Activism and consequences
I wrote about Michael Ratner in my New York Book Review trial – which takes up part of a chapter of Human, my new book – for a very simple reason. Ratner’s anti-war commitments were deep and compelling. By no means have they been so clear and straightforward in the human rights community over the past decades. There is therefore gripping drama in the fact that Ratner played a leading role in our collective tragedy, in which the suppression of some of the atrocities of the American war made it easier for this war to be legitimized. .
Contrary to some early reactions, my portrait de Ratner is entirely complimentary. And surprisingly, Joe Margulies and Baher Azmy – also big figures in my opinion – posted a denunciation of me in Just security that concedes much of my case. Rhetoric aside, everyone agrees on a lot of things – except, perhaps, who is allowed to reflect on this tragedy and how publicly.
Partly because the title of my article (which I didn’t write) mentions Ratner’s alleged role in “cleaning up” the war on terror, it sparked a number of people. I apologize with regret to all those I have offended along the way. Despite my own intentions, there were unintended consequences to the article’s excerpt from the book and some of its framing. The play was taken almost as if it was an act of desecration of a sacred shrine. (“Blasphemy”, like a Twitter commentator put.) Religion may have saints who demand nothing but worship, but human rights movements cannot. Even so, I want to start by reiterating that my admiration for Ratner is powerful and real. This is precisely because he embodies a tension in my own ideals between opposition to war and loathing for the crimes committed there – and because he was forced to choose between these ideals in practice and has managed to advance one at the cost of the other – which make his career endlessly fascinating.
And thankfully, a closer look suggests that the rhetoric in this episode doesn’t match up with the real issues that are worth surviving in it. Margulies and Azmy’s explosive “making” statements – though it’s true that it’s in their title and not in their text, in case they haven’t written theirs either – are a case in point. The implication of this word “fabrication” is that I have falsified some facts, but what I see is a misunderstanding. Margulies and Azmy read my book and essay as claiming that Ratner abandoned his anti-war efforts after September 11, 2001. But my primary focus was on his historic dispute against American militarism. I never claimed that Ratner had reneged on his basic philosophy at any time. Indeed, my article is full of examples of his anti-war views from the beginning to the end of his career, precisely because they were not universally shared in the human rights community then or today. ‘hui. It was the premise of my argument that Ratner experienced a tragedy not because he gave up on his ideals, but because he was forced to pursue some rather than others. I cite my own evidence that Ratner said in an interview that he “ditched” his historic litigation over US militarism in order to focus on the blatant litigation. conduct of the war on terrorism. Margulies and Azmy agree he did. Margulies and Azmy, indeed, recognize that Ratner is best known for his extraordinary successes on this front. More importantly, everyone also agrees that it was necessary and understandable for him to establish this priority: there was no viable choice but to try to oppose (in court) the the emerging war by striking a blow against its various legal irregularities.
If I do not see any disagreement on the facts, is there a disagreement on the interpretation? I do not think so. The answer that leaving wars to be brutal is anything but a good alternative to their “disinfection” is a red herring. I never said it was, no matter how many times David Cole and Ken Roth anyway, please refrain from attributing that belief to me. But since I answered Ken somewhere else, I will not insist on the point. I certainly agree with my critics that not standing up to the wrongs in the War on Terror would have been a worse decision, and that Ratner made the necessary and right choice at his time. But it hardly follows that at other times there is never any alternative but a horrible lawless war to human war under law.
And even when there is no viable option other than reducing the gross damage of a systemic evil, it can help entrench or legitimize it. As Jameel Jaffer noted during the recent panel co-hosted by Just security and the Knight First Amendment Institute featuring the thoughts of senior leaders of US human rights organizations who led their organizations in the post 9/11 era, good and necessary acts can create potentially unwanted consequences. The choice is risky – and you bear the risks, especially if they are incurred, even if you had no choice but the one you did. That’s my whole point in the play: that Ratner’s victories, which he providentially won when he had no choice but to pursue the strategy he followed, created the conditions for a newly legitimized war.
