An Interview with Noam Chomsky on Criminal Justice and Human Rights
On February 5, 2014, Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright interviewed Noam Chomsky, 85, at his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. Professor Chomsky is the foremost dissident intellectual in the United States, and for decades has been a prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy, human rights abuses, imperialism and the media’s facilitation of same. He is also one of the world’s eminent linguists and has been a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955. He was arrested and jailed for anti-war activism in the 1960s.
The author of dozens of books on politics, media analysis, foreign policy and other issues, Professor Chomsky was also one of PLN’s earliest subscribers and has corresponded with Paul on various topics since the early 1990s. However, in his books, essays and interviews, Professor Chomsky has rarely addressed human rights abuses in the United States with respect to policing and prisons – until now.
While Professor Chomsky agreed to be interviewed by PLN, scheduling was difficult due to his extensive travel and speaking schedule. It turned out that the day of the interview was also the day a massive snowstorm hit Boston, and he did not come into work. He graciously agreed to conduct the interview at his home, and Paul and PLN advertising director Susan Schwartzkopf made an adventurous cab ride through the snowstorm to his house.
We extend our thanks to Professor Chomsky for this interview and to his assistant, Beverly Stohl, for making the necessary arrangements.
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PAUL WRIGHT: I think one of the things that’s interesting is I’ve been reading your work since I was in high school, and I would say that for at least 30 years now, 30-plus years, I’ve been reading your work and all the interviews that you’ve done, and very few people ever ask you about domestic issues.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Really?
PW: Yes. About domestic stuff, in terms of ... you know, they ask you about human rights in other countries, but not about human rights in this country. I think you did one interview in the mid-90s which we reprinted in Prison Legal News.
NC: There are many. I don’t know what happens to them. There are so many, I can’t keep track. There’s several a day.
PW: Okay. My first question, Professor Chomsky, is the United States talks about human rights abroad but not domestically. Why is that? Why aren’t Americans deemed to have human rights while people overseas are?
NC: Well, first of all, it’s not true that people overseas are. We talk about human rights in enemy states, but we don’t talk about them in our own client states. So, for example, compare, say, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Eastern Europe was Soviet domain in the post-Stalin, post-Second World War period, up until 1990. Eastern Europe was dominated by the Soviet Union. And there’s an enormous amount of discussion about human rights in Eastern Europe. Human Rights Watch, the organization, pretty much grew out of Helsinki Watch, which was concerned specifically with Eastern Europe.
Well, what about the U.S. domains during the same period? Say, roughly 1960 to 1990? You take a look at the scholarly literature, it’s quite straight. Human rights in the U.S. domains of Latin America were under vastly greater attack than in Eastern Europe. It’s true whether you look at the murders, torture, incarceration, slaughters the U.S. was carrying out, including a major war against the Church. The story after Vatican II, really, there were lots of religious martyrs.
So in 1989, the Berlin Wall falls. A lot of, you know, justified excitement; there’s liberation in Eastern Europe. And what happens in Central America at that time? Well, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, a Salvadoran brigade, the Atlacatl Brigade, U.S.-trained, U.S.-armed, fresh from renewed training at the John F. Kennedy School of Counter-Insurgency Warfare, under the orders of the high command, broke into the university and murdered six leading Jesuit intellectuals, leading Latin American intellectuals. Anything like that happen in Eastern Europe? I mean, people were, you know, Václav Havel was in prison, but he didn’t have his head blown off. And this is the record all the way through. Is it discussed? No.
PW: And I think it’s interesting that you use the example of Eastern Europe because we can note that since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries, I think it’s no coincidence that we now learn that Eastern European countries, like Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere, are leading rendition states for the United States to set up its secret torture prisons where people can be kidnapped and tortured with impunity, which, arguably, did not happen under the Soviet Union.
NC: That’s very interesting, in fact, because there was a study by the Open Society Forum of countries that had been involved in the U.S. rendition programs, and these, as you say, are kind of at the extreme end of commitment to torture. Taking suspects and sending them to countries like Syria or Egypt or Libya, where you know they’re going to be tortured. Who participated? Well, of course, European countries mostly participated. The former Eastern European domains and Soviet Union did. The Middle East, of course, participated. That’s where they were sending them to be tortured. One region of the world didn’t participate.
PW: Latin America.
NC: Latin America. What happened is in the past 10 years, roughly 10-15 years, Latin America has pretty much extricated itself from U.S. domination. Not entirely, but substantially. This is a dramatic example of it. It’s kind of doubly interesting because during the period when Latin America was pretty much controlled by the United States, it was one of the world centers of torture. And now that it’s somewhat, pretty much liberated itself, it didn’t participate in the massive U.S. torture programs. And actually it shows up in other ways, too.
