You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Colleagues of Michael Ratner Blast Samuel Moyn’s Claim That He Helped Sanitize the “War on Terror”

StoryOctober 01, 2021
Watch Full Show
Media Options

Friends and relatives of the late radical attorney Michael Ratner respond to the recent controversy over Yale University professor Samuel Moyn’s claim that Ratner “prioritized making the war on terror humane” by using the courts to challenge the military’s holding of prisoners at Guantánamo. Ratner’s longtime colleagues blast Moyn for failing to recognize how the late attorney had dedicated his life to fighting war and U.S. imperialism. “Michael opposed war with every fiber of his being in every medium he had access to: the courtroom, the classroom, in the media,” says Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “And he knew that legal challenges to protect humans from authoritarian abuses and violence and torture were necessary.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: I also now wanted to turn to the whole controversy around Yale University professor Samuel Moyn’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books titled “Michael Ratner’s Tragedy, and Ours.” The piece is excerpted from Moyn’s new book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War. In the piece, the Yale professor writes, quote, “In the years after September 11, 2001, Michael set aside the why, whether, and how long of American’s global wars and concentrated instead on legally battling for controls on how they proceeded. In the annals of recent history, no one, perhaps, has done more than this leader of the Center for Constitutional Rights to enable a novel, sanitized version of permanent war. By legalizing the manner of the conflict, Ratner paradoxically laundered the inhumanity from what began as a brutal enterprise by helping to recodify a war that thus became endless, legal, and humane.” Those the words of Yale University professor Samuel Moyn.

I want to go back to Baher Azmy now. You recently co-wrote an article titled “The Humanity of Michael Ratner, The Fabrications of Samuel Moyn.” Can you respond to Professor Moyn?

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, Amy. I think Professor Moyn makes the, to me, somewhat — although I haven’t fully read his book — from what I understand, somewhat unoriginal observation that lawyers have populated defense departments, say, in the United States or in the IDF, and lawyers inside those regimes have sought to make war slightly less lethal and within some sort of legal norms. So, OK, but I suppose because that’s a fairly standard claim, he goes further to make the provocative and, ultimately, as we say, fraudulent claim that Michael Ratner is somehow in that camp.

So, Michael opposed war with every fiber of his being in every medium he had access to: the courtroom, the classroom, in the media. And he knew that legal challenges to protect humans from authoritarian abuses and violence and torture were necessary — that was his project in Guantánamo — and he also knew about the horrors of war, and could manage both at the same time. So, September 23rd, 2001, he gave a talk in which he said, “This is not a lawful basis for the U.S. to engage in war. This is a crime under international law,” citing the Nuremberg precedent, and argued that we should not pursue war but pursue war crimes and crimes against humanity against the perpetrators. And over and over again, he was opposed to war. And the irony of sort of lumping Michael with people who try to make war humane, among many other pieces of evidence, Michael’s project, throughout the 2000s and before, from his experience in challenging war waged by the Clinton administration in Kosovo, is to say, very specifically, the idea of humanitarian war is impossible, because it is just a mask for U.S. forms of hegemony.

So, Professor Moyn has somewhat walked back his critique, suggested that the title was chosen by the editor and not him, but I think the content of his article, as you excerpted, stands and is profoundly misguided. Michael understood that lawyering has a particular role in society. It’s not where the war is won, but it’s where the battle has to be fought, alongside all other sorts of means to leverage, the power of movements to challenge repression. That’s what Michael stood for, and in no way did he ever sanitize war.

AMY GOODMAN: Lizzy Ratner, Michael Ratner, yes, was known for these court challenges, from Guantánamo to actual wars, taking on Rumsfeld and others, suing against illegal war. But he also most deeply believed in the streets.

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah. You know, I just want to sort of echo what Baher was saying. Reading Samuel Moyn’s piece was a sort of out-of-body experience, where you have somebody come in and speak very authoritatively and make really grand, sweeping claims, which might sound credible, but then you realize: I know this person, and this is actually sloppy and factually incorrect. So it was sort of a strange experience to read in The New York Review of Books my uncle described in this way, which actually had no bearing on who he was or what he did.

So, yeah, you know, prior to the war on terror, the so-called war on terror, Michael obviously was out in the streets and fighting legal battles on a whole array of topics. But I really want to focus on those last 15 years of his life, which could be looked at, in one way, as entirely an attempt to fight the so-called war on terror, abroad and at home, in whatever way he could. Michael believed that the law was a tool. It was one among many. But he had no great faith that the law was going to change everything. He believed that it was made by elites, by rich people, by the wealthy and the powerful, often as a way to hold onto that power. And so, he talks in his book extensively about, you know, he’s going to do what he could in the courts and then work with people on the streets.

