Conviction of General Rios Montt in Guatemala: Amy Goodman interview with Rigoberta Menchu – posted 5/18/2013
I am reprinting the transcript of an interview Amy Goodman conducted with Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu after the conviction of General Efrain Rios Montt. The interview can be seen on the democracynow.org website. The interview was conducted on May 15, 2013. It is amazing that this story has received so little coverage in the United States. General Rios Montt was convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison by a 3 judge panel. Back in 1982-83, the Guatemalan military conducted a scorched earth campaign that caused the indiscriminate death of thousands of civilians. The military campaign was directed against Guatemala’s Mayan population. The Guatemalan military had associated the Mayan people with an insurgency against the government.
Rios Montt was a Pentecostal priest who said that a true Christian had the Bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other. He had been supported by the United States during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I expect there will be much legal commentary about this trial from international human rights lawyers. It is remarkable that a former head of state could be tried and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in his own country. I would not have expected the legal process to be that strong that a court could make such a judgment. It is an important precedent for the whole international community. As more is written about the trial, I will cover this further. Jon
Days after Guatemala’s former U.S.-backed dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, was convicted of genocide, we’re joined by a woman largely responsible for making sure he was brought to justice. Rigoberta Menchú began the process over a decade ago with legal cases filed against Guatemalan generals for atrocities committed in the Mayan region. Her lawsuits helped culminate last week in Ríos Montt’s landmark guilty verdict and 80-year sentence for his role in the killings of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayan people. Menchú lost her father, mother and two brothers during the Guatemalan genocide, later winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigning on behalf of Guatemala’s indigenous population. “The conviction of Ríos Montt may provide an opportunity to close a chapter of our lives, a chapter of profound pain, [allowing] us to begin a new relationship amongst Guatemalans,” Menchú says. “Because during the genocide, we felt so alone, we felt powerless, and we felt that nobody had our back. … The fact the genocide was committed is [now] recognized means that nobody will ever forget.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Guatemala. The country’s former dictator, Efrain Ríos Montt, is spending a second day at a military hospital after fainting en route to a court hearing. Prison authorities say a judge will decide when 86-year-old Ríos Montt must return to prison.
Last week, Ríos Montt became the first former head of state to be found guilty of genocide in his or her own country. The former dictator was jailed Friday to begin an 80-year sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the killings of more than 1,700 Ixil Mayan people after he seized power in 1982.
Ríos Montt was a close ally of the United States. Former President Ronald Reagan once called him, quote, “a man of great personal integrity.”
After the verdict, Judge Yassmin Barrios ordered the attorney general to launch an immediate investigation of, quote, “all others” connected to the crimes.
JUDGE YASSMIN BARRIOS: [translated] In continuation of the investigation on the part of the public ministry, the tribunal orders the public ministry to continue the investigation against more people who could have participated in the acts which are being judged.
AMY GOODMAN: One former general implicated in abuses during the trial was Guatemala’s current president, Otto Pérez Molina. In the early ’80s, Pérez Molina was a military field commander in the Ixil region where the genocide occurred. At the time, he was operating under the alias “Major Tito Arias.” During the trial, one former army officer accused him of participating in executions. It remains yet to be seen if he’ll also be tried for crimes of genocide.
Well, today we’re going to Mexico City to be joined by a woman largely responsible for making sure that Ríos Montt was brought to justice. She began the process over a decade ago with legal cases filed against Guatemalan generals for atrocities in the Mayan region. Her name is Rigoberta Menchú. She’s the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She has published many books, including I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. She’s been translated into many languages, awarded more than 30 honorary degrees, and runs the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation.
We’re also joined by Allan Nairn. He was due to be a witness in the trial and covered Guatemala extensively in the early ’80s. He attended the trial.
Rigoberta Menchú and Allan Nairn, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Let’s start in Mexico City. Rigoberta Menchú, your response to the verdict and the 80-year sentence of Ríos Montt?
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] Thank you, Amy Goodman. Thank you for this opportunity. I want to express my condolences to the victims of Boston and Pennsylvania. I am here with you today.
This verdict is historic. It’s monumental. The verdict against Ríos Montt is historic. We waited for 33 years for justice to prevail. It’s clear that there is no peace without justice. There is no peace without truth. We need justice for the victims for there to be real peace. This verdict is crucial. It complements a long process of investigation, of denouncing the abuses, and a process that the victims hope will heal and result in reparations. So this verdict isn’t just about asking somebody to say they’re sorry. It is important to apologize, and President Otto Pérez Molina has to apologize. And the court will move in that direction. President Otto Pérez Molina must apologize, and the court has instructed him to do so.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rigoberta Menchú, do you believe President Molina should resign?
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] Not just that alone does not suffice.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you believe, Rigoberta Menchú, that President Molina should resign?
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] Well, I would prefer not to embark on that debate. The most important thing is to understand the verdict for genocide as part of a larger process, and I am confident that there will be more trials. And if there are other high command officers who are responsible, I am confident that they will be brought to justice and the abuses will continue to be denounced and that justice will prevail in those cases, as well.
But in this case, a very important precedent has been set by this verdict. I am sure that Mr. Mauricio, who was the head of military intelligence and who was also part of the team of Ríos Montt, was absolved. And we thought that he should have also been convicted for genocide because he knew what was going on. So, this verdict shows that, on one hand, that Ríos Montt should be convicted for genocide, on very clear criterias, and he certainly was responsible for the genocide in Guatemala, but there are other high officials implicated in the genocide.