The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America [recently] published a report on poverty reduction in Latin America. I don’t think it was reported here. But it’s striking. What it basically shows is the usual. The more countries that were free of U.S. control, free to carry out reforms, the more they carried out extensive poverty reduction. So Venezuela, Brazil, other countries had a very sharp reduction in poverty. You get closer to home, say, Guatemala and Honduras, poverty remains extreme. Now the interesting case is Mexico. A rich country, relatively speaking, under the NAFTA umbrella, and practically the only country where poverty substantially increased last year.
These are very systematic properties. But are they discussed? No. So it’s not just human rights in the United States that aren’t discussed, it’s in U.S. domains even when it is really dramatic. Like, for example, Central America.
As you know, the huge increase in incarceration in the United States was mostly since around 1980, and during those years Central America was subjected to really massive atrocities, all backed by the United States or carried out by the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. All kinds of torture. The murder atrocities. I mentioned one case, but it’s vastly greater. Now you take a look at, say, immigration today; there’s a big immigration problem in the United States. So, for example, people are coming to the United States illegally, undocumented aliens from the Mayan highlands in Guatemala. Why? Because they were practically wiped out in the early ‘80s by a really genocidal attack backed by President Reagan, who assured us that the general in charge was a nice guy committed to democracy and so on. So now the people in the areas that we helped destroy are fleeing for refuge to the United States, and President Obama has sent back [deported] two million, not just from there but from other places. None of this gets discussed except kind of at the margins.
PW: One of the things, too, is what I think of as a discussion of human rights and slaughters, and I think one of the things that’s interesting with Guantanamo seems to be almost a quantitative departure. For over 60 years the United States ran a very successful counter-insurgency program around the world which consisted of kidnapping people, torturing whatever information they had out of them, murdering them and disappearing the bodies. They did this very successfully in the Philippines and Central America, as you know, with less success in Southeast Asia.
NC: Oh, there was plenty of success in Southeast Asia. Tiger cages in South Vietnam were major torture chambers.
PW: Sure. Exactly. But at some point, one of the things I find interesting is that with Guantanamo they’ve publicly acknowledged capturing people, though not always, hence the secret rendition prisons. But at least in Guantanamo they’re publicly acknowledging that they’ve kidnapped people. They’ve pretty much publicly acknowledged that they tortured them extensively. And continue to torture them. But they aren’t killing them and dumping the bodies, as they did for decades before that. Do you have any idea why that changed?
NC: Well, there is a difference. Some of the major scholarly work done on torture is done by Alfred McCoy, a historian.
PW: Yes. We’ve published his work.
NC: He’s pointed out that there is a difference. The U.S. used to delegate torture to subsidiaries. It was sometimes carried out by U.S. operatives, but usually it was kind of delegated. The last couple of years it’s been carried out by the U.S. It’s pretty much the same thing, as you say, but there’s a difference in direct participation. And in fact, he also points out that you could make a case that George Bush’s resort to extensive torture is not illegal by U.S. law.
PW: No. It isn’t.
NC: The U.S. never really signed or ratified the torture convention. There is a U.N. torture convention which the U.S. technically ratified, but after rewriting it to exclude the methods that are used by the CIA.
PW: Actually, the second question I was going to ask you was that the U.S. routinely signs international treaties on issues like torture and prisoners’ rights. Then it holds there’s no private causes of action for them and, of course, as you’re noting right now, it doesn’t fully ratify them or creates critical exemptions that prevent enforcement. So my question is, why sign them?
NC: Well, there are two steps. Signing and ratifying. Ratifying is what counts, otherwise nothing happens. But the U.S. has ratified very few international conventions. I mean, even ones like the rights of a child and things like that; I think the U.S. and Somalia are the only countries that didn’t ratify it. And in the very rare cases where the U.S. ratifies a convention, there’s a reservation attached. It’s called “non self-executing,” which means, “inapplicable to the United States.” So, for example, the U.S. did finally sign the genocide convention after 40 years, but with a condition: “not applicable to the United States.”
That’s actually been upheld by the World Court. Because under the Court rules, a country can be prosecuted only if it’s accepted the jurisdiction of the Court. When Yugoslavia brought a case against NATO after the bombing in 1999, the United States withdrew from the case. And the Court accepted that because one of the charges was genocide and the U.S. is not susceptible to charges of genocide.
And this runs right through the record. In fact, even in 1946, when the U.S. pretty much led the establishment of the International Court of Justice, the World Court, it added a condition that the U.S. is not subject to any charges under international treaties such as the OAS Charter and the U.N. Charter. And the foundation of the U.N. Charter, of course, bars threats or use of force in international affairs. But the U.S. is not susceptible to that rule. And, in fact, that’s kind of tacitly understood. So, for example, President Obama, high officials and others are constantly threatening force against Iran. That’s what it means to say “All options are open.”
PW: Sure. And every other country in the world, too.
