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Truthdig Radio: Debunking the bin Laden Torture Myth (Update: Transcript)

Posted on May 4, 2011
Photo illustration from an image by Colin Grey

(Page 5)

Kasia Anderson: Right. Well that’s, I think, all we have time for today. But I’ve been speaking with Sharon Smith. I’m Kasia Anderson from Truthdig. And your book, and also your general causes, people can find out more on, right?
Sharon Smith: That’s right.

Kasia Anderson: OK. Thanks for your time, Sharon, and good luck with your studies.

Sharon Smith: Take care.

* * *

This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer in the studio with Alan Minsky and Kasia Anderson…


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Alan Minsky: …what we’re actually going to play in a moment is the world electronic media, or old-fashioned media, premiere of a talk Chris Hedges gave this past Sunday at a benefit for Truthdig here in Los Angeles…

Kasia Anderson: At Disney Hall, yeah.

Alan Minsky:…at Disney Hall. It was a very dramatic moment, because Chris Hedges was going to talk, and the news came in that Osama bin Laden had been killed. And of course Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, and the Pulitzer Prize was awarded for his work on al-Qaida. So he is one of the world’s specialists on not just al-Qaida, but the context in which al-Qaida emerged. And so, right now, why don’t we go…

Peter Scheer: Let’s do it.

Alan Minsky:…let’s go to the clip right now. This is, again, Chris Hedges speaking in Los Angeles…

Peter Scheer: Moments after we heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

Chris Hedges: I know that because of this announcement, that reportedly Osama bin Laden was killed, Bob [Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer] wanted me to say a few words about it … about al-Qaida. I spent a year of my life covering al-Qaida for The New York Times. It was the work in which I, and other investigative reporters, won the Pulitzer Prize. And I spent seven years of my life in the Middle East. I was the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. I’m an Arabic speaker. And when someone came over and told ... me the news, my stomach sank. I’m not in any way naive about what al-Qaida is. It’s an organization that terrifies me. I know it intimately.

But I’m also intimately familiar with the collective humiliation that we have imposed on the Muslim world. The expansion of military occupation that took place throughout, in particular the Arab world, following 9/11—and that this presence of American imperial bases, dotted, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Doha—is one that has done more to engender hatred and acts of terror than anything ever orchestrated by Osama bin Laden.

And the killing of bin Laden, who has absolutely no operational role in al-Qaida—that’s clear—he’s kind of a spiritual mentor, a kind of guide … he functions in many of the ways that Hitler functioned for the Nazi Party… where you hold up a particular ideological ideal and strive for it. That was bin Laden’s role. But all actual acts of terror, which he may have signed off on, he no way planned.

…When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism … the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it is about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.

And it is about forgetting that terrorism is a tactic. You can’t make war on terror.

…Terrorism has been with us since Sallust wrote about it in “The Jugurthine War.” And the only way to successfully fight terrorist groups is to isolate those groups, within their own societies. And I was in the immediate days after 9/11 assigned to go out to Jersey City and the places where the hijackers had lived and begin to piece together their lives. I was then very soon transferred to Paris, where I covered all of al-Qaida’s operations in the Middle East and Europe.

So I was in the Middle East in the days after 9/11. And we had garnered the empathy of not only most of the world, but the Muslim world who were appalled at what had been done in the name of their religion. And we had major religious figures like Sheikh Tantawi, the head of al-Azhar—who died recently—who after the attacks of 9/11 not only denounced them as a crime against humanity, which they were, but denounced Osama bin Laden as a fraud … someone who had no right to issue fatwas or religious edicts, no religious legitimacy, no religious training. And the tragedy was that if we had the courage to be vulnerable, if we had built on that empathy, we would be far safer and more secure today than we are.

We responded exactly as these terrorist organizations wanted us to respond. They wanted us to speak the language of violence. What were the explosions that hit the World Trade Center, huge explosions and death above a city skyline? It was straight out of Hollywood. When Robert McNamara in 1965 began the massive bombing campaign of North Vietnam, he did it because he said he wanted to “send a message” to the North Vietnamese—a message that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead.

These groups learned to speak the language we taught them. And our response was to speak in kind. The language of violence, the language of occupation—the occupation of the Middle East, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has been the best recruiting tool al-Qaida has been handed. If it is correct that Osama bin Laden is dead, then it will spiral upwards with acts of suicidal vengeance. And I expect most probably on American soil. The tragedy of the Middle East is one where we proved incapable of communicating in any other language than the brute and brutal force of empire.

And empire finally, as Thucydides understood, is a disease. As Thucydides wrote, the tyranny that the Athenian empire imposed on others it finally imposed on itself. The disease of empire, according to Thucydides, would finally kill Athenian democracy. And the disease of empire, the disease of nationalism … these of course are mirrored in the anarchic violence of these groups, but one that locks us in a kind of frightening death spiral. So while I certainly fear al-Qaida, I know its intentions. I know how it works. I spent months of my life reconstructing every step Mohamed Atta took. While I don’t in any way minimize their danger, I despair. I despair that we as a country, as Nietzsche understood, have become, in many ways, the monster that we are attempting to fight.

Thank you.

Alan Minsky …Why don’t we just quickly hear this clip from Chris Hedges, preaching resistance [at All-Saints Church]…let’s just hear about a minute of it…

Chris Hedges: Resistance’s core is about affirming life in a world dominated by corporate systems of death. And it is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality. It is time for us to choose whose side we are on. Who we will stand with as our civilization unravels; as hunger and suffering, already the norm for half the world’s population, becomes familiar to our own underclass. It is time to accept that to live in the fullest sense of the word—to exist as free and independent human beings—means open rebellion, and a consistent defiance of all satyrs of established power, including the Democratic Party. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience,” after going to jail for refusing to pay his taxes during the Mexican-American War, “A minority is powerless while it confirms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” Those who recognize the injustice of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who can see that these wars are not only a violation of international law, but under post-Nuremberg laws defined as criminal acts of aggression, yet continue to support politicians including Barack Obama who fund and advance these wars, have forfeited their rights as citizens. By allowing the status quo to go unchallenged, from Wall Street to Baghdad, they become agents of injustice. To do nothing is to do something. And those who profess a love of democracy and justice, but who continue to cooperate with the established power structures, practice a false and hollow morality.

Peter Scheer…That’s it for this week’s show. Join us again next Wednesday at 2 on KPFK, or anytime online at Thank you so much.

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