And the most important thing is that this verdict be respected and the court respected, and that the verdict and sentence be fulfilled, and that the court be fully respected, and that Judge Yassmin Barrios’ life be protected and all of the witnesses and victims, because a lot of people who are responsible for genocide are still free, and they are very aggressive, because they said that the victims were communists and subversives, and that’s why they deserved to be exterminated. And they accused the court and the judge of being communists, as well. And so, that shows that very little has really changed in Guatemala. So, we’re no longer in the Cold War, but certainly the rhetoric smacks of Cold War rhetoric. So this is a very delicate moment in Guatemala, and the most important thing is not to take a step backwards.
For me, there are four important reasons why we need to demand that the sentence be served, the verdict that was handed down on May 10th. First of all, this is a precedent and the first president in the whole world where a verdict has been handed down for genocide of a head of state in the country where it in fact occurred.
Secondly, this conviction for genocide proves that the victims spoke truth. For 32 years, victims have been seeking justice and have been documenting the abuses and suffering attacks by those who are responsible for genocide. They were. And we were accused of being liars. They said that we invented things, and they turned their back on us, and we were not supported by them. The hatred against the Mayans and the victims of the genocide is very—a tangible history in the last 32 years in Guatemala. So, justice has prevailed, though it sure took its time. But justice is prevailing, and the most important thing is that the sentence be served and the verdict respected.
The third crucial element has to do with the region that the genocide was committed in against the Ixil people, you know, that there were 200,000 victims of the genocide in Guatemala. There are 50,000 people who were disappeared. And there are victims throughout the country, not just in the region that was addressed in the trial. And so, in this regard, we are all Ixils. We identify fully with them, because we all suffered genocide as Mayans. And we need to remember that the policy of extermination and genocide against Mayans was also a policy of extermination of non-Mayans, as well. Unionists, student leaders also suffered. So, the genocide was by no means limited to the region of the territory of the Ixil people. So this is a crucial legal precedent for our country, and I think it can serve as the cornerstone for a new relationship amongst Guatemalans.
And I want to stress something that we have been saying for years. We have the International Criminal Court, but this International Criminal Court has not convicted genocide that has been committed. It’s waiting for new cases. It’s not retroactive. It doesn’t address those cases that were committed before the court was created. So the statute of limitations on the International Criminal Court should be lifted. So, this case really represents a—it poses a tremendous challenge to humanity. It’s a challenge for all countries who have allowed for genocide to occur in Guatemala.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break—
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] I don’t want to be controversial, but I do see that under Ronald Reagan and Bush’s administration there was a fantasy created of a third World War. And this fantasy really damaged the mentality of the military in Guatemala and Guatemalan fascists, and they still believe that communism exists. I don’t know what they’re referring to, but the truth is that here in Guatemala, women were raped, girls were raped, they strangled children, they assassinated and wiped out entire indigenous peoples, just because they thought they were so-called subversives and communists. So humanity really has to look into what occurred.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace laureate. She has just flown from attending the trial in Guatemala City to Mexico City, where we’re speaking to her, and we’ll be joined by investigative journalist Allan Nairn. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in Mexico City is the Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú. It was her lawsuit that helped to lead to the conviction—first trial, then conviction and 80-year sentence of the former U.S.-backed dictator of Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt. He began his sentence on Friday night, after the sentence was read. Rigoberta Menchú, can you describe what happened to your own father?
RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ: [translated] Yes. Yes, well, as you know, the conviction of Ríos Montt has awakened the suffering that we carry, and we’re going to always feel that suffering as victims. In the case of my own family, my brother Patrocinio was burnt to death in the Ixil region. We never found his remains. We have looked for them. He may be on a farm that’s called the San Francisco Ranch, and he’s probably just in one of the mass graves.
As for my mother, we never found her remains, either. We don’t know if she was buried in a mass grave or eaten by wild animals. If it wasn’t her remains that were eaten by wild animals after having been tortured brutally and humiliated, then her remains are probably in a mass grave close to the Ixil region, because the truth is my family comes from an area very close to Ixil, even though we speak another language, which is Mayan Quiché.
My father was also burned alive in the embassy of Spain in January 30th, 1980. So this is why I feel the suffering of the victims who are clamoring for justice in the case against Ríos Montt, because under Lucas García, right before the coup d’état led by Ríos Montt, they burnt down the Spanish embassy where [my] father was. So, all of the abuses and violations that happened in 1982 and 1983, I suffered personally. My father had recently been burned alive. His name was Vicente Menchú.
So, in ’83, my brother Victor was also shot dead. His name was Victor Menchú. He was killed, murdered in Uspantán, also very close to the Ixil region. He was captured by the army. He had fled with his three children to the rainforest. His wife had her throat slit, and he was fleeing with his three children. After a couple of months, they captured him and took him to Uspantán. And Victor was jailed in the little town, but his three children were kept in a military bunker. It was called Chajul, this bunker. So my two nieces died of hunger in this military base, and my brother Victor was shot. We still have not found the remains of Victor. We found a file about his cadaver being found with multiple gunshot wounds in the place where people say he was probably shot, but a judge who ruled on his death drew up a death certificate, but it doesn’t specify where he was murdered. So we think that my brother Victor is also buried in a mass grave.
And these are the people closest to me who were murdered during the genocide. My father, my mother, my brother Victor, my brother Patrocinio and my sister-in-law Maria were the closest members of my family affected by the genocide.
