young man standing next to wall about US drones
The Obama administration has made extensive use of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, killing between 3,500 and 5,000 individuals. (CNN)

December 9, 2015

What Do We Do With What We Know? The War on Terror and Human Rights

by Natalie Davidson, a PhD Candidate at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, and  a 2015-16 research fellow at the Rapoport Center where she chaired the WPS Editorial Committee. She can be reached at

This commentary is in response to Mark Danner’s Lecture, “Spiraling Down: Human Rights, Endless War.”

We at the Rapoport Center were privileged last month to hear journalist Mark Danner talk about human rights and the War on Terror at the inaugural Frances Tarlton “Sissy” Farenthold Endowed Lecture in Peace, Social Justice and Human Rights (for more information and a full video of the lecture, click here), titled “Spiraling Down: Human Rights, Endless War.” Danner offered an incisive analysis of the current state of the United States’ War on Terror, an analysis that should not only sound alarm bells among European leaders as they choose military strikes as their response to the latest attack by ISIS in Paris, but also raises difficult questions about the part a human rights framework could play in putting an end to torture, indefinite detention, targeted assassinations and wiretapping by the U.S. executive.

Danner nostalgically described the Watergate scandal, which exposed the Nixon administration’s illegal activities against political opponents and led to the president’s resignation under threat of impeachment, as his political coming-of-age. Watergate, in Danner’s view, is a demonstration of “how the system is supposed to work”: a revelation of governmental wrongdoing by journalists, followed by investigations by Congressional committees and the courts, and finally punishment when the President resigns.

For Danner, contemporary American politics operate according to a very different logic. Instead of cycles of injustice-revelation-justice, human rights are now in a state of “frozen scandal.” Torture by and at the instigation of the U.S. military has been widely written about, including in a long Senate report. The practice has been denounced by President Obama, but other forms of gross human rights violations soon emerged. The Obama administration has made extensive use of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, killing between 3,500 and 5,000 individuals. Meanwhile, prisoners cleared for release continue to languish at Guantánamo under the legal fiction that they can neither be tried nor released, for they are prisoners held captive until the end of hostilities. Although these governmental abuses are well-known, there is no change, no expiation. The liberal assumption that exposing injustice will lead to its correction has not been borne out. This insight leads Sissy Farenthold to ask, when introducing Mark Danner: “what are we going to do about what we know?”

Danner sees the “frozen scandal” of human rights violations as one facet of the state of endless war inaugurated in September 2001 when Congress authorized the use of military force in the aftermath of September 11. The War on Terror has not only failed spectacularly to reduce terrorism, as the rise of ISIS and reemergence of the Taliban indicate. It has also provided the key infrastructure for torture, for it transforms “prison without trial” into “wartime detention,” and “torture” into “enhanced interrogation technique.” The war, though indiscernible in Americans’ everyday life, allows gross governmental violence to appear legal. Drone killing is permitted by government lawyers when there is a “continuous imminent threat”. Danner reports that lawyers in the Obama administration are now developing the concept of “elongated imminence” to further detail the conditions under which targeted killings is justified.

Where do we go from here? Sitting in the audience and listening to Danner, it seemed to me that it is not only the Watergate model that seems to have waned. If exposure and knowledge of human rights abuses do nothing to curb their commission, the traditional model of human rights reporting also seems insufficient. Or perhaps these two models are not so much broken as inapt to address violence committed by Americans against foreigners. The Watergate model assumed governmental abuses of American citizens; the human rights model traditionally targets repression by a foreign government of its own citizens. The human rights abuses in the War on Terror, in contrast, mainly affect foreigners living outside U.S. territory. What avenues of justice-seeking can address this sort of violence?

One path currently popular among international human rights activists around the world for addressing state-sponsored violence is criminal prosecution. Yet Danner does not think that prosecutions of offenders, whether high-ranking officials or low-level torturers, are feasible. Nor will they achieve much change in his view. He suggests instead that a truth commission might lead to a profound political acknowledgment and rejection of torture. Most importantly, Americans must combat the politics of fear fueling their country’s permanent war.

What part should law and human rights activism play in pulling the United States out of the state of exception? Danner asks how we can return to legality – but the story he tells can also be understood as one in which law, with its indeterminacy and malleability, its sometimes absurd fictions and bureaucratic vocabulary, plays a key role in reassuring government officials that even acts such as torture and execution are acceptable. Is talk of “continuous imminent threat” to justify targeted killings a perversion of law, or is this legal logic at work? What tools do human rights activists have at their disposal to effectively combat such uses of legal discourse? If denunciation is insufficient, and what is needed is political mobilization, how does human rights activism retain its relevance?

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary