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Nothing Can Justify Torture: Chomsky

By Eric Bailey  

13 December, 2012

An interview with Noam Chomsky

Professor Noam Chomsky is an Institute Professor and Professor (Emeritus) in the Departmentof Linguistics & Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was educated at theUniversity of Philadelphia and at Harvard University as a Harvard Junior Fellow. He earned his PhD inLinguistics from the University of Philadelphia in 1955. He has spent the 57 years since then teaching atMIT. In addition to his academic work in linguistics, Professor Chomsky has been a noted political activistand philosopher, gaining national recognition in 1967 over his opposition to the Vietnam War and sincethen has regularly spoken out against US foreign and domestic policies and mainstream American massmedia. Between his academic career and his work as a political activist and dissident, he has publishedover 100 books. Here with Eric Bailey and on the eve of the 2012 US presidential election, he discussesAmerica's human rights record under the administration of President Obama and the military interventionpolicies that have seen increased use during the Arab Spring.Prof. Chomskyrecently communicated withEric Bailey of Torture Magazine.

EB: The US presidential elections are almostupon us and the last four years have seensignificant changes in American Federalpolicy in regards to human rights. One ofthe few examples of cooperation betweenthe Democratic and Republican Parties overthe last four years has been the passing of theNational Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)of 2012. This bill has given the United Statesmilitary the power to arrest Americancitizens, indefinitely, without charge, trial, orany other form of due process of law and theObama Administration has and continuesto fight a legal battle in Federal Courtto prevent that law from being declaredunconstitutional. Obama authorized theassassination of three American citizens,including Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16 yearold son, admittedly all members of Al Qaeda,- all without judicial review. Additionally,the Guantanamo Bay prison remains open, the Patriot Act has been extended, and theTSA has expanded at breakneck speeds.What is your take on America's human rightsrecord over the past four years and can youcontrast Obama's policies with those of hispredecessor, George W. Bush?

NC: Obama's policies have beenapproximately the same as Bush's, thoughthere have been some slight differences, butthat's not a great surprise. The Democratssupported Bush's policies. There were someobjections on mostly partisan grounds,but for the most part, they supported hispolicies and it's not surprising that they havecontinued to do so. In some respects Obamahas gone even beyond Bush. The NDAA,which you mentioned, was not initiated byObama, (when it passed Congress, he said hedidn't approve of it and wouldn't implementit) but he nevertheless did sign it into lawand did not veto it. It was pushed throughby hawks, including Joe Lieberman andothers. In fact, there hasn't been that muchof a change. The worst part of the NDAA isthat it codified - or put into law - what hadalready been a regular practice. The practiceshadn't been significantly different. The onepart that received public attention is whatyou mentioned, the part that permits theindefinite detention of American citizens,but why permit the indefinite detentionof anybody? It's a gross violation offundamental human rights and civil law,going all the way back to the Magna Carta inthe 13 th Century, so it's a very severe attackon elementary civil rights, both under Bushand under Obama. It's bipartisan!

As for the killings, Obama has sharplyincreased the global assassination campaign.While it was initiated by Bush, it hasexpanded under Obama and it has includedAmerican citizens, again with bipartisansupport and very little criticism other thansome minor criticism because it was anAmerican. But then again, why should youhave the right to assassinate anybody? Forexample, suppose Iran was assassinatingmembers of Congress who were calling foran attack on Iran . Would we think that'sfine? That would be much more justified, butof course we'd see that as an act of war. Thereal question is, why assassinate anyone?The government has made it very clear thatthe assassinations are personally approvedby Obama and the criteria for assassinationare very weak. If a group of men are seensomewhere by a drone who are, say, loadingsomething into a truck, and there is somesuspicion that maybe they are militants, thenit's fine to kill them and they are regarded as guilty unless, subsequently, they are shownto be innocent. That's the wording that theUnited States used and it is such a grossviolation of fundamental human rights thatyou can hardly talk about it.

