[News] Torture has been routine practice from the early days of the Republic

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 4 13:37:32 EDT 2009

The Torture Memos

Torture has been routine practice from the early days of the Republic

By Noam Chomsky

  The torture memos released by the White House 
in April elicited shock, indignation, and 
surprise. The shock and indignation are 
understandable­particularly the testimony in the 
Senate Armed Services Committee report on the 
Cheney-Rumsfeld desperation to find links between 
Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that were later 
concocted as justification for the invasion, 
facts irrelevant. Former Army psychiatrist Major 
Charles Burney testified that "a large part of 
the time we were focused on trying to establish a 
link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The more 
frustrated people got in not being able to 
establish this link...there was more and more 
pressure to resort to measures that might produce 
more immediate results"­that is, torture. The 
McClatchy press reported that a former senior 
intelligence official familiar with the 
interrogation issue added that "The Bush 
administration applied relentless pressure on 
interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees 
in part to find evidence of cooperation between 
al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam 
Hussein's regime.... [Cheney and Rumsfeld] 
demanded that the interrogators find evidence of 
al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.... 'There was 
constant pressure on the intelligence agencies 
and the interrogators to do whatever it took to 
get that information out of the detainees, 
especially the few high-value ones we had, and 
when people kept coming up empty, they were told 
by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push 
harder'." These were the most significant revelations, barely reported.

While such testimony about the viciousness and 
deceit of the Administration should indeed be 
shocking, the surprise at the general picture 
revealed is nonetheless surprising. A narrow 
reason is that even without inquiry, it was 
reasonable to suppose that Guantanamo was a 
torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where 
they would be beyond the reach of the 
law­incidentally, a place that Washington is 
using in violation of a treaty that was forced on 
Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons are 
alleged, but they are hard to take seriously. The 
same expectations held for secret prisons and rendition, and were fulfilled.

A broader reason is that torture has been routine 
practice from the early days of the conquest of 
the national territory, and then beyond, as the 
imperial ventures of the "infant empire"­as 
George Washington called the new 
Republic­extended to the Philippines, Haiti, and 
elsewhere. Furthermore, torture is the least of 
the many crimes of aggression, terror, 
subversion, and economic strangulation that have 
darkened U.S. history, much as in the case of 
other great powers. 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.

Occasionally the conflict between "what we stand 
for" and "what we do" has been forthrightly 
addressed. One distinguished scholar who 
undertook the task is Hans Morgenthau, a founder 
of realist international relations theory. In a 
classic study written in the glow of Camelot, 
Morgenthau developed the standard view that the 
U.S. has a "transcendent purpose": establishing 
peace and freedom at home and indeed everywhere, 
since "the arena within which the United States 
must defend and promote its purpose has become 
world-wide." But as a scrupulous scholar, he 
recognized that the historical record is 
radically inconsistent with the "transcendent purpose" of America.

We should not, however, be misled by that 
discrepancy, Morgenthau advises: in his words, we 
should not "confound the abuse of reality with 
reality itself." Reality is the unachieved 
"national purpose" revealed by "the evidence of 
history as our minds reflect it." What actually 
happened is merely the "abuse of reality." To 
confound abuse of reality with reality is akin to 
"the error of atheism, which denies the validity 
of religion on similar grounds." An apt comparison.

The release of the torture memos led others to 
recognize the problem. In the New York Times, 
columnist Roger Cohen reviewed a book by British 
journalist Geoffrey Hodgson, who concludes that 
the U.S. is "just one great, but imperfect, 
country among others." Cohen agrees that the 
evidence supports Hodgson's judgment, but regards 
it as fundamentally mistaken. The reason is 
Hodgson's failure to understand that "America was 
born as an idea, and so it has to carry that idea 
forward." The American idea is revealed by 
America's birth as a "city on a hill," an 
"inspirational notion" that resides "deep in the 
American psyche"; and by "the distinctive spirit 
of American individualism and enterprise" 
demonstrated in the Western expansion. Hodgson's 
error is that he is keeping to "the distortions 
of the American idea in recent decades," the 
"abuse of reality" in recent years.