And this is why I think that the conviction of Ríos Montt may provide an opportunity to close a chapter of our lives, a chapter of profound pain and a chapter that closes and allows us to begin a new relationship amongst Guatemalans, because during the genocide, we felt so alone, we felt powerless, and we felt that nobody had our back. But now a court has convicted Ríos Montt of genocide. So, for us, that suffices, that the fact that genocide was committed is recognized means that nobody will ever forget that genocide was committed.
When I was a kid growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I made my personal discovery of soul music. I had a tiny portable record player that spun 33 and 45 rpm records. I remember listening to the Temptations Greatest Hits and the Four Tops Greatest Hits. They were among the first records I ever owned.
I still think they are among the greatest records, ever. Songs like “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”, “Beauty is Only Skin Deep” and “Baby I Need Your Loving” are legitimate classics of soul. I enjoyed the whole line-up of Motown artists, particularly Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas. Probably like a lot of people who grew up in the 60′s and 70′s, I feel like the music of that era is the best. Really the era was amazing both for the creativity of the artists and the volume of their output.
It is probably silly to brag on the era. I think I listened more then. I am not sure when I stopped listening as much. Motown connected emotionally and the songs told stories with both life wisdom and passion. Not to mention you could dance to it.
Not that I went to see that many live shows but I do have one story. I went to see James Brown in Boston in the early 1970′s. I believe it was 1972. It was a crazy night. James was running late – not routinely late but way late, like two hours late. The crowd was not happy. After sitting and waiting for two hours, the audience was getting unruly. Periodically someone would come out on stage and explain that James was on his way and would be there soon. There was not a good vibe.
Weird as it is to recall, James had endorsed Nixon for President that year. Nixon was running against the Democratic candidate and a personal favorite politician of mine, Senator George McGovern. The Black Panther Party was outside the concert hall demonstrating against James. I remember hearing the chants: “Soul Brother Number One is an enemy of the people!”.The gist of the Panther demonstration was that James Brown was a sell-out who had turned his back on the people by endorsing Nixon.
The contradictions were intense. Nixon was running for re-election employing his infamous southern strategy – a Kevin Phillips brainchild founded on appealing to blatant white racism. Nevertheless, Nixon had the support of Soul Brother Number One. I don’t know the statistics on the Black vote in 1972 but I expect Nixon had popularity in the Black community roughly equivalent to Mitt Romney’s support in the Black community in 2012 – close to zilch.
When Brown arrived for the show, he walked on stage alone. He felt compelled to respond to the Panthers. He unravelled a composite of photos of members of the military. James pointed to the number of Black faces in the photos. He said they represented the officer corps and he argued Nixon had promoted many Black officers in the military, more than other white politicos. It was something of a weird pitch. Vietnam was going on and popular sentiment had turned against the war, especially in places like Boston.
The crowd did not want to hear it. The booing which had been going at a low level started intensifying. James, sizing the situation up, made the wise, abrupt decision to switch to music. In a matter of seconds, all was forgotten. James must have given the high sign to the band to start playing. The band suddenly launched into a number. James’s dancers got up and did their thing and the bizarre Nixon endorsement/explanation quickly became just another bad memory. James immediately got into stride. James had the crowd right from the moment he went to music.
I would say that the power of the music bailed James out. People just wanted him to shut up about politics.
It has been a long time since I heard any soul music that totally grabbed me like James Brown did. Maybe I have been out of the loop. I don’t know what happened and why there was such a long void. Two years ago I heard Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. When I was in Alaska, I listened to her album “I Learned the Hard Way” a lot. That is a tremendous album.
More recently, I discovered Lee Fields and Charles Bradley, two soul artists who have been around a long time. Both are in their 60′s. Both have produced new albums. The reason I wrote this piece is simply to encourage readers to listen to this music, buy it and support these artists. These guys are excellent soul artists. While it is easy to make comparisons to James Brown, they have their own styles. Both are great! If you go to youtube, try Lee Fields “I Still Got it”. As for Charles Bradley, try “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)”.
I have been listening to two CDs’ of Lee Fields. His newest one, released in 2012, is Faithful Man. I have also heard his 2009 CD My World. Personally I think Faithful Man is his best work. Along with the title cut, I really liked “You’re the Kind of Girl”,”Who Do You Love” and his cut “Ladies” which is on the My World CD.
As for Charles, his most recent CD is Victim of Love and his earlier work is No Time for Dreaming. Both are worthy. Along with “The World (Is Going Up in Flames) which I previously mentioned, I like “Loving You, Baby” and “Strictly Reserved for You”. Maybe it is just me but I think you will want to listen to these songs a lot. There is a reason Charles is known as “the Screaming Eagle of Soul”.
Both acts are touring now. I saw that Charles Bradley and his band the Extraordinaires is playing at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on May 18. Lee Fields and his band the Expressions is playing at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston on June 6 and they are playing at Signal Kitchen in Burlington Vermont on June 7. I would highly recommend both.
I am reprinting a piece written by Uri Avnery, a long-time leader of the Israeli peace bloc, Gush Shalom. Jon
*”THE TWO-STATE solution is dead!” This mantra has been repeated so often lately, by so many authoritative commentators, that it must be true.
Well, it ain’t.*
It reminds one of Mark Twain’s oft quoted words: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
BY NOW this has become an intellectual fad. To advocate the two-state solution means that you are ancient, old-fashioned, stale, stodgy, a fossil from a bygone era. Hoisting the flag of the “one-state solution” means that you are young, forward-looking, “cool”.
