Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman

Excerpted from The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, 1979

Freedom, Aggression and Human Rights

The common view that internal freedom makes for humane and moral international behavior is supported neither by historical evidence nor by reason. The United States itself has a long history of imposing oppressive and terrorist regimes in regions of the world within the reach of its power, such as the Caribbean and Central American sugar and banana republics (Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and the Somozas in Nicaragua were long-lived progeny of U.S. intervention and selection). Since World War II. with the great extension of U.S. power, it has borne a heavy responsibility for the spread of a plague of neofascism, state terrorism, torture and repression throughout large parts of the underdeveloped world. The United States has globalized the "banana republic." This has occurred despite some modest ideological strain because these developments serve the needs of powerful and dominant interests, state and private, within the United States itself.

The Vietnam War experience is often cited to prove the importance of freedom and dissent in constraining state violence. This assessment seriously misreads the facts of the case. Peace movement activism, growing from and contributing to the popular movements for equality, freedom and social change within the United States, did succeed in raising the domestic costs of the U.S. assault, thus helping to limit in some degree its scope and severity and contributing to the eventual decision that the game was not worth the candle. It did so, of course, mainly by employing modalities that were outside the framework of existing institutions: demonstrations, nonviolent resistance, grass roots organizing, and wide-ranging educational efforts needed to counter the deep commitment of existing institutions to the protection and furthering of the interests of state and private power. The established "free" institutions supported the war, for the most part enthusiastically and uncritically, occasionally with minor and qualifying reservations. The principled opposition, based on grounds other than cost-ineffectiveness, functioned outside the major institutional structures. It is, of course, an important fact that a movement was allowed to organize with relatively modest state harassment and violence, and that this movement could make some impact on the course of events. Such developments and the costs of overcoming these and other forms of resistance that impede the actions of national elites are also problems in totalitarian societies, though the toll imposed on protectors in Iran, Argentina, and the Soviet Union is often far more severe. The value of being allowed to protest relatively unmolested is certainly real, but it should not lead to a disregard of the fact that established institutions, with overwhelmingly dominant power, tend to line up in goose-step fashion in support of any state foreign venture, no matter how immoral (until the cost becomes too high).

The peace movement frightened Western elites. The response of the U.S. (indeed Free World) leadership to the politicization of large parts of the population during the 1960s provides a revealing indication of their concept of "democracy" and of the role of the public in the "democratic process." In 1975, the Trilateral Commission, representing the more liberal elements of ruling groups in the industrial democracies, published a study entitled The Crisis of Democracy which interprets public participation in decision-making as a threat to democracy, one that must be contained if elite domination is to persist unhindered by popular demand. The population must be reduced to apathy and conformism if "democracy" as interpreted by this liberal contingent, is to be kept workable and allowed to survive.

The most crucial fact relating freedom to the Vietnam War experience is that, despite its free institutions, for over two decades (1949-1975) the United States attempted to subjugate Vietnam by force and subversion, in the process violating the UN Charter, the Geneva Accords of 1954 the Nuremberg Code the Hague Convention, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, and finally the Paris agreements of 19733. For almost a decade the peasants of Indochina served as experimental animals for an evolving military technology-cluster bombs, rockets designed to enter caves where people hid to escape saturation bombing, a fiendish array of anti-personnal weapons; new versions of the long-outlawed "dummy" bullet were among the more modest weapons employed. The population was driven into urban slums by bombing, artillery, and ground attacks that often degenerated into mass murder, in an expanding effort to destroy the social structures m which resistance was rooted. Defenseless peasant societies in Laos and Cambodia were savagely bombed in "secret"-the "secrecy" resulting from the refusal of the mass media to make public facts For which they had ample evidence. Freedom was consistent not only with this expanding savagery, but also with interventions explicitly designed to preserve non-freedom from the threat of freedom (e.g., the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965) and to displace democratic with totalitarian regimes (e.g., the open subversion of Guatemala in 1954: the slightly more sub rosa subversion of democracy in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973). Free institutions were able to accept, indeed quietly approve of huge massacres in the name of "freedom," as in Indonesia in 1965-1966 by U. S. liberals as evidence for the farsightedness of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Massive atrocities committed by U.S. client regimes against their own populations or against foreign populations they hope to subdue (e.g., the Indonesian massacres in East Timor) have also proven compatible with freedom and are regularly disguised or ignored by the Free Press.

