Journalist Mark Danner discusses 'torture and the forever war'

Prominent journalist describes the actions of an anxious government in desperate times – and discusses the implications for America.

Merissa Ren/Stanford Daily Mark Danner

Mark Danner

In a post-9/11 government, anything goes – even torture.

So says journalist Mark Danner, who spoke Wednesday night as part of Stanford's annual Tanner Lectures. He argued that our government is in an endless "state of exception," an altered state of government in which torture is legal.

Danner, who has written extensively about American foreign policy, torture and human rights violations, is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and a journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

He has been on campus to give a series of lectures and discussion seminars through Friday titled "Torture and the Forever War: Living in the State of Exception."

Danner said that torture would be illegal in any other circumstances, but in the current, altered state of government after Sept. 11, 2001, it became legal.

"Torture in America has metamorphosed from an anathema to a policy choice," Danner said. He cited passage of the Patriot Act and the president's military order of Nov. 13, 2001, among measures that led to a withholding of protections under the Geneva Conventions from detainees in the war on terror. The Bush administration authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques" for detainees – techniques later characterized as torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Danner noted that, in last December's Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama said he had "prohibited torture" – but that implied that it was in his predecessor's power to authorize it in the first place.

Danner's talk focused on excerpts from the 2007 ICRC report, describing the interrogation techniques that were used on three suspected terrorists, including Abu Zubaydah, a senior member of al-Qaida, who was captured in March 2002. The report described methods of restraint, sleep deprivation and waterboarding used to extract information. The ICRC said that, in combination, these methods are torture.

Danner cited others' questions about the value of the information extracted from the detainees and the efficacy of the torture to extract real information. Al-Qaida terrorists are trained to resist the worst forms of torture, he said, and there is a limit to the harshness of techniques the interrogators can use in a democracy.

Danner defined this altered state of government, in which torture is legal, as a "state of exception," one that "transcends the borders of the strictly legal … those years during which in the name of security, some of our accustomed rights and freedoms are circumscribed."

In this state, Danner said, the effort to protect the country from terrorists was redefined as a war without boundaries, where terrorists could be attacked anywhere and countries harboring them were considered enemies. It also redefined terrorists as unlawful combatants, depriving anyone defined as a terrorist of the protection of the laws of war.

He said it also placed more power in the president's hands, to the exclusion of other branches of government and the minority party, and emphasized rash, preventive measures. In addition, the government was secretive about its methods, narrowing the number of people who could contribute their information, and thus relied on improvised, amateur solutions to complex problems.

Danner blamed these practices on the anxiety and paranoia among government officials who were bombarded by daily threats after the 9/11 attacks.

A final discussion seminar, with Harvard English Professor Elaine Scarry and New York University law Professor Stephen Holmes, will take place from 10 a.m. to noon on Friday, April 16, at the Landau Economics Building, SIEPR A.

The Tanner Lectures series, which is free and open to the public, is held annually at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, California-Berkeley, Michigan and Utah, and in England at Cambridge and Oxford universities. Established in 1978 by Obert Clark Tanner, an industrialist, legal scholar and philosopher, the lectures are meant to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values.

At Stanford, the Tanner Lecture series is sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Society and the President's Office.

Gwyneth Dickey is an intern with the Stanford News Service.