Truthdig Radio: Debunking the bin Laden Torture Myth (Update: Transcript)
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This week on Truthdig Radio, Mark Danner debunks the bin Laden torture myth; Sharon Smith gives us tips for young activists; Holger Keifel makes art out of boxing; and Chris Hedges says Osama bin Laden’s death will lead to only more terrorism.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
This is Truthdig Radio, bringing you the best interviews and commentary from the back-to-back defending champion Webby Award-winning Truthdig.com, and the always superb KPFK. On this week’s show, Mark Danner debunks the bin Laden torture myth; Sharon Smith gives us tips for young activists; Holger Keifel makes art out of boxing; and Chris Hedges says Osama bin Laden’s death will lead to only more terrorism.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Truthdig Radio. Truthdig’s Robert Scheer and Josh Scheer speak with journalist Mark Danner, who has written extensively about American foreign policy and human rights violations. His latest book, “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War,” is just out in paperback and has much to say about torture.
Robert Scheer: Hi, Mark, you there?
Mark Danner: Yes.
Robert Scheer: Hi. It’s Bob. Ah…
Mark Danner: Bob, how are you?
Robert Scheer: Good. Listen, you know, you’re right—you have the expertise to deal with this raging debate between the Fox News people and John Yoo on one hand, and people like Dianne Feinstein and the administration itself on the value of torture in the killing of bin Laden, or the capture and killing of bin Laden. So what’s your view?
Mark Danner: Well, it’s clear that an event like this lets everybody unleash their particular blasts from their ideological point of view. And not the least of the peculiarities in our present politics, you know, about a decade after 9/11, is that torture has become a kind of political touchstone. The Republicans use it as a judgment of how tough you are on terrorism; if you’re not for torture, if you don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to protect the country, then you can’t be serious and you are engaged in coddling terrorists. And Democrats, much more modestly and much more tentatively, try to defend—not to put too fine a point on it—following the law. And, as I say, they are by no means as ferocious as the other side, which sees torture as really a kind of badge of manliness and also, at the same time, of course, has a very self-interested motive in saying that these things that clearly broke the law were necessary to keep the country safe. So every time we have an incident like this one, in which the war on terror rises up before us one more time, they are very quick. And we’re talking about Dick Cheney; Karl Rove; John Yoo, of course, who’s always in the forefront. They are very quick to come forward and say, see, this stuff that we did that was so controversial in fact was absolutely vital in protecting the country. The problem is, of course, that there’s no proof of that. In fact, if you listen to people who are in a position to know—Dianne Feinstein is a good example; also John Brennan, counterterrorism chief in the White House, who was a high official in the CIA under George W. Bush—they say quite unequivocally that this is balderdash, that this is not true. And no less a figure yesterday than Donald Rumsfeld said the same thing. He said that, again quite unequivocally, that interrogation played a role, but not waterboarding and not harsh interrogation. So, you know, we have conflicting accounts now of the timeline of how this happened, but the single kind of very tentative bit of reality that all of the people on the right seem to be hanging their argument [on] about the necessity of torture is the giving over, seven years ago, of a nom de guerre of a courier for Osama bin Laden. Even this little bit, little kernel of information, seems very much disputed, as I say. It seems to have come from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and was confirmed by Faraj al-Libbi. Whether indeed this information was given under waterboarding—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of course, was waterboarded 183 times—has not at all been confirmed. No one in a position to know, to my knowledge, has actually said this. There seems to be an assumption on the part of various players that any information that came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed must be owed directly to waterboarding. So, you know, this case says more about our politics, and what our politics have become after 10 years in the war on terror, than it does about the realities of interrogation.
Robert Scheer: You know, actually, on a factual point, The New York Times—which didn’t, in its story today, use the word torture…
Mark Danner: Yeah, they don’t use it.
