Noam Chomsky, the legendary political activist and professor of linguistics, has been writing and speaking about torture for decades. From the “dirty wars” of 1980s Central America, to the more recent abuses of the war on terror, his voice has rarely been absent. Now, in what appears to be his first interview on the subject, Professor Chomsky kindly agreed to take some questions by email about the Senate’s recently-released torture report.
Chomsky told me that he was “not really” surprised by the contents of the summary, given “all that’s been learned” about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and rendition. Moreover, the Bush administration’s use of torture was not entirely without precedent. The CIA has a long history of involvement in torture, training foreign goons to use its own specially-designed torture tactics in Central America in the 1980s, for example. But, after the Second World War, torture was largely outsourced to foreign security forces so the US could keep its hands clean of direct participation. It was therefore an anomaly when CIA set up its own prisons after 9/11 and did much of the torturing itself. Chomsky, citing the work of Alfred McCoy, a distinguished historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told me that, “In recent years, the US usually handed torture over to subsidiaries. The Rumsfeld-Cheney innovation has been to go back to the good old days when Americans did the dirty work themselves.”
“The roots of torture in American society are very deep,” he wrote. “The modern economy and our wealth were created by massive torture in slave labor camps (cotton plantation). It’s also been a very frightened society, since its origins.”
Fear is a “constant theme in US history”, he wrote. “Few laughed, for example, when Ronald Reagan strapped on his cowboy boots and declared a national emergency because Nicaraguan troops were only two days march from Harlingen Texas.”
He told me that the country has long been frightened of supposedly hostile groups and tends to fear the victims of its own aggressive policies.
“It’s natural to be frightened when you are spreading havoc. Thomas Jefferson was a model of enlightenment for his time. But he still put a passage in the Declaration of Independence about the “merciless Indian savages” and the horrors they are inflicting on the innocent colonists. And privately he explained that freeing slaves might lead to a war in which we would be exterminated, because each one has “ten thousand recollections” of the sadistic torture we have inflicted on them. The crazed gun culture, particularly in the South, is probably a continuation of that. And so it continues. Enemies everywhere ready to destroy us if we don’t destroy them first.”
For Chomsky, “Torture is immoral, period.” He has no time for “ticking time-bomb” hypotheses, in which a bomb is about to go off and torture is required to find its location. “The ticking bomb argument is close to meaningless. I doubt that a real example can be found, and if one could, why would one expect the person dedicated to a crime to tell the truth under torture? They’ll tell the torturer anything to stop the torture, but why the truth?”
His views mirror international law, which prohibits torture absolutely and leaves no room for ticking bomb situations. Chomsky believes there should be prosecutions for the Bush-era officials who authorized and implemented the CIA program. But he doubts there will be such accountability and sees only “tactical changes” arising from the Senate’s report. Likewise, the clearly illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in no prosecutions, even though aggression is a “vastly worse” crime than torture, according to Chomsky.
Much of the public debate around torture concerns its effectiveness, not its legal or moral implications, he noted. The media’s “relative lack of concern about legality and morality…would be shocking if it wasn’t so routine,” Chomsky wrote, asking, rhetorically, if I had seen the New York Times refer to the Iraq invasion as a crime of aggression, or remind its readers of the Nuremberg judgment.
It seems that torture has been drained of its legal meaning in US political discourse and turned into a policy option for future presidents to consider. “There is no moral or legal barrier against torture (crucially, by us or our clients),” Chomsky told me. “So if there is some reason to believe that it might accomplish our goals, why not?”