Actually, this only shows how ideas move in circles. When we declared in early 1949, just after the end of the first Israeli-Arab war, that the only answer to the new situation was the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, the “one-state solution” was already old.
The idea of a “bi-national state” was in vogue in the 1930s. Its main advocates were well-meaning intellectuals, many of them luminaries of the new Hebrew University, like Judah Leon Magnes and Martin Buber. They were reinforced by the Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutz movement, which later became the Mapam party.
It never gained any traction. The Arabs believed that it was a Jewish trick. Bi-nationalism was built on the principle of parity between the two populations in Palestine – 50% Jews, 50% Arabs. Since the Jews at that time were much less than half the population, Arab suspicions were reasonable.
On the Jewish side, the idea looked ridiculous. The very essence of Zionism was to have a state where Jews would be masters of their fate, preferably in all of Palestine.
At the time, no one called it the “one-state solution” because there was already one state – the State of Palestine, ruled by the British. The “solution” was called “the bi-national state” and died, unmourned, in the war of 1948.
WHAT HAS caused the miraculous resurrection of this idea?
Not the birth of a new love between the two peoples. Such a phenomenon would have been wonderful, even miraculous. If Israelis and Palestinians had discovered their common values, the common roots of their history and languages, their common love for this country – why, wouldn’t that have been absolutely splendid?
But, alas, the renewed “one-state solution” was not born of another immaculate conception. Its father is the occupation, its mother despair.
The occupation has already created a de facto One State – an evil state of oppression and brutality, in which half the population (or slightly less than half) deprives the other half of almost all rights – human rights, economic rights and political rights. The Jewish settlements proliferate, and every day brings new stories of woe.
Good people on both sides have lost hope. But hopelessness does not stir to action. It fosters resignation.
LET’S GO back to the starting point. “The two-state solution is dead”. How come? Who says? In accordance with what scientific criteria has death been certified?
Generally, the spread of the settlements is cited as the sign of death. In the 1980s the respected Israeli historian Meron Benvenisti pronounced that the situation had now become “irreversible”. At the time, there were hardly 100 thousand settlers in the occupied territories (apart from East Jerusalem, which by common consent is a separate issue). Now they claim to be 300 thousand, but who is counting? How many settlers mean irreversibility? 100, 300, 500, 800 thousand?
History is a hothouse of reversibility. Empires grow and collapse. Cultures flourish and wither. So do social and economic patterns. Only death is irreversible.
I can think of a dozen different ways to solve the settlement problem, from forcible removal to exchange of territories to Palestinian citizenship. Who believed that the settlements in North Sinai would be removed so easily? That the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements would become a national farce?
In the end, there will probably be a mixture of several ways, according to circumstances.
All the Herculean problems of the conflict can be resolved – if there is a will. It’s the will that is the real problem.
THE ONE-STATERS like to base themselves on the South African experience. For them, Israel is an apartheid state, like the former South Africa, and therefore the solution must be South African-like.
The situation in the occupied territories, and to some extent in Israel proper, does indeed strongly resemble the apartheid regime. The apartheid example may be justly cited in political debate. But in reality, there is very little deeper resemblance – if any – between the two countries.
David Ben-Gurion once gave the South African leaders a piece of advice: partition. Concentrate the white population in the south, in the Cape region, and cede the other parts of the country to the blacks. Both sides in South Africa rejected this idea furiously, because both sides believed in a single, united country.
They largely spoke the same languages, adhered to the same religion, were integrated in the same economy. The fight was about the master-slave relationship, with a small minority lording it over a massive majority.
Nothing of this is true in our country. Here we have two different nations, two populations of nearly equal size, two languages, two (or rather, three) religions, two cultures, two totally different economies.
A false proposition leads to false conclusions. One of them is that Israel, like Apartheid South Africa, can be brought to its knees by an international boycott. About South Africa, this is a patronizing imperialist illusion. The boycott, moral and important as it was, did not do the job. It was the Africans themselves, aided by some local white idealists, who did it by their courageous strikes and uprisings.
I am an optimist, and I do hope that eventually Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs will become sister nations, living side by side in harmony. But to come to that point, there must be a period of living peacefully in two adjoining states, hopefully with open borders.
THE PEOPLE who speak now of the “one-state solution” are idealists. But they do a lot of harm. And not only because they remove themselves and others from the struggle for the only solution that is realistic.
If we are going to live together in one state, it makes no sense to fight against the settlements. If Haifa and Ramallah will be in the same state, what is the difference between a settlement near Haifa and one near Ramallah? But the fight against the settlements is absolutely essential, it is the main battlefield in the struggle for peace.
Indeed, the one-state solution is the common aim of the extreme Zionist right and the extreme anti-Zionist left. And since the right is incomparably stronger, it is the left that is aiding the right, and not the other way round.
In theory, that is as it should be. Because the one-staters believe that the rightists are only preparing the ground for their future paradise. The right is uniting the country and putting an end to the possibility of creating an independent State of Palestine. They will subject the Palestinians to all the horrors of apartheid and much more, since the South African racists did not aim at displacing and replacing the blacks. But in due course – perhaps in a mere few decades, or half a century – the world will compel Greater Israel to grant the Palestinians full rights, and Israel will become Palestine.
According to this ultra-leftist theory, the right, which is now creating the racist one state, is in reality the Donkey of the Messiah, the legendary animal on which the Messiah will ride to triumph.