Whatever the attitudes of the U.S. leadership toward freedom at home … systematic policies towards Third World countries … make it evident that the alleged commitment to democracy and human rights is mere rhetoric, directly contrary to actual policy. The operative principle has been and remains economic freedom-meaning freedom for U.S. business to invest, sell, and repatriate profits-and its two basic requisites, a favorable investment climate and a specific form of stability. Since these primary values are disturbed by unruly students, democratic processes, peasant organizations, a free press, and free labor unions, "economic freedom" has often required political servitude. Respect for the rights of the individual, also alleged to be one of the cardinal values of the West, has had little place in the operating procedures applied to the Third World. Since a favorable investment climate and stability quite often require repression, the United States has supplied the tools and training for interrogation and torture and is thoroughly implicated in the vast expansion of torture during the Past decade. When Dan Mitrione came to Uruguay in a police advisory function, the police were torturing with an obsolete electric needle:

Mitrione arranged for the police to get newer electric needles of varying thickness. Some needles were so thin they could be slipped between the teeth. Benitez [a Uruguayan police official] understood that this equipment came to Montevideo inside the U.S. embassy’s diplomatic pouch.

Within the United States itself, the intelligence services were "running torture camps," as were their Brazilian associates, who "set up a camp modeled after that of the boinas verdes, the Green Berets." And there is evidence that U.S. advisors took an active part in torture, not contenting themselves with supplying training and material means. During the Vietnam War, the United States. employed on a massive scale improved napalm, phosphorus and fragmentation bombs, and a wide range of other "anti-personnel" weapons that had a devastating effect on civilians. The steady development of weaponry and methods of "interrogation" that inflict enormous pain on the human body and spirit, and the expansion of use of this technology in U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency warfare and "stabilization" throughout the U.S. sphere of influence, is further evidence that the "sacredness of the individual" is hardly a primary value in the West, at least in its application beyond an elite in-group.

The rationale given for the U.S.-buildup of Third World police and military establishments and regular "tilt" toward repressive regimes, is the demands of "security". This is a wonderfully elastic concept with a virtuous ring that can validate open-ended arms expenditures as well as support for neo-fascism. When it is said that we must oppose Goulart in Brazil or the NLF in South Vietnam for reasons of security, this obviously does not mean that they threaten our survival; it means that their success would be disadvantageous to U.S. interests, and not primarily military interests. It is possible that "security" for a great power and its client government corresponds to heightened insecurity for large numbers within the dominated "secure" state. This seems to be very much the case for the majorities in Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay, for example.

As Jan Black points out:

"The delimitation of what must be secured expands to accommodate what a nation, class, institution, or other social entity has, or thinks it should have. It follows, then, that it is often the nations, groups, or individuals whose wealth and power would appear to make them the most secure who are, in fact, most paranoid,…" a comment that applies with striking accuracy to the United States after World War II. In the specific case of the United States, she notes that the concept of security is "all-encompassing, involving economic and political hegemony as well as strictly military considerations…." This flows from the fact of inordinate power and is the propaganda counterpart of the imperial leader’s assumption of the natural right to intervene to keep its subordinates in line. It has the great public relations advantage, also, of built-in self justification. Who could object to the pitiful giant’s efforts to protect its own security?


The Shift in the Balance of Terror to the Free World

Over the past 25 years at least, not only has official terror been responsible for torture and killing on a vastly greater scale than its retail counterpart, but, furthermore, the balance of terror appears to have shifted to the West and its clients, with the United States setting the pace as sponsor and supplier. The old colonial world was shattered during World War II, and the resultant nationalist radical upsurge threatened traditional Western hegemony and the economic interests of Western business. To contain this threat the United States has aligned itself with elite and military elements in the Third World whose function has been to contain the tides of change. This role was played by Diem and Thieu in South Vietnam and is currently served by allies such as Mobutu in Zaire, Pinochet in Chile, and Suharto in Indonesia. Under frequent U S sponsorship the neo-fascist National Security State and other forms of authoritarian- rule have become the dominant mode of government in the Third World. Heavily armed by the West (mainly the United States) and selected for amenability to foreign domination and zealous anti-Communism, counterrevolutionary regimes have been highly torture- and bloodshed-prone.

In the Soviet sphere of influence, torture appears to have been on the decline since the death of Stalin. In its 1974 Report on Torture, Amnesty International (AI) notes:

"Though prison conditions and the rights of the prisoners detained on political charges in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union may still be in many cases unsatisfactory, torture as a government-sanctioned, Stalinist practice has ceased. With a few exceptions no reports on the use of torture in Eastern Europe have been reaching the outside world in the past decade."