It was not, of course, a matter of Ratner’s intentions that this legitimation took place. How the war was delegitimized by activists and journalists working against President George W. Bush has nonetheless proved to be quite crucial to how its evolutionary forms were legitimized under President Barack Obama, whose genius was to seize the opportunity that previous years have provided. In his main defenses in public from what Spencer ackerman dubbed the “enduring war on terror”, Obama correctly pointed out that it had now been legalized and made “human.” This may not have been within the legal framework that Ratner pushed to establish, but – like the inability to challenge the war paradigm in the beginning – it is what makes the outcome a tragedy.
This legitimation by the rule of law has occurred for a number of reasons. As Margulies and Azmy accurately observe, a constellation of powerful forces conspired to lead to a very different outcome than what Ratner was striving to achieve. I really wondered – since I couldn’t find any evidence in the public record – how Ratner thought of those in what Cole called his “armyOr associates who, from the days following the election of Obama, began dream on the merits of preventive detention, or gone to the service of the administration to justify new wars or formalize rules for targeted assassinations. The truth is, I don’t know what Ratner thought of such allies, although I haven’t seen a public rebuke of such choices comparable to my attempt to dramatize Ratner’s tragedy. But from my point of view, the fact that the coalitions do not take its cause in the direction initially intended raises another dimension of the tragedy, because the legal challenge of the more harmful aspects of the war on terrorism has split by the following on the meaning of accomplishment. Was the goal a smoother, gentler war on terrorism under the law, or something better and different? Ratner’s righteous fury at continuing America’s endless wars, of course, was clear. But he did not win all battles, even among friends.
Even more striking, my central argument for how Ratner’s victory on one front helped create the conditions for defeat on another is consistent with a proposition that Margulies and Azmy readily admit – to the point of calling it mundane. . They admit “that litigation has unintended and sometimes tragic consequences”, that’s all I argued. To say that your act had unintended consequences is to recognize that it helped make the actions of others possible, whether you like them or not. The main disagreement I can detect in Margulies and Azmy’s essay is therefore their assessment of the value of dwelling on the paradoxes and the very perversity of good and necessary choices, as well as the extent to which a man and one case in particular (which my essay clearly treated as symbolic of a general response strategy to the First War on Terrorism) defined the terms for the future.
I invite readers to review the chapter of Human, and the book as a whole, to determine whether reflecting on Ratner’s tragedy provides any lessons for our choices outside of the ruthless predicament he faced. In the mainstream, human rights enjoyed a closer relationship with the ideal of peace in the 1940s and 1980s that since, in particular because the organizations judged the wars of opposition too “political” even supported some of them. The issue is whether, beyond Ratner’s counterexample, humanitarianism and peace will continue to have strained relations. Activists across the country are moving towards “abolition” in a wide range of areas, worried that “harm reduction”, while necessary, may interfere with their higher goals. For now, however, President Joe Biden has vowed to continue the fight against terrorism while withdrawing from the counterinsurgency – although we do not know the shape of his counterterrorism policies, nor the continuities and discontinuities between them. and the approaches of its two predecessors. When is it time for activists to make a concerted challenge to the paradigm of war that Ratner has admitted to losing – if not now?
The question remains about who is allowed to raise the concerns I have made. The stock market is also political. I’m not kidding, of course, that it’s politically effective, let alone Ratner’s heroic commitment. I sympathize with Ratner’s own disdain, recorded in his autobiography, when he visited my own school and found so few people bothered to strike blows for justice themselves. But the flip side of the credit activists deserve for improving the world is thinking about and being responsible for the side effects of their choices.
Even then, it’s not about blaming or criticizing. That’s for the next steps. At Just security and the Knight First Amendment Institute event that I mentioned, Elisa Massimino, former CEO of Human Rights First, explained that the human rights community should “not hesitate to question our own decision making at the time and wondering if maybe we have inadvertently reinforced a narrative that makes longer term change more difficult. She added, “I’m not a fan of people who are not in the arena to launch these critiques.” I respect Massimino’s point of view, although of course I do not share it. But Massimino was absolutely right to call for reflection on what had happened. As she noted, “I think we have an obligation to each other within the community to ask these questions.” I hope they survive so that others besides me pose more carefully and quietly – after being granted the right to do so – in the future.