It’s a beautiful theory, but what is the assurance that this will actually happen? And before the final stage arrives, what will happen to the Palestinian people? Who will compel the rulers of Greater Israel to accept the diktat of world public opinion?
If Israel now refuses to bow to world opinion and enable the Palestinians to have their own state in 28% of historical Palestine, why would they bow to world opinion in the future and dismantle Israel altogether?
Speaking about a process that will surely last 50 years and more, who knows what will happen? What changes will take place in the world in the meantime? What wars and other catastrophes will take the world’s mind off the “Palestinian issue”?
Would one really gamble the fate of one’s nation on a far-fetched theory like this?
ASSUMING FOR a moment that the one-state solution would really come about, how would it function?
Will Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs serve in the same army, pay the same taxes, obey the same laws, work together in the same political parties? Will there be social intercourse between them? Or will the state sink into an interminable civil war?
Other peoples have found it impossible to live together in one state. Take the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia. Serbia. Czechoslovakia. Cyprus. Sudan. The Scots want to secede from the United Kingdom. So do the Basques and the Catalans from Spain. The French in Canada and the Flemish in Belgium are uneasy. As far as I know, nowhere in the entire world have two different peoples agreed to form a joint state for decades.
NO, THE two-state solution is not dead. It cannot die, because it is the only solution there is.
Despair may be convenient and tempting. But despair is no solution at all.
Buried under the avalanche of news stories about the Boston Marathon bombings was the release of an important new report about the use of torture by the George W. Bush administration. The timing for the release of this report could not have been worse. It vanished because the Boston Marathon bombings news stories were so dominating.
The Constitution Project, a legal research and advocacy group devoted to the rule of law, authored a 577 page report concluding that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture”.
While no doubt there are some who will see this report or any report as partisan, the Constitution Project attempted a bi-partisan, consensus-building approach to the torture question. Two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones, led their taskforce on detainee treatment.
The report determined that torture had and has no justification. It found that there was no firm or persuasive evidence that torture provided valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. The report concluded that the use of torture damaged American standing around the world and potentially endangered our military.
I would like to suggest that much of the media discussion around the subject of torture has been superficial. There is much information in the public domain which sheds a deeper light on this darkest of subjects.
I think the most acute and far-seeing perspective on the use of torture by our government has been offered by University of Wisconsin Professor Alfred McCoy. McCoy argues that the roots of torture run far deeper than has generally been perceived. He traces a continuous government research effort going back to the 1940′s to study psychological torture and mind control.
In his book, “Torture and Impunity”, McCoy shows how U.S. intelligence agencies evolved new forms of torture that rely on psychological rather than physical pain. The modern torture paradigm features sensory deprivation, isolation, and the utilization of stress positions. Instead of externally inflicted pain, the emphasis is the use of self-inflicted pain, a much harder type of torture to detect but exceedingly lethal. The goal is to induce psychological regression, complete disorientation of the tortured individual and destruction of the will to resist.
McCoy argues there is a continuity of American experience with torture whether the setting was the Vietnam war, Latin America in the 70′s and 80′s or the Middle East over the last decade. There is a straight line from the tiger cages of South Vietnam to the Latin American disappeared to black sites.
McCoy’s picture of torture is quite at odds with popular understanding. Apologists for torture typically blame a few bad apples. Cynical adherents of realpolitick see torture as nasty but necessary to gain useful intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks and to protect national security.
There is an intellectual dishonesty about not acknowledging our investment and continuing engagement with torture. Now we are more likely to outsource the torture to our allies. McCoy argues there has been a desire to bury the subject and forget. Certainly this has been the unfortunate position taken by the Obama Administration. “Don’t look back – look forward.” That head-in-the-sand approach is almost guaranteed to promote torture in the future since it is based on failing to reckon with the past.
To appreciate the historical context of modern torture, we need to situate American experience within the larger international experience since the time of the Enlightenment. Torture is a bedrock issue in distinguishing between the Dark Ages and modernity. For almost 300 years, anti-torture advocates have made their case for banning the practice although torture remains an utterly contemporary issue around the world.
I would argue that torture is antithetical to American values and it is a relic of a medieval time the Founders wanted to put behind us. I think the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment almost certainly would have been understood by the Founders to have included a prohibition against torture. The Fifth Amendment also speaks to torture since the protection against self-incrimination is contrary to torture’s goal, obtaining a confession. The Founding Fathers were part of the Enlightenment generation that despised torture as a form of barbarism and uncivilized behavior.
Since World War II, an international body of law has developed to prohibit torture. We have the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. Both treaties have been ratified by the United States. The United States ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1955 during the Eisenhower presidency. Congress ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1994. President Reagan had consistently urged adoption of this treaty. It also should be mentioned that the United States voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 5 states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This Universal Declaration was adopted by the United Nations.
The squirrelly efforts of the George W. Bush Administration to evade legal obligations and to create bogus legal justifications have been well-documented. While Bush and Dick Cheney acted disgracefully and illegally, the actions of the Obama Administration around torture have also been very disappointing. Moving on is a form of silence. Silence is a form of acquiesence and implicit accommodation with our torture history.
Torture is not a partisan issue. We suffer from a bi-partisan lack of indignation as well as a willful lack of awareness. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont had suggested a Truth Commission to explore this dark side but neither Congress nor the White House were interested. Forgetting is a guaranteed way to allow this disgusting and inhuman practice to continue.