The question of due process actually didarise, since the US does have a constitutionand it says that no person shall be deprivedof their rights without due process of law- again, this goes back to 13th CenturyEngland - so the question arose, “Whatabout due process?” The Obama JusticeDepartment's Attorney General, Eric Holder,explained that there was due process in thesecases because they are discussed first at theExecutive Branch. That's not even a badjoke! The British kings from the 13th Centurywould have applauded. “Sure, if we talkabout it, that's due process.” And that, again,passed without controversy.

In fact, we might ask the same question aboutthe murder of Osama Bin Laden. Notice I usethe term “murder”. When heavily armedelite troops capture a suspect, unarmedand defenseless, accompanied by his wives,and then shoot him, kill him, and dump hisbody into the ocean without an autopsy,that's shear assassination. Also notice thatI said “suspect”. The reason is because ofanother principle of law, that also goes backto the 13th Century - that a man is presumedinnocent until proven guilty. Before that, he'sa suspect. In the case of Osama Bin Laden,the United States had never formally chargedhim with 9/11 and part of the reason was thatthey didn't know that he was responsible. Infact, eight months after 9/11 and after themost intensive inquiry in history, the FBIexplained that it suspected that the 9/11plot was hatched in Afghanistan , (didn'tmention Bin Laden) and was implementedin the United Arab Emirates , Germany , andof course the United States . That's eightmonths after the attack and there's nothingsubstantive that they've learned since thenthat does more than increase the suspicion.My own assumption is that the suspicionis almost certainly correct, but there's a bigdifference between having a very confidentbelief and showing someone to be guilty.And even if he's guilty, he was supposedto be apprehended and brought before acourt. That's British and American law goingback eight centuries. He's not supposed tobe murdered and have his body dumpedwithout an autopsy, but support for this isvery nearly universal. Actually, I wrote oneof the few critical articles on it and my articlewas bitterly condemned by commentatorsacross the spectrum, including the Left,because the assassination was so obviouslyjust, since we suspected him of committinga crime against us. And that tells yousomething about the significant, I would say,“moral degeneration” running throughoutthe whole intellectual class. And yes, Obamahas continued this and in some respectsextended it, but it hardly comes as a surprise.

The rot is much deeper than that.

EB: It has been just over 10 years since thepublication of the Bush Administration's“Torture Memos”. These memos provided alegal justification for the torture of detaineesheld by the CIA in connection with the “Waron Terror.” The contents of the memos arechilling and have created new debate ontorture internationally. Despite all of thepromises given by President Obama to closethose illegal detention centers, it seems that“black site” activities still occur. What areyour views on these detention centers andCIA torture? Also, what do you think aboutObama's promise of CIA reforms in 2008 andhow has the reality of his presidency stackedup to those promises?

NC: There have been some presidentialorders expressing disapproval of the mostextreme forms of torture, but Bagram remainsopen and uninspected. That's probably theworst in Afghanistan . Guantanamo is stillopen, but it's unlikely that serious torture isgoing on at Guantanamo . There is just toomuch inspection. There are military lawyerspresent and evidence regularly coming outso I suspect that that's not a torture chamberany more, but it still is an illegal detentionchamber, and Bagram and who knows howmany others are still functioning. Renditiondoesn't seem to be continuing at the levelthat it did, but it has been until very recently.

Rendition is just sending people abroad to betortured. Actually, that's barred as well bythe Magna Carta – the foundation of Anglo-American law. It's explicitly barred to sendsomebody across the seas to be punishedand tortured. It's not just done by the UnitedStates, either. It's done all over WesternEurope. Britain has participated in it. Swedenhas participated. It's one of the reasonsfor a lot of the concerns about extraditingJulian Assange to Sweden . Canada has beenimplicated as was Ireland , but to Ireland'scredit it was one of the few places wherethere was mass popular protests againstallowing the Shannon Airport to be usedfor CIA rendition. In most countries therehas been very little protest or not a word. Idon't know of any recent cases so maybe thatpolicy is no longer being implemented, but itwouldn't surprise me if it was still in effect.