Robert Scheer:…they’ve fallen back on “enhanced interrogation.” They say that the information turned over by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was deliberately false on his part, and misleading. And—but let me ask you a question. Aside from, you know, whether this turns out to be valuable. One of the justifications of being against the Soviets in Afghanistan is, of course, their tactics were brutal. And when we were on the same side as Osama bin Laden and other Muslim fundamentalists, fighting the Soviets, the brutality of their methods and their indiscriminate attacks on civilians, but also their torture and everything else, was one of the justifications for our intervention.
Mark Danner: Absolutely. Yeah. During the ’80s, of course, the extreme brutality of Soviet methods in Afghanistan was a major help in organizing the mujahedeen and in organizing, obviously and more importantly, the native, the native Afghan mujahedeen—not the Afghan Arabs. But you’re quite right, and it is a strange phenomenon, again, of our time that certain people in the U.S. seem extremely eager to claim the mantle of brutality for themselves, as a kind of badge of seriousness. And I think it’s not the least of the sad developments over the last decade that this has not only become an accepted political position within the U.S.–to be for torture–but it’s become a kind of touchstone of the right. So we have one political party that’s enthusiastically for torture, and views it as a sign of whether or not you’re really tough on terrorism and serious about it; and then we have a second political party that’s ambivalent, basically; that, some members of which are against it, but most members of which would rather not talk about it.
Josh Scheer: You know, I was watching Fox News with Bill O’Reilly and Congressman Peter King, and they were positively giddy. You know, Bill O’Reilly was like oh, well, it proves it, right, it proves it that it works.
Mark Danner: Yeah, I saw that interview. [Laughter]
Josh Scheer: And, you know, I mean—do you think this is also because the media doesn’t have anything else to report about Osama bin Laden? That they’ve kind of just, kind of grabbed whatever they can, and torture is the big, you know, touchstone?
Mark Danner: Well, I think that can’t be understated. The fact is that you have some events, and this is a good example of them—of those events that are kind of media-thons; I think that phrase is Frank Rich’s—in which, you know, the gravity of the event demands 24-hour coverage. And you need to fill it with something, and of course if you can fill it with a kind of political controversy like this, all the better. You know, you get everybody out there, Fox News kind of arranges its cannons from Karl Rove to Peter King to John Yoo, to all these people on the right, and boom, boom, boom. You know, they let loose. And then you have the other side taking apart these arguments and showing there’s not really anything there. It’s certainly not a very elevating spectacle, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with actual policy. I mean, it doesn’t—the fact is that the tiny little bit of, perhaps, fact here, which is an interrogation seven years ago, is not at all confirmed. I mean, it’s an assertion which a number of high officials such as Feinstein and Rumsfeld have directly denied. And even if it was true, it’s—you know, to say that harsh—if it weren’t for harsh interrogation, Osama bin Laden would never have been tracked down and killed, is a ridiculous statement. Even if you take the assertion about the original slipping out of the nom de guerre of Mr. al-Kuwaiti as true—you know, if we stipulate it—it’s still, we’re talking about seven years ago; we’re talking about one pseudonym, one nom de guerre, which—at a stretch, you can say it was necessary; it certainly wasn’t any near way toward being sufficient. So, to—even if you assume what they say is true, to argue that this was necessary for the capture or for the killing of bin Laden is just a ridiculous argument, so far as I can tell.
Josh Scheer: You know, we talked last year, actually, on the Truthdig Podcast with you and James Harris. And we talked about “24” and the ticking time bomb.
Mark Danner: Right. Yes, I remember. Josh Scheer: And that seems like that, you know, the right used that as justification. Well this obviously, as you just mentioned—seven years—obviously, it was not a ticking time bomb, right? I mean…
Mark Danner: [Laughs] That’s a very, very long ticking time bomb, if indeed you want to make that argument. No; it certainly, it certainly wasn’t. And you know, the fact is that the idea that—I mean, if you make an argument and say, you know what, under harsh interrogation we got information—that’s a ridiculous argument. I mean, these people were under CIA custody for years. For seven or eight years. And the idea that they, the CIA would get no information from them during that amount of time, and only their getting no information would prove that torture doesn’t work, is a kind of ridiculous argument. Of course they got information. The question is, did they get information that couldn’t have been gotten through different means … as President Obama has put the matter very clearly in the past? And that is the question, and I have seen—I have never seen any evidence of such information that couldn’t have been obtained not only from other means, but more efficiently. So again, we haven’t—the one thing we can say, I think, about the last couple days of discussion of this issue is that it’s been in the realm of politics; it hasn’t advanced the issue in any way in the realm of information, that I can see.
