Danner claimed that atrocities committed by U.S. military personnel and CIA officers against detainees, which became public knowledge in 2003, have been glossed since then. “There has not been a restoration to political health,” explained Danner.
After beginning his lecture on a lighthearted note, Danner read excerpts from a Nov. 2 New York Times article entitled “Detainee Policy Sharply Divides Bush Officials.” Danner discussed the heated debate within the Bush administration concerning whether the Defense Department should forbid “cruel, humiliating and degrading” interrogations of terror suspects. The Senate has recently voted 90-9 in favor of an amendment that would outlaw such treatment.
Danner accused the Bush administration of being riddled with frozen scandals concerning topics such as weapons of mass destruction and the torture of detainees-all exposed without expiation. “We’ve been raised to believe that after you reveal something, things happen to change,” he said. “There has been a delay in action for several years, but currently the ice is breaking and there are telltale sounds in D.C.” He attributes this factor to the president’s plummeting approval ratings, which stand at roughly 33 percent in the most recent polls.
Danner also presented part of a recent article in The Washington Post titled “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons.” The article explained that the CIA has not admitted to the existence of covert facilities termed “black sites,” which are mentioned in official documents and are known only to few domestic or foreign political leaders. He said that these facilities would “open the U.S. government to legal challenges, particularly in foreign courts, and increase the risk of political condemnation at home and abroad.”
Danner then talked about publicly available information that he feels has been overlooked. He read depositions from prisoners out of his book, and explained that the Bush administration deflected blame for the incidents to a few “bad apples,” low-ranking soldiers who went against regulations. Danner argued to the contrary, stating that these interrogation methods were systematic and carefully orchestrated by administrative leaders.
He read aloud the first-person account of an Iraqi man who was arrested because he was previously part of Saddam Hussein’s guard. At a combat base, five Americans inflicted blows to the man’s stomach, legs and kidneys and he was subjected to various “stress positions.” The prisoner’s head was hooded, a form of sensory deprivation performed to stimulate fear during a beating, so he could not anticipate the next blow. He spent five days without clothing, had nowhere to sleep and women’s underwear was placed on his head. He was spat and urinated upon, made to bark like a dog and was threatened with rape. Megaphones and loud music were employed in a noise campaign as pictures were taken during his sexual abuse. Danner noted recurring themes in the abuse, such as sexual degradation and forcing prisoners to commit acts involving the feet, which are particularly shameful in Middle Eastern culture.
Nick Avila ’08, who attended the lecture, said that hearing actual accounts from former prisoners was moving and disturbing. “It was important to learn that it was all public knowledge,” he said. “The fact that nothing has really happened, that the administration hasn’t been held accountable for the policies of torture and the condoning of such similar behavior since is appalling. It’s important that people like Mr. Danner go around and speak out about the atrocities and injustices that are being committed, revealing the hypocrisy of the government when we fight wars in the name of democracy and justice.”
Danner’s visit to Professor of Political Science Pavel Machala’s world politics class was even more memorable, Avila added. “The visit … was a great pleasure. [It was] well organized, hectic but fruitful, with a plethora of interesting people and informed questions.” Danner in turn said he found the students to be “well-informed and thoughtful.”
Professor of Philosophy Alexander George, who helped organize the visit, was happy with the presentation. “I liked his whole take on frozen scandals, which are starting to thaw due to Bush’s falling approval ratings and a new election on the horizon,” he said.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy Nishiten Shah felt the talk provided the audience with a necessary wake-up call. “The reasonable don’t disagree about whether it’s okay to lie to the American public,” he said. “That’s why it’s so egregious. The public should care. The public should care a lot.”
Hua Chai ’09 shared that although Danner addressed many important issues, she would have liked to hear more of Danner’s opinions. “For a lecture that encompassed a topic of such complex background and current global importance, Professor Danner made a good attempt to touch upon different aspects of the issue of torture,” she said. “I would have liked to hear a bit more of his own personal feelings on the use of torture by the U.S. government, in particular the CIA,” she said.
Danner graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College. For over a decade, Danner has been a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributor to The New York Review of Books. He is professor of journalism and director of the Goldman Forum at University of California at Berkeley, as well as the Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights, Democracy and Journalism at Bard College.