Innocent and Executed
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
This week on Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: Argentina’s bloody past and New York’s historic gay marriage moment. Also, actor and activist Mike Farrell talks about death penalty injustice. Plus, Robert and Peter Scheer celebrate (sort of) Justice Scalia.
Mike Farrell on the death penalty:
Argentina (extended edition):Larry Gross on New York’s gay moment:
Robert and Peter Scheer discuss the Supreme Court’s video game violence decision:
Related article: Yes to Violence, No to Sex
Bonus: Bill Boyarsky on the California budget:
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio from Truthdig.com and KPFK. I’m Truthdig Managing Editor Peter Scheer.
We have a very big show today dealing with Argentina’s bloody past and New York’s historic gay marriage moment. Also, actor and activist Mike Farrell talks about death penalty injustice, and if you head over to the radio post on Truthdig.com, you can hear a special interview with our political reporter, Bill Boyarsky, who says California’s new budget will devastate the state for decades to come.
But first we’ll be speaking with my boss, Robert Scheer, who has been absent from the show for a while as he recuperates from heart surgery. But he’s now well enough to get into it a little bit with his son.
We’re going to be talking about the Supreme Court’s historic decision about video game violence and free speech in which I was incredibly surprised by how much I liked [Supreme Court Justice] Antonin Scalia for a brief moment who affirmed the fact that the First Amendment extends to minors, and he showed an incredible knowledge, oddly enough, of the issue of video game violence. He dismissed the argument of interactivity as many researchers have.
I’m joined now by Robert Scheer. Dad, welcome, welcome.
Robert Scheer: Hi, how are you?
Peter Scheer: Hi, I was just getting into some of the things that I was blown away by Scalia. You have a slightly different view, but let me now say that one of the things I was most impressed by on the violent side of things was that he dismissed his colleagues’ arguments, including [Justices] Breyer and Alito, that video games do not cause violence. If anything there’s an association with aggressiveness; it’s not proof of causality. And you basically agree with that point of view, right?
Robert Scheer: Well, I would go further than I think he would, as well. I mean, we shouldn’t have restrictions on free speech and reading just because there may be some anti-social consequences. As he points out, you can read Grimm’s fairy tales and get some violent ideas, you know? So I agree with you, what Scalia did was wonderful in terms of extending the right of inquiry to people under 18 years old, and cutting through a lot of the garbage that’s always said if you read this or watch this you’ll turn into a violent human being. However, where I draw the line with Scalia and with the court is that they are very tolerant with not only violent expression, but he puts into the category even racist expression and other uncomfortable, bad ideas, but people still have the right to be exposed to it. But, he draws the line at sex, and in this country we have a sick attitude towards sex, we’ve always had it, we like violence, we only like sex if it’s in a violent setting and the court to this day, and as it happened on Monday, is willing to extend the right to minors to have access to violent material, violent video games that it isn’t even willing to extend to adults, let alone minors, in the sexual area.
Peter Scheer: Let me just say, to give some context, because Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion giving all these examples of how damaging video games are and Scalia responds saying Justice Alito has done considerable independent research to identify video games in which the violence is astounding. Justice Alito recounts all these disgusting video games in order to disgust us. But disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression. Justice Alito’s argument highlights the precise danger posed by the California act [a law being decided by the high court] that the ideas expressed by speech whether it be violence or gore or racism, as you say, and not its objective effects, may be the real reason for government proscription.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, that’s wonderful — of course we want free expression, and we think young people should be exposed to a wide variety. But in that same opinion he once again reiterates that when you’re talking about sexual obscenity, which has never been properly defined, a whole different standard sets in. So, it’s OK to play video games in which in fact women are assaulted, brutalized, and yet if you show consensual adults, consensual sex of a nonviolent kind, unless you can show redeeming literally social political value to it, it can be banned. You cannot take both of these positions in any kind of logical sense, and yet that is what Scalia does.
Peter Scheer: Well, that’s what the court has done.
Robert Scheer: Well, it’s what Scalia reiterates. Because what California tried to do is sneak in language from the obscenity thing, which it’s not obscene and is …
Peter Scheer: Socially redeeming.
Robert Scheer: There’s some socially redeeming political blah blah blah, so they put this into the video game argument and Scalia was offended by that. He said you’re confusing sex with violence; violence needs no such exception. Violence is just out there; it should just be out there. Sex, we have all these rules to prevent people from having access to it. So it’s a double standard, it’s illogical, it’s irrational and yet it runs right through obviously not only his opinion but the whole stance of the court.