Robert Scheer: You know what’s—this is Bob again—what’s mind-boggling to my mind about this is if you’re a fugitive running a huge organization, you don’t travel with your wives, and all these children, and all these assistants. And clearly, from what we know about this, there was some kind—and you don’t take, hide out in the West Point of Pakistan, you don’t hide out in one of the centers of Pakistani military power—unless you have the cooperation of Pakistan. And it seems to me where intelligence clearly broke down was not a failure to torture people, unless it were Pakistani leaders that we should have been torturing. But how in the world could we be so ignorant about what’s going on in Pakistan, a country that we have helped arm; that we supply sophisticated military equipment to; and not know that this guy that we’re pursuing all this time is clearly being protected there?
Mark Danner: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. It seems—one thing that seems absolutely clear is that given where he was found, given the construction that was necessary to put this place together, given its location not only a mile or so from the so-called Pakistani West Point, but in a garrison town that is highly surveyed—you know, it is completely impossible that some Pakistanis, some members of officialdom, didn’t know his location and weren’t protecting him. I think it’s just out of the question. Of course, the more interesting question then becomes, well, who did? Who knew where he was? At what level? And what are the details of that? And I imagine that—one would like to think that people in the U.S. government are trying to figure that out right now. The fact is, though, that the relationship between the highest levels of the government are such that you see Hillary Clinton and others basically scuttling around, doing their best to prevent the asking and certainly the answering of the question, questions like the one you just asked. The mode seems to be damage control. You know, we don’t want anything to affect the relationship. But the question is, at what point is the relationship, in a sense, counterproductive? He clearly was being sheltered by Pakistani officialdom, or the Pakistani military, and what is the consequence of that, you know? I mean, what exactly are we getting out of this relationship if the absolute highest priority of the United States is contradicted by Pakistani policy, and they’re giving shelter to Osama bin Laden? It’s kind of an extraordinary thing. But the U.S. government seems to be in the mode of simply wanting to limit the damage from that obvious reality. And you’re right, I take your point—if someone was going to be tortured, it probably should have been Pakistani officials.
Josh Scheer: Mark—well, I just wanted to let the KPFK audience know we’re talking to Mark Danner, torture expert, and you can see some more of his work at MarkDanner.com. And now, back to Bob.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. Bin Laden was not armed at the moment he was killed, and then he disappeared. And there’s an interesting piece on the BBC site today, suggesting that one reason for that is you really didn’t want this guy to have a trial, because it might involve revisiting the U.S. relation with this mujahedeen movement back in the ’80s. And I’ve long suspected it’s why we don’t want Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to have any kind of public trial, because these people might raise some of these issues of when they were considered the good guys; they were on our side. And do you feel there’s anything manipulative about this? I mean, there’s something, you know…first they said he was armed, and then they said he was not armed but he was killed, and then his body was quickly disposed of. And do you think there’s a part of this relationship—the 9/11 commission was never really able to explore how did these two guys get together—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who seemed to have really put the whole thing together; bin Laden seemed to be more of a banker. And, but we haven’t really been interested in exploring the origin of this movement, and how it worked; rather, we want to use it as a sort of very simple, sloganeering enemy and not really comprehend it.
