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Reflecting on 9-11: Torture, the War on Terror, and Living in Our State of Exception (Danner)

Other articles in EA's Special Collection, "Reflecting on 9-11":

James Miller: "A Special for 9/12 --- The Lessons We Refused to Learn"
Joseph Stiglitz: "A US Response More Costly Than the Attacks"
Tom Engelhardt: "Let's Put 9-11 Behind Us"
David Dunn: "What the War on Terror Has Cost the US...and Us
Scott Lucas: "Why 9-11 Was Not a Turning Point for the World

We conclude this week's collection of reflections on the US and the World After 9-11 with this essay by Mark Danner in The New York Review of Books:

We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. — George W. Bush, September 20, 2001

We are living in the State of Exception. We don’t know when it will end, as we don’t know when the War on Terror will end. But we all know when it began. We can no longer quite “remember” that moment, for the images have long since been refitted into a present-day fable of innocence and apocalypse: the perfect blue of that late summer sky stained by acrid black smoke. The jetliner appearing, tilting, then disappearing into the skin of the second tower, to emerge on the other side as a great eruption of red and yellow flame. The showers of debris, the falling bodies, and then that great blossoming flower of white dust, roiling and churning upward, enveloping and consuming the mighty skyscraper as it collapses into the whirlwind.

To Americans, those terrible moments stand as a brightly lit portal through which we were all compelled to step, together, into a different world. Since that day ten years ago we have lived in a subtly different country, and though we have grown accustomed to these changes and think little of them now, certain words still appear often enough in the news—Guantánamo, indefinite detention, torture—to remind us that ours remains a strange America. The contours of this strangeness are not unknown in our history—the country has lived through broadly similar periods, at least half a dozen or so, depending on how you count; but we have no proper name for them. State of siege? Martial law? State of emergency? None of these expressions, familiar as they may be to other peoples, falls naturally from American lips.

What are we to call this subtly altered America? Clinton Rossiter, the great American scholar of “crisis government,” writing in the shadow of World War II, called such times “constitutional dictatorship.” Others, more recently, have spoken of a “9/11 Constitution” or an “Emergency Constitution.” Vivid terms all; and yet perhaps too narrowly drawn, placing as they do the definitional weight entirely on law when this state of ours seems to have as much, or more, to do with politics—with how we live now and who we are as a polity. This is in part why I prefer “the state of exception,” an umbrella term that gathers beneath it those emergency categories while emphasizing that this state has as its defining characteristic that it transcends the borders of the strictly legal—that it occupies, in the words of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “a position at the limit between politics and law…an ambiguous, uncertain, borderline fringe, at the intersection of the legal and the political.”

Call it, then, the state of exception: these years during which, in the name of security, some of our accustomed rights and freedoms are circumscribed or set aside, the years during which we live in a different time. This different time of ours has now extended ten years—the longest by far in American history—with little sense of an ending. Indeed, the very endlessness of this state of exception—a quality emphasized even as it was imposed—and the broad acceptance of that endlessness, the state of exception’s increasing normalization, are among its distinguishing marks.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans the changes have come to seem subtle, certainly when set beside how daily life was altered during World War II or World War I, not to mention during the Civil War. Officially sanctioned torture, or enhanced interrogation, however dramatic a departure it may be from our history, happens not to Americans but to others, as do extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention; the particular burdens of our exception seem mostly to be borne by someone else—by someone other. It is possible for most to live their lives without taking note of these practices at all except as phrases in the news—until, every once in a while, like a blind man who lives, all unknowingly, in a very large cage, one or another of us stumbles into the bars.

Whoever takes the time to peer closely at the space enclosed within those bars can see that our country has been altered in fundamental ways. When President Barack Obama in his elegant address accepting the Nobel Peace Prize declares to the world that he has “prohibited torture,” we should pause in our pride to notice that torture violates international and domestic law and that the notion that our new president has the power to prohibit it follows insidiously from the pretense that his predecessor had the power to order it—that during the state of exception, not only because of what President George W. Bush decided to do but also because of what President Obama is every day deciding not to do (not to “look back” but “look forward”), torture in America has metamorphosed. Before the War on Terror, official torture was illegal and anathema; today it is a policy choice.

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