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2009-10-14

"Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War": Groundbreaking Journalist Mark Danner on Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and Torture

Guests

Mark Danner, Journalist, writer and professor. He was a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the New York Times. He is also professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of foreign affairs, politics and humanities at Bard College. He is the author of The Massacre at El Mozote, Torture and Truth and The Short Way to War. His latest book, just published by Nation Books, is a collection of his award-winning dispatches about Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the so-called war on terror. It’s called Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War.

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Award-winning journalist, writer and professor Mark Danner has just released a new collection of dispatches about Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the use of torture in the US war on terror. It’s called Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War. We speak to Danner about torture in the so-called war on terror and his career of chronicling US-backed human rights abuses abroad. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: Just days after President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol have founded a new lobbying group on the Hill called "Keep America Safe." The group’s mission statement reads, quote, "By turning away from the policies that have kept us safe, by treating terrorism as a law enforcement matter, giving foreign terrorists the same rights as American citizens, launching investigations of CIA agents, cutting defense spending, breaking faith with our allies and attempting to appease our adversaries, the current administration is weakening the nation, and making it more difficult for us to defend our security and our interests," end-quote.

The group launched a web video this week lambasting Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to launch a Justice Department probe into whether CIA operatives broke the law while interrogating prisoners.

    NARRATOR: He talked tough about defending those who defend the nation.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will be as vigorous in protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.

    NARRATOR: And the reality?

    BRET BAIER: Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to begin a new probe of alleged CIA interrogation abuses.

    NARRATOR: A decision criticized by seven former CIA directors.

ANJALI KAMAT: One of the group’s co-founders, Deborah Burlingame, told Politico that the website would also feature the Bush administration’s memos so people can, quote, "read the memos on enhanced interrogation instead of reading them through the lens of the media where they’re called [quote] ‘Torture memos’ when, actually, they’re lawyers talking about an anti-torture statute and how not to violate it.”

Well, back in what’s been called the "reality-based community," civil liberties advocates have criticized Holder for not taking the probe far enough and only investigating cases where interrogators went beyond the limits prescribed in the so-called torture memos.

President Obama has repeatedly said he will uphold the law but wants to look forward and not backward. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation last month, Obama said he would not interfere with the Justice Department investigation.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have said consistently that I want to look forward and not backward when it comes to some of the problems that occurred under the previous administration or when it came to interrogations. I don’t want witch hunts taking place. I’ve also said, though that the Attorney General has a job to uphold the law.

AMY GOODMAN: But the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kit Bond, announced late last month that he was pulling Republican staff off the committee’s own probe into CIA interrogation and detention policies. The move appeared to be a response to the Attorney General’s decision to launch the Justice Department investigation.

Well, our next guest has famously described the way this country deals with the continued revelations about torture as a, quote, "frozen scandal." I’m talking about award-winning journalist, writer and professor Mark Danner, longtime staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the New York Times. He’s also professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of foreign affairs, politics and humanities at Bard College. He’s the author of The Massacre at El Mozote, Torture and Truth, The Short Way to War. His latest book has just been published by Nation Books. It’s a collection of his dispatches about Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq and the use of torture in the US war on terror. It’s called Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War. Mark Danner joins us here in our firehouse studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Mark.

MARK DANNER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The title, Stripping Bare the Body?

MARK DANNER: Well, that came from something that a former Haitian president said, Leslie Manigat, who was briefly president after the fall of Duvalier and was overthrown in a coup. And he talked about the fact that political violence strips bare the social body, the better to place the stethoscope and hear what’s really going on beneath the skin. And his point, I think, in general, was if you look at a society convulsed by violence, whether it’s a coup d’état, a revolution, a war, it is a way to see inside it to understand the different social forces that make it tick and that, during times of peace, very often tend to be invisible.

And the book is about really those moments of nudity, as he called them, when you can look inside, whether it’s Haiti itself, the Balkans during the wars of the mid-’90s, the Iraq war, the war on terror in which we’re looking at our own society, whether it’s through provisions that the Bush administration put in place to deal with terrorism or the decisions that the Obama administration has made in its aftermath not to pursue certain legal recourses. And all of these are, in President Manigat’s phrase, moments of nudity in which we can actually look at societies and try to understand what makes them tick politically. And that’s what the book’s about.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that naked truth now. We’ll work our way backwards.

MARK DANNER: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama and Bush and how the Obama administration is dealing with Bush, these torture memos, and what both Eric Holder is doing and not doing?

MARK DANNER: Well, the administration has taken a middle course, essentially. The President, as your viewers just heard, has repeatedly said he wants to look forward and not back, an interesting phrase and one that, if carried fully to its conclusion, would mean we would never prosecute anything, if we were simply looking forward. But it means, in essence, that there will be no broad, wide-ranging investigation into interrogation under the Bush administration.