A Legacy of Ghastly Crimes

Let us then turn to "reality itself": the "idea" 
of America from its earliest days. The 
inspirational phrase "city on a hill" was coined 
by John Winthrop in 1630, borrowing from the 
Gospels, and outlining the glorious future of a 
new nation "ordained by God." One year earlier 
his Massachusetts Bay Colony established its 
Great Seal. It depicts an Indian with a scroll 
coming out of his mouth. On it are the words 
"Come over and help us." The British colonists 
were thus benevolent humanists, responding to the 
pleas of the "miserable" natives to be rescued from their bitter pagan fate.

The Great Seal is a graphic representation of 
"the idea of America," from its birth. It should 
be exhumed from the depths of the psyche and 
displayed on the walls of every classroom. It 
should certainly appear in the background of all 
of the Kim Il-Sung-style worship of the savage 
murderer and torturer Ronald Reagan, who 
blissfully described himself as the leader of a 
"shining city on the hill" while orchestrating 
ghastly crimes and leaving a hideous legacy.

This early proclamation of "humanitarian 
intervention," to use the currently fashionable 
phrase, turned out to be very much like its 
successors, facts that were not obscure to the 
agents. The first Secretary of War, General Henry 
Knox, described "the utter extirpation of all the 
Indians in most populous parts of the Union" by 
means "more destructive to the Indian natives 
than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and 
Peru." Long after his own significant 
contributions to the process were past, John 
Quincy Adams deplored the fate of "that hapless 
race of native Americans, which we are 
exterminating with such merciless and perfidious 
cruelty...among the heinous sins of this nation, 
for which I believe God will one day bring [it] 
to judgment." The merciless and perfidious 
cruelty continued until "the West was won." 
Instead of God's judgment, the heinous sins bring 
only praise for the fulfillment of the American 
"idea" (Reginald Horsman, Expansion and American 
Indian Policy, Michigan State, 1967; William Earl 
Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire, Kentucky, 1992).

There was, to be sure, a more convenient and 
conventional version, expressed for example by 
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who mused 
that "the wisdom of Providence" caused the 
natives to disappear like "the withered leaves of 
autumn" even though the colonists had "constantly 
respected" them (see Nicholas Guyatt, Providence 
and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876, Cambridge 2007).

The conquest and settling of the West indeed 
showed individualism and enterprise. 
Settler-colonialist enterprises, the cruelest 
form of imperialism, commonly do. The outcome was 
hailed by the respected and influential Senator 
Henry Cabot Lodge in 1898. Calling for 
intervention in Cuba, Lodge lauded our record "of 
conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion 
unequalled by any people in the 19th century" and 
urged that it is "not to be curbed now," as the 
Cubans too are pleading with us to come over and 
help them (cited by Lars Schoultz, That Infernal 
Little Cuban Republic). Their plea was answered. 
The U.S. sent troops, thereby preventing Cuba's 
liberation from Spain and turning it into a 
virtual colony, as it remained until 1959.

The "American idea" is illustrated further by a 
remarkable campaign, initiated virtually at once, 
to restore Cuba to its proper place: economic 
warfare with the clearly articulated aim of 
punishing the population so that they would 
overthrow the disobedient government; invasion; 
the dedication of the Kennedy brothers to bring 
"the terrors of the earth" to Cuba (the phrase of 
historian Arthur Schlesinger, in his biography of 
Robert Kennedy, who took the task as one of his 
highest priorities); and other crimes continuing 
to the present, in defiance of virtually unanimous world opinion.

There are to be sure critics, who hold that our 
efforts to bring democracy to Cuba have failed, 
so we should turn to other ways to "come over and 
help them." How do these critics know that the 
goal was to bring democracy? There is evidence: 
our leaders proclaim it. There is also 
counter-evidence: the declassified internal 
record, but that can be dismissed as just "the abuse of history."