NC: Well, they can do what they want, but if the U.S. were brought to the Court under that charge, they would appeal that it’s not applicable. And, in fact, that was done. Nicaragua brought the United States to the World Court.
PW: For the mining of its harbors.
NC: Well, that was what the final charge was, because the main charges were thrown out by the World Court since they were charges of violations of the Organization of American States treaty against intervention. But the Court pointed out you can’t charge [under the OAS treaty]. The U.S. is free from that.
PW: And, obviously, I think for Prison Legal News readers sitting in prison the idea that you’re only susceptible to a criminal court’s jurisdiction if you agree to it sounds like a pretty good deal.
NC: A pretty good deal. But, of course, if we go back to Guantanamo, the torture at Guantanamo was horrible. But it’s kind of standard in American prisons.
PW: Actually, it is. When Abu Ghraib first happened, one of the things I’ve noticed over the many years of publishing Prison Legal News is that human rights abuses that occur overseas will get a lot of American media attention. But when the same abuse occurs in American prisons, being done by American officials to Americans, it gets very little attention or is largely ignored.
NC: It gets nothing. Take isolation. The U.N. and other authorities consider that torture. And, in fact, as is known, a short amount of [solitary confinement] drives people completely crazy.
PW: And we’ve done this for several hundred years.
NC: Yes. But that’s standard in America, in American prisons. Almost total isolation for prisoners if they want to, and other treatment, too. There’s a general principle that if we carry out a crime, it doesn’t happen.
PW: Or it’s not a crime.
NC: Either it’s not a crime, or it doesn’t happen. It literally doesn’t happen. And that’s true of the media. It’s largely true of scholarship.
PW: Do you believe that Americans have fewer or more rights vis-à-vis state power than the citizens of other industrialized countries?
NC: We do, in fact. It’s an unusually free country. Despite all of these crimes, which are real, it is nevertheless quite a free country for people who are relatively privileged. Not if you’re a black kid in the slums of Boston. But if you’re, say, living where we’re talking now, you’ve got lots of rights. In many respects, more so than other countries. For example, freedom of speech, which is after all a crucial right, is protected in the United States to an extent beyond maybe any other country. Certainly other western countries.
PW: I find it ironic that you say that because our organization is involved right now, for example, ... we’re going to trial in Georgia to protect our right to send prisoners letters where the jail bans all books and magazines. They only allow prisoners to send and receive postcards. And it’s ironic in the age of the Internet, we’re defending a 15th century means of communication.
NC: Yes, well, life is complex. Both things are true. The U.S. has set formally high standards for protection of freedom of speech, and they are pretty well implemented to the extent that you have a degree of privilege. Prisoners in Georgia are down at the opposite end. They don’t gain the rights.
PW: Okay. The past 40 years have seen a massive increase in the U.S. prison population. The U.S. now imprisons more people than any other country in the world ever has, even including, you know, the Soviet Union at the height of the collectivization in the 1930s, even Nazi Germany. In your view, what has led to the rise of mass imprisonment in the United States?
NC: Primarily the drug war. Ronald Reagan, who was an extreme racist, barely concealed it under his administration. There had been a drug war but it was reconstituted and restructured so it became basically a race war. Take a look at the procedures of the drug war beginning from police actions. Who do you arrest? All the way through the prison system, the sentencing system, even to the post-release system.
And, here, Clinton was involved. Taking away rights of former prisoners, say, to live in public housing and so on. The lack of any kind of rehabilitation. The impossibility of getting back into your own community, into a job, essentially it demands recidivism. So there’s a system in place, mostly directed against black males – although by now it’s also African-American women, Hispanics and so on – but it’s overwhelmingly been black males, which essentially criminalizes black life. And it has led to a huge increase in incarceration and essentially no way out. It started with the Reagan years and goes on right up to the present.
PW: And what do you think is the basis for that?
NC: Well, it’s kind of striking. First of all, it has a historical parallel which is worth thinking about. After the Civil War there were Constitutional amendments that freed slaves. And there was a brief period, roughly ten years, in which freed slaves had formal rights.
PW: Right, Reconstruction.
NC: The Reconstruction period. And it was not insignificant, like you had black legislators and so on. After the Reconstruction period, roughly a decade, there was a north-south compact which effectively permitted the former slave states to do essentially what they liked, and what they did was they criminalized black life. So, for example, if a black man was standing on a corner he could be accused of vagrancy and charged some fee which he couldn’t pay, so he went to jail. If he was looking at a white woman the wrong way, somebody claimed attempted rape, you know. A bigger fine. Pretty soon they had a very large part of the black population – black male, mainly – in jail. And they became a slave labor force.
A large part of the American Industrial Revolution was based on slave labor in the post-Civil War period. And for U.S. steel and mining corporations and others, it was a wonderful labor force. I mean, much better than slavery. Slavery is a capital investment; you’ve got to keep your slave alive. [But] you can pick them up from the state system for nothing. They’re docile. They’re obedient. They can’t unionize. They can’t ask for anything. I mean, we’re familiar with the chain gangs, but that’s only the agricultural aspect of it. There was also an industrial aspect. This went on almost until the Second World War when there was a demand for free labor for the war industry. And we’re essentially reconstituting it.
PW: Well, we’ve reported extensively on prison slavery in both the former, the older types as well as the modern ones. Prison Legal News has broken some of the major stories on that, but I think one of the bigger impacts now isn’t the prisoners working. It’s not the 5,000 prisoners working for private corporations or the 60,000 working for prison industries. It’s the 2.3 million who aren’t working at all. That’s the impact on labor markets.
NC: Yes. But that’s the difference between now and the latter part of the 19th century. The latter part of the 19th century was a period of the Industrial Revolution. Now it’s quite different. It’s industrial anti-revolution.
PW: Or devolution.
NC: In fact, what’s really happening is this is a superfluous population. A lot of the working class is basically superfluous at a time when multi-national corporations can shift their production operations to northern Mexico or Vietnam or somewhere. And the black population has never escaped the effects of slavery; I mean, the first slaves came to the United States in the early 17th century. By 1620, there were slaves. And the effect of slavery has never been overcome, in all sorts of ways, so the most superfluous population is the black male population. Fine. So we stick them in prison. Get rid of them.
PW: One of the things, too, as you say this, there’s obviously a number of black, racial minority political organizations in this country, and for the most part they’ve all been pretty silent about criminal justice policies over the past 40 years. If you look at a lot of the major organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, folks like that, they’ve been pretty silent on criminal justice issues, and today we have President Obama, who obviously is black. So is our Attorney General. And, you know, while the Attorney General has made some noises on criminal justice issues, if you look at actual practices, nothing’s really changed. So to an extent it seems that the political black community has largely been silent or supportive of mass incarceration.
NC: Well, yes. They have their own reasons. But there has been progress in civil rights which for the more privileged sector of the black community has meant more rights. And while I don’t like to criticize them – as I said, they have their own reasons – I can see why they might want to try to expand the range of rights that they’ve achieved and not take on issues that would be unacceptable to the ruling groups.
Take a look at what happened to Martin Luther King, for example. It was very striking. When you listen to the oratory on Martin Luther King Day, it typically ends with his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, in 1963. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to the north. He went on to northern racism, to class issues, urban problems in Chicago, then he was assassinated supporting a public workers’ strike. That part of his life has been kind of wiped out. In fact, he lost his northern liberal popularity at that point. As long as he was attacking racist sheriffs in Alabama it was acceptable. When he started talking about racist and class-based oppression in the north, that was beyond the limits.
After all, when he was killed he was on his way to organizing a party of the poor. Not of the blacks. Of the poor. And that’s beyond the pale when you do that. So, how much this kind of understanding resonates in the minds of black leadership I don’t know, but they can’t be oblivious to the phenomenon.
PW: And I guess one of the things, too, it’s not just the black leadership of civil organizations, but we pretty much have a bipartisan consensus on mass imprisonment. I think it’s like U.S. foreign policy, just like it has a bipartisan consensus. And we can see that over the past 40 years, to use your slavery analogy, looking back to recent modern history of 1980 or so, no one law at a time but thousands of laws every year around the country have led to mass imprisonment. There’s never been one sweeping law, for example. But within mainstream political parties there’s been no opposition to mass incarceration, whether it’s mandatory minimums, draconian prison conditions or whatever. And why is there, for lack of a better term, mass consensus within the political elite and within the legislative bodies of this country on mass imprisonment?
NC: We’re talking about a period of kind of a major neoliberal assault on the population which had all kinds of effects. One of them is that both political parties drifted to the right. There used to be a quip that the United States is a one-party state, the business party, which has two factions, the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s not really true anymore. It’s still a one-party state, the business party. But it has only one faction, and it’s not Democrats. It’s moderate Republicans. The contemporary Democrats are what used to be called moderate Republicans.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has just drifted off the spectrum. The distinguished political conservative analyst, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, speaking from the right, describes the contemporary Republican Party as just what he calls a radical insurgency which has abandoned any commitment to functioning as a parliamentary party. It’s just dedicated to extreme wealth and power. Period. And it’s had to kind of mobilize popular forces of the kind that hadn’t been politically mobilized much in the past, which is why you see what you do. But as both parties drifted to the right, yes, you get the consensus on rightwing policies. As I mentioned, Clinton’s policies just made the incarceration system even harsher.
PW: Well, Clinton remains, I think, the worst thing that’s happened to American prisoners not just in living memory but in American history. The laws that he passed, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act among them. The elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners to get an education in prison. And, you know, again, it’s all happened with bipartisan consensus.
