Interview with Noam Chomsky

for the documentary The Sunlight Dragged Me Here

Boston MIT, 4th february 2003
by Daniele Salvini
manual transcript from miniDV tape, rev 2010

Human rights during War-Times

The wording of the acts you can read but in effect, the administration is
claiming executive rights that are quite extreme. Actually the United States in
many respects is in the forefront of protecting civil rights, free speech and so
on. On the other hand, it's record in the time of conflicts is quite poor. So
during the first World War when there was really no threat to the country, the
civil liberties were really crushed, Woodrow Wilson carried out what was called
the Red Scare, in fact it was mostly after the war, which threw thousands of
immigrants out of the country, put all sorts of people in jail including a
leading figure in US labor history (Eugene Debs) was jailed for having raised
some questions about Wilson's war. They blocked the postal services, they
crushed labor and practically destroyed the free independant, the inquiry,
During second war world wasn't that bad but also wasn't very pretty , and there
have been other periods. So I wouldnt say the actions taken now are anywhere
beyond the precedents and the other hand the arrogation of authority the claims
that are being made been made for executive authority are quite extreme , so the
executive has an enormous amount of surveillance and data collection, and data
coordination, all done in secret of course, without any court orders or anything
like that. They are also claiming the right in effect and in part, implementing
that claim to put people in confinement in what amounts to military prisons
without access to lawyers at no charge, and to hold them there indefinitely, no
access to family, or lawyers, including American citizens. That's a very
extreme measure. How far they can go with it depends on the popular
reaction. But theres a definite tendency within the administration to try to
impose a very rigid obedience on the population, to enforce conformity and
obedience. To maintain the population under control so that they can pursue
their own quite reactionary agenda, which is in fact pretty harmful to most of
the population. Its not an attractive picture. I should say that George Bush
supposedly has on his desk a bust of Winston Churchill that was given to him for
his private collection from his friend Tony Blair, and it might not hurt if
somebody in the Unites States will recall some of the Churchill comments on this
matter, I don't remember the words exactly but its something like: To put a
person in prison on no charge known to the law, and to keep him there without
judgement of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of
all totalitarian societies whether Nazi or Communist. That's what the
administration is claiming the right for, and it is in the highest degree
odious. They claim that there is a threat, but Churchill was saying this in
1943, when the threat to Britain was vastly greater that any possible threat to
the U.S., it was a threat to survival, in fact. His words were proper then, and
they're far much more proper today. These are dangerous developments. I don't
think they are going to get very far. But they are being applied shamelessly
against vulnerable populations. But to my expectations, is that the mainstream
of society will be too resilient to allow the efforts of the Ashcrofts to extend
very far. Although they are already going to levels that are very hazardous.

