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Danner outlines the legal issues of torture


Danner said in his lecture Wednesday evening that America exists as a “state of exception” after the attacks on September 11. He specified defining characteristics of American foreign policy and the effects of the war on terror. (MERISSA REN/The Stanford Daily)

Acclaimed investigative reporter Mark Danner gave the first of two Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford on Wednesday. Danner, a professor of journalism at UC-Berkeley and Bard College, discussed the profound changes that took place in the American political landscape after September 11, 2001.

Danner said post-9/11 America exists as a “state of exception,” which has been characterized by eight primary features: declaring the war on terror, proclaiming under the Bush doctrine that terrorists could be attacked wherever they were found, redefining terrorists as unlawful combatants not unprotected by the laws of war, broadly imposing an aggressive and preventative military paradigm, increasing the power of the executive branch while excluding the other branches, increasing government secrecy, improvising solutions to large and complicated political problems and embedding the war on terror in the American political structure.

“This state transcends the borders of the strictly legal,” Danner said. “It occupies a position at the limit between politics and law, an ambiguous borderline fringe between legal and political realms.”

Danner said the dialogue in the media regarding torture has been one of the most salient features of the state of exception.

“When President Barack Obama, in his elegant address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, declares to the world that he has ‘prohibited torture,’ we should pause in our pride and gratitude to notice that torture violates international and domestic law and that the notion that our new president has the power to prohibit it follows insidiously from the pretense that his predecessor had the power to order it,” he said.

“During the near decade-long state of exception, not only because of what President George W. Bush decided to do but also because of what President Obama is every day deciding not to, torture in America has metamorphosed,” he added. “Before the war on terror, official torture was an anathema. Today it is a policy choice.”

In addition to skirting the boundaries of legality, Danner said the United States’ method of gathering intelligence in the war on terror was highly inefficient. Danner called this method the “one percent doctrine.” If there were even a one percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction, he explained, the government would treat the situation as if it were matter of certainty.

Danner said that the problem with this approach is that the United States detained suspects for interrogation who probably had little or no information to divulge, including at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison.

“I shall call this fact the broken funnel–prisoners clogging and debilitating the intelligence system,” he said. “Prisoners were swept into the system, often on very flimsy or no evidence, and once in it, stayed there, clogging and debilitating it, for there was not only no adversary system to judge their guilt or threat–a system that, had it existed, whether administrative or judicial, would at least have had the effect of forcing the gathering of information. There were no incentives to release them.”

Danner urged the audience to reflect on the country’s policies toward torture and indefinite detainment of terror suspects and the people who engaged in that detainment.

“As we gaze back today, on this sunny day, on these ghostly figures, we can have the sense, haunting as it is, that they are all looking forward at us as we stand here today judging what they did,” he said. “For if we know anything, it is that they knew that this moment would come.”

Students who came to the event said that Danner’s talk left an impression. Amanda Greene, a doctoral student in philosophy, said she was particularly struck by Danner’s discussion of torture practices in interrogations of suspected terrorists.

“What stood out to me in the talk was his diagnosis of the post-9/11 state of emergency as one of improvisation and experimentation,” she said. “It’s easy to have a knee-jerk moralistic response to torture, but tonight I learned that during WWII we had a policy on enhanced interrogation that was nuanced, effective, and legal.”

“He convinced me that this is a double moral failing,” she added, “since it wasn’t even effective as a means of interrogation.”