NC: I wouldn’t call it bipartisan because we’ve lost the concept of [two parties]. There was a narrow spectrum of bipartisan division under the framework of the business party, and that’s pretty much gone. The only question is, how rightwing are you? And somebody like Richard Nixon would be regarded as a liberal today.
PW: You know, he had some pretty good ideas, like the Environmental Protection Agency. I wouldn’t see that passing today.
NC: In fact, they’re attacking it now. The earned income tax credit, OSHA, you know. Nixon’s reforms would be considered way off the spectrum now.
PW: In your view, what’s the Obama administration’s track record on domestic human rights issues?
NC: Well, I never frankly expected much of Obama.
PW: Neither did I.
NC: I wrote about him before the primaries even, in 2008, just using his own web page. But there was one thing that surprised me, and that’s his attack on civil liberties. I don’t understand it. It’s gone way beyond anything I expected, and I don’t even think he gets any political gain from it. I just don’t understand what’s driving it.
PW: Well, he did campaign as being a better technocratic manager.
NC: Yes, but why the attack on civil liberties? I mean, some of these attacks aren’t even discussed much.
PW: Well, I think if you look at the rise of militarized policing, and that in this country the ruling class is fully geared up for a full-blown counter-insurgency. They barely have protests, much less resistance. It seems like they’re just not taking any chances.
NC: That I can understand. But take something like one of the most extreme attacks, which barely gets discussed – the Humanitarian Law Project case. Here’s a case where the Obama administration brought it to the courts, went up to the Supreme Court. They won. And what it does is expand the concept of material assistance to terrorism. Like if you’re on the terrorist list and I give you a gun, so, okay, I’m complicit. The Obama administration expanded that to advice. To talk. The case in question [involved] a group that was giving legal advice to some group that’s on the terrorist list, but the colloquy in the court extends it way beyond that.... That’s a tremendous attack on civil liberties.
PW: And the right to free speech or the notion of....
NC: Of free speech. Yes. But it’s barely even discussed. Incidentally, the whole concept of the terrorist list is a scandal which should never be accepted. The terrorist list is by executive order. No recourse.
PW: And no due process right as to how you get on or how you get off.
NC: Nothing. If you look at the record, it’s appalling. Like, for example, Nelson Mandela was on it until a couple of years ago. And Saddam Hussein was taken off it because Reagan wanted to support him during the Iraq invasion of Iran.
PW: One of the things you’ve written extensively about is the impunity of American client state torturers in other countries, specifically like in East Timor and Indonesia and Central America. And yet here in the United States human rights abusers such as policemen kill unarmed, innocent civilians. In Prison Legal News, we report routinely in every issue of our magazine about prisoners who are just outright murdered, directly through use of excessive force by prison and jail staff, as well as much more commonly through medical neglect, through the withholding of adequate medical care. And yet the government officials who do this enjoy virtual impunity. Occasionally there are a few criminal prosecutions. There are civil suits, but government officials have a broad range of immunities. And, again, those only seek money damages and, statistically, are not very successful. So in your view, what accounts for this virtual impunity for American and domestic human rights abusers?
NC: In part, impunity is automatic if it’s not discussed. It’s barely even discussed. Who talks about it?
PW: No one. Well, Prison Legal News does, but....
NC: Yes, I know, but anywhere near the mainstream there’s just no discussion of it. The number of people in the country who even know about it outside the prisoners’ families is very slight. And if things are not even a topic of discussion, sure, there’s going to be impunity. And all of this reflects the fact that it’s simply accepted in the elite culture.
We want to protect ourselves – privileged white people. What happens to the rest, this is not our business. You know, Guantanamo itself is pretty remarkable. So, for example, the first case that came up under Obama was the Omar Khadr case. He was kidnapped in Afghanistan. He happened to be a Canadian citizen, [and] was a 15-year-old kid who was in a village which was attacked by American troops.
PW: And, also, it was interesting since when are soldiers on the battlefield deemed to be war criminals when defending themselves on the battlefield?
NC: This is a 15-year-old child. Foreign soldiers are attacking his village. And he’s accused of defending it. So he was taken, he was kidnapped. He was put in Bagram, which is worse than Guantanamo, I think, for several years. Then he was moved to Guantanamo. More torture. Finally, he came to trial where he was given a choice. Of course, his lawyers have to make the choice. The choice was, plead innocent and you’ll stay in Guantanamo forever, or worse. Or plead guilty and you’ll only have to stay for eight more years. And it was public. Did you see any outcry about it? I mean, the very idea of kidnapping a child for the crime of defending his village from aggression, it’s so scandalous you don’t know what to say about it.
PW: Well, we follow Guantanamo fairly closely, and one of the things I think is interesting now is that as soon as the prisoners start talking about being tortured or how they’ve been tortured, the judges immediately cut off the sound system. And so they can’t even talk about the torture they’ve endured, so it’s not even ... you know, we’ve got multiple layers of impunity.