Peter Scheer: The whole situation is fascinating to me because here you have this really despicable, in general, justice of the Supreme Court, this arch-conservative, and you have in California these allegedly progressive, liberal people clamping down on free speech with the most tired of arguments that we have to protect our children from media that might cause damage to them, which is absurd. And Scalia becomes the great defender of free expression, and you’re saying it’s a problem because he’s reiterated this absurd position on sex and the difference between sex and violence, but shouldn’t we be happy that he at least …
Robert Scheer: Oh, I’d give him great credit. I said Scalia’s opinion, in my column in Truthdig, I said Scalia’s opinion is actually quite thrilling in enunciating an extremely broad definition of free speech rights of minors. I have no problem …
Peter Scheer: Wait, what is the deal with lefties like you that wouldn’t let me play Duck Hunt as a kid, or other violent video games that …
Robert Scheer: That’s not true … I’m saying, and I’ve learned from you, by the way…
Peter Scheer: (Laughs)
Robert Scheer: But let me just say something, I don’t know that he’s a despicable person. You know I think that when it comes to First Amendment speech rights, there may be a consistent conservative opinion that’s emerging on the courts. Unfortunately they extended to corporations and everything else, but don’t forget it was Scalia and the unanimous decision in The People vs. Larry Flynt which protected parody and ruled against Falwell in that case and its role when it comes, hopefully, when it comes to First Amendment freedoms we can have a lot in common with conservatives. My only problem with Scalia’s decision here, he’s still the uptight Catholic who draws the line at sex.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Robert Scheer: You know, for my money that’s …
Peter Scheer: It’s funny because the point he was making is that you can’t prove … one of the points he made is that you can’t demonstrate the link between the harm of these kids and the violence in video games but at the same time there’s this assumption that sex somehow corrupts children.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, and in fact the evidence on sex is far more supportive of the material on violence. We’ve had, you know, national commissions on so-called effects of pornography that could never show any connection between looking at material and acting in a misogynist or anti-social way. And Scalia …
Peter Scheer: Dad …
Robert Scheer: … while he scoffs at the pseudo-evidence on violence, still embraces the view that somehow sexual imagery is corrupting and antisocial.
Peter Scheer: OK. We gotta leave it there, Dad. But hope to see you in studio soon, and thanks so much for calling.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Peter Scheer and I’m in the studio with [Truthdig Associate Editor] Kasia Anderson and we are joined by Larry Gross, who is the director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, and also one of the founders of the field of queer studies, and we are speaking to him this week about the historic vote in New York to legalize gay marriage. Welcome, Larry.
Larry Gross: It’s nice to be with you.
Peter Scheer: So, you wrote two pieces for Truthdig. One is sort of a sidebar but it really stands on its own as a piece of history looking back at Stonewall, the Stonewall rights [controversy] in 1969, it really kicked off a militant gay rights movement, and you also wrote really an epic, sweeping look at where we’ve come from Stonewall to this [New York] decision. Can you just give us a sense of the trajectory of the movement and what this means historically?
Larry Gross: Well, yeah, the Stonewall connection is kind of unavoidable partially because of the New York aspect of it and as most people probably noticed in the news report of the recent vote to legalize same-sex marriage, everyone seemed to be standing around in front of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and the Stonewall Inn is often cited as the birthplace of the sort of modern gay moment, which isn’t exactly accurate but serves the purpose of giving us a marker in history that you then can move from, and it was a point in which the gay movement became a lot more visible and militant and public then it had been up until then. But at the time of the Stonewall riots, and Stonewall basically refers to a police raid on a gay bar, that kind of thing [the police raid] was fairly routine, but this time the people in the bar fought back. It sparked street riots that went on in Greenwich Village for several evenings on a hot June in 1969. At that time homosexual acts were criminal, were illegal in every state in the United States except Illinois, and that’s a kind of odd story in itself — Illinois decriminalized homosexuality. But basically it was a crime in every state — you had no protection against being fired or discriminated against in other ways on the grounds of sexual orientation, so the distance between 1969 and now is really rather enormous on many grounds, and this latest action by New York state is simply one of the most dramatic but far from the only milestones that reflect that change.
Peter Scheer: But you do say in your piece, if I could just jump in, you say New York’s action last week signifies more than just one more state added to the list of those permitting same-sex marriage.
Larry Gross: Yes, up until now the states that have permitted same-sex marriage are basically Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, you know sort of a New England cluster. [The] New England scene in many ways is a kind of liberal extreme. Iowa, which I think many people might be surprised by, but if you know Iowa, you know that it too has a history of being somewhat more sort of liberal and equality-oriented than one might expect from its Midwestern location. But New York is a big state, New York is a diverse state, New York is one of the most important and powerful political locations in the country. In that sense it’s comparable to California, where as I hope your listeners know, same-sex marriage was first enacted and then repealed by Proposition 8 in 2008, although I think it is widely expected that the next time, at the next go-around, same-sex marriage will win again in California. And in fact, Proposition 8 itself was thrown out, was ruled unconstitutional in the federal courts in this area, this part of the country, and we’ll see where that one goes. I think the original assumption is that it would go to the [U.S.] Supreme Court and make it do that.