EB: Moving beyond the US, the Middle Easthas always been rife with human rightsabuses, but the turmoil of the Arab Spring hasintensified such abuses in many countries.While the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egyptwere toppled without resorting to civilwar, countries like Libya, Syria, and Yemenhave seen heavy fighting. For America andNATO's part, there has been yet anothermilitary intervention with the Libyan CivilWar and only the stubbornness of Russia andChina have prevented a similarnterventionin Syria . In both cases, rebel forces have asked,even begged, for American and Europeanhelp in their war efforts, but have provento be absolutely uninterested in negotiatedsettlements with their dictatorial adversaries,even when outside help is not forthcoming.What is your take on military interventions,both the intervention that did occur in Libyaand the one that is being called for in Syria?Is it morally justifiable to send Texans andLouisianans into harm's way to fight in theinternal conflicts of Libyans and Syrians?Conversely, can refusing to intervene bejustified when entire cities, such as Misrata,Benghazi, Aleppo, and Homs were or arebeing threatened with utter destructionand tens of thousands of civilians are beingkilled?

NC: Well, let's start with Syria . The onething I disagree with in what you said is thatI doubt very much that Russia and Chinahad anything to do with the lack of US orWestern military intervention in Syria. In factmy strong suspicion is that the United States , Britain , and France welcomed the Russianveto because that gave them a pretext notto do anything. Now they can say, “Howcan we do anything? The Russians andthe Chinese have vetoed it!” In fact, if theywanted to intervene, they wouldn't havecared one way or the other about a Russian orChinese veto. That's perfectly obvious fromhistory, but they didn't want to interveneand they don't want to intervene now. Themilitary and intelligence strategic commandcenters are just strongly opposed to it. Someoppose it for technical, military, reasons andothers because they don't see anyone theycan support in their interests. They don'tparticularly like Assad, although he wasmore or less conformed to US and Israeliinterests, but they don't like the oppositioneither, especially their Islamist elements, sothey just prefer to stay on the side lines.It's kind of interesting that Israel doesn't doanything. They wouldn't have to do much.Israel could easily obilize forces in theGolan Heights (Syrian territory that Israelillegally annexed). They could mobilizeforces there, which are only about 40 milesfrom Damascus , which would compelAssad to send military forces to the border,drawingthem away from areas where therebels are operating. So that would be directsupport for the rebels, but without firing ashot and without moving across the border.

But there is no talk of it and I think what thatindicates is that Israel , the United States , andtheir allies just don't want to take moves thatwill undermine the regime, just out of self-interest. There is no humanitarian interestinvolved.

As far as Libya is concerned, we have tobe a little cautious, because there were twointerventions in Libya . The first one wasunder the auspices of the United Nations.That's UN Resolution 1973. That resolutioncalled for a no-fly zone, a ceasefire, and thestart of negotiations and diplomacy.

EB: That was the intervention for which thejustification was claimed to be the preventionof the destruction of Benghazi ?

NC: Well, we don't know if Benghazi wasgoing to be destroyed, but it was called toprevent a possible attack on Benghazi . Youcan debate how likely the attack was, butpersonally, I felt that was legitimate – totry to stop a possible atrocity. However,that intervention lasted about five minutes.Almost immediately, the NATO powers( France and Britain in the lead and the UnitedStates following) violated the resolution,radically, and became the air force of therebels. Nothing in the resolution justifiedthat. It did call for “all necessary steps” toprotect civilians, but there's a big differencebetween protecting civilians and being theair force for the rebels.

Maybe we should have been in favor of therebelling forces. That's a separate question,but this was pretty clearly in violation ofthe resolution. It certainly wasn't done for alack of alternative options. Gaddafi offered aceasefire. Whether he meant it or not, nobodyknows, because it was at once rejected.

