen that on the part of the Republican Party. And we’ve seen it in effect on the part of the Democratic Party as well. That it’s become, in a sense, a permanent part of the condition of American politics. And I wish I could conclude with something since we are a couple mornings after the elections in the United States, I’d like to conclude with something somewhat more positive than that. But I’m afraid that I have to say that if discover in the United States an escape from the politics of fear, I’ll be enormously happy. But to me, sitting here now in the wake of the election, that path is not obvious. Anyway, thank you for your patience.
Robin Schott: We’ll break now for coffee and meet again at 3:00, where we can pick up with [inaudible 00:43:44].
[Return from break]
Robin Schott: First, it’s my pleasure to welcome my colleague Vibeke Schou Tjalve, who is the Head of the Research Unit on Defense and Security. As I mentioned, Vibeke was the organizer of the seminar here on Monday [inaudible 00:45:07], presidential elections. And she has expertise in the areas of American History, Identity and Foreign Policy, Political and Religious roots of Western Security Politics, [Inaudible 00:45:19] of Global Order and Justice, Political Philosophy of Power, and [inaudible 00:45:23] in international politics. I’m not done yet. [Laughter] [Inaudible 00:45:29] the media, Military Organization, Government and Ethics. So I’m delighted to [inaudible 00:45:34] speak to you here today.
Vibeke Schou Tjalve: And I have to say that I was instructed to put in six or seven fields of expertise [laughter] when we filled in the whole page. Well, I want to start by thanking you, Robin, for inviting me and thank you for coming today. I don’t know how much Robin have kept you inform about sort of Danish coverage of US foreign policy during the past decade. But I actually think it’s remarkable how little the foreign policy of the Obama Administration has been covered compared to the Bush Administration. So back in the days of the Bush Administration, I think most, the average Dane would know the name of every person in, you know, the foreign policy cabinet. Nobody would probably know the name of the Defense Minister today. So that’s a huge difference. And things, in my opinion, have gotten more complicated not less. So we really need for people, like you, to come visit occasionally and explain things to us. So thank you for doing that.
And you said so many things that really just stirred a lot of intrigue, a lot of issues for me. I’m not sure I can make much sense or structure of it right now. But I think what I have to say falls in two sections. One that’s tied to your overall introduction of this framing all of these questions within the broad, under the broad label of collective guilt. That’s where you started out. And I have a few questions to raise and maybe also to pose to you in that connection. And then I’ve got a few more specifics questions about [inaudible 00:47:29] foreign policy.
But if we start where you started out yourself, namely with the question of: can a society recover from sort of massive atrocities or wrong doing? How does society deal with the question of guilt? And if we maybe push that question a little further and ask: is such a thing as collective guilt possible? Is it possible as a society to feel guilt for the actions of your administration? Particularly, in the context of a 21st century where perhaps the ties between society and some, you know, virtual bureaucracy out there enacting military strategies in the name of a US nation, but there is no real context. So that, I think that’s a fundamental question, and it’s one that I would like for you to reflect a bit upon. Is such a thing as collective guilt and working through the motions of collective guilt possible? But I’ve got a few questions where I think that that question has always been relevant, but perhaps there are certain features of political life today that makes collective guilt more difficult. I noticed the way that you introduced the theme is actually tied to a very moralistic language, the language of guilt and shame and remorse and atonement. That’s not really the kind of language that we tend to frame issues of sort of foreign policy or even ethics today. We tend to frame them in a much more sort of sterile and procedural way. Those are really deep questions when you introduce the term guilt. That something that sounds so tied to something inner, an inner process somehow.
And one of the things that I’ve noticed, actually one of the things that I’ve been really fascinated by in American political history is that it does have a tradition for working with guilt to a much larger extent than a country like Denmark does for instance. Whenever I visit US academic libraries, I am just stunned at the amount of [inaudible 00:50:04] on Abraham Lincoln. And to me, that’s sort of guilt literature. [Laughter] It’s that whole sort of question of the legacy of Lincoln is one that’s about working through the motions of collective guilt.
I know Americans have differing opinions about Lincoln. But one thing that he really did try to do that I think he installed in US political life was a tradition for — I mean, he, just after winning a war, the first thing he goes out and does is to give a speech that somehow tries to facilitate sentiments of collective guilt, to work with it means to have been in, at war, to have killed. And I remember reading a letter that he sent off just after his victory speech where he wrote to a friend that he knew this speech would not make him popular, but he also knew that whatever guilt that was in it falls directly upon myself so I think the people might afford for me to say things that I have said.
That’s a tradition that is dried. That’s for sure. That’s not the kind of speeches that American presidents give anymore. I can’t imagine something like that taking place today. So the question is: why, even in a country like the US with such a strong tradition in many ways for dealing with those issues, have that language of guilt died out? And I can’t help but wonder whether our own industry, the industry of academics and intellectuals, isn’t one of the fields that is to blame. What has, in your opinion, what has American intellectuals and American academia contributed with in terms of providing US public debate with a language in which to deal with these issues? And I think that when I look at American political debate, it looks very much like European political debate. It debates about issues of war, violence and the guilt that comes with it are often phrased in an extremely detached language. In a language very much of irony and deconstruction, but not a language of guilt, not a language that really provides you with dealing with what does it mean to have taken lives. So that’s just one thing I wanted to ask you.