Mark Danner: Mm-hmm. It would not be—surprise me if there weren’t a number of bits of dirty laundry that various parts of the U.S. national security bureaucracy would be uncomfortable exposing, in any trial of either of those two gentlemen. I’m not sure that is the key reason, though, for a policy that was clearly to kill him. You know, even in the aftermath of the announcement, the original announcement, you had John Brennan at the White House saying that they were, indeed wanted to capture him, but they were not able to because he resisted. And Leon Panetta said, frankly, that the policy was to kill him. He apparently didn’t get the memo. You know, I can think of a number of reasons, beyond the one you cite, which is—there could be various embarrassments coming to the fore; and simply beyond that, a trial, the whole notion of a trial, what to do with him, where to put him, how to interrogate him, what—you know, do you bring him to Guantanamo, I mean, the worldwide sort of consequences of doing that—but if you don’t bring him to Guantanamo, where do you bring him? I mean, it brings up, the whole notion of a trial would bring up enormous controversy around all these questions that still very much divide the country and also divide the U.S. from the rest of the world. And these issues, you know, the Obama administration has succeeded—mostly by conceding to many Bush positions—they’ve succeeded in calming the waters a bit. And I think that the notion of a captured Osama bin Laden brought up just too many complications. I mean, the question of dirty laundry which you bring up is probably part of it, but I don’t know that it would—that it was dominant. I think that it was just a lot more, it was a lot simpler to kill him, and dump him in the, dump him in the sea.
Robert Scheer: Well, you’ve done, I think—and I will use the word advisedly—brilliant writing on this subject. You’ve sort of played the role of Hannah Arendt in trying to understand the deeper issues. And what I think is so confusing here is, you know, we did have the Nuremberg Trials. And we had trials of people who didn’t kill in the thousands, but in the millions. And yet—and there were certainly arguments at that time that you couldn’t have trials, and you were giving them too much credit, and you were allowing them a forum, et cetera, et cetera. But the reality is that the world learned a great deal from the Nuremberg Trials. Certain standards were set; we had to grapple with the question of how do people come to behave this way, where do these monsters come from, what makes them that way. And that’s really what I’m getting at—not so much the dirty laundry, but who indeed are these people—if for no other reason than how to effectively combat them. And so I know you’ve been in a lot of debates on this subject; I don’t know if you’ve ever debated John Yoo. But…
Mark Danner: I have.Robert Scheer:…you have. How do they respond to that? Why was it possible for the U.S. government to arrange a trial of the most vicious killers of modern history, and yet we flounder in trying to bring these people to account in a public setting?
Mark Danner: I—you know, my experience of Professor Yoo and others is that they simply don’t think of these things in this way. I mean, they believe that the entire system of accountability and, for lack of a better word, justice, should not apply to this class of criminal, who they classify first of all as not under civilian law, as part of military law—that’s one of their big arguments—and then when it comes to military law, they become unlawful combatants. So they’re not subject to that law either; they become subject to no law. And this is a category that’s been created, that was created in the aftermath of 9/11 by the Bush administration, that made it possible to disappear these people, you know? And it’s an extraordinary spectacle that we had these highly trained lawyers in the Department of Justice—all of them Ivy League-educated, very smart—putting their considerable brainpower to work to justify creating a class of person who had no protection of any kind under the law. And that’s one of the legacies here. I couldn’t agree more with you about the Nuremberg Trials. And of course you’re quite right that very eloquent voices were raised against the idea of the Nuremberg Trials—notably Winston Churchill, who felt these Nazis should simply be shot. And I think it’s a source of undying shame to the country that if you look at the bombers of the Madrid train station, for example, which killed a couple hundred Spaniards, the people responsible for that were tried publicly within a year and a half. The people responsible for the Bali bombing were tried within a year, or I think a couple of years. And here we’ve had in custody the so-called mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for going on eight years. And the U.S., which prides itself on being a leader in international law and multilateral institutions, has not been able to try this person, and in fact has kept him in secret confinement, tortured him. It’s a source of, I think, great shame to the country. And this is still going on, you know. The Arar case, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was grabbed at Kennedy airport when he was changing flights, and shipped to Syria, and tortured brutally for a year; he came back finally to Canada; the Canadians did an investigation, a full parliamentary inquiry, and they paid him damages of more than $10 million. In the United States, he can’t get into court. Even though this was a clear injustice. So these are very serious disfigurements of our government and of our idea of justice, and we live with them—a decade after 9/11, the country has been altered. And the present administration, notwithstanding the hopes of many people who thought, who took seriously what candidate Obama said, has mostly ducked the question. Not entirely; I mean, if we believe what they say, they’re not actually torturing anymore, which is extremely significant, of course. But in the hard work of changing back to the protections and the principles that this country claims to embody, the present administration has done very little. It’s mostly assumed the mantle that the Bush administration has left it. And you know, so far as we can tell by polls, more people believe that torture is necessary to protect the country—or another way of saying it is more people believe that the country can’t be protected while keeping within the law—now, than did at the end of the Bush administration. The number supporting torture seems to be rising. And that to me is the saddest, most damaging legacy of the war on terror.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you, Mark Danner, torture expert, a great writer. And you can check out all his work and his books at MarkDanner.com. Thanks a lot.