Watching Robert Redford’s new movie, “The Company You Keep”, was a compelling and entertaining experience. The movie moved right along with good pacing, plot, and a fine collection of characters. The movie is based on a novel by Neil Gordon. I had a degree of trepidation about the movie beforehand. Hollywood can be so superficial, two-dimensional and can get a lot wrong. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this movie.
Its portrayal of old 60′s radicals was not too bad which is a compliment. It helped that there was so much star power. Along with Robert Redford who acted and also directed, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Terrence Howard, and Shia LaBeouf all had meaty roles.
The story revolved around a bank robbery done by the Weathermen over 30 years ago in which one of the robbers murdered a bank guard. The Weathermen in and around the robbery went underground and subsequently created new cover identities. Redford played a widowed public interest lawyer with a young daughter. When a member of their group played by Susan Sarandon is captured by the FBI, the plot is set in motion. Redford has to disappear and goes on a quest. A young reporter played by Shia LaBeouf pursues the story. Along the way, Redford meets up with his old comrades who still remain very distantly connected.
There are some fun things. The interplay between the generations was well done. Both Sarandon and Redford get to voice 60′s style indignation about the young who appear to believe in nothing beyond their careers. I was reminded of a familiar dialogue I have had with my son Josh:
Josh: ” Dad, your generation ruined the world.”
me: “Josh, your generation is a bunch of functional illiterates.”
Redford does actually present a more nuanced view than I am articulating. He shows the range of responses the old radicals had to the crime committed as well as their response to the system they had hated. He is able to use the collection of weathered old radicals to show feelings of regret, pride, anger, loyalty, and pain about choices made as they lived their later, post-Weathermen lives. He also shows growth on the part of his young character who plays the reporter.
Of all the co-stars, I enjoyed the Julie Christie character, Mimi Lurie, the most. Christie played an unreconstructed, slightly unhinged, radical who had not changed since the old days. While her former comrades seemed to have varying degrees of regret about some of their actions, not Christie. She had made the jump to dope trafficker, another way she continued to allegedly oppose the system.
I do think Redford tried to do a sympathetic critique of the old radicals. At one point, one of the comrades who had transformed into a college professor says to Redford about the murder at the bank, “We were supposed to be a peace movement.” I do think that captured the problem reflected in the Weathermen’s craziness.
Looking back, I have a hard time mustering any sympathy for the old Weather viewpoint. While I probably have not seen some of their self-criticisms, I have found most of them insufficiently self-critical. They typically say the war on the Vietnamese and the failure of the government to stop the war led them to take their actions. The “bring the war home” perspective that led to bombings and left wing terrorism was stupid, self-destructive and it legitimately alienated huge swaths of Americans who were sympathetic to an anti-war perspective. The Weathermen reflected a form of impatient, infantile radicalism. They did not understand America and anything about how positive social change can be advanced by radicals and progressives.
In America, we want things quickly. Instead of the patient work of building a movement that is democratic, socialist, and respects civil liberties and the rule of law, the Weathermen blew stuff up. While I respect the sincerity and motivation of old radicals, as has been shown many times, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Redford’s movie provides a good vehicle for discussion of the Weathermen and what was wrong with their approach. Radicals and liberals should without any equivocation endorse non-violence as they pursue change. The Weathermen should certainly not be romanticized and I do not think Redford indulges in that. He is mostly about telling a good story.
I usually find it depressing to check movie listings to see that most of what is coming out is fare for 12 year olds. Looking today, there is Scary Movie V, Evil Dead, GI Joe Retaliation, and the Croods, whatever that is. Not really for adults. “The Company You Keep” is that rare adult movie that comes along too infrequently. I expect it will be particularly enjoyable for boomers.
Sometimes I like to post things just because they are beautiful. Robert Ingersoll’s eulogy to his friend Walt Whitman falls into that category. Ingersoll delivered the eulogy which I have reprinted below in Camden New Jersey on March 30, 1892.
For those who have never heard of Ingersoll, you are not alone. I came across a new 2013 book, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought” written by Susan Jacoby. It introduced me to Ingersoll.
Ingersoll was famous long ago. Although he is unknown now, he had achieved great fame in 19th century America. Known as ‘the Great Agnostic” Ingersoll was a leading proponent of secularism and the separationof church and state.
That summary actually fails to do Ingersoll justice. He could be considered the American Voltaire. I am not sure I grasp why he has been so banished from our history. He is a pillar of American secular tradition. Jacoby writes that Ingersoll stands next to Tom Paine in importance.
A trial lawyer by profession, Ingersoll was renowned for his entertaining and biting oratory. It was not unusual for Ingersoll to give captivating three hour speeches to sold out crowds. He travelled across America, speaking all over, mocking religion and speaking up for science and humanism. He was a strong supporter of women’s rights and racial equality. He had a gift for communicating to wide audiences. He was way ahead of his time.
There really is not anybody like him today. I do think we need to ask why Ingersoll remains so unknown. That question interests me although I think Ingersoll’s obscurity is comparable to quite a few others. I guess it is a matter of what we, as a society, pay attention to and remember.
Because of my own interest in history and also because of curiosity about unsung heroes and heroines, in the next year I intend to write periodically about others, like Ingersoll, who have been unfairly consigned to the historical dustbin. Anyway, here is Ingersoll’s eulogy of Whitman:
A TRIBUTE TO WALT WHITMAN.
Camden, N.J., March 30, 1892.