And the second, I mean, as much as the academics are to blame — I mean, we’ve done some blaming of politicians, and I just think we need to take a look at ourselves. But I think something has also happened to the public itself. I recently came across a book by Jeffrey Green, who’s a scholar at Yale. He wrote a book called The Eyes of the People. And the subtitle was something with spectator democracy and ocular citizenship. The whole book is about how the way in which the public deals with issues, not just of war, also other issues as well but this is the most important topic of the book, is increasingly visual. It’s not that we don’t have a sort of moralistic language to deal with issues of guilt. We don’t have a language at all. Our public is increasingly visual and that doesn’t provide us with the conditions for even debating these things. He looks, of course, a lot of Wikileaks. And his whole notion of the ocular citizen, the citizen that mainly watches and never really speaks is a central point there. So maybe you could say something about that, whether you think that — I sense that you’re a little frustrated that the US, as a polity, has not dealt with the kind of actions that it’s been engaged with for the past ten years. And perhaps you can say something about — I mean, the fact that you start off with a documentary is also telling in this context. Maybe you can say something about whether you think there’s some truth to the fact that to the claim that the public sphere today is increasing visual, and that that may inhibit us from engaging with the kind of questions that you introduce.
And then just two or three questions about sort of contemporary American foreign policy and the Obama Administration. I’d just like for you to say perhaps a little bit more about the ways in which you think the Obama Administration differs from the previous administration. And perhaps also, what do you think about the claim that — to me, it sounded as if you, in your reading the Obama Administration has almost intensified or enhanced trends and perspectives from the previous administration, and that it has gone back upon promises set out from the beginning.
When there has been some coverage, because of course it’s not true that Danish media has not covered the Obama Administration foreign policy at all. Whenever it’s done so, it has also done so in this framework of saying, “Here’s the president who promised to be an anti-war president, and who turned out from day one to be something completely different.” But isn’t there also another narrative to be told that’s more consistent actually. That’s the narrative of the president that ran a campaign, not once did he say he was against the war in Afghanistan during his first campaign. Actually, he said that he would intensify that and compared to the Bush Administration, and that he was against the war in Iraq not because he was a pacifist but because he thought that was stupid. So it wasn’t even on moral terms. It was on terms just saying, “This is strategically the wrong kind of war to wage and it’s unwinable.”
And that president also went to Oslo a few months into his presidency and gave a Nobel Prize acceptance speech where he talked about Lincoln, and he talked about Renill Neiber[?], and he talked about classical realism and the ethics of the lesser evil. He even explicitly said in Oslo that while he, himself, was a living testimony to the kind of policies pursued by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and their whole philosophy that violence solves nothing. It only creates more problems. He could not and he did not believe that that was a feasible approach to being responsible in international operations.
I think, in my reading, Obama really takes this seriously. To him, that’s the entire philosophy around his drone policies. He believes this is somehow a — he’s taking a moral stand. He’s taking responsibility for enacting the lesser evil, people around him so that you do not have to engage in grand nation-building wars. But at least you only pursue this very sort of targeted, very sort of limited kind of anti-terrorist, strategic policies. I think that’s how he thinks of it. And when you listen to what people around him, what his employees say, they all tell of a president who sort of very, very, very serious about those signatures.
Mark Danner: Absolutely.
Vibeke Schou Tjalve: I mean, to some people, I think it’s a little perverse almost that he takes it so seriously. He goes to look at the Lincoln statue every second day and feels like he is actually Lincoln, [laugh] who also has to take responsibility for an unconstitutional war and so on. And I think perhaps that’s the framework. So I’m certainly not saying this to be in any way apologetic about those policies. But I think that within his mindset, this is a very different strategy. In fact, the drone strategy is the strategy to get him away from the kind of grand-scale, nation-building and that way of approaching the issue of counter-terrorism or…
Mark Danner: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Vibeke Schou Tjalve: What do you think of that reading? Yeah. I’ll leave it at that.
Mark Danner: Okay. Are you sure? Well, thank you. Thank you, Vibeke. And those, I think, are extremely astute and provocative comments. I think, you know, Lincoln, bring up Lincoln is just very much to the point. No question about it. And it’s no accident that Obama has made no secret of the fact that of all past presidents he feels closest to Abraham Lincoln. Something that his Republican adversaries have ridiculed him for actually. But, it’s interesting, the point about, your first point about essentially not have a public language in which to discuss issues of responsibility and particularly guilt, that we do have, the US does have a president who is rather uniquely gifted when it comes to his rhetorical skills and his rhetorical ambitions to confront some of these issues. I always look back on the shock of hearing his so-called race speech during the campaign in 2008. And I say shock because it was so strange to have a politician who was addressing you straight, you know, like an adult. Shocking. Absolutely shocking thing to instead of uttering bromides about race to actually take a serious approach to talking about the ambiguities and difficulties in American society when it comes to race. And the fact that his grandmother, you know, would cross the street when a young black man was walking and so on. And it was quite — I’m trying to make a general point, which is that he at least early on as a candidate seemed extraordinarily well gifted to analyze politics in moral terms, whether guilt is the major aspect of it or not. And I think it’s very useful that you bring up the Nobel Prize address, which of course for obvious reasons, which is that he’s awarded the Nobel Prize very early in his term, at the exact moment that he’s expanding the war in Afghanistan. The Nobel Peace Prize, you know, awkward. [Laughter] And so he has to go to Oslo and try to explain this awkward fact. And I think you’re right. He made a rather heroic attempt to do that. And it’s a very fine speech. It’s one of his better speeches.