* * *Peter Scheer:
You’re listening to Truthdig Radio. And now, Holger Keifel speaks to reporter Howie Stier about his new book, “Box.”
Howie Stier: Hi, I’m Howie Stier for Truthdig Radio. And we have with us on the phone photographer Holger Keifel. Boxing fans in America remain proud of what the sweet science once was. They are less proud of what it is today. But if boxing is no longer part of the American dream, it has moved to the forefront of the dream in other parts of the world. Fighters such as Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton and the Klitschko brothers have stirred passions around the globe. That from the introduction to photographer Holger Keifel’s new book, “Box: The Face of Boxing,” published by Chronicle Books. Holger Keifel photographed all the major figures in the sport—the fighters, managers and referees. His portraits have been exhibited at the Butler Museum of Contemporary Art, have run in The New York Times and Der Spiegel. With the upcoming bout between Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao and “Sugar” Shane Mosley, we’re sitting down with Holger to talk about his work and the state of boxing.
Howie Stier: I want to make this clear to our audience. You’re not Annie Leibovitz, highest paid photographer in the world; you don’t have a large crew; you don’t have assistants going with you around the world to photograph these boxers. How did you get these images?
Holger Keifel: Well, you’re absolutely right, you know. I have, like, basically—well, it’s all, the whole project was all self-financed. And well, I just set it up on location, mostly at press conferences. I took everything—as little possible, mostly; I shot with one light—and put it in bags, and then took it on the subway and went to the press conferences. After a while, after a few years, people recognized my work, and then I was able to get them in the studio. Howie Stier: Your photos have been exhibited in museums. What’s the reaction to portraits of boxing? This is a world that a lot of people in the art world are not familiar with.
Holger Keifel: Yeah, you know, that—it’s also the way I photographed. There’s straightforward, very honest, close-ups. You know, I don’t fake things. I want a clear-shot, honest document of the face. You know, I don’t add anything; I don’t take anything away. I want to do this series about boxers, about fighters, about the face; the faces of boxers after a fight, what happens to the face during a fight. And so that’s how the whole project started. And it took me—well, in the end, after eight years, I published all these photographs, over 250 of my photographs of the boxing scene, in a book.
Howie Stier: We have an upcoming fight with Manny Pacquiao, and a lot of Americans don’t realize how Manny Pacquiao is venerated in his country. And I’m going to read a quote from your book. “ ‘There is bad news all the time in my country,’ said Manny Pacquiao. ‘There is not enough food. We have typhoons. There is corruption in the government and too much crime. So many people are suffering and have no hope. Then I bring them good news, and they are happy. I know that millions of people are praying for me, and that gives me strength. My fight is not only for me, but for my country.’ ” I checked up on Craigslist—people are selling tickets for the upcoming fight—and one advertiser wrote: “This could be Manny’s last fight before he runs for president of the Philippine islands.” Had you heard this? He’s running for president?
Holger Keifel: I haven’t heard that yet, but I don’t know; well, he’s already a governor. And I don’t think he’s going to be much longer in the fighting game.