Under this general umbrella of policy, the Attorney General has decided that he will look specifically at officials under the Bush administration who went beyond the particular provisions or decisions that the Bush administration decided the law actually allowed, which is what the torture memos, referred to, describe. In fact, according to the Bush administration, the Convention Against Torture allows waterboarding; allows confinement in small boxes; allows sleep deprivation for up to eight days; allows beatings; allows the use of insects and various other things to terrify detainees; allows the use of heat, light, severe cold, prolonged nudity.

I hope, indeed, they follow — Americans follow Dick Cheney and his daughter in their admonition to read the so-called torture memos. I think everybody should read them, whatever they’re called. I hope Americans go forward and broadly look at them, because it will alter the political attitudes in the country, I think, regarding these procedures.

In any event, the administration has decided, in the person of Eric Holder, that interrogators who went beyond those limits, which were rather broad, people who, for example, threatened detainees with drills, that they were going to drill into their heads, threatened to shoot them in the head or threatened to rape their daughters or rape their wives, things like this, those people will be investigated. But the ones who actually waterboarded will not be. So this is a classic decision to take a middle ground that will please no one. As mentioned in the intro, civil rights groups — human rights groups have criticized this very strongly. On the other hand, Republicans, in the person of the Cheneys, Kit Bond and others, have criticized the Obama administration nonetheless for starting a witch hunt of Bush administration officials, which clearly isn’t the case.

But as you saw in this lobbying group that Cheneys have now set up, the Republicans see rich political ground to be harvested in these issues. And this goes back really to three months after the attacks of 9/11, when Karl Rove stood up before the Republican National Committee and said, “Americans trust us to protect the country. You know, we can win on this terrorism issue.” And indeed, for two elections, they did win. And the Cheneys are now really trying to set up the Obama administration as an administration that’s weak, Democratic weakness, renouncing torture, renouncing the techniques that supposedly are needed to protect the country.

And I think there’s a very calculated strategy at work here, particularly in the event of another attack. That is, the Obama administration is being put in a position where if there is an attack on the country, it can be very vigorously blamed by the Republicans for leaving the country open to the attack by its supposed refusal to torture detainees. And we see this — we see another side of this in the debate over Afghanistan, where Republicans are very harshly criticizing the administration for its hesitation in not sending the full complement of 40,000 troops that General McChrystal has reportedly recommended. So you’re seeing on both sides this kind of preparation to undermine the administration in the event of a further attack, that it has left the country vulnerable, as of course Democrats do, in the Republican worldview.

So all of this — you know, President Obama, with all due respect, keeps talking about not wanting to look in the past, but in fact the torture issue is not about the past; it’s about the present, very much so. And our national security has very strong symbolic resonance among the American public. It isn’t simply about what the Bush administration did; it’s about what the Obama administration is doing and what it stands for. And the Democrats have taken, I think, a somewhat typical, middle-of-the-road position that leaves them vulnerable and pleases no particular constituency at all.

ANJALI KAMAT: And Mark, I want you to expand on your notion of the “frozen scandal.” We’ve all known that this country has been torturing.

MARK DANNER: Mm-hmm.

ANJALI KAMAT: For over four years now, these revelations came out, starting with Abu Ghraib. But you talk about this as a frozen scandal, where each time there’s a new revelation, there’s a new round of shock. But then, what happens next?

MARK DANNER: Well, it’s true, as you say, that we’ve known about these things for a long time. The first major press report on stress and duress techniques, as it was called then, was on the front page of the Washington Post in December 2002. The New York Times reported on waterboarding in 2004 in May. There was a rush of documents that came out, as you point out, in the wake of Abu Ghraib. I published a book on this in October 2004, which is about 600 pages. It was called Torture and Truth. And two-thirds of it were government documents that describe this stuff in great detail.

So, we like to think that our scandals are about revelation, which is to say, once you hear about something, my god, the society jolts to attention, the judicial and congressional machinery leaps into action, there are investigations, there’s punishment and so on. And that has not happened.

Actually, there’s been revelation. There have been gestures toward investigation. In the case of Abu Ghraib, a few lower-level soldiers have been imprisoned, prosecuted and imprisoned. But the actual policymakers, whose decisions we know about in great detail — we have these memos that Department of Justice officials wrote. We have an immense amount of material, thousands and thousands of pages, describing in great detail how the decisions were made to use torture. We have the Red Cross report, which I published last spring, which describes these techniques in great detail, how they were used, what sequence they were used in. We have the Justice Department and CIA document describing how they were used. All this stuff is out there.