He also, I would note just in keeping with my remarks earlier, that one of the lines in that speech that struck me the most, because it’s a big applause line as well in Oslo, was him saying that that’s why I prohibited torture. And people rose to their feet and applauded. And I remember thinking, “Prohibited torture. What an interesting idea.” I mean, torture is illegal. The president does not have the power to prohibit torture. Torture actually is against the law. And it seemed to me that this was a salutary moment, or not salutary, but it was a memorable moment because it represented the kind of moment that torture went from being something that was criminal and that you couldn’t order to something that was a matter of policy, that a president could order. “I prohibited it.” If you prohibit it, you can order it, you know. Strange. And that’s part of the speech. It wasn’t noticed.
But anyway to get back to your first point. I agree with you that we are not accustomed anymore, and certainly not in academia, to talking about these matters in a traditional, moral language of guilt and responsibility. I think that’s absolutely true. I think that there’s a certain impoverishment of the public language that’s very regrettable because this is, these issues are issues of very broad public concern that are not being debated, which was one of my points. I don’t think this is — I mean, I guess, there are so many points one could make about this. But let me start with a couple.
One is that, as you were talking about guilt, I felt thought to myself there’s a difference between, in a sense, looking at an event and feeling guilty about it in the past and having an ongoing war, as it were, and not having the moral language to confront that war. So in other words, we’re talking about something that is going on, that’s happening, that has evolved from the Bush Administration. And I agree with that Obama — if Obama was here, I think he would completely agree with your characterization that is that he is adopted a war-making policy that represents the less evil. He’s ended the large wars. As he, by the way, promised in the campaign he would do. Or ended, excuse me, the war in Iraq. Of course when I say ended, I’m talking about the US involvement, the war in Iraq continues though Americans are absolutely uninterested. You know, 100 people can die in Iraq in a given day and it won’t even make the front page in the United States, which is another major element of American public life, which is amnesia. American amnesia is a formidable, formidable thing. And we see it when it comes to Iraq. Nobody cares about it anymore.
He is ending the war in Afghanistan. And he is focused very tightly on a form of war fighting that he feels is morally, is as morally acceptable as you can find, which is to say, you know, we can sit here and say, well, drones have killed 3,500 people. Eight hundred of them are civilians. And there are two ways to look at that. One is, oh my god, we’ve killed 800 civilians. That’s a horrible thing. The other way is if you had somebody here from the air force, they’d say, “Well, actually, that rate of civilian causalities is incredible.” I mean, at no time in history of aerial bombardment have you had that kind of tiny civilian collateral damage. And that if you sent special forces in, you would kill more civilians than you are from the air. They would argue that. And Obama would probably argue the same thing. I mean, I think this is an argument that we can have. What strikes me and one of the points I was trying to make obviously is that we’re not talking about it. It’s left the area of public concern completely. You emphasized the fact that we, in a sense, don’t have a language to talk about it. And I think that’s a very astute point. And I would just add to it that I bemoan the fact that we have a president who is singularly able had he wanted to talk about it in those terms, who could, except for a few very significant exceptions, like the Nobel Prize address, he hasn’t. And that’s too bad.
But quite beyond the notion of language is the simple notion of policy. And when we get to that, I agree with you. I think Obama would offer the kind of defense he did were he to defend it. But we haven’t had that kind of public discussion in the United States. And I think that’s not only because of the lack of language. I think it’s because in the US essentially the people being killed, just like the people being tortured or the people being indefinitely detained are the other. You know, they don’t have anything to or are not perceived to have anything to do with Americans and with the United States. In Argentina, you had a long, dirty war in which 10,000, 15,000 people were disappeared or killed, secretly tortured or killed. And Argentina is still dealing with the aftermath of that. They’re still putting people in jail. And sometimes people in the human rights community will point to that and say, “Well, it’ll just take the US a long time to go through this.” But I look at that and say, “Well those were Argentines. Those were Argentines.” And the people we’re talking about — I mean, are we really going to be pulling our hair out about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 15 years? I don’t think so. So I think there are actually material differences in the structure of the situation, as it were, that don’t leave me to conclude that we’re going to be talking about it in the way that one would like. I don’t know whether I’ve answered all your questions. But that’s a start anyway.
Robin Schott: Yeah. I think we’ll open for discussion now. So I’ll take questions from the audience. Oh, wonderful. I’m going to take maybe two at time. Please do remember to introduce yourself and your affiliation. We’ll start here.
Mark Danner: Hi.
Man: My name is Louis Pierre Folston[?]. I’m from the Center for the American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. Just by the way, when you talk about guilt, just one observation. The title of Mitt Romney’s book No Apologies. [Laughter] And of course the claim that President Obama has spent the last four years apologizing for American, which had been, you know, a constant trope…
Mark Danner: It’s true. The apology tour.
Man: The apology tour. But I have one question, one thing where you sort of lost me. Your argument seems to be, well, there’s no longer any torture as far as we know. But on the other hand, there’s no accountability. And I think we can sort of take the two apart. As far as I know when President Obama came into office, he began talking about, you know, actually having some of these cases and Leo Panetta told him about the detrimental effects it would have the CIA if he began prosecuting people who had actually participated in —
Mark Danner: Sure.
Man: –what’s called enhanced interrogation. And one problem was, of course, the legal problem. You had the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Administration telling people, “This is okay. This is not torture. You know, as long as you don’t have any organ failure, it’s not torture. You know, as long as you don’t do it any sadistic way, but just to get, you know, information, it’s not torture,” or whatever John Yu came up with. You know, an argument to make the claim that it was not torture.
Mark Danner: Right.
