Author: Charles Kaiser
Above the Fold
Our own era, I am convinced, will be remembered for the American Government’s official development of, its placing the country’s legal imprimatur on, and Americans’ acceptance of, the techniques and practice of torture.
— Mark Danner, December 16, 2009
This week Mark Danner synthesized the most important points from all of his articles and books about torture for the Irving Howe Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at the graduate center of the City University of New York.
As I have pointed out before, when the history of this era is written, Danner will be remembered as one of a handful of journalists who summoned the necessary outrage to alert his readers to the horrendous costs of America’s broad embrace of torture during the Bush years. Jane Mayer ofThe New Yorker, Scott Horton of Harper’s, Andy Rosenthal of The New York Timeseditorial page, Glenn Greenwald of Salon and Jon Stewart–yes, Jon Stewart–all deserve praise for their superb efforts in this area, but none more so than Danner.
Danner is a professor at Bard and the University of California at Berkeley, where, he noted wryly, ex-Bush administration torture-enabler John Yoo is now his colleague: “I can hear the demonstrators down the street in front of his house.”
This week he began his lecture by quoting Irving Howe on George Orwell’s 1984:
The book appalls us because its terror, far from being inherent in the “human condition,” is particular to our century; what haunts us is the sickening awareness that in 1984 Orwell has seized upon those elements of our public life that, given courage and intelligence, were avoidable.
Danner argued that courage and intelligence were exactly what had been needed to prevent America from falling into the abyss of torture. He also noted the deadening similarities between our endless war on terror, and the permanent war among Oceania, Urasia and Eastasia depicted in1984.
Danner’s lecture was entitled “Escaping the State of Exception: Torture and Truth, Obama and Us,” and he reminded his listeners that America had endured many previous “states of exception:”
* “The most famous:” when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and took other measures solely on his own authority in the months after his inauguration in 1861;
* John Adams’ imprisonment of hundreds of political opponents in 1798 and 1799 in the run up to an expected war with revolutionary France;
* Woodrow Wilson’s imprisonment and deportation of thousands who spoke out against the country’s entry into World War I;
* Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to imprison 110,000 Japanese-Americans afer Pearl Harbor – the great majority of them American citizens.
So, Danner concluded, “we have been here before.” But while each of these previous “exceptions” occurred within the confines of a well-defined event, like the Civil War or World War II–and thus ended along with those conflicts–elements of the current state of exception could last as long as the endless war on terror.
“So far,” Danner declared, “those elements have included wholesale arrest and long-term detention of aliens on American soil; massive wiretapping of Americans without benefit of a warrant, as prescribed by law; ‘extraordinary rendition’—secret kidnapping–of large numbers of foreign citizens on foreign soil and their transfer to other countries for interrogation or to secret American facilities; establishment of offshore prisons, the most notorious of which the one at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the long-term detention without trial of hundreds and, taken as a whole, thousands of prisoners; establishment of secret prisons–so-called “black sites”–for covert and prolonged detention of prisoners; and finally the development of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ so-called EITs, making use of suffocation, battery, close confinement and other measures and their widespread use on detainees held in secret prisons.”
Danner said Barack Obama deserved praise for ending torture in the first week of his administration, and for this passage in the speech he gave last week when he accepted the Nobel in Oslo:
“All nations–strong and weak alike–must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I–like any head of state–reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates – and weakness–those who don’t….Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.
On the other hand, so far there has been no renouncement of rendition, and Obama has said repeatedly that when it comes to torture, he wants to “look forward,” not “back.” Danner called that “a pernicious phrase, and, if held to consistently, would preclude all punishment and prosecution, [because] rendering justice, by definition, implies looking backward. But the political costs of justice, at least that provided by prosecution, are very great; for we live still in the ‘politics of fear.’”
The main actor in keeping that fear alive, of course, has been former vice president Dick Cheney, who began his relentless assault on the current administration barely a week after it took office, and continued it by scheduling a speech on terror which he delivered almost simultaneously with one Obama gave on the same subject. Danner quoted several of Cheney’s core arguments, including these:
* “If it hadn’t been for what we did—with respect to the…enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees…—then we would have been attacked again. Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US….
* “I think there’s a high probability of [another] such an attempt. 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….”
Danner called these “dark admonitions,” which are “both exculpatory, pointing back to what the administration did and justifying it, and minatory, warning about what will happen in the future and laying down a predicate for who will be blamed.” Partly because of them, “Congress has been reluctant to vote funds for the President’s plan to close Guantanamo, fearful of warning cries that the new president will be ‘putting terrorists in our neighborhoods.’ And we see its effect in the increasing refusal to release photographs and memoranda, and the increasing willingness to take positions similar to the Bush administration when it comes to lawsuits regarding torture and detainee rights.”
The decision “that expresses most purely the ambivalence of the Obama Administration…is the decision not to bring criminal investigations against those who have tortured – or rather to do so only in the case of those who have gone beyond the Bush Administration’s immensely wide guidelines.”
Danner is not opposed to broad prosecutions of those responsible for formulating the Bush administration’s torture policies, but the professor is more practical than polemica– and he sees no possibility of such prosecutions in the current political climate. Therefore, he argues that the road to justice must run through education, which should take the form of a truth commission, “to investigate what was done in the realm of interrogation, who did it, what it accomplished and, not least, how it hurt the country. For the priority must be not destroying the torturers but destroying the idea of torture.”
Danner cited poll numbers showing that many more people in America now believe that torture is sometimes necessary than their counterparts in Europe, or Egypt, or most other countries of the world:
There are many reasons for this – the myth of the ticking bomb, the desire for harsh justice expressed from the American Western to Dirty Harry – but it is clear these attitudes are deep seated and damaging. They represent the stark reality of a society that, post-9/11 – has come to accept torture. It is only through an effort to change those attitudes that we can approach a state of justice.
So far, there hasn’t even been any broad political pressure to create a truth commission, much less the political will to prosecute those who sanctioned torture. Under these circumstances, the road back to sanity and justice is likely to be very long indeed.