In sharp contrast, torture, which "for the last two or three hundred years has been no more than a historical curiosity has suddenly developed a life of its own and become a social cancer." Since it has declined in the Soviet sphere since the death of Stalin, it would appear that this cancerous growth is largely a Free World phenomenon: The frontispiece describes its distribution within the sphere of influence. It has shown phenomenal growth in where, as AI points out:

" There is a marked difference between traditional brutality, stemming from historical conditions, and the systemic torture which has spread to many Latin American countries within the past decade."

Amnesty International also notes that in some of the Latin American countries "the institutional violence and high incidence of political assassinations has tended to overshadow the problem of torture. The numbers involved in these official (wholesale) murders have been large: for example, AI estimates 15,000 death squad victims in the small country of Guatemala between 1970 and `. a thousand in Argentina in 1975 before the military coup and unleashing of a true reign of terror.

The AI Annual Report for 1975-1976 also notes that "more 80% of the urgent appeals and actions for victims of human torture have been coming from Latin America. One reason for urgency of these appeals is the nature of this expanding empire of violence. which bears comparison with some of the worst excrescences of European fascism. Hideous torture has become standard practice in the U.S. client fascist states. In the new Chile, to savor the results of the narrow escape of that country from Communist tyranny:

Many people were tortured to death [after the military coup of 1973] by means of endless whipping as well as beating with fists, feet and rifle butts. Prisoners were beaten on all parts of the body, including the head and sexual organs. The bodies of prisoners were found in the Rio Mapocho, sometimes disfigured beyond recognition. Two well-known cases in Santiago are those of Litre Quiroga, the ax-director of prisons under the Allende government, and Victor Jara, Chile’s most popular folk singer. Both were detained in the Estadio Chile and died as a result of the torture received there. According to a recurrent report, the body of Victor Jara was found outside the Estadio Chile, his hands broken and his body badly mutilated. Litre Quiroga had been kicked and beaten in front of other prisoners for approximately 40 hours before he was removed to a special interrogation room where he met his death under unknown circumstances.

Such horrendous details could be repeated for many thousands of human beings in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay Guatemala, Nicaragua, U.S.-occupied South Vietnam up to 1975, Iran, and in quite a few other U.S. client states. They clearly reflect state policy over a wide segment of the U. S. sphere of influence. As already noted, much of the electronic and other torture gear is U.S. supplied, and great numbers of client state police and military interrogators are U.S.-trained.

Latin America has also become the locus of a major diaspora, with hundreds of thousands of academics, journalists, scientists, and other professionals, as well as liberals and radicals of all social classes, driven into exile. This has been a deliberate policy of the military juntas, which one distinguished Latin America journalist calls a "lobotomization" of intellect and the "cultural genocide of our time," with the purpose of removing any source of social criticism or intellectual or leadership base for the general population. Another aspect of the same strategy is, of course, the widespread use of torture and political assassinations to create "a climate of fear and uncertainty to discourage any form of opposition to the ruling elite." To find comparable flights into exile on a continental scale, one would have to go back to the experience of fascist Europe, 1933-1940 … which provides numerous parallels.


Individual Morality and Human Rights Policy

Several moral issues arise in protests concerning atroci and violations of human rights. If the purpose of such protest self-aggrandizement, service to one’s state, establishing credent with one’s compatriots or deity, or other self-serving motives, tl it is clear how to proceed; join the chorus of protests organized the government or the media with regard to the iniquity of current enemies of the state. Such protest may be directed towa genuine abuses of human rights, but it is at the moral level protest for pay. We understand this very well in the case of official enemies. Suppose that some Russian intellectual condemns U behavior in Chile or Vietnam. What he says may be quite true, I we do not admire his courage or moral integrity. Similar remarks apply here, and for the very same reasons.

Suppose that the purpose of protest is to relieve hum suffering or defend human rights. Then more complex considerations arise. One must consider the plausible consequences for the victims of oppression. It is for this reason, for example, that organization such as Amnesty International’s polite letters the most miserable tyrant. In some cases, public protest may positively harmful, a fact familiar to people seriously concerned with human rights. Recently Jiri Hajeok, formerly foreign minister in the Dubcek government and now a leading Czech dissident "criticized President Carter for an ‘over-tough’ approach which he said, will hinder the struggle for greater political latitude in the East bloc." If the purpose of the "human rights crusade" is restore U.S. prestige after the battering it has taken in the p. decades, then such considerations are irrelevant. In fact, Washington had already made its position clear on the matter: "The Carter Administration issued a pointed warning yesterday that it will not be dissuaded from its public campaign for human rights around the world [sic] by the harassment of individual dissidents in foreign countries." But people with a genuine concern for human rights would react quite differently, and give serious consideration to the likely effects on the victims. Such calculations are not always easy ones but the issue will not be lightly dismissed by people who engage in protest for other than self-serving or strategic motives.