Orwellismes, Just War and Preventive War, Democracy

Concepts that were often called Orwellisms, that is terms that are of a kind
George Orwell discussed, phrases that are used in a sense which is different
from, often oposite to their literal meaning - that's pretty standard. Maybe its
more extensive today with more elaborate public relations and propaganda
agencies than in the past, but the stance is familiar. So war is peace.. but
Take the phrase defense department. Up until 1947, it was called the War
Department, which is the correct term for it, it's the war department. As soon
as it was changed to the name Defense Department, any reader of Orwell, or
anyone sane, knew that US are not going to be involved in defense anymore, its
going to be involved in attack. That's why you call it the defence departement.
You read about defense expenditures, theyre really attack expenditures. That's a
typical Orwellism. By now so deeply ingrained that people don't notice it
anymore. Take the war on terror. The war on terror that was declared by the
administration on Sept. 11th, was actually re-declared. That war had been
declared 20 years earlier by pretty much the same people, when they came into
office, in the Reagan administration. They're mostly a recycle from the Reagan
administration. They came into office in 1981 declaring a war on terror, which
very quickly became a major terrorist war. It left a horrible trail of bloodshed
and torture and refugees and devastation throughout the main areas of their war
on terror, central America and the Middle East, but also elsewhere. That
shouldn't surprise us - when people announce a war on terror, you expect a
terrorist war. No reason to expect much different this time. Its rather
startling. The US and international commentary has not brought up or focused
attention on the fact that the same people are redeclaring the war on terror,
which they've already waged with horrifying consequences for their victims. Same
rhetoric, same programs, even the same people. Terms like 'smart bombs', or
something like that, that's a rather appropriate technical term. These are bombs
that have built-in computational systems that enable them to very precisely
attack specific targets. In that case, they're smarter than 'gravity bombs' that
just fall wherever they fall. It doesn't mean that they're good, maybe they're
terrible, but they're more intelligently designed. The notion of a 'just war'
has become popular again, with the ballast of the history of the church and so
on. There are many articles, profound articles on the principles of the just
war, and so on and so forth. These articles have a number of interesting aspects
to them. One is this: there is a very elementary principle to the just war, so
elementary that no one even bothers to mention it. And that's the principle of
universality. So if some resort to violence as legitimate for us, its also
legitimate for everyone else. And if its wrong for them , its wrong for
us. Unless you accept that principle, you cant have any talk about 'just war',
or justice or good and evil, its just a bad joke. So we can ask ourselves to
submit this substantial literature to investigation, see how it stands up when
one applies the principle of universality. So for example, theres no question,
we take for granted that the US bombing of Afganistan was a paradigm example of
a just war. The bombing was undertaken officially in order to compel the
government to turn over to the US people who the US suspected of participation
in a criminal atrocity. Actually, 8 months later, the FBI inform the senate that
they still only suspect them, they don't know. If the Taliban did not hand over
to the US those whom the US suspected of a major crime, then the US would bomb
the people of Afganistan. And that's taken to be a paridigm example of a just
war. Well, try the principle of universality.. by that principle, the followers
of the people of Nicaragua, and Cuba and Haiti, and I could give a long list of
others, have every right to set off terrorist bombs in Washington and New York,
where they can easily find people whom they not only suspect of carrying out
terrorism against them, but they openly boast about it, up to the top
leadership. Well, does anybody believe that that's right? Would it be a just war
if they carried out these actions when in fact they'd be nuked, destroyed in 3
seconds, and certainly nobody including me would regard that as anything but
outrageous. But then it follows that when the US does it to others, its also
outrageous. Unless you can at least face that issue, maybe I'll think to a
counter-argument.. but unless you can at least face that issue, talking about
just war doesn't even rise to the level of hipocracy, it's just comical. And
this is across the spectrum. Theres now talk about the right of the US about
whether the US can carry out a pre-emptive, or what is sometimes called
preventive war against Iraq, because Iraq poses, its claimed, a potential threat
to the US. Well, first of all, the term 'preventive', the more serious people
don't like 'pre-emptive', they want it to be called 'preventive', the doves call
it a 'preventive war'. What it is preventing? Is Iraq about to attack the US, or
for that matter, anyone else? Are the people in the region afraid that Iraq is
going to attack them? Do you see for example that Kuwait and Iran, two countries
that were invaded by Saddam Hussein, are they calling for an attack on Iraq, for
preventive war? The people of the region, they hate him and revile him, but they
don't fear him. They've been trying for several years now to mend fences, to
reintegrate the Iraq back to the region, to improve relations between Iran and
the neighboring states. Because they don't fear them. What they fear is the US,
and with good reason. And what gives the right to the US to be proclaiming
preventive war? That's what the doves claim, but they're not preventing
anything. In fact, if you look at the military expenditures, of say, Iraq, or
the neighboring countries, what you find is that Iraq is one of the weakest
states in the region. Its military expenditures are about 1/3 those of Kuwait,
which has 10% of its population, and far less than the other states, its
surrounded by really dangerous countries. Turkey is a very powerful military
force, Israel is one of the most powerful military forces in the world. Isreal
claims, probably correctly, to have air and armed forces that are larger and
technologically more advanced than any NATO power, outside the US. They
undoubtedly have hundreds of nuclear weapons, probably chemical and biological
weapons. Other states in the region, are not exactly benign. In fact, if the US
does take over Iraq again, its very likely that its military expenditures will
all go up, that its weapons of mass destruction may increase. The country has
been devastated by sanctions. Most of the population is on a semi-starvation
diet. Hundreds of thousands were killed, there's no doubt that Hussein is a
horrible monster, he's just as horrible now as he was when the people in