NC: It goes beyond that. So, for example, there’s one Australian citizen, David Hicks, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan, sold by bounty hunters to the American army. He was held in prison for years in Afghanistan, Bagram and other prisons, and finally Guantanamo. Horrible prison story. Finally, after a lot of negotiations, the Australian government began to intervene slightly. They hadn’t done much. And he was released.
He wrote a book about it – a detailed book describing his years of torture, humiliation, how it worked in Afghanistan, what it was like in Guantanamo. Did you read a review of it? It’s more than the judges cutting off testimony. It’s when material is published in our open, free society, it is deep-sixed. This is not the only case by any means.
PW: This is in the context, as you’re mentioning atrocities that are occurring today, that if you look at The New York Times, for example, books that are being published, I was recently reading a review not too long ago, by, I think, Applebaum, about human rights violations under Stalin. And it’s like, okay, so The New York Times is still mulling over human rights violations that happened 70 years ago in the Soviet Union, but nary a word or very little about what’s actually occurring today by the American government.
NC: And again, I think maybe one of the most striking cases is just the comparison of post-Stalin Eastern Europe with U.S. domains in the same period, like Central America or South America. It’s almost not discussed. I mean, some of the things that happened are kind of mind-boggling. Like, for example, right after the murder of the Jesuit intellectuals, something which never happened in Eastern Europe post-Stalin....
PW: Even under Stalin, I don’t think they were....
NC: Well, not that way. I mean, there were plenty of purges and monstrosities.
PW: They weren’t doing it openly.
NC: Yes, but remember, this is under the orders of the high command, very close to the American Embassy. The troops had just returned from further training in the United States and they carried out this atrocity. Okay. A couple of days after that, there was a visit to the United States by Václav Havel, a Czech dissident who suffered under....
PW: And became president.
NC: Yes. And he addressed a joint session of Congress, and he received massive applause, standing ovations when he praised the United States as the defender of freedom – the defender of freedom that was just responsible for the slaughter of half a dozen of his counterparts in Central America. You take a look at the press after that; the liberal press was just swooning with admiration. Why can’t we have wonderful intellectuals like this who praise us for being defenders of freedom, and we’ve just carried out huge atrocities? Anthony Lewis wrote about how we’re in a romantic age, you know, and there’s no comment on this. It just passes as if it’s normal.
I mean, it’s happening right at this moment. Take the crimes going on in Iraq, especially in Fallujah. In Fallujah, there’s an insurgent force being attacked by the Iraqi army. There are many laments here in the press about “the pain we suffer after American boys fought to liberate Fallujah. Look what’s happening.” How did American boys fight to liberate Fallujah? It’s one of the major war crimes of the 21st century. You take a look at the record, even as it was just reported in the press.
PW: Yes. They flattened the city.
NC: They surrounded the city. They cut off food. They allowed people to escape but kept the male population inside, and then they went in and mostly slaughtered them. We don’t know how many because we don’t count our crimes.
PW: And the U.S. has been doing that since at least the 1850s.
NC: Well, you know, but now we suffer pain because the American boys fought to liberate it. I mean, there’s no comment on this. And, in fact, people here don’t know what happened. Or in England, incidentally. There was just a poll in England recently, people were asked how many Iraqis they thought had died during the war. The mean answer was 10,000.
PW: If you ask them how many Jews died in the Holocaust, everyone knows those numbers.
NC: Yes, I mean, that’s like you know probably 5% of the number. There were some efforts to get the British press to publish something about it. Most were rejected.
PW: Let me ask you this while we’re on the subject of people dying. Why are the U.S. and Japan the only industrialized countries that judicially execute their own citizens through use of the death penalty? And notice I didn’t say “kill” because we’re going to leave out the extra-judicial murders and death squads which most governments engage in when they’re threatened.
NC: That’s true that most countries have abandoned the death penalty.
NC: The United States is different, sometimes in interesting ways. I happened to be in Norway a couple of times last year. I was there fortuitously, you remember the Anders Breivik massacre?
NC: So I was there just at the time when he was captured and identified. And then I was there again at the time when he was sentenced. And it was very interesting to see just the attitudes of the population. The question of the death penalty never arose. He was treated as a human being who had carried out a horrible crime, but he’s a human being. At the court proceedings he was permitted to rave and rant on as long as he wanted. The sentence finally was, I think, 21 years.
PW: Which was the maximum allowed under Norwegian law.
NC: Which was the maximum, with the possibility of rehabilitation. The circumstances of his imprisonment would seem like a luxury hotel by U.S. standards. And this was accepted, you know? It wasn’t bitterly denounced. The attitude was, well, yes, we have to treat people humanely even when they’ve carried out a shocking massacre. He killed, I think, what, 70 children? Can you imagine what would have happened here?