American imperialism is often traced to the 
takeover of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii in 
1898. But that is to succumb to what historian of 
imperialism Bernard Porter calls "the salt water 
fallacy," the idea that conquest only becomes 
imperialism when it crosses salt water. Thus, if 
the Mississippi had resembled the Irish Sea, 
Western expansion would have been imperialism. 
 From Washington to Lodge, those engaged in the enterprise had a clearer grasp.

After the success of "humanitarian intervention" 
in Cuba in 1898, 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 (in the 
words of the platform of Lodge's Republican 
Party)­at least those who survived the murderous 
onslaught and the large-scale torture and other 
atrocities that accompanied it. 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 (Alfred McCoy, 
Policing America's Empire, 2009). Similar models 
were adopted in many other areas where the U.S. 
imposed brutal National Guards and other client 
forces, with consequences that should be well-known.

In the past 60 years, victims worldwide have also 
endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed 
at a cost reaching $1 billion annually, according 
to historian Alfred McCoy, who shows that the 
methods surfaced with little change in Abu 
Ghraib. 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" 
(McCoy, A Question of Torture, Metropolitan, 
2006; also McCoy, "The U.S. Has a History of 
Using Torture," 
http://hnn.us/articles/32497.html; Jane Mayer, 
"The Battle for a Country's Soul," New York Review of Books, August 14, 2008).

Torture Innovations & Paradigms

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 conducted 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 U.S. 
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 
U.S. has mainly seen its torture done for it by 
proxy­paying, 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 .... [H]is is a return to the 
status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford 
through Clinton, which, year by year, often 
produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony 
than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years" 
(News and Comment, January 24, 2009, www.allannairn.com).

Sometimes engagement in torture is more indirect. 
In a 1980 study, Latin Americanist Lars Schoultz 
found that U.S. aid "has tended to flow 
disproportionately to Latin American governments 
which torture their citizens...to the 
hemisphere's relatively egregious violators of 
fundamental human rights." That includes military 
aid, is independent of need, and runs through the 
Carter years. Broader studies by Edward Herman 
found the same correlation and also suggested an 
explanation. 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, and other such actions, 
yielding a secondary correlation between aid and 
egregious violation of human rights (Schoultz, 
Comparative Politics, Jan. 1981; Herman, in 
Chomsky and Herman, Political Economy of Human 
Rights I, South End, 1979; Herman, Real Terror Network, 1982).

These studies precede the Reagan years, when the 
topic was not worth studying because the 
correlations were so clear. And the tendencies 
continue to the present. Small wonder that the 
president advises us to look forward, not 
backward­a convenient doctrine for those who hold 
the clubs. Those who are beaten by them tend to 
see the world differently, much to our annoyance.

An argument can be made that implementation of 
the CIA's "torture paradigm" does not violate the 
1984 Torture Convention, at least as Washington 
interprets it. Alfred McCoy points out that the 
highly sophisticated CIA paradigm, based on the 
"KGB's most devastating torture technique," keeps 
primarily to mental torture, not crude physical 
torture, which is considered less effective in 
turning people into pliant vegetables. McCoy 
writes that the Reagan administration carefully 
revised the international Torture Convention 
"with four detailed diplomatic 'reservations' 
focused on just one word in the convention's 
26-printed pages"­the word "mental." "[T]hese 
intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations 
re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United 
States, to exclude sensory deprivation and 
self-inflicted pain­the very techniques the CIA 
had refined at such great cost." When Clinton 
sent the UN Convention to Congress for 
ratification in 1994, he included the Reagan 
reservations. The president and Congress, 
therefore, exempted the core of the CIA torture 
paradigm from the U.S. interpretation of the 
Torture Convention. Those reservations, McCoy 
observes, were "reproduced verbatim in domestic 
legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN 
Convention." That is the "political land mine" 
that "detonated with such phenomenal force" in 
the Abu Ghraib scandal and in the shameful 
Military Commissions Act passed with bipartisan 
support in 2006. Accordingly, after the first 
exposure of Washington's latest resort to 
torture, constitutional law professor Sanford 
Levinson observed that it could perhaps be 
justified in terms of the "interrogator-friendly" 
definition of torture adopted by Reagan and 
Clinton in their revision of international human 
rights law (McCoy, "US has a history"; Levinson, 
"Torture in Iraq & the Rule of Law in America," Daedalus, Summer 2004).