Kasia Anderson: What surprised you, if anything, the most in the New York Senate vote, in that sort of drama that unfolded?
Larry Gross: Well, what happened in New York, and I think it really is an interesting indication of where things are and where things are going, and a lot of the news accounts of this have kind of spelt it out, is that they got four Republican votes — that’s unusual. And in fact, when it held back a previous attempt to achieve this in New York state, it was not only a unified Republican opposition, but one or two Democrats who would not vote for same-sex marriage. And in fact, even in this last vote, one Democratic legislator on sort of religious fundamentalist grounds voted no. But four Republicans voted yes, and in fact they even had a vote to spare there. So the fact that this has moved from a Republican-vs.-Democrat to a more split kind of issue is an important sign, and it has shown up in other places as well. The California court case that I mentioned earlier, as is I think well known, is a case that was argued by this legal team of Ted Olson and David Boies. Ted Olson being a former Republican solicitor general, and Olson versus Boies were the opposing lawyers in the …
Peter Scheer: Bush v. Gore.
Larry Gross: … Bush v. Gore in the Supreme Court. So for them to unite on this is a sign that the issue is transcending party politics and becoming really an issue understood in terms of basic civil rights.
Another aspect that has been detailed in news accounts is that a lot of the funding to support this effort in New York state came from very rich Republicans. Typically, it would be, you know, say Republican billionaire with a gay son or something of that sort — people with personal connections that move in to see the issue in that light. And this has happened in a number of other high-profile ways as well. Most notably possibly Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian. And on this issue at least Cheney, while not exactly out leading the parade, is at least making clear that opposition to same-sex marriage shouldn’t be part of the Republican or conservative creed anymore.
Kasia Anderson: Larry … you’ve mentioned that this trend might have ramifications in other states, but do you think that what happened in New York suggests that the story that’s been kind of dominant in culture about generational differences between how younger and older people view and would vote on the issue. Do you think that this kind of complicates that story a little bit, that it’s not so cut and dry in terms of the generational divide?
Larry Gross: No, I think it really is the generational story that is the biggest part of it. And I think that what happens in some of these instances that get talked about are the generational divide manifesting itself. So when you talk about a Republican billionaire whose son is gay, that son is likely to be part of this younger portion of the population for whom this issue is just seen in completely different terms. And who often in individual ways influence older folks like their parents or their relatives in that sense. I think the change that is most important here certainly in looking forward is the generational change, is the demographic change … is that essentially for younger people this issue is not falling along party lines or ideological lines. It simply is not going to play the role that it has played in the past, and, you know, people can begin to figure out the consequences of that. It used to be that the best predictor of people’s attitudes on a whole array of what we call social issues was education. The more education they had the more liberal they were on social issues. It’s now become the case that age is becoming a better predictor even than education. Younger people simply see things in a different way.
Peter Scheer: We’re speaking with Larry Gross, one of the founders of queer studies and the director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, about the recent development in New York. Larry, let me ask you: Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog on New York Times, had a post saying, the headline was “Cuomo’s presidential moment forms contrast with Obama.” And his argument was that although there are obvious differences between federal government and the politics of New York, that Gov. Andrew Cuomo really took Obama’s model of trying to work with the opposition you mentioned as Republicans that have voted for the bill, and really did him [Obama] one better. And his argument was that he stuck to his guns, he drew a line, he continued working at the problem, he didn’t just give away the store to Republicans. You know, as much as this is a social change, is it also political strategy paying off?
Larry Gross: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that Cuomo demonstrated that you can do what Obama seems unwilling to do, or to try. And frankly [Bill] Clinton was the same. Obama and Clinton would both make pronouncements and then waiver and falter and concede in the face of opposition. I mean, Obama has been doing it across the board in many different areas, and at least in this instance Cuomo demonstrated that you can in fact succeed by holding to the principle and working creatively in a political fashion. I don’t know whether you could generalize from that, but I would have to say it does put Cuomo in a very distinct class of political leaders in this country, and that may or may not sort of have implications for 2016.
Kasia Anderson: Larry, one more question for you. Do you see the fact that this legislation is being passed kind of getting a jump on the presidential electoral cycle? Does that change in your mind the ability for certain political operatives to trot it out as kind of a wedge issue, culture-war-type setup that they have?