Man: But in any case, the fact that the Office of Legal Counsel sort of provided this golden parachute would make it very difficult to prosecute anyone from the previous administration. So the question would be: would it be worth it to get into some quixotic exercise and start out by alienating part of the community if the point is that it’s no longer the policy of the Obama Administration to actually torture? Just one more thing if I may. Practical barriers to moving prisoners from Guantanamo. It was prohibited by Congress. In many ways, they were in fact looking out for maximum security prisons and so on. And finally, the wiretaps. I think there is a difference. You could always do these wiretaps if you went through the FISA courts and got, you know, got a right. To make the point about the Bush Administration was that they said, “We don’t need the FISA courts. We can just do it because I happen to be Commander in Chief and I can do whatever I want to do.” I think there is significant difference there between the two. And I think that’s what’s sort of emphasize.
Robin Schott: Why don’t we take one more question before you respond?
Mark Danner: Okay.
Robin Schott: I think on the far right.
Man: Thank you. [Inaudible 01:10:46]…
Robin Schott: We do have — so we can go around with the microphone.
Man: [Inaudible 01:10:52] foreign affairs and [inaudible 01:10:54]. Lots of interesting things and maybe there’s nothing new under the sun. I think when I listen to you talking I’m also of the observation about language and the visual nature of politics today. I think about George Orwell. Recommend looking back in the annex of “1984” where he describes the language of power, the language of repression, the language of totalitarianism, the Ministry of Peace is the Ministry of War and so on and so on. So what you do with language is how you [inaudible 01:11:28], but it maybe has slipped out of [inaudible 01:11:31], astute observation about the visual nature of politics. Yesterday evening, I happened to glance at the BBC, describing how the masculinity, the winning card masculinity in the US election, presidential candidates must show visually how masculine they are. It also involves sitting on tanks and [inaudible 01:11:59]. But I think the interesting question about the [inaudible 01:12:04], you’re sitting in Denmark, you’re sitting in beautiful Copenhagen. I’m very curious what you think the moral bankruptcy, whatever it is, the frozen scandal, what that means for the alliance because there are complicit parties to US foreign policy. The United States didn’t intervene in Libya in the same way that the United States has intervened in other parts of the Middle East and Africa in the last ten years. Do you have any thoughts on the alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? And what partners from this continent [inaudible 01:12:52], how we should be dealing with these problems torture and drones and so on? Should we be protesting in some way? Should we be mobilizing our populations to think in a different way about US foreign policy? Or should we just continue to comply with US foreign policy?
And then finally, a question about who benefits from all this? Who is, you know — is it just a question of Democratic and Republican Party competing for support in the United States and being able to stay in power for another four years or more? I mean, the money involved somewhere in all this I think needs to be given a little bit of thought. Maybe you can say something about how you see who benefits, who’s gaining? Is it just the old military industrial complex? Or who?
Robin Schott: Okay.
Mark Danner: Goodness, those are very large. [Laughter] Those are very large questions. Thank you for them. I’ll try to go quickly through this. The general point about torture and accountability, I think the important thing to say here is that, you know, can you, after having officially approved torture for eight years, essentially say, “It’s illegal again. It’s illegal. Torture is illegal” but not do anything whatever about it? Now when I say anything whatever, I say that advisedly. I’m not — I don’t necessarily think one would have to prosecute people. But the question is: what would be necessary to truly make it illegal? And I would say to that when we just go through a political campaign in which the Republican candidate essentially says when I get into office I’m going to reinstate this, that actually torture is not illegal. That you cannot simply come to power when it comes to the Obama Administration and say, “I’ve prohibited this,” and think that well actually we now have returned to a status quo anti. They haven’t. And now I’m not saying that you have to put people in the dock[?], prosecute them, send them to jail. There are various ways I think you could detail with it. One would be having some kind of commission like the 9/11 Commission. In other words, there are certain ways that this could be politically taken account of and returned to the realm of the forbidden. But at the moment, it is not. At the moment, this is in the realm of the permitted. And I gave as an example of that Obama’s statement that he had prohibited torture. He can’t prohibit torture. But indeed he’s right, it’s now become something that a president can order or prohibit. It’s escaped the realm of legality. And there needs to be a way to return it somehow. And that’s a question to debate.
You know, you pointed out very well the political obstacles to do that, how hard it was. And there’s a whole story here when it comes to the decisions that were made in the administration and so on about, you know, they released certain documents. You referred to the Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel documents, which they did indeed release. In fact, I published the Red Cross document that actually detailed torture. And I kind of published that in the New York Review and they then published the Department of Justice documents and blamed it on the New York Review which has got to be the first time the United States that the government has blamed one of its actions on the New York Review of Books. [Laughter] I took some satisfaction from that.
Anyway, the closing Guantanamo, you’re quite right that the Congress indeed eventually did a pass a law saying you can’t bring Guantanamo detainees to the United States and so. But in part, the administration — I mean, this is a complicated story with somebody did this and somebody did that and this representative did this. But the fact is that I think a good summary of this story is they did not bring a political will to bear to do this. They made — at a certain point they said, “You know what, healthcare is more important. We’re not going to — this is going to be a problem. We’re not going to do it.” And they decided not to. And so I reject the idea that well actually Congress said, you know, prevented them. I don’t think that’s what happened. I think that they weren’t willing to do what was necessary to close it. So, but again there’s an argument to be had there. And they would — you know, Rahm Emanual would be at your shoulder saying, “You know, what could we do? It was Congress.” You know, those crazy people on the Hill. What?
Man: He would use stronger words.
Mark Danner: He would use stronger words. [Laughs] Yes. Yes. Yes. Obama’s line about him of course was that Rahm at some point when he was a child broke his middle finger and he was rendered mute as a consequence. [Laughter] So yes, yes. I take with pleasure your comments about Orwell. He is the great prophet of the present age. There’s no question about it. Particularly when it comes to the war on terror. I actually have most recently published book, actually an essay that’s called Words In A Time of War that actually he actually takes as a point of department of Orwell. And his comment about the war. All of you will remember in “1984” this kind of shape-shifting struggle between East Asia, Oceania and — what was the other one? The three great super states.