MY FRIENDS: Again we, in the mystery of Life, are brought face to face with the mystery of Death. A great man, a great American, the most eminent citizen of this Republic, lies dead before us, and we have met to pay a tribute to his greatness and his worth.
I know he needs no words of mine. His fame is secure. He laid the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was, above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He was so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without arrogance, and so great that he stooped to the lowest without conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater than any of the sons of men.
He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.
One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”
His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.
He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.
He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic. No man ever said more for the rights of humanity, more in favor of real democracy, of real justice.
He neither scorned nor cringed, was
neither tyrant nor slave. He asked only to stand the equal of his fellows beneath the great flag of nature, the blue and stars.
He was the poet of Life. It was a joy simply to breathe. He loved the clouds; he enjoyed the breath of morning, the twilight, the wind, the winding streams. He loved to look at the sea when the waves burst into the whitecaps of joy. He loved the fields, the hills; he was acquainted with the trees, with birds, with all the beautiful objects of the earth. He not only saw these objects, but understood their meaning, and he used them that he might exhibit his heart to his fellow-men.
He was the poet of Love. He was not ashamed of that divine passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art; that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and has given some value to human life.
He was the poet of the natural, and taught men not to be ashamed of that which is natural. He was not only the poet of democracy, not only the poet of the great Republic, but he was the Poet of the human race. He was not confined to the limits of this country, but his sympathy went out over the seas to all the nations of the earth.
He stretched out his hand and felt himself the equal of all kings and of all princes, and the brother of all men, no matter how high, no matter how low.
He has uttered more supreme words than any writer of our century, possibly of almost any other. He was, above all things, a man, and above genius, above all the snow-capped peaks of
intelligence, above all art, rises the true man, Greater than all is the true man, and he walked among his fellow-men as such.
He was the poet of Death. He accepted all life and all death, and he justified all. He had the courage to meet all, and was great enough and splendid enough to harmonize all and to accept all there is of life as a divine melody.
You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a
philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed — and as I believe — than others. He accepted all, he understood all, and he was above all.
He was absolutely true to himself. He had frankness and
courage, and he was as candid as light. He was willing that all the sons of men should be absolutely acquainted with his heart and brain. He had nothing to conceal. Frank, candid, pure, serene, noble, and yet for years he was maligned and slandered, simply because he had the candor of nature. He will be understood yet, and that for which he was condemned — his frankness, his candor — will add to the glory and greatness of his fame.
He wrote a liturgy for mankind; he wrote a great and splendid psalm of life, and he gave to us the gospel of humanity — the greatest gospel that can be preached.
He was not afraid to live, not afraid to die. For many years he and death were near neighbors. He was always willing and ready to meet and greet this king called death, and for many months he sat in the deepening twilight waiting for the night, waiting for the light.
He never lost his hope. When the mists filled the valleys, he looked upon the mountain tops, and when the mountains in darkness disappeared, he fixed his gaze upon the stars.
In his brain were the blessed memories of the day, and in his heart were mingled the dawn and dusk of life.
He was not afraid; he was cheerful every moment. The laughing nymphs of day did not desert him. They remained that they might clasp the hands and greet with smiles the veiled and silent sisters of the night. And when they did come, Walt Whitman stretched his hand to them. On one side were the nymphs of the day, and on the other the silent sisters of the night, and so, hand in hand, between smiles and tears, he reached his journey’s end.
From the frontier of life, from the western wave-kissed shore, he sent us messages of content and hope, and these messages seem now like strains of music blown by the “Mystic Trumpeter” from Death’s pale realm.
To-day we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss, one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay.
Charitable as the air and generous as Nature, he was negligent of all except to do and say what he believed he should do and should say.
And I to-day thank him, not only for you but for myself, — for all the brave words he has uttered. I thank him for all the great and splendid words he has said in favor of liberty, in favor of man and woman, in favor of motherhood, in favor of fathers, in favor of children, and I thank him for the brave words that he has said of death.
He has lived, he has died, and death is less terrible than it was before. Thousands and millions will walk down into the “dark valley of the shadow” holding Walt Whitman by the hand. Long after we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets to the dying.
And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man’s tomb. I loved him living, and I love him still.
I am reprinting a piece written by Uri Avnery, a long-time leader in the Israeli peace movement. Jon
“Around us the storm is raging / But our head will not be bowed…” we sang when we were young, before the State of Israel was born.
On the eve of Israel’s 65th birthday, this coming Monday, we could sing this rousing song again. And not just out of nostalgia.
Around us, many storms are raging. In Syria, a terrible civil war is tearing the country apart. In Egypt, after the victory of the Arab spring, the country is still in turmoil. The Lebanese state is still unable to impose its authority on the various armed sects, and the same is true for Iraq. Iran is busy advancing its nuclear program, all the while muttering dark threats.
Israel sees itself as an island in the stormy sea, threatened on all sides, ready for the tsunami to hit any minute.
There is something ironic about all this.
The Zionist adventure started with the promise to create a safe haven for the Jews, after centuries of helplessness.
Indeed, stripped of all ideological decorations, that was the central theme of the endeavor. Everywhere, Jews were defenseless, dependent on the mercies of others. Here, in a state of our own, we would be able to defend ourselves, head unbowed.
In other words, for ages we were the object of history, now we were taking our destiny in our own hands, an actor on the stage of history, a nation among the nations.
