Putting it in context

If you think the fact that Feingold has to call out Obama is depressing, or that the failure to actually enact transparency over what happened with respect to torture under the Bush administration is depressing… well, you should probably stay away from Noam.

Here’s a snippet from Chomsky’s recent article on the Torture Memos, which looks at the history of the US’s relationship with torture in an attempt to burst the “Bush/Cheney were unlike, and radically worse than anything that came before” bubble:

Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did introduce important innovations. Ordinarily, torture is farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their government-established torture chambers. Alain Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out that “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.” Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. Since Vietnam, “the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy — paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed.” Obama’s ban “doesn’t even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of ‘armed conflict,’ which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren’t in armed conflict … his is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”

And, even more depressing, and yet even more important to read and think about, is this bit from near the conclusion of the article:

The My Lai massacre was a mere footnote to the vastly greater atrocities of the post-Tet pacification programs, ignored while indignation focused on this single crime. Watergate was doubtless criminal, but the furor over it displaced incomparably worse crimes at home and abroad — the FBI-organized assassination of black organizer Fred Hampton as part of the infamous COINTELPRO repression, or the bombing of Cambodia, to mention two egregious examples. Torture is hideous enough; the invasion of Iraq is a far worse crime. Quite commonly, selective atrocities have this function.

Do read the whole piece. Chomsky knows his stuff–and he’s not afraid to deploy footnotes.

I kind of wish I had a “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”-type phrase that I could stick on the end of any post about government policy, or institutional effects, or similar topics, that meant “And I recommend you see what Chomsky has to say about it as well.” I could have been using it since he first (indirectly) utterly, utterly changed the way I look at the world back in the early 90s.

  3 comments for “Putting it in context

  1. Lachlan O'Dea
    May 26, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Chomsky says that the Saddam Hussein regime should not have been removed. Is that not the very definition of “status quo” with respect to torture? To leave arguably the world’s worst torturer in power to continue his crimes? He sees so easily the horrors unleashed by the U.S. intervention, but is blind to the horrors that would continue to this day if it had not occurred.

  2. May 26, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Hey Lachlan, good to see you here!

    I hope we can talk about this civilly, and not get into something where you’ll have to give me the snub when I’m down there next month 🙂 I love a good argument, but I usually don’t get into politics (or religion) with work people since those ones tend to get heated.

    I’ll start by saying that disagreeing with Chomsky on another point doesn’t invalidate the point he’s trying to make here–both that the US has a history of sanctioning torture that predates the last administration, and that public shock at isolated atrocities often provides cover for even worse crimes.

    Then we could get into the actual disagreement: I don’t see Chomsky’s lack of support for the invasion as a problem, since I’m on the “unjustified and illegal” team myself. My read, and hey I could totally be wrong since I’m not telepathic, of Chomsky is that he’s less offended by the results of the war than by the outright hypocrisy of the way it was justified and undertaken. In particular the whole “weapons of mass destruction” and “9-11 linkages” stuff that was ginned up as justification. I think he’d still be pissed that it happened if the Powers That Be had been more clear about the actual motivations, but rather a lot less than he is about their attempts to manufacture the consent of the political class in the US.

    I think he’s justified in being annoyed at the whole justification-shopping aspect of the way the US presented the attack, with “regime change” being one of the later justifications after it was clear that there were no WMDs or 9-11 links.

    I’d go a bit beyond that, as well–I’m hardly someone you’d call pro-Saddam, but I wonder if what he would have done in the intervening years measures up to what’s happened under US occupation. I don’t just mean the US-sanctioned torture and whether or not it “measures up” in some way to what Saddam might have done, but also the raw deaths. Depending on who you believe, we’re talking about a number of Iraqi deaths between roughly 100,000(IBC estimates) and well over half a million (Lancet study in 2006 put the number at over 650,00 to that point)–whatever else you think Saddam might have done, I’m reasonably certain there would be a lot more people alive in Iraq today if the US taken a different course. And that does tend to take the bloom off the “regime change” rose.

  3. Lachlan O'Dea
    May 27, 2009 at 2:38 am

    No worries, I won’t get upset if you tell me I’m wrong 🙂

    I also am totally opposed to torture, whether in the “enhanced interrogation” category or otherwise. But I cannot reconcile Mr Chomsky’s indictment of the U.S. for its past support and tolerance of regimes that engage in torture, with his indictment of the Iraq war as “a far worse crime”. I understand the point of view that the war be opposed due to the deceptions and the massive costs, but there should be acknowledgement that there was at least some good intentions and good results.

    Essentially, the U.S. can do no right in the eyes of Noam Chomsky. If the Hussein family still owned Iraq, I suspect he would now be accusing the U.S. of indifference to the crimes of a regime it once aided (and I would be in agreement with him).

    I guess I’m rehashing old Iraq war arguments rather than staying on the subject of torture…

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