Bush/Obama & the Courts

Bush went beyond his predecessors in authorizing 
prima facie violations of international law and 
several of his extremist innovations were struck 
down by the Courts. While Obama, like Bush, 
affirms our unwavering commitment to 
international law, he seems intent on 
substantially reinstating the extremist Bush 
measures. In the important case of Boumediene v. 
Bush in June 2008, the Supreme Court rejected as 
unconstitutional the Bush administration claim 
that prisoners in Guantanamo are not entitled to 
the right of habeas corpus. Glenn Greenwald 
reviews the aftermath. Seeking to "preserve the 
power to abduct people from around the world" and 
imprison them without due process, the Bush 
administration decided to ship them to Bagram, 
treating "the Boumediene ruling, grounded in our 
most basic constitutional guarantees, as though 
it was some sort of a silly game­fly your 
abducted prisoners to Guantanamo and they have 
constitutional rights, but fly them instead to 
Bagram and you can disappear them forever with no 
judicial process." Obama adopted the Bush 
position, "filing a brief in federal court that, 
in two sentences, declared that it embraced the 
most extremist Bush theory on this issue," 
arguing that prisoners flown to Bagram from 
anywhere in the world­in the case in question, 
Yemenis and Tunisians captured in Thailand and 
the UAE­"can be imprisoned indefinitely with no 
rights of any kind­as long as they are kept in Bagram rather than Guantanamo."

In March a Bush-appointed federal judge "rejected 
the Bush/Obama position and held that the 
rationale of Boumediene applies every bit as much 
to Bagram as it does to Guantanamo." The Obama 
administration announced that it would appeal the 
ruling, thus placing Obama's Department of 
Justice "squarely to the right of an extremely 
conservative, pro-executive-power, Bush 
43-appointed judge on issues of executive power 
and due-process-less detentions," in radical 
violation of Obama's campaign promises and earlier stands.

The case of Rasul v Rumsfeld appears to be 
following a similar trajectory. The plaintiffs 
charged that Rumsfeld and other high officials 
were responsible for their torture in Guantanamo, 
where they were sent after they were captured by 
Uzbeki warlord Rashid Dostum. Dostum is a 
notorious thug who was then a leader of the 
Northern Alliance, the Afghan faction supported 
by Russia, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Central 
Asian states, joined by the U.S. as it attacked 
Afghanistan in October 2001. Dostum then turned 
them over to U.S. custody, allegedly for bounty 
money. The plaintiffs claimed that they had 
traveled to Afghanistan to offer humanitarian 
relief. The Bush administration sought to have 
the case dismissed. Obama's Department of Justice 
filed a brief supporting the Bush position that 
government officials are not liable for torture 
and other violations of due process, because the 
Courts had not yet clearly established the rights 
that prisoners enjoy (Daphne Eviatar, "Obama 
Justice Department Urges Dismissal of Another 
Torture Case," Washington Independent, March 12, 2009).

It is also reported that Obama intends to revive 
military commissions, one of the more severe 
violations of the rule of law during the Bush 
years. There is a reason. "Officials who work on 
the Guantánamo issue say administration lawyers 
have become concerned that they would face 
significant obstacles to trying some terrorism 
suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it 
difficult to prosecute detainees who were 
subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors 
to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence 
agencies" (William Glaberson, "U.S. May Revive 
Guantanamo Military Courts," New York Times, May 
1, 2009). A serious flaw in the criminal justice system, it appears.

