Magna Carta: Then and now

Noam Chomsky
Denver, Colorado
7 May 2013

The Magna Carta is the foundational document of the legal system. It crucially asserted that law is sovereign, not the king. Today, the term rule of law is invoked by whoever is in the White House. But you have to wonder what do they mean? There is one set of rules for official enemies and another for Washington and its minions. Take the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. Iran is a signatory and is being subjected to collective punishment, i.e., a stringent sanctions regime as well as the threat of military attack. Both are illegal. But hey why bother with technicalities. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT, have nuclear weapons and Washington says nothing. Principles to have any validity must be applied uniformly. What does it mean when a president is above the law?

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Noam Chomsky, legendary MIT professor, practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Edward Said said of him, “Noam Chomsky is one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions; he goes against every assumption about American altruism and humanitarianism.” The New Statesman describes him as “the conscience of the American people.” He is the author of scores of books, including Hopes & Prospects, Occupy, How The World Works, and Power Systems with David Barsamian.

You can listen to Noam Chomsky speak for himself here.

Two years from now we’ll be reaching the 800th anniversary of a document of quite remarkable significance, the Magna Carta, extracted from King John by the barons in 1215. Unfortunately, we’re probably not going to be celebrating its achievements; we will more likely be mourning its demise. The Magna Carta has two parts. One part is or should be well known. It’s the Charter of Liberties, widely and justly recognized as the foundations of our highest principles of freedom and justice. The other part has long been forgotten, and it may be of even greater importance. I’ll come back to it later.

The Charter of Liberties provides the origins of the concept of presumption of innocence, of due process. Its most famous part is Article 39.

No free man shall be punished in any way, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him except by lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.

That’s 1215. It has a long history that enters in slightly different form into the U.S. Constitution, which says that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law and a speedy and public trial by peers”—the core of our concept of justice. It has restrictions.

The term person in the Constitution, of course, doesn’t mean persons. It does not include slaves, of course does not include Native Americans, it did not include women. Under the prevailing British common law of the day, women were not persons, they were property. A woman was the property of her father, handed over to her husband. In fact, it’s worth recalling that it was not until the 1970s that the Supreme Court granted women the right of actual persons, peers entitled to serve federal juries. Post-Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution repeats that guarantee but extends it beyond the limited concept of persons in the Constitution. Personhood was granted to freed slaves. In later years, and up till the present, the term person has been both extended and narrowed by the courts. It has been extended to include collectivist legal fictions that are established and maintained by state power and taxpayer subsidy, called corporations; and it’s been narrowed to explicitly exclude undocumented aliens. That goes right up to very recent court cases. So “person” still doesn’t mean person, unfortunately.

There has been progress over eight centuries—habeas corpus, other extensions, additions—but there has also been regression, particularly in very recent years. Regression is quite sharp under the Bush and Obama administrations. Under Bush, the state claimed and was granted the right to capture and torture suspects. Obama changed that. Now he claims and is granted the right to murder them. That’s a crucial change from Bush to Obama. The means for carrying this out are the secret executive army, JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, which is under much less supervision than the CIA and more lethal, but particularly the terror weapons that are now being used quite extensively in what is by far the leading, most prominent and widespread terrorist campaign in the world, the drone campaigns of assassination.

We should bear in mind that drones are not just guns that kill somebody; they’re weapons designed to terrorize. That’s kind of obvious. If you’re in Denver, let’s say, and never know when you’re walking down the streets whether suddenly a person standing in front of you will be blasted away by some device you can’t see up in the sky, along with whoever may be standing next to him and other people who happen to be in the way, that’s a weapon of terror. It’s designed and used to terrorize communities, regions, and in fact by now quite large regions. By now there are large regions of the world where anybody, at any moment can expect a sudden blow from the Grim Reaper in Washington, who, incidentally, is acclaimed here in his terrorist activities for administering justice to those who are suspected of maybe someday thinking about harming us, so therefore they have to be blown away. Or who happen to be standing by, as often happens. Or who are misidentified by poor intelligence. Or who happen to have made a bad choice of a father, should have chosen a responsible father.

That was explained by Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, when he was asked why the Grim Reapers had murdered 16-year-old Abdul Rahman Awlaki at a barbecue with his cousins. They went too. Why were they killed? When Abdul Rahman’s irresponsible father had been killed, murdered, in fact, two weeks earlier, along with the man sitting next to him, of course that was reported. The New York Times had a headline saying, “The West Celebrates a Cleric’s Death.” Actually, not death, but the murder of a cleric. There were a few eyebrows raised in that case, unlike others, because Awlaki and the man next to him and his 16-year-old son were American citizens, and they are supposed to fall under the category of persons, unlike non-citizens, who are what George Orwell called “unpersons” and therefore all fair game for assassination under our current moral code.