Such persons will also consider how their finite energies can be distributed most efficaciously. It is a cheap and cynical evasion to plead that "we must raise our voices" whenever human rights are violated. Even a saint could not meet this demand. A serious person will try to concentrate protest efforts where they are most likely to ameliorate conditions for the victims of oppression. The emphasis should, in general, be close to home: on violations of human rights that have their roots in the policies of one’s own state or its client regimes, or domestic economic institutions (as e.g. in the case of U.S. investment in South Africa), and in general, on policies that protest may be able to influence. This consideration is particularly relevant in a democracy, where public opinion can sometimes be aroused if circumstances allow a sufficient breach in the conformism of the ideological institutions (the media and academic scholarship), but it applies as well in totalitarian states that rely in part on popular consent, as most do. It is for this reason that we honor a Medvedev or Grigorenko who denounce the crimes of the Russian state and its satellites, at great personal risk. If, as in these cases, they also condemn the criminal acts of the United States, that is well and good, but far less significant. In the case of Solzhenitsyn, who comes to the United States to call for a holy war against Communism and criticizes us for not resorting to still greater violence against our enemies, the most generous reaction must be pity-and distress at the fact that the Soviet state has reduced so many of its most courageous dissidents to such blindly destructive hostility.

For privileged Western intellectuals, the proper focus for their protest is at home. The primary responsibility of U.S. citizens ~ -concerned with human rights today is on the Continuing crimes of the United States: the support for terror and oppression in large parts of the world. the refusal to offer reparations or aid to the recent victims of U.S. violence. Similar considerations apply elsewhere. French intellectuals may, if they choose, devote their energies to joining the chorus of protest against Cambodian atrocities that has been conducted by the international press (including the New York Times, the Soviet Press, indeed virtually every articulate segment of opinion in the industrial societies). As long as such protest is honest and accurate-often it is not, as we shall see-it is legitimate, though further questions may be raised about its impact. This small increment to the international barrage on Cambodia had little if any effect in mitigating harsh practices there, though it had a powerful effect on ideological renewal in the West and helped prepare the ground for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979. These effects were predictable, and predicted. French intellectuals interested in doing something to alleviate suffering in Southeast Asia where their impact might be positive would have been better advised to expend their efforts in protesting the announcement by their government that it proposes to join in the glorious massacre in East Timor by supplying arms, setting up an arms industry and providing diplomatic cover for Indonesia. If victims of oppression in Russia, Uganda, or Cambodia can be helped by public protest. then it is justified; otherwise, it is empty rhetoric, or worse, The ultimate vulgarity, perhaps, is the spectacle to which we are now being treated in the U.S. (indeed, Western) media, where many people who supported U.S. savagery in Indochina or perhaps finally turned against the war on pragmatic grounds"-the United States could not reach its goals at reasonable cost-now feign outrage and indignation over oppressive or murderous acts that are in large part a consequence of the U.S. violence that they tolerated or supported. What they say may in fact be true-although it often is not-but it reeks of hypocrisy and opportunism. We would react no differently if some German intellectual who tolerated or supported Hitler expressed his indignation over the atrocities committed by the French resistance after liberation.

Even those who took part in protest or resistance against the U.S. war in Vietnam cannot escape these questions. Should they, for example, protest-atrocities in Indochina in the pages of the New York Times, in a context of continuing distortions on atrocities (and on all facets of the war) and a very effective, ongoing official and media propaganda campaign, which has direct and very harmful consequences for the victims of U.S. barbarism in Indochina? Again, individuals seriously concerned with human rights and human dignity will carefully consider the potential human consequences of their acts. Will particular forms of protest help to alleviate the condition of those who suffer, including victims of earlier violence? Or will they contribute to rebuilding the ideological foundations for new violence and depredations? The future victims of counterrevolutionary violence will not thank even honest protectors who thoughtlessly contribute to these ends. These questions are not easy to answer and honest people may reach differing conclusions concerning them, but they deserve serious thought, far more than has been publicly expressed during the postwar period of ideological reconstruction.