And I’ll get to those sort of street examples in a moment, but I do want to quote from Michael’s book, since we are talking about it, and I think it provides a really powerful rebuttal to this claim by Samuel Moyn that Michael literally focused the last years of his life on sanitizing the war and didn’t ask the why, wherefore and how and only questioned the manner in which war was fought. So, Michael has a whole section on working with Julian Assange and on truth — what he calls truth tellers, which he sort of focused on at the end of his life. And he asks at one point, you know: Why did I become so fixated on the stories of Chelsea Manning, of Julian Assange, of Snowden, of Jeremy Hammond?

And he writes, “I’ve asked myself why are truth tellers like Assange, Manning, Snowden and Hammond so important to me? The answer is that they have succeeded in doing what CCR and I have been trying to do ever since the so-called war on terror began in the wake of September 11, 2001. For more than a decade, we lawyers at CCR brought at least a dozen lawsuits seeking to expose and end rendition, illegal drone strikes, the War in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the torture at Guantánamo and other U.S. secret prisons. We tried to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes.”

Then he — I’ll skip a little bit. And he writes, “Then, all of a sudden, people like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Sarah Harrison, Aaron Swartz and Jeremy Hammond came out of nowhere. With acts of great courage, they revealed to the world what this country is actually doing. They sparked a much-needed public discussion of the U.S. government’s secret, illegal and inhumane policies, and they brought people into the streets.”

And so I feel like I can talk extensively about Michael, but his own words tell the story of what he was trying to do, what he and CCR were trying so hard to do, which was attack war, attack this vast apparatus, using whatever means they could. And so, of course, yes, he was also speaking all the time, from early on, from right after 9/11. He was teaching. He was out there protesting. He was working with CodePink and United for Peace and Justice. He was doing everything he possibly could to fight this war and these wars.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. That’s Lizzy Ratner. She’s the niece of the late pioneering lawyer Michael Ratner and a senior editor now at The Nation magazine. We’re talking to Vince Warren, who is the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, where Michael Ratner served as president, and Baher Azmy, who is the Center for Constitutional Rights’ legal director. When we come back, I want to ask Vince Warren about those lawsuits against war in general. I remember when we interviewed Michael in Berlin, when he was suing Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary under George W. Bush. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Bob Dylan. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Back in 2006, attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights went to Berlin, Germany, to file a war crimes lawsuit in Germany against then-outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other high-ranking U.S. officials for their role in the torture of prisoners in Iraq and Guantánamo. We spoke with then-CCR President Michael Ratner in Berlin.

MICHAEL RATNER: What we did today was file a 220-page complaint — we’ve been working on this for quite a while — against 14 high-level U.S. officials, Rumsfeld being the lead one, but, of course, General Sanchez being in there, Tenet, the former head of the CIA, and a number of the lawyers who wrote some of the so-called torture memos, particularly lawyers Yoo and Bybee. The procedure here is you file that complaint with the prosecutor, and the prosecutor then decides whether or not to begin an investigation.

As you said, we did file a case, a similar case, in 2004. The prosecutor in 2004 dismissed the case. He dismissed it really for legal reasons on the face of it, but for political reasons, as well. The legal reasons, he said, were the United States, it appeared to him, was still investigating up the chain of command and was making an effort to look into who was responsible for the war crimes and the torture that went from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib. We thought that was a wrong ruling then. We didn’t think there was any evidence the U.S. was looking up the chain of command.

But here, we’re now even in a different situation that makes that excuse really irrelevant and not possible again. Two things have happened. One is, a year and a half has passed since we filed the last case, and, of course, nothing has been done to go after Donald Rumsfeld or Tenet or Sanchez or any of the other people we’ve named. So, that alone says a lot about what the U.S. is doing. But as you also mentioned in your opening, that the U.S. has also immunized these people from war crimes. In the Military Commissions Act, which was signed by the president on October 17th, he amends the statute that makes violations of the Geneva Conventions criminal. That’s called the War Crimes Act. He amends it, not just going forward, but he amends it going backwards, back to 9/11/2001, essentially immunizing these officials in the United States from any prosecutions for war crimes.

So, now that we’re in Germany, which is really a court of last resort — we can’t go to the United States courts, we can’t go to the international courts. They have no jurisdiction. You have to go to national courts. We’re in Germany, in part because it has the best law on universal jurisdiction and in part because, certainly in the past, and as far as we know today, some of the perpetrators are actually at military bases in Germany. Germany can no longer say, “Well, the U.S. is seriously investigating,” because the U.S. has essentially immunized these defendants.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the late crusading human rights attorney Michael Ratner. His book has just come out posthumously, his memoir. It’s called Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. We’re joined by three people who knew him well: Lizzy Ratner, his niece and editor at The Nation magazine; Baher Azmy, the Center for Constitutional Rights legal director, where Michael served as president; and Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

I don’t know how many times, Vince, that I talked to you and talked to Michael about the challenges, overall, to war. And it’s particularly important this week, as we watch, in the Senate and the House, military leaders coming forward, being questioned in these inquiries around the last two weeks of the U.S. military troop presence in Afghanistan and the chaos that happened. They’re willing to talk about the last few weeks, but no one in the House and Senate is holding a hearing on the entire last 20 years of the Afghanistan War. Talk about how Michael’s critique would inform this, and what you feel needs to happen.