There is much debate about whether torture has 
been effective in eliciting information­the 
assumption being, apparently, that if it is 
effective then it may be justified. By the same 
argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot 
Eugene Hasenfus in 1986 after shooting down his 
plane delivering aid to Reagan's contra forces, 
they should not have tried him, found him guilty, 
and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. 
Rather, they should have applied the CIA torture 
paradigm to try to extract information about 
other terrorist atrocities being planned and 
implemented in Washington, no small matter for a 
tiny and poor country under terrorist attack by 
the global superpower. And Nicaragua should 
certainly have done the same if they had been 
able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, 
John Negroponte, then ambassador in Honduras, 
later appointed counter-terrorism Czar, without 
eliciting a murmur. Cuba should have done the 
same if they had been able to lay hands on the 
Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up 
what victims should have done to Kissinger, 
Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, 
whose exploits leave al-Qaeda far in the 
distance, and who doubtless had ample information 
that could have prevented further "ticking bombs."

Such considerations, which abound, never seem to 
arise in public discussion. Accordingly, we know 
at once how to evaluate the pleas about valuable information.

Torturer's Cost-Benefit Analysis

There is, to be sure, a response: our terrorism, 
even if surely terrorism, is benign, deriving as 
it does from the city on the hill. Perhaps the 
most eloquent exposition of this thesis was 
presented by New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, 
a respected spokesperson of "the left." America's 
Watch (Human Rights Watch) had protested State 
Department confirmation of official orders to 
Washington's terrorist forces to attack "soft 
targets"­undefended civilian targets­and to avoid 
the Nicaraguan army, as they could do thanks to 
CIA control of Nicaraguan airspace and the 
sophisticated communications systems provided to 
the contras. In response, Kinsley explained that 
U.S. terrorist attacks on civilian targets are 
justified if they satisfy pragmatic criteria: a 
"sensible policy [should] meet the test of 
cost-benefit analysis," an analysis of "the 
amount of blood and misery that will be poured 
in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge 
at the other end"­"democracy" as U.S. elites 
determine (Wall Street Journal, March 26, 1987). 
His thoughts elicited no comment, to my 
knowledge, apparently deemed acceptable. It would 
seem to follow, then, that U.S. leaders and their 
agents are not culpable for conducting such 
sensible policies in good faith, even if their 
judgment might sometimes be flawed.

Perhaps culpability would be greater, by 
prevailing moral standards, if it were discovered 
that Bush administration torture cost American 
lives. That is, in fact, the conclusion drawn by 
U.S. Major Matthew Alexander [pseudonym], one of 
the most seasoned interrogators in Iraq, who 
elicited "the information that led to the U.S. 
military being able to locate Abu Musab 
al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq," 
correspondent Patrick Cockburn reports. Alexander 
expresses only contempt for the harsh 
interrogation methods: "The use of torture by the 
US," he believes, not only elicits no useful 
information, but "has proved so 
counter-productive that it may have led to the 
death of as many U.S. soldiers as civilians 
killed in 9/11." From hundreds of interrogations, 
Alexander discovered that foreign fighters came 
to Iraq in reaction to the abuses at Guantanamo 
and Abu Ghraib, and that they and domestic allies 
turned to suicide bombing and other terrorist 
acts for the same reason (Cockburn, "Torture? It 
probably killed more Americans than 9/11," Independent, April 6, 2009).

There is also mounting evidence that 
Cheney-Rumsfeld torture created terrorists. One 
carefully studied case is that of Abdallah 
al-Ajmi, who was locked up in Guantanamo on the 
charge of "engaging in two or three fire fights 
with the Northern Alliance." He ended up in 
Afghanistan after having failed to reach Chechnya 
to fight against the Russian invasion. After four 
years of brutal treatment in Guantanamo, he was 
returned to Kuwait. He later found his way to 
Iraq and, in March 2008, drove a bomb-laden truck 
into an Iraqi military compound, killing himself 
and 13 soldiers­"the single most heinous act of 
violence committed by a former Guantanamo 
detainee," the Washington Post reports, the 
direct result of his abusive imprisonment, his 
Washington lawyer concludes (Anonymous, Rajiv 
Chandrasekaran, "From Captive to Suicide Bomber," 
Washington Post, February 22, 2009).