Larry Gross: Well, I think they will no matter what because they’ve done it in the past and it worked. The problem is they run out of states to pass anti-same-sex marriage propositions in. I think they’ve pretty much done it everywhere. So that issue is now going to turn on what happens with the Defense of Marriage Act, with DOMA. Which again Obama says should be repealed but unlike Cuomo hasn’t done anything to actually get down in the trenches and make it happen. I mean, that’s the challenge now to Obama that Cuomo in effect represents, which is a “don’t just say it, do it.” And Cuomo did it with same-sex marriage, and Obama has not [made] any visible effort to do it on DOMA. But DOMA is where the action is now on the national level. I think California will move back, but it will really come down to DOMA.
The problem we have, I mean the problem that politicians will face in 2012, is that the tea party bloc, which is being really influential on the Republican side right now, is likely to be one on which this same-sex marriage issue will come into play. I think the current crop of candidates are pretty uniformly aligned on the anti-same-sex marriage side, except possibly [Jon] Huntsman, who I think has been a little vague around that — it probably says civil union, but not marriage. And Obama, at least in his convoluted way, will be seen as on the other side of the issue. I suspect given the state of the economy and the increasingly unpopular wars and all of that, this issue is not going to play the way it did in previous election cycles. But you never can predict; just as with reproductive rights, every time you think the issue’s settled, it comes back again.
Peter Scheer: We’re running out of time, but you mentioned Obama, and I just can’t end this interview without mentioning the bizarre scene where as this bill is passed Obama is at a fundraiser for gay and lesbian New Yorkers, or a gay- and lesbian-themed fundraiser, where he is simultaneously celebrating the passage of this legalization of gay marriage and not mentioning that he continues to oppose gay marriage.
Larry Gross: I think his ability to work both sides of this issue is fast running out. I think that, you know I’ve seen editorials in The New York Times and elsewhere saying “all right, enough, enough already, you can’t keep having it both ways.” If you really are in favor of equality for everybody then you have to follow the logic where it leads and you can’t keep trying to sort of split the hair. Particularly when by now everybody who pays any attention is aware that back in 1996 he made a very clear statement in favor of gay marriage before he discovered that God was in the mix.
Kasia Anderson: Well, we are having to wrap up on that note. We’ve been speaking with Larry Gross, who’s the director of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and an expert in the field of queer studies. Thanks, Larry, from Kasia Anderson and Peter Scheer.
Larry Gross: Sure thing, bye.
* * *Josh Scheer:
Welcome to Truthdig Radio. This is Josh Scheer and I’m speaking with Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of “A Lexicon of Terror,” newly revised and updated with a new epilogue. Thank you for joining us.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Josh Scheer: And then you did this new edition of this book because of the 35th anniversary of the dirty war in Argentina, did you not?
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. The publication actually came about because the history is so dynamic. Since the first publication in 1998, a lot of the really pressing issues were being looked at again — for example, the amnesty laws known as due obedience and ponto final said it impeded the prosecutions of many, many, really thousands of participants in the last dictatorship were finally after a very, very long and grindingly difficult process annulled. So that was one huge reason that I wanted to revise this book, to bring it up to date. And because other things that happened as well that were tied to some of the ongoing researches that had over the years been animated by significant anniversaries but that more than anything had been animated and sustained by the passion and determination of the Argentine human rights communities.
Josh Scheer: I mean, yeah, even stories like missing children that have been adopted by military families. I think there are 600 that are missing and then they are still trying to find them.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: There are about 500 that are known to have been born in captivity. And the grandmothers at last count had recovered 105.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: And your book is not only … it’s a linguistic study because again you’re a professor of literature at Bennington College.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Yes, I am. That’s absolutely right.