Mark Danner: Eurasia. Thank you. At a certain point, they switched sides [laughs] during the book. It’s kind of wonderful. And he does have a comment at a certain point, “If we judge it, that is this war, by the standards of previous war, it is merely an imposter. Like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal, it is not meaningless. It helps,” and he’s talking about the war here, “It helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.” Which I think is just an extraordinary comment and is, to me, rather illuminating when it comes to the war on terror.
Man: And the vision of the future, which is a boot coming down on your face —
Mark Danner: Your face.
Mark Danner: Forever. Exactly. But of course, the essence of this quotation is that, you know, a war that continues has certain political uses. And that is one of the points I was trying to make in quite a different way about the Obama Administration and its need to secure, in effect, its left flank or its right flank, depending on how you want to visualize it, against a tax on it when it comes to the war on terror.
Let’s see, you asked about the implications for the alliance. I mean, to me, it’s rather fascinating when we talk about president scandal, if you look at the different ways, for example, that the United States and the UK have dealt with the Iraq War. You know, the UK actually did a fairly extensive investigation into weapons of mass destruction, hearings and so on that were from the context of the United States completely shocking. I mean, the US has done nothing like that. So that was one of the things that occurred to me when you talk about the alliance.
Who benefits from all this? I’m not sure what to answer when you’re asking about benefits. I think there is a sense — and I don’t want to seem like a paranoid conspiracy theorists here — there is a sense in which, you know, the Cold War ended in ’91. We had a ten-year hiatus in which the US, when it came to its foreign policy, its reason for intervening, the canopy, the kind of the ideological canopy over US policy was removed. And you had certain things, the Bosnia War is one example, Rwanda is another. You had a couple of genocides during that time. It’s supposed to be the end of history, but in fact history came rushing back with a vengeance. In which the United States, when confronted with this mass killing, diddled, dawdled, tried to decide whether this would fit into US interests. Do we analyze this is a realist way, an idealist way? What are we doing? And of course, the Clinton Administration was finally force, kicking and screaming, into intervene in Bosnia. Although, we’ve reached the point again with America amnesia where we’re now claiming we were helping Muslims and Bosnia was a triumph of American policy.
But there is a sense in which after ten years, the war on terror restored a kind of ideological clarity to US foreign policy. And there is reliance on it, I think, when it comes to thinking about world affairs. You know, the Bush Administration four or five years in, there were various elements within the administration and particularly in the Pentagon, who didn’t want to use the term “GWOT” anymore, Global War on Terror, GWOT. The Pentagon loves its abbreviations. And we have to get rid of GWOT because it’s actually not a good expression, you know, Middle East, people don’t like it and so on. So they tried to exchange this for GSAVE, the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism. It kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? [Laughter] So, you know, the Pentagon stationary altered and, you know, labels were changed and so on. And, but damn it, George W. Bush just wouldn’t give up Global War On Terror. He liked the phrase too much so they absolutely failed in getting rid of it. Now Obama has stopped using the phrase Global War On Terror. But he’s been attacked by the Republicans for this. You know, you’d never know there was war on. The president doesn’t like to talk about the war on terror. Because the war on terror — and this is a much larger discussion — but the war on terror is a fascinating, sort of what Raymond Williams has called, a complex word. It’s a fascinating combination of words. It was the means by which the Bush Administration in declaring war on terror was able to place the 9/11 attacks outside of its responsibility. You know, 9/11 is not our responsibility. It took place before the war on terror. American policy toward terrorism was still Democratic. It was this legalistic foreign policy, this legalistic way of dealing with terrorism. So in fact, only after the war on terror, we were responsible for policy towards terrorism. It’s one of the reasons why when the so-called Underwear Bomber, Mr. Farouk Abdulmutallab, you know, who is trying to blow up a plane over Detroit in December 2009, Christmas Day. After he was thwarted in this attempt, several former prominent officials, including Rudy Giuliani and the former spokesman for Bush, came out and said, “Well, of course, under the Bush Administration, we never had a successful attack on the United States.” And you know, people of course were like, “What? What about September 11? Are you kidding?” But in fact, people said, not one but several people made this statement. And I think there’s a logic to it, which is that the war on terror allows them to place the 9/11 attacks outside of the area of their responsibility. Anyway, who benefits is obviously a very large question.
Robin Schott: I know there are several eager hands. So I’m going to take three questions at a time and ask everybody to respect our time is limited. We’ll start here.
Man: [Inaudible 01:24:40]. Okay. My name is Daniel Lewis of [inaudible 01:24:44] International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. There was a quotation from, I think it was your article on the Red Cross report in 2009, that referred to Dick Cheney as the dark spokesperson for the national [inaudible 01:25:02]. [Laughter]
Mark Danner: [Laughs] That can’t be a quote from me, it’s too blunt.
Man: And part of Vibeke’s question made me think of another side, not just the collective guilt but this statement about change representing kind of a side that likes to see Jack Bower torture people. And in relation also to the comment about Obama’s intention in the drone strikes. I think there’s also some intentions that you talk about quite a lot, but that of torture as a political issue, which you also mentioned, [inaudible 01:25:48] very lucrative political tool. I’m interested in — and one other thing is that —
Robin Schott: Please remember our time is limited. There are many people with questions.