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah, thank you, Amy. It is really — it’s very emotional to see clips of Michael. That clip in Berlin happened — I think they filed that case two weeks, maybe, after — no, sorry, a month after I started as executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. So it was really extraordinary.

A few things. Number one, I want to just bring back Baher’s frame, which I think was Michael’s frame, which is, don’t do war, don’t pursue war, pursue war crimes. And that, essentially, was a series of tools that Michael and also Peter Weiss, who was the vice president for the Center for Constitutional Rights, and many other lawyers began to pursue. And this, as it became known, the Rumsfeld case, which was filed in Germany, also was accompanied by a case that was filed in France, that was succeeded by a case that was filed in Switzerland, which actually kept George Bush and company from traveling to Switzerland under fear of arrest, which was part of Michael and Peter’s vision for how we should be thinking about war when the U.S. insists upon waging it and the U.S. citizenry insists upon backing it.

What is notable, I think, from the hearings that we’ve been hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal, particularly with respect to General Milley, has been that there has — everyone in Congress seems to be really, really deeply concerned about the question of failure, and no one seems to be concerned about the question of killing and lawlessness. And had we had this level of congressional interest, congressional concern at the beginning, back in the days after 9/11, when Congress gave the president the green light to do whatever he wanted, and abdicated its role under the War Powers Act, abdicated its role to be a check on the president in terms of waging war, if we had this level of engagement and intention at that point, we would not have been in Afghanistan for 20 years. Hundreds and thousands of Afghanis wouldn’t have died. U.S. troops wouldn’t have died. We would have had a different trajectory. But alas, in a society that is much more comfortable with recriminations 20 years later than being on the side of vision and right, as Michael was at the beginning, when there was tremendous risk, this is what we end up with.

I’ll say this other thing about just connecting this to the Moyn piece, is, you know, what Moyn is doing is essentially whitewashing the question of the roles of lawyers in pushing back on the great inhumanities that we inflict on each other. There were lawyers that filed lawsuits, largely unsuccessful, during the Nazi era. People didn’t — they were not bystanders. There were lawyers that filed hundreds of lawsuits, as shown in Rick Abel’s book, in South Africa to challenge apartheid. And there are hundreds of lawyers that challenged, quasi-successfully, actually, in the United States the hegemonic tone and vector of the United States military and military might.

This will be the essential function moving forward. We are not living in an era where we can say, “You know what? We don’t need lawyers to be able to deal with the inhumanities of man,” because we’re going to see them under every administration, including this one. I have no doubt that there will be a military intervention at some point, particularly around the question of when people are reelected, that will require the vision of Michael. And I’m glad that Michael gave that to us at this point, so that we can prepare for the next thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the last word goes to another Ratner, to Lizzy Ratner. Lizzy, if you can talk about Michael as an institution builder? Yes, he helped to build the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and also was seminal with Palestine Legal. And if you can talk about his commitment to Palestinian human rights?

LIZZY RATNER: Yeah. So, Michael talks in the book a lot about both sort of his upbringing in a Zionist Jewish family in the United States and how he, over the years, really came to understand the story of Palestine, to understand the story of oppression, of ethnic cleansing, and sort of come to feel that his role could not be to sit on the sidelines, but was to join in and support in whatever way he could, play the role of a supportive activist, support the struggle of Palestinians in the U.S. and, of course, in Palestine.

And so he worked very closely with Dima Khalidi to start Palestine Legal, which does fierce and heroic work here in the United States around the question of Palestinian speech rights. It’s, you know, that we believe in free speech in this country but often not around the question of Palestine. And so, people who speak up, particularly people who are Palestinian who speak up for Palestinian rights, end up sort of being silenced in all manner of ways. And so, he felt very strongly that sort of the next chapter of his life would be around the issue of Palestine, and he was starting out and embarking on that, when he became very sick. But it is beautiful to see the work —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds

LIZZY RATNER: It’s beautiful to see the work that they’re doing at Palestine Legal and also to see the work that CCR is doing, and so many young lawyers, who are pushing forward a radical theory of lawyering and also movement building. And he’d be so proud.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all so much for being with us, Lizzy Ratner, niece of the late MIchael Ratner, senior editor at The Nation magazine; Vince Warren, Center for Constitutional Rights executive director; and Baher Azmy, legal director at CCR. The new book, Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“A War Machine Out of Control”: Israel Keeps Attacking Aid Workers as Gaza Faces Famine

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation