- Professor of Journalism and English at UC Berkeley
- Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College
- Former staff writer for The New Yorker magazine
- Former senior editor at Harper’s magazine
- Former story editor at The New York Times Magazine
- Views America as an overly militaristic nation guilty of human-rights abuses at home and abroad
Born on November 10, 1958 in Utica, New York, Mark David Danner, who divides his time each year between California and New York, is a Professor of Journalism and English at UC Berkeley and a Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College. He first became prominent in journalism as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and as a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books.
Danner’s journalistic talents were first recognized when the high-school newspaper he co-edited at Utica Free Academy won an award as the best in the state of New York. In September 1976 he entered Harvard College, where he majored, successively, in philosophy, English literature, and religion. He eventually graduated in June 1981 with an interdisciplinary degree that combined literature, philosophy and art history. Danner’s writing ever since has been characterized by its blend of journalism with fictional techniques, and by its blurring of reportage, ideology, and art. Conservative broadcaster and author Lowell Ponte once suggested that it seemed “as if in Danner’s mind reality is merely a huge stylized painting to be constructed and deconstructed.”
In September 1981 Danner found work as an editorial assistant at the left-liberal New York Review of Books.
In 1984 Danner took a job as a senior editor at Harper’s magazine, as part of its tectonic shift to the left under restored editor Lewis H. Lapham and new publisher John “Rick” MacArthur. (In 1999 Danner was the recipient of a lavish MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius” grant, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)
In 1986 Danner traveled to Haiti, to write an article about that country for Harper’s. “There are these stories that seize you,” he told an interviewer thirteen years later, and Haiti enchanted him. In the same interview, Danner quoted former Haitian President Leslie Maningat’s description of violence as “a force that strips the society nude, strips it naked, the better to listen and hear the heartbeat beneath.” “So I think,” Danner added, “during violent situations – quasi-revolutions, coups d’etats – you start to understand how a society works … who has what interests, why people are acting in a certain way that may seem illogical to you.” In a similar vein, Danner wrote in 2003: “I must admit a secret preference for the violent outcome.”
Danner’s passion for seeing societies stripped naked by violence — combined with the excitement he has felt from nearly being killed amid the violence in Haiti, Sarajevo, and elsewhere — prompted him to devote much of his career to reporting from combat zones.
In 1986 Danner was hired as a story editor at The New York Times Magazine, shortly after it had published three of his articles about Haiti. At the Times, Danner specialized in foreign affairs and politics, writing pieces about such topics as nuclear-weapons abolition and the demise of the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti.
In April 1990 Danner was hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. This was five months after that magazine had published Danner’s three-part series on Haiti – “A Reporter at Large: Beyond the Mountains” – and days after that series had won the 1990 National Magazine Award for Reporting. Out of Danner’s ongoing reportage on Haiti came the 1993 book Beyond the Mountain: The Legacy of Duvalier.
At The New Yorker, Danner was in the company of left-wing correspondents who relentlessly attacked American policies, including anti-nuclear-weapons crusader Jonathan Schell and Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer-prizewinning exposer of a Vietnam massacre by U.S. troops at My Lai. Danner fit neatly into their tradition, blaming the United States for much of what he found wrong in Haiti.
On December 6, 1993, The New Yorker devoted its entire issue to Danner’s article “The Truth of El Mozote,” an investigation into the slaughter of approximately 750 men, women and children in and around a remote village in El Salvador. This atrocity, Danner reported, was committed by the Salvadoran Army’s elite Atlacatl Battalion, which had been trained in the United States to carry out counter-insurgency warfare against Communist guerrillas.
Using his skills at narrative and description, Danner tugged at reader heartstrings with vivid descriptions of the victims and their deaths. He sympathetically portrayed the Communist terrorists backed and armed by Cuba’s Marxist leader Fidel Castro, but the anti-Communist troops allied with America were given Danner’s usual depiction as a mixed bag of dupes, crooks, lackeys, zealots, egomaniacs, and villains.
Danner made much of El Mozote being a mostly-evangelical Protestant village free from the pro-Communist Liberation Theology aimed at the nation’s majority of Roman Catholics. As Danner painted the scene, once again a misguided imperial United States was destroying and discrediting its own best values in a foreign land.
Danner’s New Yorker article won an Overseas Press Club Award and a Latin American Studies Association award.
In 1994 Danner published his second book, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War. This book and the article it sprang from might not have been written as pro-Communist, anti-American propaganda, but both were used extensively as agitprop by Marxists in Latin America and around the world.
In 1994 as well, Danner co-wrote and helped produce two ABC Television documentaries for the “Peter Jennings Reporting” series: (a) While America Watched: The Bosnian Tragedy (which won an Emmy Award and a DuPont Award Golden Baton), and (b) House on Fire: America’s Haitian Crisis. (“We may tell you all the time that our principal aim in life is to communicate and assist, inform,” said Danner’s boss, Peter Jennings, in August 2001, “but….there’s nothing a reporter likes more than to have an effect on policy.”)
During the mid-1990s Danner wrote frequently about the wars in the Balkans. His reportage included a series of eleven extended articles for The New York Review of Books.
By the late 1990s, Danner was becoming more pundit than reporter and was eager to influence U.S. policies and politics. Evidence of this was his didactic 16,000 word essay — “Marooned in the Cold War: America, the Alliance and the Quest for a Vanished World” — which appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of World Policy Journal, the international production of the leftist New School in New York City. Danner was gratified when President Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott wrote letters to the journal supporting his internationalist analysis.
In 1998 Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley (and brother of Danner’s New Yorker colleague Jonathan Schell) gave Danner a position there as Visiting Professor. Danner was also named a Senior Research Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. In 2000 Danner was promoted to full Professor of Journalism at Berkeley, where he has taught ever since. In 2002 Danner also was named Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York, where he likewise continues to teach.
“I try to tell the story, to get it right, and to tell it well. I really don’t think about the moral education of readers,” Danner told an interviewer in 1999. “I don’t have any pretensions to alter the moral views of people.” But Danner would subsequently become a familiar face at anti-war protests and events across the U.S., and he presented himself as a self-righteous preacher of the leftist gospel.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Danner became increasingly outspoken against American responses like the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. He debated against such notables as Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, David Frum, William Kristol, Leon Wieseltier and others, dismissing as “rubbish” the very idea that an “imperialist” America was in any way threatened by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad.
In Danner’s view, 9/11 provided the Bush administration with a convenient pretext for invading foreign nations. “The attack of September 11,” Danner said on January 16, 2003, “made it possible for the administration to safely introduce a doctrine of overwhelming conventional power, and also to state, very clearly, that it was in the vital interest of the United States to prevent certain states, many other states, from obtaining weapons of mass destruction…. My view is that, to some extent, this was a marriage of convenience between pre-existing ideas about weapons of mass destruction, their ability to deter the United States’ conventional power, and the new opportunity presented by the war on terror.”
Danner objected to President Bush’s assertion that America’s al Qaeda enemies were “evil.” “You can hear echoes again and again in President Bush’s speeches,” said Danner on January 28, 2003, “of a vision of the world that is very familiar to American ears. That is, there is ‘us,’ and there is ‘them.’ There is ‘good,’ and there is ‘evil.’ His speeches have divided the world into good and evil in a way that’s very reminiscent of President Truman’s Truman Doctrine speech in 1947…. Terrorism has become the new communism. Terrorism is being used as an ideological justification for use of U.S. power in the world.”
During the early stages of the Iraq War, Danner reported extensively on the conflict for The New York Review of Books, including a series of essays on the highly publicized scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where U.S. Army and CIA personnel committed a series of abuses against some detainees. In October 2004 Danner compiled these essays and published them, together with a number of government documents and reports, into his book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror. Like his New Yorker colleague Seymour Hersh, Danner tried to blame the mistreatment of prisoners at this Iraqi facility not on a handful of lawbreaking guards, but on a Bush Administration policy to use torture as “enhanced interrogation” — both to obtain information from, and to terrorize, presumed terrorists.
“The United States is losing its war in Iraq,” Danner wrote in the November 4, 2004 issue of the New York Review of Books. “The Bush administration has succeeded in making the Iraq war a recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden’s region-wide cause of Islamic jihad…. [T]he expedition in Iraq has revealed once again an America that is a strange hybrid – a military giant yoked uncomfortably to a political dwarf.”
In 2004 as well, Danner, who never believed that George W. Bush had legitimately won the disputed presidential election of 2000, published yet another book, The Road to Illegitimacy: What Really Happened in the 2000 Florida Vote Recount.
How, according to Danner, did President Bush win reelection in 2004? “In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw,” wrote Danner in January 2005, “but the payoff’s always in redemption.” Danner claimed that Bush had won in 2004 through moralizing propaganda and the demonization of his opponent, Senator John F. Kerry. Moreover, Danner observed that Kerry had harmed his own campaign by vacillating on whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq. “Democrats themselves, haunted by the traditional charge of ‘weakness on national security,’” wrote Danner, “…were deeply divided on what should be done about the Iraq war.”
In a 2005 article in The New York Times, Danner approvingly quoted a Defense Science Board report which stated that the 9/11 terrorists shared “one overarching goal,” which was “the overthrow of what Islamists call the ‘apostate’ regimes: the tyrannies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and the gulf states.” Further, Danner endorsed the report’s assertion that: “The United States finds itself in the strategically awkward and potentially dangerous situation of being the longstanding prop and alliance partner of these authoritarian regimes. Without the U.S., these regimes could not survive.” From that premise, Danner concluded that on 9/11, “[f]undamentalist Islamic thought took aim at America’s policies, not at its existence.”
In May 2005 Danner wrote an essay for The New York Review which accompanied the first American publication of the so-called “Downing Street Memo,” the controversial leaked minutes of a July 2002 British cabinet meeting. Named for Downing Street, site of the British prime minister’s residence, the memo recorded the head of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service stating that “[George W.] Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” Danner followed up this article with a 2006 book titled The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History.
In February 2007, Danner published an essay in The New York Review titled “U.S. Torture: Voices from the Black Sites,” which revealed the contents of a secret International Committee of the Red Cross report regarding alleged prisoner abuse by U.S. authorities at so-called “black sites” overseas. Soon thereafter, Danner published a follow-up essay titled “The Red Cross Torture Report: What it Means,” wherein he wrote:
“For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to ‘do anything to protect the American people,’ a manly readiness to know when to abstain from ‘coddling terrorists’ and do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary. Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security. The former vice-president [Dick Cheney], as able and ruthless a politician as the country has yet produced, appears convinced of this.”
“Weeks later,” said the online biography on Danner’s own website, “in a move senior Administration officials claimed was prompted by the disclosure of the Red Cross material, President Obama ordered released four Justice Department memos in which the Bush administration purported ‘to legalize torture.’”
In October 2009, Danner published Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War, a large book containing political reports on wars, revolutions, and other forms of violence from across the globe.
In January 2015, Danner praised Guantánamo Diary, the newly published “memoir” of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who had been in U.S. custody at the Guantanamo Bay detention center since his November 2001 arrest on suspicion of involvement in both the “Millennium Plot” to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In a review of Slahi’s book, Danner called it “the most profound account yet written of what it is like to be” what Danner called “collateral damage” in the post-9/11 period, “a new era in which all would be sacrificed to protect the country, [permitting] torture and even murder of the innocent.” But in a 2015 piece in National Review, author Ian Tuttle offers ample evidence that Slahi was not the innocent victim he claimed to be. For example, writes Tuttle:
“According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Slahi was responsible for recruiting multiple jihadists into al-Qaeda in October 1999. Two of his recruits — Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah — hijacked planes on September 11; a third, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, intended to participate in the attack but could not obtain a visa to enter the U.S. All were reportedly persuaded by Slahi not to conduct jihad in Chechnya. Slahi at the time was a key contact in a terror cell based in Hamburg, Germany, and directed the three recruits to Afghanistan. ‘Even then,’ the commissioners wrote, Slahi ‘was well known to U.S. and German intelligence.’ …
“In an article for the Washington Post, [Peter] Finn reports that Slahi and fellow detainee Tariq al-Sawah had by 2010 become ‘two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo,’ providing enough reliable information to ‘help officials chart connections among Islamic radicals across Europe.’ Jess Bravin, in his book Terror Courts (2013), reported likewise.”
In 2016 Danner published the book Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War, which laments that the U.S. government, in the name of security, has restricted many of the accustomed rights and freedoms of the American people while perpetrating such injustices as the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, drone warfare, torture, and warrantless wiretapping.
In addition to his professorial activities, Danner has served variously as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Affairs Council of Northern California, the Pacific Council on International Policy, and the Century Association. He is also a fellow of the Institute of the Humanities at New York University.
Further Reading: “Full Biography [of Mark Danner]” (Mark Danner.com).
- Responding to Danner’s claims, Islam scholar Robert Spencer articulated just how unfounded and erroneous they were:
“Apparently Danner is unacquainted with the speeches and writings of such pillars of ‘fundamentalist Islam’ as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who made no secret of his conviction that his supremacist ideology should subjugate not just America, but the entire world: ‘Islam makes it incumbent on all adult males, provided they are not disabled or incapacitated, to prepare themselves for the conquest of countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country in the world…. But those who study Islamic Holy War will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world.’
“Nor are such sentiments limited only to Khomeinist Shi’ites. The Egyptian Qur’an commentator and Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) emphasized this clearly: ‘It is not the function of Islam to compromise with the concepts of Jahiliyya [the society of unbelievers] which are current in the world or to co-exist in the same land together with a jahili system…. Islam cannot accept any mixing with Jahiliyyah. Either Islam will remain, or Jahiliyyah; no half-half situation is possible….’
“Likewise, Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), founder of the Pakistani political party Jamaat-e-Islami, which is still the largest exponent of political Islam in Pakistan, declared that non-Muslims have ‘absolutely no right to seize the reins of power in any part of God’s earth nor to direct the collective affairs of human beings according to their own misconceived doctrines.’ If they do, ‘the believers would be under an obligation to do their utmost to dislodge them from political power and to make them live in subservience to the Islamic way of life.’”