PW: I don’t know. It’s interesting because I was imprisoned in Washington State, and you have Gary Ridgway who ultimately pleaded guilty to kidnapping, raping and murdering, I think it was 51 women, mostly prostitutes, and ultimately he was sentenced to life without parole. And yet at the same time you have people in Washington State, which has the three-strikes law, on their third offense they’re sticking their finger in their pocket, pretending it’s a gun and robbing an espresso stand. And they get life without parole. So you can say that the equivalency of the punishment for sticking your finger in your pocket and pretending it’s a gun to rob someone is the same whether you’re doing that or if you’re killing 51 people.
NC: Well, as soon as you have any contact with the prison system, what you discover is appalling. I don’t have to tell you. For example, in one of the demonstrations in the early ‘60s in the south, I was with Howard Zinn. We went to Jackson, Mississippi for a demonstration and at one point we were able to get the police chief to take us through the Jackson prison, which, I should say, by the standards of northern prisons, wasn’t too bad. I’ve been in worse ones. Just, you know, under civil disobedience arrests.
But as we were walking through the halls, of course they were all black men, you know, a child tapped on the bars. He was in the prison and he asked me if he could have a drink of water. So I asked the police chief, “Can I get him a drink of water?” He said, “Okay.” When we got back to his office, I asked did he know why that child was in the jail? So he asked some secretary who looked it up, and it turned out that the child had been found in the streets and they didn’t know who he was, and they had nothing special to do with him, so they put him in jail.... How much of this goes on?
PW: Actually, it still goes on. Prison Legal News has reported cases of mentally ill children in Florida who, for lack of any place to care for them, they wind up in the prison system.
NC: This kid wasn’t even mentally ill. They just didn’t know what happened. Maybe he got lost, or whatever it might have been. If it had been a white kid, he wouldn’t have been put in jail.
PW: Yes. And I think that one of the things we’ve seen increasingly in the last 30 years – it goes back to what you talk about as a system of class and race control – is that the solution for everything in this country domestically seems to be prison. We may not have public housing for the poor, but we’ve got prisons. I think it goes back to Governor Cuomo using HUD funds for low-income housing to build prisons, which, in a grotesque way, is low-income housing.
NC: Unfortunately true. A lot of it. And the racism is really severe and can’t be overlooked. The whole record of white supremacy in the United States is beyond anything that was known.
PW: Well, one of the things that I find interesting is that Prison Legal News has sued a number of jails around the country, and when you go to jurisdictions like the District of Columbia, Atlanta and places like Birmingham, we find that the prisoners are still mostly black but the elected officials, the sheriffs, the prosecutors, the mayors, the judges, huge portions of the police force and most of the guards, they’re all black too, and the conditions are as bad if not worse than they were under Bull Connor, their white counterparts, 40 or 50 years ago.
NC: That’s pretty common. If you go to South Africa, remember, the worst crimes were carried out by black forces mobilized by the white government. It’s the way coercive systems operate.
PW: So, basically, what’s more important is who’s doing it rather than the color of who’s doing it.
NC: There are all kinds of reasons why people, individuals do what they do, but it’s very standard to co-opt oppressed people to carry out crimes and atrocities for the government. I mean, take, say, England and India. Some of the worst crimes were carried out by Indian troops, Indian Sikh police. In fact, England sent them all over the world to impose imperial rule.
PW: One of the things you’ve talked about is race, and yet we’ve got two-and-a-half million people in prison and even when we talk about race, no one is claiming that wealthy black people or Hispanics are being herded into prison in significant numbers. So what accounts for the virtual absence of the wealthy from the U.S. prison population?
NC: The virtual absence of....
PW: Of the wealthy from the prison population? That should be an easy question. Well, they’re rich.
NC: Do I even have to answer? I’ll give you an anecdote. We’re living in a pretty well-to-do suburb, right? You can see that when you walk around. Once we were away, the neighbors called and told us there was a broken window in the house. So we came back and took a look, and it turned out somebody had broken in. We called the local police and they came and the first thing they asked us was, “is there a pillowcase missing?” So we looked upstairs, and yes, there was a pillowcase missing. Then they said, “We want you to take a look in your medicine cabinet.” So we looked, and yes, somebody had rummaged through the cabinet. And they said, “Well, we know who’s doing this. This is teenage kids who live here, and they’re going sort of house to house, and if they find one that’s easy to break into, they’ll go in and see if they can get drugs.” They said, “We know who they are, and we could arrest them. But it’s no use. Their parents will have them out of jail tomorrow.” That’s a typical example.
Or, say, let’s go way high up. Last week there were news reports about the fact that Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, just had his salary almost doubled. Why? It was in gratitude because he had saved the bank directors from going to prison and they were only fined $20 billion for criminal activities. Well, $20 billion, first of all, a lot of it’s tax deductible and the rest is kind of a statistical error on their accounts. Now here’s a guy who was supervising criminal activities serious enough to cause a $20 billion fine. Is anybody in jail? What would have happened if this was a kid who robbed a store?