Another standard pretext for torture is the 
context: the "war on terror" that Bush declared 
after 9/11, a "crime against humanity" carried 
out with "wickedness and awesome cruelty," as 
Robert Fisk reported. That crime rendered 
traditional international law "quaint" and 
"obsolete," Bush was advised by his legal counsel 
Alberto Gonzales, later appointed attorney 
general. The doctrine has been widely reiterated 
in one or another form in commentary and analysis.

The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique, in many 
respects. One was where the guns were pointing: 
typically it is in the opposite direction. In 
fact that was the first attack of any consequence 
on the national territory since the British 
burned down Washington in 1814. Another unique 
feature was the scale of terror by a non-state 
actor. But horrifying as it was, it could have 
been worse. Suppose that the perpetrators had 
bombed the White House, killed the president and 
established a vicious military dictatorship that 
killed 50,000-100,000 people and tortured 
700,000, set up a huge international terror 
center that carried out assassinations, helped 
impose comparable military dictatorships 
elsewhere, and implemented economic doctrines 
that destroyed the economy so radically that the 
state had to virtually take it over a few years 
later. That would have been a lot worse than 
9/11. And it happened, in what Latin Americans 
often call "the first 9/11," in 1973. The numbers 
have been changed to per capita equivalents, a 
realistic way of measuring crimes. Responsibility 
traces straight back to Washington. Accordingly, 
the­quite appropriate­analogy is out of 
consciousness, while the facts are consigned to 
the "abuse of reality" that the naïve call history.

It should also be recalled that Bush did not 
declarethe "war on terror"; he re-declared it. 
Twenty years earlier, the Reagan administration 
came into office declaring that a centerpiece of 
its foreign policy would be a war on terror, "the 
plague of the modern age" and "a return to 
barbarism in our time," to sample the fevered 
rhetoric of the day. That war on terror has also 
been deleted from historical consciousness 
because the outcome cannot readily be 
incorporated into the canon: hundreds of 
thousands slaughtered in the ruined countries of 
Central America and many more elsewhere­among 
them an estimated 1.5 million in the terrorist 
wars sponsored in neighboring countries by 
Reagan's favored ally apartheid South Africa, 
which had to defend itself from Nelson Mandela's 
African National Congress, one of the more 
world's "more notorious terrorist groups," 
Washington determined in 1988. In fairness, it 
should be added that 20 years later Congress 
voted to remove the ANC from the list of 
terrorist organizations, so that Mandela is now 
at last able to enter the U.S. without obtaining 
a waiver from the government (Joseba Zulaika and 
William Douglass, Terror and Taboo, 1996; Jesse Holland, AP, May 9, 2009, NYT).

Exceptionalism & Amnesia

The reigning doctrine is sometimes called 
"American exceptionalism." It is nothing of the 
sort. It is probably close to universal among 
imperial powers. France was hailing its 
"civilizing mission" while the French Minister of 
War called for "exterminating the indigenous 
population" of Algeria. Britain's nobility was a 
"novelty in the world," John Stuart Mill 
declared, while urging that this angelic power 
delay no longer in completing its liberation of 
India. This classic essay on humanitarian 
intervention was written shortly after the public 
revelation of Britain's horrifying atrocities in 
suppressing the 1857 Indian rebellion. The 
conquest of the rest of India was in large part 
an effort to gain a monopoly of opium for 
Britain's huge narco-trafficking enterprise, by 
far the largest in world history, designed 
primarily to compel China to accept Britain's manufactured goods.

Similarly, there is no reason to doubt the 
sincerity of Japanese militarists who were 
bringing an "earthly paradise" to China under 
benign Japanese tutelage, as they carried out the 
rape of Nanking. History is replete with similar "glorious" episodes.

As long as such "exceptionalist" theses remain 
firmly implanted, 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 abroad­the 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.

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.

Noam Chomsky is a linguist and social critic. He 
is the author of numerous articles and books 
including Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest 
for Global Dominance (2003) and Failed States: 
The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2006).

From: Z Magazine - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives

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