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Bush's State of Exception

With the Bush administration, power trumps law and even reality.

| Mon Feb. 27, 2006 3:00 AM EST

On a cloudless day, the sky a brilliant, late-afternoon blue, my car winds its way up the Berkeley hills. Plum and pear trees in glorious whites and pinks burst into sight at each turn in the road. Beds of yellow flowers, trees hung with lemons, and the odd palm are surrounded by the green of a northern California winter, though the temperature is pushing 70 degrees. An almost perfectly full moon, faded to a tattered white, sits overhead. Suddenly, I take a turn and start straight up, as if into the heavens, but in fact towards Grizzly Peak before turning yet again into a small street and pulling up in front of a wooden gate. You swing it open and proceed down a picturesque stone path through the world's tiniest grove of redwoods toward the yellow stucco cottage that was only recently the home of Nobel-Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, but is now the home -- as yet almost furniture-less -- of journalist Mark Danner, who has said that, as a young writer in search of "a kind of moral clarity," he gravitated toward countries where "massacres and killings and torture happen, in the place, that is, where we find evil."

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Danner greets me at the door which, thrown open, reveals a bay window with a dazzling vista of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay and through which the sun blazes goldenly. In a rumpled dark shirt and slacks, he ushers me out onto a small stone patio. "This is where the deer hang out," he says and points to a small area just beyond our chairs where the grass is slightly pressed down. "They lie there contemplating me as I pace on the other side of the bay window. I feel like their ping pong game."

Facing this peaceable kingdom, Danner has a slightly distracted, out-of-the-washer-but-not-the-drier look to him, except for his face, strangely unmarked, which would qualify as lighting up (even without the sun). He beams in such a welcoming way and there is in him something -- in this setting at least -- that makes it almost impossible to believe he has reported from some of the least hospitable, most dangerous spots on the planet over the last decades: Haiti in the 1980s, war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and Iraq, which he's visited three times in recent years, among other spots. He has covered the world for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and especially the New York Review of Books (whose editors have been kind enough to let a number of his pieces be posted at Tomdispatch.com).

Danner is now an expert on the torture practices of the U.S. military, the CIA, and the Bush administration (and his primer on the subject, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, is a must for any bookshelf). A professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, his cup of tea seems to be dicey American foreign-policy situations. His book-writing career began with a now-classic volume, The Massacre at El Mozote, in which he traveled to El Salvador for the exhumation of an infamous site where over 750 Salvadorans were massacred by U.S. trained troops during Ronald Reagan's first year in office. A new book of his recent writings, The Secret Way to War, is due out in April.

We seat ourselves, a makeshift table with my tape recorders between us, and turning away from the slowly sinking sun, simply plunge in.

Tom Engelhardt: I wanted to start with an area of expertise for you, torture policy. For me, the Bush administration's decision to enter this arena so quickly after 9/11 was a reach for power. If you can torture, you can do anything.

Mark Danner: When you look at the record, the phrase I come back to, not only about interrogation but the many other steps that constitute the Bush state of exception, state of emergency, since 9/11 is "take the gloves off." We hear this again and again. The interesting thing about that phrase is the implication that before we had the gloves on, that the laws and principles that constitute our belief not only in democracy but in human rights left the country vulnerable. The U.S. adherence to the Geneva Convention, the U.S. record of treating prisoners humanely that goes back to George Washington, laws like the FISA law passed to restrict the government's power to surveil its citizens -- all of these constitute the gloves on American power and 9/11 signaled to those in power that the system with "the gloves on" was insufficient to protect Americans. That seems to be their belief.

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