Man: Yeah. Sure. I think there’s a little bit of a more pessimistic tone to what they’re saying than your article before where you called for a bipartisan impartial investigation, which is impossible now [inaudible 01:26:21]. It was announced [inaudible 01:26:23] that no prosecution with the CIA. I’m wondering what your kind of experience of this has been. How you took that news.
Mark Danner: That there will be no investigation?
Mark Danner: Mm-hmm.
Robin Schott: We’re going to go on to this gentleman here. Here. Okay. And then afterwards. Yeah.
Man: My name is [inaudible 01:26:50]. I’m a communications consultant with [inaudible 01:26:54]. I just want to talk a little bit about the domestic issues around candidates’ influence on the lack of scrutiny of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. You spoke about Congress’ focus on domestic issues, saying, well, we’ve got to focus on this, it’s more important. And maybe also talk about the lack of attention to American foreign policy of the Obama Administration in Demark. Don’t you think that’s also a product of [inaudible 01:27:31] issues and them giving so much more coverage? Wouldn’t scrutiny have been far greater [inaudible 01:27:38]?
Robin Schott: And the gentleman behind you.
Man: Thank you. My name is [inaudible 01:27:47] University of London. I’m researching on these issues as well. And what I find interesting is that what you explained seems not to be so new after all. Thinking of the [inaudible 01:27:58] security barracks of ’68 [inaudible 01:28:00] institution cooperated in torture [inaudible 01:28:05] five years gone. And there’s an [inaudible 01:28:08]. What am I very concerned about is the silence among academics and journalists in this [inaudible 01:28:16]. And I’m thinking the US has quite a lot of critical scholars [inaudible 01:28:22]. I think it’s very important contribution. But in particular, in the US, sorry, in Europe and Denmark in particular, there’s seems to be a silence among academics and journalists for providing critical analysis of international relations and countries around the world. [Inaudible 01:28:44] is one prime example. Where, here, there were hardly no critical analysis that could provide information before the decision was made to go to war. I was wondering, what would you suggest could be structurally to improve critical analysis, which is one of the fundamental academic disciplines so that the public can be better informed in the future in this [inaudible 01:29:10]?
Mark Danner: [Chuckles] That’s a really hard question. These are extremely challenging questions. First question was how to take the news, how did I take the news that they’ll be no prosecutions. I wasn’t surprised. It was very predictable. As I mentioned, I think there are other ways to go beyond prosecutions. Although they did at a certain point the possibility — I mean, we don’t have time to really explain what that announcement meant. But essentially, the idea was there were certain things done in the black sites that went beyond the actual guidelines that the Department of Justice had given. You know, there was water-boarding. But more water was used than the guidelines had allowed for and so on. At a certain point, someone hid next to a blindfolded prisoner who was standing with his hands shackled to the ceiling, someone wrapped and a semi-automatic pistol next to his head and threatened to blow his brains out. That’s illegal. Can’t do that. So the possibility existed that someone might be, while not being prosecuted for water-boarding itself, might be prosecuted for using too much water or using that automatic pistol. I never thought that that was a road to any kind of justice.
But I did think that if one of those prosecutions had come out, it might have led to an unraveling of the whole thing because, you know, the defense in treating that kind of case would’ve had to bring up — you would’ve actually brought before the court the approvals that you talked about and so on, which would have been very interesting. But I wasn’t optimistic about that. So, and as I said before, I think the road to health in this lies not through prosecution anyway. It’s impossible to do it that way. I think it lies in effect through national, political education, which would probably begin with a kind of commission. I mean, right now, half the country or more than half the country, depending how you ask the question, believes that you need to torture to keep the country safe. And that’s partly owed perhaps to “24” and all the visualization that you mentioned and that Vibeke had mentioned in her presentation.
Why didn’t — oh, would scrutiny have been much greater if unemployment had been lower? It’s a nice thought. I think the answer is no. [Laughs] But simply, I mean, obviously it’s a counter factual, there’s no real way to answer that. I don’t think it’s the fact that the country has been focused on — in other words, I don’t think it’s the bad economy domestically that’s made it impossible for people to talk about this. In fact, you know, foreign policy, except in time of shooting war, is never the main focus of US public discussion, which is surprising since the US has such a large world role. But Americans, as a matter of public debate, aren’t usually that interested in it. The Libyan intervention actually, to me, is fascinating, which you brought up, because there was relatively little discussion about the US at all before it happened. I think that’s true when it comes to most Western countries, that it actually happened rather quickly. The Arab League, to the great surprise of a lot of people, actually supported the intervention. And suddenly, this thing was happening. One of my regrets was that the intervention took place with the Obama Administration denying the War Powers Resolution. That is essentially saying, well, this isn’t really a war here. We don’t need to inform Congress, which I thought was a really severe mistake actually.
You asked a more broader question about, you mentioned NSC-68. My comment on that is I think, you know, US covert action, the role that the CIA has played and so on, these are very large issues that I would not — I always tend to resist the kind of, well, you know, this happened before and so we. I think actually the present instances of torture are unique because for the very reasons that you set out, which is that the Department of Justice in almost comically labored documents approved minutely all of these things, including water-boarding. And that has not happened before in American history. So I would say it’s unusual.
How do we improve critical analysis when it comes to foreign policy? Damned if I know. [Laughter] I would love to give you an answer on that. I would say, first of all, that we don’t rely on academia for that to begin with. We rely on journalists who are supposed to be talking to academics and find out the ones who actually can speak authoritatively and lucidly on these subjects. But, you know, at the end of the day, it comes down as well to the amount of space that our newspaper wants to devote to these things. And the fact is that that in general is getting less and less, even as the kind of venues for broad public discussion are becoming more and more constrained. I mean, you can — if you’re interested in foreign policy, you can get on a million foreign policy blogs. There’s a great deal of information out there. But there isn’t a broad public venue that we can all, as citizens, partake on. Less and less is there. let me put it that way. You have the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the United States. But in fact, it’s becoming more and more fragmented as our consciousness is in general, I’m afraid. And I wish I knew a way to remedy that, but I’m afraid I don’t.