Josh Scheer: Oh! (Laughs) The book it’s not just … it’s a linguistic study in at least one chapter where there are new words that have been invented by this tragedy, and you can bring that up, but also by dramatic effects of personal interviews you did while in Argentina.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Absolutely, I first began to be interested in the whole question of language through my work as a literary translator, and as one who had always been obsessed with language. And it was my work on certain Argentine writers such as Griselda Gambaro, who had always written about the theatricality of political violence, that really made me want to dig more deeply into what was going on. On the other side of the page, if you will, and the question of the perversion of the language, this was a dictatorship that was intensely, and I hate to say it, brilliantly verbal and very strategic when it came to language—the use of language, imposition of language, prohibition of language. There’s just … of course, a lexicon of terror and there is a formal lexicon in the book and the enterprise gives the book its title. It’s not just restricted to the one title chapter, it really flows through every chapter, even if it’s not explicitly mentioned so intense, so all encapsulating was the use of language by the dictatorship. But you’re absolutely right, the book was a work of primary investigation and over about seven years I did interviews, took testimony from hundreds of Argentines in every walk of life and from every part of the country. And one chapter for example, Chapter Four, takes place in the far interior in the northeast in the province of Corrientes and tells a story that no one had never told before about the agrarian leagues in that time and in that place, which is to say the organization of Tlacololeros, or tobacco farmers, who were sustenance farmers, extremely poor, and organized at first by the Catholic Church. This was a story that had not been told before or looked into, and this goes back to your question about why second edition. Well, that story actually became important because of some of the investigations, some of the prosecutions that are going on now and that had kind of underground links to what happened in this far away place. Specifically, there were two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, who had worked with the mothers of the plaza as they were getting started, and Leonie had worked in Goya, which is where these tobacco farmers were working. She had helped to organize them under the liberation theology wing of the Catholic Church. And so in the ongoing trial, and the trial is going on as we speak in this very moment that has to do with Sister Leonie. Her connections to these peasants became something that was very important. So one of the other things that happened between the first and the second edition of the book is that stories that had seemed to be unrelated, if you will, in terms of geography, in terms of the cast of characters, in terms of the particular repressors that were involved, as the years have gone on and as we’ve learned more and more about what happened, the stories become more enmeshed and that’s significant just in itself and significant judicially, and of course significant in terms of the country of Argentina, of how it conceives of itself as a country. Bear in mind that 80 percent of the Argentine population lives in the greater Buenos Aires area. And in particularly in the years of the dictatorship and traditionally Buenos Aires and the interior was a very different world and had very little to do with one another. So I’m actually very gratified to see that one of the roles of the prosecution, so of course it wasn’t one of the objections, is that a lot of these cases have been brought to the attention … urban cases that have been brought better to the attention of the hinterland, and more importantly and I think, the hinterland brought more to the center.
Josh Scheer: And in your book, I mean we talk about 17 years, it took 17 years until like 1998 until people to find out anything.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: In certain ways that’s really true. There was a trial in 1985 when the dictatorship ended in 1983, and Alfonsin was swept to the presidency on the promise of investigating what had happened during the dictatorship and bringing to justice those most responsible. There were public trials of the nine men who had fronted, who had headed the three juntas, the four juntas actually, in the dictatorship so there was a trial in 1985, but only the very cupable were tried. Hundreds and hundreds indeed thousands of men were not tried because of the laws we were talking about earlier: due obedience and punto final. Due obedience stipulated that lower-ranking officers could claim that they were only following orders, and so they could be exonerating from having committed illegal acts. Punto final, or final stop, simply put a date, Feb. 23, 1987, as the final point for all prosecutions. So while there were some prosecutions between 1985 and 1987, there were many fewer, thousands fewer than there should have been. But what you’re referring to, the 1988 date, is extremely important. That was the date when largely owing to the efforts of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or las abuelas, there was a legislation passed called “the right to know.” And the importance of this really can’t be overestimated and I’m delighted you brought it up, that stipulates that all individuals have the right to know their biological origin. Which is to say that people who suspect perhaps they are not the biological children of the parents who have raised them have a legal, constitutional right to know whence they come biologically. That is just extremely important judicially, morally, and ethnically and is part of a kind of Argentine social contract, if you will. And that actually was a kind of turning point for other ways of rolling back these prosecutions. Because if people have the right to know whence they come biologically that has all kinds of other ramifications, as you can imagine.
Josh Scheer: I just want to remind the audience we’re speaking with Marguerite Feitlowitz and her book is “A Lexicon of Terror,” available on Amazon; it’s the revised edition.
I just wanted to say because you’ve talked about them before about the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the mothers of Plaza de Mayo and also the nuns, and because your book is both tragic obviously because you’re going back and reliving an bunch of torture and terror but it’s also about obviously the people who stood up and had the courage, right? I mean the mothers of this Plaza de Mayo have been marching since I believe 1977.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: That’s exactly right, April of 1977. And they were 14 women to begin with. But yeah, to respond to your question, my book is not just a recitation of horror, it’s a tribute to those who, as you say, had the courage, the determination, the stamina to speak truth to power as is said, and to make the simple demands: Where are our children? Where are our husbands? Our loved ones? What has happened to them? And to put their bodies in public space to make those demands. The mothers were the only ones during the dictatorship who actually took to the streets and they made their silent round, as you know, in front of the presidential palace.
Josh Scheer: I want to come back to the idea of following orders because obviously there were armed guerrillas and the ERP and other groups, but there were a lot of people who were just taken away because they were practicing psychology, helping the poor, the Jews. I want to get into the Jews a little bit because I know your book deals with it, and how basically there is kind of an anti-Semitism that has been there for a long time in Argentina and it was kind of tolerated by Jews and I wanted to get into that a little bit.