Incidentally, this pact was strongly opposedby most of the world. There was virtually nosupport for it. The African Union ( Libya is,after all, an African country) strongly opposedit, right away, called for a ceasefire, andeven suggested the introduction of AfricanUnion forces to try and reduce the conflict.

The BRICS countries, the most importantof the developing countries, (Brazil, Russia,India, China, and South Africa) happened tobe having a conference at the time and theystrongly opposed the NATO interventionand called for moves towards diplomacy,negotiations, and a ceasefire. Egypt , nextdoor, didn't participate. Within NATO, Germany refused to participate. Italyrefused too, in the beginning, though laterthey joined the intervention. Turkey heldback. Later on they joined, but initially theyopposed intervention. Generally speaking, itwas almost unilateral. It was the traditionalimperial powers ( France , Britain , and theUnited States ) which intervened.

In fact it did lead to a humanitariancatastrophe. Maybe it would have happenedanyway, but it certainly led to that, especiallyin the end with the attacks on BaniWalid andSirte, the last pro-Gadaffi holdouts. They arethe main center of Libya 's largest tribe, theWarfalla tribe. Libya is a highly divided tribalsociety, they are a major tribe, and this wastheir home center. Many of them were prettybitter about that. Could it have been resolvedthrough diplomacy and negotiations theway the African Union and BRICS countriessuggested? We don't know.

It's also worthy of note that the InternationalCrisis Group, which is the main, non-stateelement that deals with continuing conflictsand crises throughout the world, and is veryhighly respected, opposed intervention too.They strongly supported negotiations anddiplomacy. However, the African Unionand others' positions were barely reportedon in the West. Who cares what they say?In fact, if they were reported on at all, theywere disparaged on the grounds that thesecountries had had close relations withGaddafi. In fact, they did, but so did Britainand the United States , right to the end.

In any event, the intervention did take placeand now one hopes for the best, but it's not avery pretty picture. You can read an accountof it in the current issue of the LondonReview of Books by Hugh Roberts, who was,at the time, the North African Director of theInternational Crisis Group and a specialist onthe region. He opposed the intervention anddescribed the outcome as pretty hopelesschaos that is undercutting the hopes for aneventual rise of a sort of sensible, democratic,nationalism.

So that wasn't very pretty, but what about theother countries? Well, the countries that aremost significant to the United States and theWest, generally, are the oil dictatorships andthey remain very stable. There were effortsto try and join the Arab Spring, but theywere crushed, very harshly, with not a wordfrom the Western powers. Sometimes it wasquite violent, as in eastern Saudi Arabia andin Bahrain, which were Shiite areas, mostly,but it resulted in at most a tap on the wrist bythe Western Powers. They clearly wanted theoil dictatorships to remain. That's the centerof their power.

In Tunisia , which had mostly Frenchinfluence, the French supported thedictatorship until the very end. In fact, theywere still supporting it after demonstrationswere sweeping the country. Finally, at thelast second, they conceded that their favoritedictator had to go. In Egypt , where the UnitedStates and Britain were the main influences, itwas the same. Obama supported the dictatorMubarak until virtually the last minute –until the army turned against him. It becameimpossible to support him anymore so theyurged him to leave and make a transition toa similar system.

All of that is quite ro utine. That's thestandard operating procedure for dealingwith a situation where your favorite dictatoris getting into trouble. There is case after caselike that. What you do in that case is supportthe dictator to the very end, regardless of howvicious and bloody the he is. Then when itbecomes impossible, say because the army orthe business classes have turned against him,then ease him out somewhere, (sometimeswith half the government's treasury in hispocket) declare your love for democracy, andtry to restore the old system. That's prettymuch what's happening in Egypt .

Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives , a print and online magazine published by the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong and the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) in Denmark. Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives is a new initiative which focuses on torture and its related issues globally. Writers interested in having their research on this subject published, may submit their articles to: torturemag@ahrc.asia







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