By Muriel Kane
Left-wing social critic and political activist Noam Chomsky is not surprised that Americans felt “shock and indignation” when the Bush administration torture memos were released — but he is surprised that anyone would consider them surprising.
“Torture has been routine practice from the early days of the Republic,” Chomseky writes in Z Magazine’s June issue. “Accordingly, it is surprising to see the reactions even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: for example, that we used to be ‘a nation of moral ideals’ and never before Bush ‘have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for’ (Paul Krugman). To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of history.”
To rebut claims that American ideals are the reality and “the distortions of the American idea” a temporary falling-away from that reality, Chomsky offers a brief review of the history of American imperialism, focusing on the 20th century.
“After the success of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Cuba in 1898,” Chomsky writes, “the next step in the mission assigned by Providence was to confer ‘the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all the rescued peoples’ of the Philippines. … These fortunate souls were left to the mercies of the U.S.-established Philippine constabulary within a newly devised model of colonial domination, relying on security forces trained and equipped for sophisticated modes of surveillance, intimidation, and violence.”
“In the past 60 years,” Chomsky continues, “victims worldwide have also endured the CIA’s ‘torture paradigm.’ … There is no hyperbole when Jennifer Harbury entitles her penetrating study of the U.S. torture record Truth, Torture, and the American Way. It is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the sewer lament that ‘in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.’”
According to Chomsky, the only notable innovation of the Bush administration was to carry out torture itself, rather than farming it out to proxies — an earlier practice to which the Obama administration has now reverted.
Chomsky also cites a 1980 study showing “that U.S. aid ‘has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens.’ … Not surprisingly, U.S. aid tends to correlate with a favorable climate for business operations and this is commonly improved by murder of labor and peasant organizers and human rights activists.”
Chomsky further notes that when the US signed the International Convention on Torture, it carefully excluded the forms of “mental” torture, such as sensory deprivation, that were at “the core of the CIA torture paradigm.”
After making his historical case, Chomsky returns to the distorting effects of the belief that such crimes represent a falling away from American ideals and not the norm. “As long as such ‘exceptionalist’ theses remain firmly implanted,” he writes, “the occasional revelations of the ‘abuse of history’ can backfire, serving to efface terrible crimes.”
“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. … Torture is hideous enough; the invasion of Iraq is a far worse crime.”
“Quite commonly, selective atrocities have this function,” Chomsky concludes. “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead.”