Hold on, I’m going to find this page in your book right now. The Anti-Defamation League and one of their representatives coming there in 1979 and basically talking as a student in Berlin seeing Hitler going through his feelings and his saying “the clean streets, the orderly activity, the quiet kind of atmosphere is [like what] I remember [from] the first year of Adolph Hitler. Like Germany, this is a repression without accountability.”
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Right, you’re quoting Ben Epstein, who visited Argentina in 1979 who was then national direction of ADL or Anti-Defamation League, exactly right. Why don’t I take the first part of your question first. The dictatorship as you said set up what we could call “categories of guilt,” and “categories of guilt” where those who were obviously politically active who were confronting the dictatorship in obvious ways but also those who we would consider journalists, certain scholars, they also considered people who would occupy these “categories of guilt” as labor lawyers, human rights lawyers, lawyers who acted on behalf of the poor. Labor leaders were high on their list of guilty non-citizens, psychologists, teachers who taught modern math, who taught modern physics because it was believed that this contradicted Roman Catholic theology, homosexuals, and clerics who had taken preferential options to live with the poor, social workers, doctors and nurses and public health workers in the shantytowns, cultural workers in the shantytowns and of course the poor themselves who the dictatorship said were never content, looked ugly, dressed ugly and had ugly houses. The dictatorship was very big on outward beauty or their conception of outward beauty. Jews in Argentina tended to occupy these categories of guilt. They tended to be intellectuals, they tended to be progressive or lefty, they were very highly represented in journalism, and in the arts and in medicine so they just naturally fell into these categories of guilt. Jews at the time of the dictatorship in Argentina accounted for about 2 percent of the population they account for about 10 percent of the missing and I think it’s important to mark that the Argentine dictatorship was smart enough not to engage in a frontal Jew hunt to put it very crudely because they were trading partners with Israel and with the United States but, yes, as you mentioned, there was a long-standing tradition of anti-Semitism in Argentina, in fact there was a newspaper full of anti-Semitic diatribes even before the arrival of Jews — I’ve seen these. They were published in, say, the 1850s and ’60s, so that accounts in great measure for the discrepancy, if you will, between the percentage of Jewish desaparecidos, and the overall percentage of Jews and the overall population.
Josh Scheer: We were speaking with Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of “A Lexicon of Terror.” I suggest you pick it up. You can also hear more of this interview at Truthdig.com
* * *Peter Scheer:
Welcome to Truthdig Radio. Narda Zacchino is joined by Mike Farrell, an activist and one of the nation’s leading voices against the death penalty and an actor also who is best known on his work on M*A*S*H.
Narda Zacchino: Hi, Mike, I’m happy that you’re joining us today to talk about a case that I think, you know, we are heading into what could be one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice, and that is the case of Troy Anthony Davis. I wonder if you could summarize his situation for our listeners.
Mike Farrell: The situation is that Troy was part of a group of people outside I think a bar, I’m not sure, outside some establishment, in the late ’80s. And there was a scuffle and an argument, and a man tried to intervene, and he was, as I understand it, an off-duty police officer. At any rate the police officer was killed and Troy Davis was charged with a crime, a number of people testified against him, and he was convicted and sentenced to death. The evidence against him was only based on the testimony of where this is, and subsequently, forgive me if I’m getting the number wrong, but I think there were nine witnesses that testified, seven of whom have subsequently recanted their testimony, in some cases saying the police have pressured them to name him as the perpetrator, saying that they were frightened by threats and that they didn’t see what they said they saw. And finally the case has been appealed a number of times, but finally the U.S. Supreme Court held that the danger in this case of executing an innocent man based on the recantations of testimony by the majority of the witnesses and most recently it’s been through a number of permutations of appeals through the states and the federal system since he was convicted in 1991. But finally the Supreme Court said there was danger in executing an innocent man and there should be an evidentiary hearing. The hearing was held in Georgia in front of Judge Moore, who I can’t say if he was the original trial judge or not, but he was certainly not sympathetic, and there was testimony before this judge by a significant number of the people who had recanted and explained why they had testified the way they did saying they were pressured and they were frightened and they really didn’t see what they said they saw but were told to testify that way. And a couple of them named one of the other people who was a witness, who testified against Troy Davis, as in fact the perpetrator.
Narda Zacchino: That’s true and that person that they implicated, his name is Sylvester “Red” Coles, he was actually the person who went to the police the day after the shooting of the off-duty police officer, and he told the police that Troy Davis was the shooter. And he is, of course, one of the witnesses who has not recanted his testimony.