We know how this is carried out. For example, there was a long story in The New York Times by two military correspondents, probably a White House leak. It seems the White House is proud of it. What happens—I’m sure you’ve read that story—is that President Obama sits down every Tuesday morning with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, now head of the CIA, a former priest, so the two of them can read a chapter of St. Augustine together about just war, and then they run through the list, the “disposition matrix,” as it’s now called, and decide who we’re going to blow away today.

This is all celebrated. The reactions from the government are instructive. The Attorney General, Eric Holder, was asked whether he didn’t think that had violated due process in the case of American citizens. He said, No, they have due process, because we discuss it in the executive branch. King John in 1215 would have been delighted with that answer—one sign of how we’re progressing. Presumably they didn’t read another chapter of St. Augustine’s work, one that should be famous. St. Augustine relates a parable of how in the reign of Alexander the Great a pirate is captured. The pirate is brought to the emperor and Alexander angrily asks the pirate, “How dare you molest the seas?” And pirate responds, “How dare you molest the whole world? I have a small ship, so I am a pirate. You have a great navy, so you are an emperor.” Augustine says he found the pirate’s answer elegant and excellent. I doubt if that was read.

The elite reactions tell us a lot about what’s happening to this country, to us. Take Joe Klein, a liberal columnist. He was asked on MSNBC, which is supposedly the liberal channel, what his reaction was to the drone killings of four little girls in Yemen. He also gave an answer that was excellent and elegant. He said,

The bottom line in the end is whose 4-year-old gets killed. And what we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.

So it’s a good idea to kill 4-year-old kids somewhere in Yemen because maybe those who see that will realize that they’d better not think of harming us. Although chances are quite high that what they will actually think of is revenge and try to find a way, if they can, to harm us as much as they’re able to.

This, incidentally, is well understood by high officials, by experts on the topic, for example, Gregory Johnson. He’s a Princeton University specialist on Yemen. I’ll read his words.

The most enduring policy legacy of the past four years may well turn out to be an approach to counterterrorism that American officials call “the Yemen model.” It’s a mixture of drone strikes and special forces raids targeting people thought to be al-Qaeda leaders. Testimonies from al-Qaeda fighters and interviews that I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining al-Qaeda’s rapid growth here.

The United States is killing women, children, and members of key tribes. Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for al-Qaeda,

a Yemeni explained to him over tea. Another, he says, told CNN after a strike,

I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesman joined al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.

That’s an interesting illustration of the willful blindness about this.

In yesterday’s New York Times there is a lead story on the threat of what’s called “solo terrorism,” individuals who might decide to carry out acts of terror, like the Marathon bombings. They might emanate from Yemen. There are a lot of citations and learned commentary on what might be the various psychological disorders of the perpetrators of these acts. But there’s not a single word on why the Yemenis or Pakistanis or Somalis might want to harm the United States, though the answer is hardly obscure.

Also interesting is the attitude towards terror of the leading intellectual lights of the liberal establishment, for example, the highly regarded liberal commentator of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, also a Middle East specialist. He was interviewed in May 2003 by Charlie Rose. That’s the highbrow discussion program on PBS. We’re supposed to be impressed. He was asked by Rose what his recommendations were for the U.S. occupying Army in Iraq—this is the early months of the occupation—and he gave an answer that was also simple and elegant. I have to read it; I can’t paraphrase. Friedman says,

We needed to go over there basically, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world. What Muslims needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? You think this bubble of terrorism fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.”

In short, a severe dose of humiliation administered by American boys and girls will teach the terrified women and children whose houses they break into that they’d better stop terrorizing us. I’m keeping to the liberal extreme. You go to right, it gets a lot worse.

The same is true of policy. Take, for example, the Marathon bombings a couple weeks ago. Plenty of people in Boston were touched, even personally, by that tragic event. So, for example, in my case, a young police officer was murdered right outside my office, friends were at the finish line where bombs went off, others were under the militarization of neighborhoods where the second suspect was finally caught. That’s rare. It’s rare for privileged people like us to get a little sense of what others live with constantly. That’s not usual. So, for example, Yemen again. Two days after the Marathon bombing there was a drone strike in Yemen on a remote village. It killed the target. We know about it because there happened to be— usually we don’t know, but in this case there happened to be testimony in the Senate a couple of days later by a young Yemeni man who comes from the village.