And we like to think what prevents action is lack of information, but in fact it’s not information, it’s politics. And politics, at this point, have determined that we, in effect, as a society, decided not only to torture, but to live with torture. That has been our decision up to now. And I think we tend to console ourselves that this is a continuing scandal, and there’s a controversy about it. But in fact, though we talk about it a lot, the decisions on the part of the government have been made and, in a real sense, unchallenged. None of the people who made the policies have been prosecuted and even investigated. And the decisions have not been formally renounced. Though Obama has said he will not use these anymore, and I believe him, they are — torture in fact has gone from being an anathema, something forbidden and illegal under US law and international conventions, to being a policy choice. In effect, for example, if there’s another attack, the government can go back to using it. I mean, it’s essentially been defined as legal under the Convention Against Torture and under US law.

AMY GOODMAN: Iraq — fit Iraq into this story, as you do in Stripping Bare the Body, talking about it, as many do now, in the past, although the US has a full presence there right now.

MARK DANNER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: A war is being waged.

MARK DANNER: Well, it’s an amazing American proclivity, I think, to, you know, look at a particular place, direct its imperial gaze there, the elite learns all about the country, we debate what’s going on in Mosul and Karbala and so on, the knowledge and the argument is furious for a few years, and then suddenly the gaze shifts elsewhere. It’s like a spotlight that goes now to Afghanistan and leaves Iraq, formerly brightly lit, in darkness. And we tend to leave ruins behind. And Iraq, I think, is a very good example of that, that suddenly it’s gone.

We can define it, if we want to, as a success. That is the way it’s talked about very often in the national press, one way or another. And in fact, of course, it remains an extremely violent place. The insurgency still exists. The United States essentially tamped it down for a time by renting the insurgency, by dividing it and hiring a good many of what we seem to refer to as the tribes — a very odd expression — but Sunni organizations in the center of the country. It is, as I say — there is still a very significant level of violence there. But for reasons having to do, I think, with Obama’s ascension, mainly, and the current political struggle over Afghanistan, what will be done there, we don’t talk about it anymore. It’s just left the national scene.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think needs to be said about it right now?

MARK DANNER: Well, I think one of the things I would like to say about it is that it is somewhat a lesson in how we make decisions and our national evangelism, our conviction, that seems to be ignited from time to time, that the United States, “with all its great power” — I put that in quotes — can alter, for its own good, a society that’s distant, complex, difficult to understand, and that has its own particular political strengths and dysfunctions.

We tend — I’m always astonished by how we talk about other countries. We’re doing it now with Afghanistan, that, you know, actually it’s a political problem. We have to nation-build. There was a piece on the front page of the New York Times in the last few days that talked about nation-building going too slowly in Afghanistan. And it always leaves me a bit breathless to look at this idea that — I mean, if you’ve ever seen foreign aid actually at work on the ground, you can’t do these things. You can’t change societies on this scale, particularly since US intervention — you know, it’s like trying to fix a watch in your own shadow, because you have the shadow of nationalism, which is to say, every US — bit of US forces that actually are on the ground cause their own very often extreme political reaction. So it’s impossible. It’s kind of an indeterminacy principle. You cannot intervene without a strong reaction, and very often a very strong reaction. And both of these societies, the Iraqi and the Afghani, have in common the fact that they’re strongly nationalistic and react very powerfully to outside intervention.

And the fact that we saw this in spades in Iraq seems not to be recalled in any way during the debate about Afghanistan, which is being carried on, it seems to me, largely because of domestic political reasons that stem in large part from decisions the Obama campaign made, while he was trying to become president, to balance out the fact that he was a dove on Iraq. He made very strong statements about the good war, the right war, Afghanistan and so on. And also, his original speech about Iraq, of course, said, "I’m not against all wars. I’m against dumb wars," he said in 2002. And under that description, Iraq was — or Afghanistan, excuse me, was originally described or understood as the smart war. So here we are with a debate that, it seems to me, has a barely concealed, but absolutely determinate, domestic political component, that has very — relatively little to do with Afghanistan at all.

So, what would I take from Iraq? I would take that lesson, that when we seem to be talking about somewhere else, somewhere else that we’re going to affect very materially with our own power, we actually very often are talking about ourselves. And it’s something that we seem to repeat, and yet never learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Danner, I want to thank you for being with us. I look for to continuing this conversation with you Thursday night at the New School. I’ll be in conversation with Mark at the New School Tishman Auditorium Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. And all are invited. Tonight you’re headed to Washington?

MARK DANNER: Washington, DC.

AMY GOODMAN: To Busboys and Poets?

MARK DANNER: Busboys and Poets, yes, 6:30.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s on 14th Street. And folks can link to our website at democracynow.org; we’ll give all of those details. Mark Danner’s new book is out, a collection of his writings over the years. It’s called Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

MARK DANNER: Thanks.

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