Mike Farrell: Yes, clearly he has not recanted. And at his hearing where Judge Moore heard from these witnesses who had recanted, he criticized the attorneys for Troy Davis for not having produced Mr. Coles in court. They said they tried to subpoena him and he was unwilling to receive the subpoena, or couldn’t be found, so the judge essentially threw out the case based on the fact that Coles was not brought into court. Now for Coles to come into court and testify he’d either subject it if he was guilty he wouldn’t subject himself to perjury charges, you can’t expect him to support the idea that Troy Davis didn’t do it.
Narda Zacchino: Right. They did say that they tried to subpoena him the day before the trial and the judge said, well, you’ve waited to long, it’s too late.
Mike Farrell: Yes, they did. It’s a terrible situation, I met Troy’s sister when I was in Atlanta a year or two ago and she has been a stalwart supporter of his, and quite an extraordinary young women who is terrifically articulate about the case and has been a champion of Troy’s that you can imagine for many years. But it is a hideous miscarriage of justice and since Judge Moore throughout this evidentiary hearing, or refused to overturn the verdict, it went back to Supreme Court, which without explaining why, just refused to hear it. So we are now faced with the possibility that Troy Davis will be executed without this issue of innocence or guilt fully resolved. And the last thing I heard is they are now going to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to ask them to commute his sentence.
Narda Zacchino: Right, that seems to be the only recourse. I just want to say the recanting by these witnesses was so I thought compelling. One woman who had testified against him stated in an affidavit that she felt under pressure from the police to identify Davis as the shooter because she had been on parole for a shoplifting conviction, and she told the detective that Troy Davis was the shooter even though it wasn’t the truth, and she said “I didn’t know who shot the officer.” Another witness who testified against him wrote an affidavit in 2002 that the police had scared him into falsely testifying by threatening to charge him as an accessory to the crime, and he said “I didn’t see troy to do anything to that man.” And by the way this witness was only 16. They interrogated him for many, many, many hours without his parents there and of course threatened to charge him as an accessory. Another three other witness testified that their earlier testimony had been coerced by strong-arm police tactics. This seems to be a pattern here that the police were really aggressive with these witnesses. As you mentioned three witnesses who signed affidavits stating that “Red” Coles had confessed to the murder to them, so this is not just a case of a man being wrongly put to death, but the person who actually committed the murder being out there, free to roam around. And the judge as you said, when he had said there is no danger of miscarriage of justice, declining the claim on behalf of Troy Davis. You know, as you mentioned, maybe you can talk about the worldwide appeal that has been made in the case of Troy Davis starting with Amnesty International.
Mike Farrell: Significantly, Amnesty International is involved although they are not taking a position on whether he is guilty or innocent. They’ve involved themselves on the basis of the unfairness of the trial and the unfairness of the process that has lead him even closer now to execution. This sort of situation unfortunately is not unique to this case. So many instances where police misconduct has resulted in the wrong person being convicted or singled out and then convicted. And as you’ve indicated in every one of those cases, if the wrong person is convicted and in some cases executed, then of course the perpetrator is free to roam the world and do her or his damage wherever. The extraordinary I think outcry in the Troy Davis case, Jesse Jackson and I spoke last week, he went down to see Troy, the extraordinary outcry in this case is a direct result of two things. One is this extraordinary devotion on the part of his sister, but second is the growing awareness of the people in this country and around the world of the inefficiency, ineffectiveness and unfairness of the American capital punishment system.
Narda Zacchino: Absolutely, and in fact Troy has had three execution dates. One, I think it was he got a stay with something like two hours before he was to be executed, and the last stay of execution came when his mother died in April and now a new date is to be set. But, you know, your organization Death Penalty Focus does tremendous work, and I think it’s significant to note that since Troy has been on death row more than 90 prisoners have been released from death rows across the country on grounds of innocence, and each of these 90 had been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. So you probably know these statistics more than anybody, and more than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.
Mike Farrell: This is what we call the modern era since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in ’76, and reinstated in various states subsequent to that time. There have been 139 people who have been exonerated free from death row after having been, as you say, tried and convicted and sentenced to death beyond a reasonable doubt and all that nonsense. But what we don’t know is how many of those people who were not exonerated. How many of those people did not get examination of this kind?
Narda Zacchino: Well, isn’t one of the problems that the defense … I mean a lot of this is public defender defense and they don’t have the funds to do the kind of legal work that is really necessary to probe deeply.