Washington were happily supporting him, and providing him with the means to
develop weapons of mass destruction, well after he'd commited his worst
atrocities, well after the war with Iran was over, just because he was their
friend and ally. They don't really care about the atrocities. They certainly
don't care about the dangers. He was more dangerous then. So where does the
notion of 'preventive war' come from ? Even to just talk about it as the doves
do is another Orwellism. Does the US have the right to attack a country that its
leaders believe on whatever grounds, that it may someday be a threat to it?
Well, if that principle stands, we might as well say goodbye to the human
species, its going to wipe itself out in 3 minutes. Just about everyone in the
world has the right to attack and destroy everyone else, who might be, someday,
a potential threat to it. Actually, if you look at public opinion around the
world, which is never, virtually never reported here, but known, I mean they are
gallup poles, internationally and so on, the poles in Italy for example, and
everywhere. Most of the world, apparently regards the US as the greatest threat
to world peace. Even in Canada, right next door. A poll a couple of weeks ago
found that well over a third of the population regarded the US as the greatest
threat to world peace. Over twice as high as Iraq, North Korea, much higher than
Al Qaida. Does that give Canada the right to attack the US? Should they set off
explosions in NY hotel rooms because they regard US as a greatest threat to
world peace? Something that is very common in Europe and substantial
elsewhere. Of course not. The fact that people regard a country as a major
threat to world peace doesn't give it a right to attack it. That's not a small
threat.  A threat to world peace on the part of a super power means a threat to
human survival. We should not forget that, its not a small threat, it's a huge
threat. But nobody believes that that provides a right of preventive war. So in
what sense it is provided to the US? These are such gross violations to the
principle of universality that's difficult to even talk about. Lets take a last
example. Take the concept democracy.  The US claims, not officially, but the
line handed out to editorial writers, intellectuals is that we're going to bring
about a wonderful democracy in Iraq. But what is the attitude of the leadership
of the US towards democracy? For example, how are they showing that interest in
democracy right now? at this minute? The last few days, the secretary of the
defense, so called, Donald Rumsfeld, dismissed France and Germany to the ashcan
of history, because they're just 'the old Europe'. What makes them the old
Europe is that their leadership is paying some attention to the overwhelming
will of their own population, and isn't following orders from Washington. That
makes them the 'old Europe.' So we can get rid of them, because we love
democracy. There's also a new Europe. 8 countries that offered some sort of
support to the US. They showed much enthusiasm for that: that's the 'new
Europe' supporting the US. Lets run through those countries one after the other,
take Italy: Berlusconi would be delighted to be invited to be the third of the 3
B's. You know, Bush, Blair, Berlusconi, it may keep him out of jail for
awhile. But what about the population of italy? I don't have to tell you -
overwhelmingly, they opposed to the war. So that's the new Europe, because its
Prime Minister is willing to dismiss with contempt the will of the
population. How about Spain, yes, Aznar is willing to go along. Polls in Spain
show that about 75% opposition to take part in a war even if the UN authorizes
it and they find weapons of mass destruction. You run through the list, it's the
same. There isn't a country on the list with the population supports that even
comes close to supporting the position of the leaders who are cozying up to
Washington. And that's supposed to demonstrate our love for democracy. Actually
the most striking example is Turkey, Turkey is a very important country for this
war, it's a Muslim state, its right on the border, it's a major US ally. The
population, about 90% opposed to the war, according to the latest polls. Here
there putting an enormous pressure, US are putting enormous pressure on Turkey,
economic pressure, and other forms of coercion, to compel the government to
violate the overwhelming will of the electorate. They just voted it in, to
support the US war. And if the government goes along, they'll be praised as a
wonderful democracy. What does this tell you about their conception of
democracy? Tells you the same, and its very clear and simple. And its by no
means the only exemple, it just happens to be very dramatic at this moment. Now
try to find the editorials, or commentary by intellectual journals, that explain
to you that these people have such profound hatred and contempt for democracy
that theyre praising as democratic leaders who completely reject the
overwhelming will of their own population. If those things aren't headlines,
front page articles everywhere, it tells us something about the moral and
intellectual culture of educated sectors. But I don't want to suggest this is
the only example, it goes on and on. I mean these are the things that we ought
to be paying attention to.

What We can do

You know it just happens that I have returned recently from Turkey and before
that, Columbia, which happen to be the two leading recipients of US military aid
apart from Israel and Egypt and both have horrible records of the repression,
violence and terror, some of the worst of the current period.  There what you
find is great numbers of people, peasants, working people others leading,
writers, journalists, you now, priest, academics, and others, who are not only
protesting repression and harsh laws much worses than the patriot act and they
are suffering for it, like years in prison or in Colombia asassinations. They
are not only protesting it, they carry out regular civil disobedience against it
and they put themselves at great risk. But they are not asking what to do about
it, they are doing it. And in fact, we are lucky, we live in countries which are
relatively free, the state has very limited capacity for recourse, the western
industrial democracies, and not because they are nice people, but because there
have been popular struggles over the centuries, which were simply about wanted a
lot of freedom and now enjoy the results of those struggles, we have that
freedom, and we now enjoy the results of those struggles with near impunity. So
a huge range of actions are open to the people in the west and even a
dictatorship has got to pay some attention to the will of the population if its
actually articulated not only in words but in an actions. And that's surely true
of more democratic societies so it's no reason to allow any violence and
atrocities or repression to continue if we want to stop it.

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