His testimony is interesting. He said that for years the jihadis in Yemen have been trying to turn the village against the Americans to make them hate America, but they failed, because the only thing the villagers know about America is what I tell them from here. I’m a village boy who is lucky enough to be here, and I tell them good things about America. But, he said, the one drone strike accomplished what the jihadis had failed to do for years. So we generate some more “solo terrorists.” He also pointed out that the suspect in this case was well known in the village, could easily have been apprehended. But it’s kind of easier just to blow him away, whatever the consequences.

There are other cases like that, even more serious ones, like the murder of Osama bin Laden. And the term “murder” is correct. Bin Laden was a suspect. Eight centuries ago there used to be an understanding that there’s a concept of presumption of innocence. Suspects are supposed to be brought to a fair and speedy trial. In this case it wouldn’t have been very difficult. He was apprehended, defenseless, alone with his wife, by 79 highly trained members of the Joint Special Forces Command, Navy SEALS. They blew him away on orders and dumped his body into the ocean without autopsy. That’s also easily taken care of. In fact, there was some protest about it, some question, very little, but a little, and there was a response to it by another respected left liberal commentator, Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that

one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.

That means by us. So, he says, it’s “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the United States should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. Incidentally, he’s referring specifically to me, and I happily accept the guilt.

But let’s look a little bit beyond. How did they locate bin Laden? The technique that was used, this time by the CIA, was to start a fake vaccination campaign in a town where they thought he might be located. The campaign started in a poor area, but along the way they realized that bin Laden was probably somewhere else, so they cut off the campaign. This alone violates principles of medical ethics or elementary ethics that go back to classical times, to the Hippocratic Oath. But anything is okay if you’re the Godfather. So no comment on that.

It gets worse. Throughout a lot of the poor countries is that there is fear, and quite justified fear, of what these white guys are doing. Justified. They’ve got a history. We may not like to think about it. What are they doing when they come in, these rich white guys, and start poking our arms? What are they up to? There’s plenty of fear. Okay, Obama gave them a lesson in what they’re up to. They’re involved in a campaign to murder somebody they don’t like. That had an effect, a big effect, in Pakistan, but also beyond, as far as Nigeria. It aroused fear of the polio vaccination program that’s underway. Polio is practically eradicated. It could go the way of smallpox in no time if it weren’t for our fun and games. Pakistan is one of the last places where it’s endemic. Polio workers soon began to be abducted and killed, and the UN had to withdraw its whole polio vaccination team. A specialist on this matter at Columbia University, Les Roberts, estimated that this will probably cause 100,000 cases of polio in Pakistan. He pointed out that one of these days people in Pakistan are going to point to that kid sitting in a wheelchair and say, “You did this to him,” and there’s going to be a reaction, as you would expect. The same happened in Nigeria, maybe elsewhere.

There’s more. When Obama sent the Joint Special Forces Command into Pakistan—which is, of course, aggression, a violation of international law, but we’re above that—they were under orders, to fight their way out if they were apprehended. And if they had had to fight their way out, the U.S. forces would not have let them be. They would have used the full force of American military power to extricate them. And it came very close. The Pakistani chief of staff, Kayani, was informed of the invasion, and he ordered his staff, in his words, to “confront any unidentified aircraft.” He assumed there it was probably an attack from India, the main enemy. At the same time, in Kabul, not far away, the commanding general, David Petraeus, ordered U.S. warplanes to respond if Pakistanis scrambled their fighter jets. We were on the verge of war with a well trained, disciplined army dedicated to the defense of the sovereignty of Pakistan and with plenty of nuclear weapons and, incidentally, laced with radical Islamists. So Obama was saying, Okay, we’ll take a chance on a nuclear war, which will destroy most of the world, because we have to carry out this assassination. That’s worth thinking about.

It brings up another basic human right, which wasn’t discussed in the Magna Carta, the right to security, even the right to survival. If you look at scholarship and you go to school and you believe what you hear, then the security of citizens is supposed to be the prime commitment of state authorities. In fact, that’s the foundation of international relations theory. But it’s very far from true. Actually, the Yemen assassinations are an example. The U.S. is creating future terrorists more quickly than it’s killing people who might possibly be a danger someday.

It’s worth remembering that these are self-generating processes. When you build up institutions like JSOC, the drone system, they keep expanding. In fact, they are generating targets which require them to expand. So we can expect it to go on, and we can also expect it to come back home. That’s traditional. You work out ways of terrorizing and controlling people abroad, and not long after, similar methods are used at home. There are already dangerous beginnings of that. And I’ll put that off.

However, there is a much more serious threat than terror. Instant destruction by nuclear weapons. Actually, the bin Laden assassination is an example. But it’s worth remembering that this has never been a high priority for state officials. The idea of protecting the U.S. from what would, in fact, be total destruction from nuclear weapons has just not been a high priority. There’s plenty of evidence for that. We can ignore it if we like, but it’s there.