Mike Farrell: Traditionally public defenders across the country, many of whom do heroic work, are overwhelmed to the point of inability simply to function property. But in too many cases in various states there are the killing states, there are no public defender systems and quite often it comes down to a quote upon your attorney who really has no expertise in the area of capital crime or capital defense. So we find … infamously the case in Texas for example, drunken attorneys, drug-abusing attorneys, sleeping attorneys, who are theoretically providing a defense for somebody who ends up in fact convicted and sentenced to death. So we have a system that is simply a fabrication. There’s nothing to do with justice; it really has to do with political cowardice because anybody who looks very seriously at this system knows it’s rife with racism and classism, only poor people go to death row. And also know from what we’ve talked about that innocent people are captured in this system all the time. There’s a terrible case going on in Texas today of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for an arson murder that took his three children. On the basis of false science, if you could call it science, experts now have looked at the evidence that convicted Mr. Willingham and resulted in his death and determined that there was no sign of arson. It was, as he had always claimed, an accidental fire and one in which he tried heroically to save his children. But Gov. [Rick] Perry today who was responsible for his execution is doing everything he can to see to it that no successful analysis of that case and the evidence in it gains a light of day because he doesn’t want to have to look at the fact that he executed an innocent man.
Narda Zacchino: Well, I know that was a very tragic … I know there were so many efforts to save his life, and unsuccessfully obviously.
Mike Farrell: And interestingly there was a case subsequent to the Willingham case where a man was tried, convicted, sentenced to death and then exonerated on the basis of the very kind of evidence that resulted in Willingham’s death. But the connection was never able to be made because of the way the system works.
Narda Zacchino: You brought up the racial imbalance in people who are sentenced to death, and I know there was a 2001 study I believe from the University of North Carolina, which found that a defendant whose victim was white was 3.5 times as likely to receive the death penalty in North Carolina than if the victim were nonwhite. And in California there was a study not long ago that found the defendant of a white victim three times as likely to be penalized by death.
Mike Farrell: That’s the case across the board. The killing of a white person is far more likely to result in the death penalty then will be the killing of a person of color.
Narda Zacchino: Well, Mike, let me ask you about the public sentiment because you mentioned, I think there seems to be a growing sense that there’s something wrong with the system. Three states recently have abolished the death penalty; can you talk about that for a sec?
Mike Farrell: Sure, actually it’s four. New York did it judicially, But since that time New Jersey, New Mexico and just a couple of months ago Illinois have done away with the death penalty. And the interesting thing, the sadly interesting thing, is that the racism of the system has been known for a long time to anybody who looks, the classism of the system has been known for a long time to anybody who looks. The fact that innocent people are entrapped in the system has been known for a long time. What has also been known for a long time but hasn’t got the attention of the people is the cost. It costs three times as much to go through the process and kill someone as it would to give that person life in prison without possibility of parole. To keep that person in the system fed and housed for an average of 40 years. Today as a result of the economic crunch in the country, the issue of cost is raising people’s attention and it has been one of the factors in all three of the abolition cases in New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois. And I just set a meeting in Gov. [Gray] Davis’ office, (laughs) sorry, Gov. [Jerry] Brown, a little slip of the mind there, Gov. Brown’s office with his number one and explained to him that while we have our system here is imposed by initiatives so the governor does not have the authority, nor does the legislature to simply end capital punishment but what the governor does have is the authority that Gov. Ryan in Illinois used just before he left office, which is to commute everybody on death row, all 714 people on all our death row to life in prison without possibility of parole and in so doing saving $100,000 per year for each of those 714 people and if you add that up, that makes a lot of savings that could be put to use in funding some of the programs they’re having to cut in terms of our budget.
Narda Zacchino: Well, maybe some people who aren’t moved by the human or morality aspect of it could be moved by that. Mike, we’re going to have to wrap it up, but I wanted to just ask you, first of all thank you so much for being on the show, I wanted to ask you what couple people do to help Troy Davis, if anything? Are there websites?
Mike Farrell: Yes, all they have to do is google the name Troy Davis and there’s a website they can go to that will give them all the information they would want about the case. But more than that, contacting the governor for whatever good that will do, pressing the legislature of Georgia, pressing the governor of Georgia and pressing, in particular, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Let them know that the people of the world are looking at this case and that Georgia is going to further besmirch itself, and just recently they killed a man down there by using this new single drug pentobarbital, and it was evidently an excruciatingly difficult execution, and it will cause more calamity to fall on Georgia and other states that continue to try and find ways to execute people.
Narda Zacchino: Thank you again for your efforts and thanks for being with us.
Mike Farrell: You bet, nice to talk to you.
Peter Scheer: That’s it for this week. Join us next Wednesday at 2 p.m. at KPFK or anytime online at Truthdig.com, where you can hear an extended interview on fascism in Argentina and a Web exclusive on the California budget. Thanks to our guests Larry Gross, Mike Farrell and Marguerite Feitlowitz. Thanks also to our board op Jee; engineer Stan Misraje and Alan Minsky.
For Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Narda Zacchino and the Scheer brothers, thanks for listening.