Before that, Jews were some kind of ethnic-religious entity. With Zionism, the Jews – or a part of them – constituted themselves as a modern nation, able to defend itself against any enemy.
In this sense, Zionism was indeed a roaring success. Its creation, the State of Israel, is now strong and secure.
Or is it? Listening to many of our leaders, the opposite seems to be true.
Years ago, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the caustic critic of the Zionist establishment, famously asserted that Israel was the only place in the world where the lives of Jews were in mortal danger. As it turned out, that was not entirely exact.
A few days ago, on Holocaust Day, our Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, declared that we are threatened by a Second Holocaust, perpetrated by a nuclear-armed Iran.
The next day, a group of international hackers, animated by pro-Palestinian sentiments, declared a cyber-war on Israel. They promised to inactivate the main institutions of the country, both military and civilian, governmental and private. As it turned out, the attack failed miserably. No significant damage was caused. But before this became clear, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded by comparing the campaign with the Nazi Holocaust.
What is this? Paranoia? Manipulation? Political gimmickry? All of these and more?
In the span of nine days, Israel is experiencing three national events. Each with sirens howling, official ceremonies, endless speeches. All TV, radio and print media totally devoted to the subject of the day.
Last Monday was Holocaust Day. The entire country turned to the memory of that awful chapter of history. At 10 o’clock, to the sound of the sirens, the whole country came to a standstill. Cars stopped in the middle of the road, men, women and children got out and stood at attention. Survivors still alive – mostly over 80 – told their horrible stories, listeners shed tears.
At Yad Vashem, Netanyahu made his standard speech – Never again… We shall not… the Iranian bomb… Second Holocaust…
Tomorrow evening will be Memorial Day. The country will mourn for the many thousands who fell in Israel’s numerous wars. Bereaved parents will lay flowers on the graves of their beloved. Politicians will make speeches about the lives so nobly given up for the nation to prevent a Second Holocaust.
The next day will be a day of joy. Without an interruption, the sirens will announce the end of Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day. Speeches about the sacrifices of the fallen will be superseded by speeches about the glories and achievement of the state, which rose so miraculously from the ashes of the Holocaust. In the center of festivities stand Israel’s armed forces, among the strongest and most efficient in the world.
The close proximity of these three dates is not accidental. It is a conscious attempt to imbue generations of Israelis with the idea that Israel is under constant threat, like the Jewish communities in Europe throughout the centuries, and that the IDF is the sole guarantor of our national and even individual security.
Many people consider this a manipulation, as indeed it is. Under Netanyahu, this has reached new heights (or depths). Jewish victimhood is bandied about as a totem that sanctifies all our policies: the occupation, the settlements, the oppression of the Palestinians, the rejection in practice of peace based on the two-state solution.
It is also a political ploy. The constant reminders of existential dangers – in Iran, in Syria, in Egypt and elsewhere – are designed to rally the population around the leadership. In the recent election campaign, Netanyahu presented himself as a “strong leader for a strong state”. Never mind that he is actually a weakling, notorious for succumbing to foreign and internal pressures. Fear-mongering is his most effective instrument.
However, it would be a great mistake to discount Israeli fears as artificial. They are quite real.
Foreigners are often amazed to hear Israelis asserting in the same sentence, literally in the same breath, that “Israel is a regional power”, and that we shall not go “like lambs to the slaughter”, as Jews were alleged (by Israelis) to have done in the Holocaust. Both halves of this sentence are real. They live side by side in the minds of most Israelis.
No one who has been in Israel on Holocaust Day can have the slightest doubt about the huge impact that the Holocaust continues to have on our minds. Most of us (myself included) have relatives who perished in the Shoah. The profound sense of victimhood, the fears and apprehensions are deeply ingrained in us. It would be almost impossible to eradicate them in a few years.
Yet we must overcome them, because they have no relation with current reality and prevent us from rational behavior.
The simple fact is that Israel is a strong state, and will remain so for a long time to come.
We have a very strong and efficient military, more than sufficient for meeting any foreseeable threat. The Arab spring has at least temporarily removed several military menaces. That is true also for the real or imagined nuclear threat from Iran. No Iranian leader would ever risk the total destruction of his country, with its thousands of years of civilization, in order to destroy poor us.
But a strong military is only one component of security. There are many others.
In 65 years we have built a solid and strong economy, more resilient than much bigger and stronger economies around the world. In several areas, such as high-tech, science, medicine, agriculture and the arts, we belong to the premier world league. Israel’s intimate relations with the No. 1 world power seem safe for a long time to come and of huge advantage in many fields, even given the gradual decline of US power.
The revived Hebrew language is vibrant and firmly entrenched. Israeli democracy, though under constant threat, seems to be able to withstand the onslaught. We can surely be proud of what our society has achieved, practically from scratch.
The only real dangers facing Israel come from within. Mad policies, the continued occupation, the permanent war, the encroachment of fundamentalist religion – these are the real causes for worry.
I am pointing this out not in order to inflame a sense of triumphalism, but on the contrary.
In Israel, it is the Right which thrives on fear and constantly invents new threats, in order to deny peace and promote a sense of “the whole world against us”. They depict our state as just another beleaguered ghetto, facing a perpetual danger of annihilation.
The Israeli peace camp must resolutely stand up against this world view. Israel is strong, and because it is strong it can take risks, make peace with the Palestinian people and the entire Arab and Muslim world.
65 years ago, when we were a population of hardly 650 thousand people, my generation had this self-confidence. Our heads were unbowed. We must rediscover this now.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.