Robin Schott: Okay. We’re going to take another round of questions. And we have one, two, three, four, five. So we’re going to take three, plus two, and we’re going to be very brief. Okay.
Man: Thanks. My name is [Inaudible 01:34:59] from Dignity, The Danish Institute Against Torture. I was very interested in what you have to say about the power of fear. And it strikes me that there’s a power of fear that’s the driver of politics and the kind of justification for politics. And I was reminded actually of an example, an early experience of being an ethnographer in Nigeria. And I stayed with some Danish missionaries. And they warned me about going out on Friday afternoon because of the possibilities of violence by the mosque. And of course, I knew they were wrong, but they might have been right so I was afraid. But what I was afraid of? I was afraid not of the violence, but looking stupid.
Mark Danner: Yes. [Laughs]
Man: Does that characterization of the power of fear fit with what you’re saying?
Mark Danner: [Laughs]
Robin Schott: Okay.
Woman: Yeah. My comment actually [inaudible 01:35:55]. So my focus of interest actually is not the US but Asian countries, in particular Indonesia. Now in the beginning of your talk, you had mentioned Joshua Oppenheimer’s movie about the genocide in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. And what was most interesting for me from your talk was that the strategy of building a power that you have described in your presentation to me seems to be a universal strategy that is actually applying in many other countries as well. At least for me anyway in the case of Indonesia, relating also the massacres in the 1960s, but also how they are perceived [inaudible 01:36:40] and how [inaudible 01:36:41] their politics are shaped by that today. So I thought I could identify three main [inaudible 01:36:47] in this strategy of building up power. The first one would be creating a culture of fear by some sort of threat to society or the nation. The second one would be justifying your strategies [inaudible 01:37:01] form of murder or torture or international war or civil war or genocide [inaudible 01:37:07]. Justifying these human rights abuses by portraying them as necessary [inaudible 01:37:13] against the threat. And also by portraying the perpetrators as the heroes of the society. And I think that’s a point in which we have not talked about in detail, but which is actually I think very important for the American case as well and for the Indonesian case also. And the third one, the last point that it’s also important to have a [inaudible 01:37:37] culture of silence, which is [inaudible 01:37:39], which is also from a salient agreement within the wider society for those actions or what you described as national controversy. And it’s just fine if you kill those people on the other side of the world. And I think for [inaudible 01:37:55], it was believed to be just fine to kill the Chinese people and the Communists. And maybe this is a little bit [inaudible 01:38:03], but if you look for example at Germany in the Second World War, I think, for a lot of the wider public it was just fine to kill the Jews. And another point for —
Robin Schott: We really have to move on.
Woman: Okay. Another point for the culture of silence is the installing it to who of talking about this. And I don’t know if this is happening in the US, but certainly in other context. So I would just be interested in your opinions on it.
Robin Schott: Actually, what I’m going to do is is we’re going to take all the last questions and then let Mark wrap up to whatever he can manage.
Mark Danner: Thank you for your confidence.
Robin Schott: The remaining hands. Okay. Here. Okay. One, two, three.
Man: Thank you for a very interesting couple of hours. But I think there is a ground for being a little bit more optimistic.
Mark Danner: Thank heavens.
Man: And I [inaudible 01:38:59] when we went to the [inaudible 01:39:01] because [laughter].
Mark Danner: Yes. Apologize for that.
Man: What should you build the optimism on? At the moment, you see the US slowly withdrawing its engagement in the Arab world and in Afghanistan. When we are four years from here, will there have been an [inaudible 01:39:29] we do not see American forces in Afghanistan anymore. They are out of Iraq at the moment. And that means that this war that has been going on is in fact slowing diminishing it’s meaning. Anyone saying, okay, it’s still bad, good, all these things under the [inaudible 01:39:54]. But that is what many countries has done in the world. If you do not have it directly defeated opponent, like the Second World War, if you even, when you have a party defeated, opponent, like in Central and Eastern Europe, very often you are not taking these confrontations. And you would see if you go to Poland today, I don’t think the trauma is so great in Poland today. Maybe these things would also be put behind. And you should remember why Obama did anything. When he took over in 2008, he was really trying to make a right to [inaudible 01:40:42] and politics. And he couldn’t start his bipartisan politics by starting a procedure against the former president and vice president and etc. That would have been a declaration of war. Shortly, do you feel any restraints in your work by national security issues? I would [inaudible 01:41:08].
Robin Schott: Excuse me. We do have to wrap up now.
Man: Yes. I just want to add what I forgot in the beginning. [Inaudible 01:41:14] from the nature of foreign affairs to not [inaudible 01:41:17] in the petition[?] as an official…
Mark Danner: Okay.
Robin Schott: I think what we’re going to do is we’re going to have to drop the last two questioners. I’m sure Mark would be happy to speak with you after the discussion.
Mark Danner: Yes.
Robin Schott: But I’ll let Mark respond now.
Mark Danner: Well, thank you. Thanks. Thank you very much. Well, [chuckles] the first question was the motivations delivered by the fear of appearing stupid. And I think that’s actually a very good question. I know that motivation extremely well, having [laughs] reported in various parts of the world particularly during wars. And I always remember just the thought that, you know, you take certain risks. If things happen, things happen. But the one thing you don’t want is for people to say afterwards, “What an idiot. Why was he over there? Why was he doing this or doing that?” And so I think the motivation of not appearing stupid is a golden motivation. I’ve used it my entire life. So [laughs] and I still do. So thank you for that. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question. But I certainly prize it.
