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Michael Ratner

Michael Ratner

Michael Ratner isn't alive to defend himself against Samuel Moyn's shameful and dishonest article Michael Ratner’s Tragedy, and Ourspublished in the New York Review of Books on September 1.

Fortunately, Ratner left behind an ample record of his courageous career as both an outspoken anti-war advocate and a brilliant human rights lawyer. Instead of accepting Moyn's misleading account of Ratner's life and work, readers would be rewarded by reading Ratner's autobiography Moving the Bar: My Life As a Radical Lawyer (OR Books), which I reviewed in LAProgressive.

Moyn's baffling premise is that by recruiting lawyers and mounting the unprecedented litigation against the US government in five prominent Supreme Court cases and scores of legal actions in the lower courts challenging indefinite detention and torture at Guantanamo and other secret detention facilities around the world, Ratner and his colleagues were "sanitizing the war on terror instead of opposing it."

Moyn is wrong on both counts. Ratner was an early and outspoken opponent of US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On September 23, 2001 he published one of the earliest articles arguing George Bush's plan for war violated international law. Ten days later, in a speech at the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, he said that the 9/11 attacks should not be treated as acts of war, but as crimes against humanity with those involved tried as the Nazis were at Nuremberg. In November, 2001, resisting the raising tide of inflammatory patriotic calls for war, he opposed going to war in Afghanistan. In a later speech he presciently spoke out against "permanent war." Ratner has been a vocal critic of America's aggressive wars since we were classmates at Columbia Law School and protested the Vietnam War. Moyn does a grave disservice not only to Ratner, but to readers for mispresenting Ratner's record.

In Moyn's mind, by seeking to hold the US accountable for its violations of international law, Ratner is guilty of "sanitizing" and "perpetuating" war.

But Ratner wasn't satisfied to just vehemently oppose Bush's wars. Real human beings were being detained, tortured, injured and killed while in US custody. Ratner and his colleagues at the Center of Constitutional Rights designed innovative lawsuits based on US and international law to challenge these cruel and illegal practices. In retrospect, human rights organizations and advocates for international peace have applauded Ratner and his team for what they did.

But not Moyn. Instead, he has conjured up a bizarre theory as a justification for condemning Ratner.

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In Moyn's mind, by seeking to hold the US accountable for its violations of international law, Ratner is guilty of "sanitizing" and "perpetuating" war. Moyn writes that this "was a tragedy for America—and, God knows, for those living across a wide arc of the globe as the war expanded and the years passed—but it was also a tragedy for Michael Ratner." This is a reprehensible accusation. For Moyn, the tragedy for America wasn't that US endless wars have killed over 800,000 people and created 37,000,000 refugees. For Moyn, the tragedy is that Michael Ratner and other human rights lawyers pursued civil litigation to expose US war crimes and to try to save lives.

Moyn's unhinged accusations don't stop there. "In the annals of recent history," he writes, "no one, perhaps, has done more than this leader of the Center for Constitutional Rights to enable a novel, sanitized version of permanent war. By legalizing the manner of the conflict, Ratner paradoxically laundered the inhumanity from what began as a brutal enterprise by helping to recodify a war that thus became endless, legal, and humane." "Enable" a novel, sanitized version of permanent war? "Legalize" the manner of the conflict? Ratner didn't "enable" or "legalize" anything. He challenged the brutality of "permanent war" and he contested the legality of what the United States was doing. It was John Yoo and his ilk in the Bush administration, not Ratner and CCR, who issued specious memos that "laundered the inhumanity" from this brutal enterprise and "recodified" the definition of torture to give the CIA the patina of justification for "enhanced interrogation."

Without a shred of evidence, Moyn makes the slanderous accusation that "Unlike the mainstream of the human rights movement, Ratner always put peace ahead of humanity in war." In fact, Ratner spent his entire legal career fighting for both peace and humanity, which he saw as inseparable. Moyn can't have it both ways: He can't accuse Ratner of making war more "endless, legal, and humane" and then turn around and accuse him of failing to prioritize "humanity in war."

Moyn's attack on Ratner is so irrational that at one point he claims Ratner shifted his "focus to making the war on terror humane" yet a few sentences later he claims that "Ratner’s objective was never really to make American war more humane." And the contortions continue as Moyn imagines that what Ratner "cared most about was not diminishing suffering in potentially endless war but ensuring that civil liberties did not die." Putting aside the obvious fact that when lawyers fight to preserve civil liberties they are indeed seeking to diminish suffering, this may be Moyn's cruelest calumny. How dare Moyn accuse Ratner of caring more about anything than "diminishing [the] suffering" of the scores of detainees he zealously represented who were being subjected to waterboarding and other unspeakable atrocities. Moyn's Harvard Law School profile does not indicate whether after he received his law degree in 2001 he represented any detainees at Guantanamo or elsewhere to diminish their suffering or defend their civil liberties. 

Having no sense of decency, as Joseph Welch would have put it, Moyn can't resist driving one last nail into Ratner's coffin. Damning with faint praise, Moyn unctuously ends his article with the observation that "Ratner was caught between his ultimate hopes for an America beyond war and his practical actions to make American war humane—even at the cost of perpetuating it."


America's endless wars were not perpetuated by Michael Ratner. He wasn't caught between anything. He did all he humanly could to end war and in the meantime end the suffering it was causing. Many have perpetuated these wars - and continue to perpetuate them - but not Michael Ratner. 

Stephen Rohde