Alberto Mora is a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and former general counsel for the Department of the Navy.
In late 2002, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service uncovered evidence that detainees were being abused during interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Concerned about the lawlessness and the professional incompetence of the interrogators, they sought out a senior attorney in the Defense Department’s office of general counsel. Nothing could be done, the attorney blandly informed them. “The decision has been taken,” he said, “and, anyway, if the public were to find out, no one would care.”
Mark Danner is in the camp of those who do care. He has produced incisive journalism and books over the past three decades exploring the moral dimension of war and foreign policy. His essays in the New York Review of Books on Abu Ghraib were among the first to reveal the bleak reality and moral vacuum of the George W. Bush administration’s torture policy.
In “Spiral,” Danner continues to render valuable service. He has three overarching objectives. The first is to equip us with the analytical tools to control the war on terrorism and not to be controlled by it. The second is not to allow the war to lead us on a path contrary to our laws, values and founding principles. And the third is to help us avoid the self-defeating policies that strengthen the terrorist threat.
To assess where we are in the fight against terrorism and to help inform the decisions that lie ahead, Danner argues that it is necessary to look backward at the critical decisions made in the early years of the Bush administration in response to 9/11. Those decisions coalesced into what Danner calls a “state of exception,” those years “during which, in the name of security, some of our accustomed rights and freedoms are circumscribed or set aside.”
This state of exception was created by several policy decisions after 9/11, among them: to frame the response to the al-Qaeda mass murders as a war against terrorism (war had been a legal and policy designation reserved for conflicts between sovereign entities); to define the war as unbounded in time and space; to decree that the terrorists were outside the coverage of law; to turn law enforcement and national security toward preventing attacks; to ground the legitimacy for these decisions and actions in the president’s always-expanding authority as commander in chief and then to shroud all of it in secrecy; and to have the war discussion increasingly define the political struggle between the two parties.
From these policies came tactics that became the trademarks of this state of exception and that we “still hear echoing like ghostly footfalls behind the news,” Danner writes. He explores these tactics: warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, targeted assassinations, enhanced interrogations. Many of these practices have been modified, attenuated or, in the case of torture, ended. But, as Danner explains, in the main they have not been. “Instead of returning them to the arsenal of emergency measures,” officials have legalized and regularized them. Instead of ending the state of exception, “the Obama administration normalized it.”
The best evidence for this is the administration’s failure to investigate or prosecute those responsible for torture, even though President Obama has said in reference to torture, “This is not who we are.” Danner contends that by failing to hold ourselves accountable for torture and by repeatedly violating our founding principles, the real response is: Yes it is. We are what we do.
If this is how the war is redefining us contrary to our principles, the war is also controlling us by inducing us to act in ways that are contrary to our strategic interest. The title “Spiral” is drawn from historian Michael Ignatieff’s observation that the terrorists’ strategy is to draw us into an “escalatory spiral” that is controlled by the terrorists, not democratic governments. The terrorists’ outrages are not ends but means. The end is fear, and fear produces reaction and overreaction, which in turn produce policies that are self-defeating.
As Danner explains, Osama bin Laden’s objective was to lure the United States into a ground war in the Middle East that would catalyze a war between Islam and the West. In Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s strategy was to provoke the Shiites to overreact against the Sunnis, thus forcing them into the arms of al-Qaeda. Both partially succeeded. Now al-Qaeda has morphed into al-Qaedaism, and it has inspired the growth of the Islamic State and the imaginations of thousands of adherents who are flocking to its black banner or commiting acts of solo terrorism in Western countries. Because of mistaken U.S. policies that have contributed to the spiral, a terrorist group whose adherents on 9/11 could not have easily filled the stands of a medium-size basketball gym in a small town has managed to metastasize.
Although Danner’s book does not focus on the current presidential campaign, it speaks to one candidate in particular. By stoking the public’s fear of terrorism, calling for a return to torture, stigmatizing all Muslims here and abroad, and calling for an unfocused, all-out war on the Islamic State, Donald Trump as president would violate America’s core values while feeding the growth of terrorism. Somebody should do him a favor and buy him a copy of this important and indispensible book.
By Mark Danner
Simon & Schuster.
267 pp. $26