Howie Stier: Jake LaMotta of the Bronx, New York, famously portrayed by Robert De Niro in the movie “Raging Bull,” is from the Bronx. He lives in Bayo, New Jersey. How come you photographed him wearing a cowboy hat?
Holger Keifel: No, he’s—he lives in Manhattan … but the cowboy hat, you know, he came to the studio; he came for half an hour to the studio, and the picture you’re referring to, when he just took a swing—I love that image.
Howie Stier: Now, there’s a line in the movie “Raging Bull” where De Niro, as Jake LaMotta, says to Sugar Ray Robinson: “You never got me down, Ray, you hear me? You never got me down.” And he of course is referring to the fight that he threw. And Jake LaMotta ended up facing a congressional hearing for that. Does he—does he talk about this, when you were in the studio with him?
Holger Keifel: No, no. He just came in, and he left. He came in for half an hour, was very professional, and he left.
Howie Stier: Now, Holger, I’ll never forget the night I was at the home of newspaperman Jack Newfield, and I watched the infamous Holyfield-Tyson match, where Iron Mike bit off Holyfield’s ear. And that image is the cover of your book.Holger Keifel: He calls it his “30 million dollar,” you know, because apparently he got $30 million for the fight. You know, he wears it like a war scar, or a trophy. Mike Tyson, you know, like while you mention his name, I photographed—he was the last person I photographed. And actually, he’s a very, very nice guy. You know, at least now at this point in his life, he—I met him like three years ago, which was a bit different. But he was surrounded by a different kind of people, and now things are going very well for him.
Howie Stier: Your portrait of Mike Tyson—it’s surprising; it’s very different than the photos when he was known as Iron Mike. He looks distinguished; he looks very thoughtful. So he’s changed now?
Holger Keifel: We don’t know how long it’s going to last. But at this moment, he seems a very happy man. He called me a freak, but you know, I pushed him a little; I asked him if he would take the shirt off. And he said no, man, you know, I don’t want to do that. He’s—he’s getting, he’s in pretty good shape; not, of course, not in fighting shape. But, so I let that slide for a little bit, but then I asked him like a few minutes later, because I just wanted to have a different kind of photo of him; he said, man, you a freak or something? I told you already, I’m not taking my shirt off. But I don’t blame him for that, you know, and I told him, Mike, you know, I had to try. And he understood. It was all cool. I brought up “The Hangover,” and he was so proud of it. And you know, like, I photographed him last year in the spring, a good year ago, and then he said—so, but he was very happy about his little cameo in “The Hangover,” and being in “Hangover II” also. That’s nice, that’s nice, you know? It’s good when people, when things are going well for people, and he is very appreciative.
Howie Stier: Holger Keifel, thank you so much for putting out this wonderful book, and thank you for speaking to us today.
Holger Keifel: Thank you.
* * *Kasia Anderson:
I’m Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. And I’m speaking today with Sharon Smith. She is a budding eco-activist—pardon the pun—and author of “The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World.” How you doing today, Sharon?
Sharon Smith: I’m great. Thanks for having me.
Kasia Anderson: And I understand you took some time off your busy schedule at Yale to speak with us, yeah?
Sharon Smith: Yes, I just completed a final [Laughs], and here I am.
Kasia Anderson: With all your copious spare time, you’ve written a book. So can you set the stage for us about what, you know, what led to your writing this book and what your various causes and interests are as an activist?
Sharon Smith: Sure. I wrote this book, “The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World,” based on my experience working for more than 10 years with young people across the United States, on all sorts of issues—reforming the global finance sector; reforming the lobbying industry; reforming dirty fossil fuel-producing industries. And I was so struck by how much has happened in the past year because of the work of young people. And often that work is very invisible. So I wrote this book to both make those stories visible and also tell just the ordinary American how they can follow in the footsteps of these young folks who have so inspired me.
Kasia Anderson: Well, if they were invisible, how did you find them?