PW: Yes, that’s the joke. Rob the 7-11 for $20 and get 20 years. And, you know, rob other people of $20 billion and you get a raise.
NC: That’s class-based justice.
PW: Do you see the criminal justice system, police and prisons, as a tool of class war domestically?
NC: Class war and race war. It’s been very clearly, especially since Reagan; it’s very hard to see it as anything other than a kind of race war. There is kind of a reasonably close class-race correlation in the United States, to some extent you can’t....
PW: The racial minorities are disproportionately poor.
NC: Yes. But it goes beyond that. I mean, as I said, from police practices up till post-sentencing, it’s sharply racially discriminatory. But, you know, it’s a racist country since its origins. I mean, it’s even familiar in scholarship. There’s a major study of white supremacy by George Frederickson, a well-known historian. He basically compares South Africa and the United States, but it’s really a comparative study. His conclusion is there is nothing anywhere in South Africa or anywhere else to compare with the horror of white supremacy in the United States. Actually, it is so deeply ingrained that none of us even notice it. I mean, for example, take President Obama. He’s called a black president. In Latin America he wouldn’t be called a black president.
NC: He’d be called one of the various gradations of mixed race. But the United States still has kind of tacitly, not formally, the principle of one drop of black blood. That’s deep-seated racism.
PW: I have a black Cuban friend. We were in prison together, and he once told me that he didn’t know he was black until he came to the United States. He said in Cuba he was just Cuban. And then he comes here and....
NC: Or mulatto. There’s a whole bunch of gradations of mixed race, but here the racism is extreme. You can see it coming back to Reagan. So he opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. A tiny little town. Why pick that? Nobody knows anything about it except one thing. They murdered civil rights workers there. Did that affect the campaign?
PW: Yes. Arguably, that’s what led to him winning the Presidency.
NC: It leads to Obama calling him a great transformative figure, you know.
PW: My final question is at this point, after 40 years of mass incarceration with militarization of the police, we’ve had a massively expanding prison and jail system. We’ve seen some small dips in [prison population] numbers in the last year or two in the United States. It’s too soon to tell if that’s just a statistical anomaly.
NC: I don’t think it’s an anomaly. I think it’s just gotten to a point where it’s kind of economically unfeasible to maintain it.
PW: My question is, do you see any prospect of permanent change in U.S. prison and criminal justice policies and practices in the near future?
NC: Sure. I mean, if you went back 60 years, you couldn’t have predicted the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.... You couldn’t have predicted the women’s movement, which completely changed things for half the population. After all, if you go back to the early days of the Republic, under law, women were not persons. They were property. A woman was the property of her father, transferred to her husband.
And in fact it wasn’t until 1975 – not that long ago – that the Supreme Court recognized that women were peers. They had a legal right to serve on federal juries. Prior to that they weren’t peers. And that’s sort of the core of being a person under law. You couldn’t have predicted it. And you can’t predict what will happen in the future; it depends how people act. If they become organized, militant, active, the system of coercion is pretty fragile and I think it can crack very quickly.
PW: Do you know who Thomas Mathiesen is? The Norwegian criminologist?
PW: One of his quotes that I’ve always thought about, and this is in the context that I recall when the Soviet Union collapsed and I have a degree in Soviet history, is that no one predicted that one coming.
NC: One of the people who didn’t predict it was [former CIA director] Robert Gates, who was a Soviet specialist. He didn’t predict it even after it was happening.
PW: And, you know, Mathiesen’s comment is that systems of repression appear to be stable right up until the moment they collapse.
NC: That’s right.
PW: And so do you think that’s possible?
NC: This is a very fragile system here. I think it can crack very easily.
PW: Why do you say it’s fragile?
NC: Because there is very little coercive force behind it. By comparative standards, the state in the United States has quite limited capacity for violent repression. I mean, what happens is unacceptable, but again, by comparative standards it is not high.
PW: By comparative standards, are you referring to....
NC: Western countries.
PW: So you would say, for example, in England, that their police and military has more domestic repressive capacity?
NC: I think so. And, in fact, they have much harsher constraints on even things like freedom of speech.
PW: Yes. The libel laws are pretty outrageous.
NC: Horrifying. And how fragile it is, let’s take Norway again, which you mentioned. The famous Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie wrote a history of punishment.
PW: I’ve read it. It’s one of my favorite books.
NC: Right. And if you remember, in the early 19th century, Norway was outlandish.
PW: All the Scandinavian countries were.
NC: Horrifying, horrifying crimes. And now they’re remarkably humane. Things can change.
PW: Okay. Well, this is one of the few times we end anything on an optimistic note in Prison Legal News. Thank you very much.