The comments that you made about — there you are — about Indonesia, what happened there and making them into general rules, I think they are very intelligent and absolutely very astute. I mean, the first few, creating a culture of fear that’s obviously absolutely to the point in the United States. And it of course doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be fearful of. There certainly was. But there was a kind of magnification of this culture of fear. I mean, it should be said though, and I realized as we were talking that I felt like I should’ve mentioned this earlier, it brought to mind by Vibeke’s comments about visualization, that 9/11 really was — I mean, many societies have suffered terrorism, sometimes very, very destructive terrorism — but 9/11 in a sense was a kind of unprecedented order of magnitude in difference when it came to terrorism. Nearly 3,000 people died. And it also took place, as it were, on the television screens. So as a kind of magnifier of fear, there’s a sense in which 9/11, I don’t want to say stands alone, but it was a remarkable event. And the sequela, when it came to lasting fear, it seems to me are not surprising at all because in a sense the weapon — and I’ve written this before — on 9/11 was not box cutters. It was not airliners. It was the television set. I mean, that was really the weapon being used. So, yes, creation of culture of fear, justifying the abuses. Your second point, justifying the abuses by showing them to be necessary, absolutely the creation of heroes, absolutely no doubt at all about. Public culture of silence, just fine if you kill these people on the other side of the world, I think this also very much applies. And indeed that part of it is increasing when it comes to the sort of narrowing during the Obama Administration. That in a sense, the war on terror is kind of dropping off the map of daily discussion. It just goes on. I mean, in a sense, it’s like this war that Orwell describes. It’s only part of the consciousness in a very limited way that comes up for particular discussion very, very sporadically. So I think this comparison is extremely salutary. There’s no question about it. And I find it compelling.
Your point about optimism and about the US slowly withdrawing from its wars and things gradually, as it were, loosening, I think, is well taken. It’s an optimistic point. And I hope your right. There’s no question that the US has tried to end its involvement in Iraq. That’s true. That it’s slowly ending its involvement in Afghanistan. That also is true. The rate of drone killing, so far as we know, remains steady or possibly even increasing. So my optimism ends, I think, when we look at the future that Romney described I thought with uncharacteristic eloquence of “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” I thought that was a very apposite phrase. And I’m not sure that I would be particularly optimistic — my impression about what they think they’re doing in the war on terror is they don’t really know what they’re doing, which is to say they’re brilliant in a transactional way. They’re getting better and better at targeting people and killing them. But I think there is very little political strategy on what exactly to do. It’s as if they’re on an tiger and they cannot get off the tiger. You know, they’re being rolled around and they have to keep the drone war. Essentially, there’s no way to foresee an end to it. So I guess I get off the optimism when it comes to that.
You asked at the very end whether I felt any constraints in national security reporting. Is that what you were asking?
Man: If you were, in your daily work, as a journalist, as a professor, as a person talking to us, feel that this [inaudible 01:46:51] on national security, they’ve restrained you, and have you ever been pushed not to publish something? Do you feel the pressure [inaudible 01:47:03]? Self-censorship to…
Mark Danner: Mm-hmm. Yes. I guess my short answer to that is no. I think that when I — someone referred to the article on the Red Cross report, which was a disclosure of a report that gave details on torture at the black sites. I did have a moment when that report came into my hands of hesitation, a moment of hesitation because, in fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross relies for its entree into Guantanamo and other places on the secrecy it provides. That is, it interviews detainees. It interviews prisoners. It then writes about, it does a report about the conditions under which they’re being held. And that report is not make publicly available. It’s given to the government’s responsible for their treatment. So this particular report was given to the CIA. And when it came into my hands, I did have a moment of thinking, well, publishing this is going to hurt ICRC and probably hurt perhaps their access in the future. But I think my instincts as a reporter or whatever told me there’s absolutely no — I really didn’t think for more than a second that I would hesitate to publish this. I did. That is the one time when I felt rather constrained and used alternative means of communication and things like that because I was afraid that if any part of the government found out that I had this in had was going to publish it there could’ve been prior restraint. I mean, it could’ve been removed in some way or we could’ve been prevented from publishing it. So we took a lot of security procedures that may or may not have been necessary. And I hoped at that time that, I had this dream that if everybody reads this damn report — it’s 23 pages — if the entire country reads it, you know. I had this almost utopian notion that let’s just get it out there and get people to read it. And of course, nobody read it. [Laughter] But still — I shouldn’t say that. People did. People did read it. Not nobody read it. But, you know, one feels by the nature of what one does that information is transformative. You know, that if people only know. This is kind of the theme on which I began. You know, that if essentially the information has to get out. If it does, the society essentially will heal itself, which is to say that its ills are really a result of secrecy and so on. And of course, it seems to me we’re confronting a situation where that, it’s very hard to argue any longer that that is true. But I would like to share your optimism and I’ll try to take some solace from it. So I thank you for that question.
Robin Schott: Thank you. And that’s a perfect moment to end here. Mark has taken us on a tour through the debates about torture and drones, and whether there has developed in the US as in other countries and cultures of impunity. What does it mean to genuinely challenge conditions for torture? What language is available for public discussion? Who creates this language? And can one challenge the politics of fear? So I want to thank you for that. Thank you all for joining us this afternoon.
Mark Danner: Thank you.
[End of recording]