Sharon Smith: Well, I had the great pleasure of working with Earth Island Institute and the Brower Youth Awards. So we offered a prize to six young people every year across North America for exceptional leadership, and I was able to read hundreds and hundreds of stories of young people who were doing this work in their communities. It was a challenge every year to just select six folks, but that was the inspiration for writing this book, to be able to take these lessons to a much wider audience.
Kasia Anderson: Now, just something that’s of personal interest to me—and I’m getting a little meta on you here—is, what is it that you see that young, this young crop of activists are doing, that’s maybe new in the way of protest or activist, you know…what are they doing that we haven’t seen before?
Sharon Smith: I don’t know if it’s so much what people are doing that’s new, as the scale of what people are doing. So to give some context, 10 years ago when I was getting started in the environmental movement, I went to a conference that at the time was the largest-ever youth environmental conference, and—it’s called Eco-Conference—brought together a thousand people. And that blew my mind a decade ago. Well, four years ago—excuse me, two years ago, and then again two weeks ago—I went down to D.C. for Power Shift, which now is the nation’s largest climate-change gathering, and it’s all young folks from across North America. And more than 10,000 young folks gathered together. So I think what we’re seeing is the scale, and the amount of folks who are doing the same types of organizing tactics—it’s protest, it’s writing to legislators, it’s pushing for legislation, it’s changing things on their own school campuses and in their communities—but it’s just happening on a scale that we’ve never seen before.
Kasia Anderson: And what do you think, if anything, that the Internet is adding to this mix that’s indispensable? Is it just that the young activists are, you know, very good at multitasking online, or are they doing, you know, are they reaching out through various channels online to organize and to get their message out?
Sharon Smith: Well, that’s definitely a huge part of the success. And I’ll tell a story from a young man, Alec Loorz. He was trained by Gore to give presentations focused on climate change, and in fact he started doing that when he was very young, about 14 years old. And he is using the Internet to coordinate a series of marches and events across the nation this very Sunday, on Mother’s Day, called the iMatter Marches. And he’s done all of that work from California using technology and these tools—the same tools that folks who started 350.org. It was a group of students from Middlebury who were graduating, deciding how do we make an impact on the world, and wanted to work in climate change—didn’t want to rally thousands of people to get in their cars or fly to D.C. and spew a bunch of carbon. So they used the Internet to coordinate a decentralized day of action, where everyone had the same message and visual materials that they could upload photos of, and send to Congress with the same unified message. But what they were able to do with 1,200 decentralized actions all across the nation, which then bloomed into 7,800 actions across the world in their latest day of action. So I mean, I really think the tools that young people are using to decentralize this, we don’t have to all gather together in one space to press for change, particularly on federal or international levels; we can do it from our community with the people we know and love, but do it as part of something bigger than ourselves.
Kasia Anderson: And ah, your book—which is, once again, called “The Young Activist’s Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World”—not at all ambitious [Laughs]—contains, it says, more than 30 inspiring stories about young people and their various causes. What is it that got these people interested in their particular causes? Was it something that hit close to home in most cases, or…you know, there’s so much clamoring for their attention through media and, you know…that, what was it that kind of sparked their interest to becoming proto-activists?
Sharon Smith: You know, it’s so different for every single person. I know folks in the book—for example, someone actually developed cancer and used his experience of healing himself to start exploring toxins in the environment, and started working on a project called Grow Food, connecting young people with organic farming opportunities. I know another woman who was working and really frustrated by the lack of access to green space, and…places in the outdoors for folks in her community in the Bay Area, and started organizing around that. You know, it’s—some people are touched by something that’s very personal, or very local, or impacts their health or the health of a family member, and other folks sometimes travel on a spring break trip and go to Appalachia and see what’s happening, and get inspired by something halfway across the nation. So it’s just such a mix of things, but that’s really the focus of the first chapter: How do you identify the one issue—when there’s so much that needs to be changed in this world—how do you find the one issue where you can make the biggest difference.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 BuildAGreenMovement.org, 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…
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.
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 Truthdig.com. Thank you so much.’TIS THE REASON…
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