So, for example, you go back to 1950. The U.S. had tremendous security, overwhelming power, but there was a potential threat. The potential threat didn’t exist then, but it was potential. It was the threat of ICBMs with hydrogen-bomb warheads. There would have been a way to deal with that threat. In fact, the Russians, who were the potential enemy, knew that they were way behind the U.S. in military technology, and they proposed to sign a treaty with the U.S. to ban the development of these systems. If that had been done, it would have eliminated the one and only serious, indeed massive, threat to the security of people of the U.S. There’s a detailed history of nuclear strategy by McGeorge Bundy, who was Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national security adviser. He had access to internal documents. It’s interesting to read it. He mentions, more or less in passing, that he was unable to find a single internal paper in the government that even considered this possibility when they were offered the treaty by Russia. It just doesn’t matter.

It goes on. Two years later, in 1952, Stalin made a remarkable offer. It was known, it wasn’t secret. The offer was to permit Germany to be unified and have free, internationally supervised elections, which, of course, the West would win, but on the condition that it be militarily neutralized. For the Russians that’s not a small thing. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times during the past half century and, as part of a Western military alliance, it’s very frightening. That was the offer. It was kind of ridiculed. There was one well- known policy analyst, James Warburg, quite influential, who did write about it, but that was dismissed, basically with ridicule. Now, years later, with the Russian archives opened, it’s being taken seriously by conservative scholarship, that says it could have been that there was something to it. If the U.S. had followed up with it, it would have greatly reduced the threat of war. It would have also ended the official reason for NATO. That was all pretty serious. But it was ignored.

A couple of years later, Nikita Khrushchev came in. He recognized as did the Russian military that they were way behind the U.S. in military power, and Khrushchev made an offer to the U.S. to sharply reduce offensive weapons mutually so as to cut back the threat of war in Europe. The Kennedy administration was aware of the offer, they considered it, and they rejected it. They rejected it even when Khrushchev went ahead unilaterally to cut back offensive weapons. In fact, the Kennedy administration reaction was to sharply increase military spending and military force. That had consequences, too. That was one of the reasons why in 1962 Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba to try to right the enormous military imbalance somehow. That led to what Arthur Schlesinger, historian, Kennedy adviser, called “the most dangerous moment in world history,” the Cuban missile crisis.

There was another reason for it. The Kennedy administration, after the Bay of Pigs, had launched a major terrorist war against Cuba, economic warfare but also a straight terrorist war. Schlesinger again, in his biography of Robert Kennedy, says that the goal of the war was to “bring the terrors of the earth to Cuba.” Robert Kennedy was in charge, it was his prime responsibility. It was pretty serious. We don’t read about it, but it matters to people at the other end of the guns. That operation, Operation Mongoose, was set up to lead to a U.S. invasion in October 1962. Cubans doubtless knew, the Russians knew. That was another reason for putting the missiles into Cuba. Then we get to “the most dangerous moment in world history.”

It’s worth paying attention to what actually happened. It tells you a lot about how our government, and states generally, consider, how they rank the threat of survival for their own citizens. A lot is known about this. We have a horde of internal documents that have been declassified. They’re very clear. There’s no ambiguity about what they say. On October 26th the U.S. B52 fleet was armed with nuclear weapons and ready to attack Moscow. Furthermore, the option of bombing was actually down to individual pilots. Some pilot might have decided, Okay, let’s blow up the world. Kennedy himself was leaning towards military action to remove the missiles from Cuba. His own subjective estimate of the probability of nuclear war was between a third and a half.

That evening, October 26th, Kennedy received a private letter from Khrushchev with an offer to end the crisis. How? The Russians would withdraw the missiles from Cuba and the U.S. would withdraw the missiles from Turkey. Now, Kennedy didn’t actually know that there were missiles in Turkey. In fact, when they were talking in the internal meetings and was he talking about how dangerous the missiles were in Cuba, he said, Look, if we had put missiles in Turkey, it would really be very dangerous. And McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, leaned over him and told him quietly, We have missiles in Turkey. But, in fact, those missiles were being withdrawn. The reason? They were being replaced with much more lethal, invulnerable Polaris submarines. So Khrushchev’s offer actually was to withdraw the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would withdraw obsolete missiles from Turkey for which a withdrawal order had already been given. Kennedy rejected it, with the estimate of a threat of a third to a half of nuclear war.

In my view, that’s maybe the most horrendous decision in human history. We take a huge risk of destroying the world in order to establish the principle that we have a right to have missiles on anybody’s border threatening them, anywhere in the world, and no one else has a right to threaten us. This is a unilateral right. They can’t do it even to deter a planned invasion. That’s not the worst of it. The worst is that in our kind of intellectual system, Kennedy is praised for his cool courage at this moment. In my view, that’s shocking.

It continues. Ten years later, 1973, there was a Middle East war, Israel, Egypt, and Syria. In the middle of that war, Henry Kissinger, who was then in charge, ordered a high-level nuclear alert. The goal of the alert, we know from declassified documents, was to warn the Russians not to interfere when Israel violated the ceasefire that the Russians and the Americans had agreed on. Kissinger had informed Israel they could violate the ceasefire, if they want, and keep going. There was some concern the Russians might react, and the nuclear alert was set up to warn them away. Fortunately, it worked.
Ten years later, Ronald Reagan comes in. As soon as his administration opened, they began to probe Russian defenses with simulating air and naval attacks into Russia. The Russians weren’t sure what’s going on. They also installed Pershing missiles in Germany that had a 5- minute flight time to Russian targets, that provided what the CIA called “super sudden first strike capability.” Naturally, this caused plenty of alarm in Russia. Unlike us, they’re quite vulnerable and had been invaded, almost destroyed numerous times. And it led to a major war scare in 1983. I won’t go on. But this continues. The most recent case is the bin Laden assassination. Unfortunately, none of this is discussed. Try to find some discussion of it.

And there are other cases waiting. In fact, three cases are on the front pages right now, so let’s take a look at them. These are North Korea, Iran, and China.

As you know, in the last couple of weeks North Korea has been issuing wild and dangerous threats. They’re an unpredictable place. All of this is attributed here to the lunacy of North Korean leaders. Arguably, this is the worst country in the world, with the most grotesque leadership in the world. But there are some questions that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, we could ask how we would react if a superpower that had virtually leveled the U.S. in the most intense bombing in history were right now carrying out simulated nuclear attacks on our border by the most advanced bombers in the world, stealth B2 and B52 bombers. That’s part of an escalating crisis that began with U.S. South Korean war games. They’re regular, but these included for the first time

a simulation of a preemptive attack in an all-out war scenario against North Korea.

Their lunatic leaders know all this.

And they can presumably also read official U.S. military publications, which we choose not to read, though it’s not a good choice. We should read them. They’re public. So, for example, the official Air Force History and Air Force Strategic Studies Quarterly. Take a look back at the enthusiastic description of the exciting military operations that were carried out a month before the 1953 armistice. At that time there was nothing left to bomb anymore in North Korea. Everything above ground had been almost destroyed. I’ll just read what you can read there, if you turn to it.

They turned to bombing the dams.

That’s, incidentally, a war crime for which people were hanged at Nuremberg, but put that aside.

This object lesson in air power to all the Communist world [the attack on the major irrigation dam] is highly successful, caused a flash flood that scooped clear 27 miles of valley below. Along with other attacks on dams, this devastated 75% of the controlled water supply for North Korea’s rice production. It sent the commissars scurrying to the press and radio centers to blare to the world the most severe, hate-filled harangues to come from the Communist propaganda mill in the three years of warfare. To the Communists, the smashing of the dams meant primarily the destruction of their chief sustenance, rice. Westerners can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this staple food commodity has for Asians—starvation and slow death. Hence the show of rage, the flare of violent tempers, and the threats of reprisals when bombs fell on the five irrigation dams.

In other words, these stupid gooks just can’t perceive the elegance of our technological achievements. They can read that, even if we choose not to because we don’t want to know anything about ourselves.

There is also a more recent history that they no doubt know very well, as does the leading U.S. scholarship on the topic. I’ll review some high points. I’m quoting top American scholarship, a study by Leon Sigal in this case. Here’s a couple of recent high points. In 1993, North Korea was about to strike a deal with Israel. The deal would be that North Korea would end missile and other weapons exports to the Middle East, which is an enormous value for Israeli security, and in return Israel would recognize North Korea. Clinton intervened. He pressured Israel to reject it. They do what they’re told. Consider the relations of power. It’s obvious. North Korea reacted. They retaliated by carrying out their first test of a medium-range missile.

A year later, there was a so-called framework agreement between North Korea and the United States as to nuclear issues. Actually, neither side observed the agreement completely, but they mostly kept to it. Things kept stable until President Bush took office. At the time when he took office—I’m now quoting U.S. scholarly studies—

the North Koreans had stopped testing long-range missiles. They had one or two bombs’ worth of plutonium and were verifiably not making more.

That’s when Bush came in. Bush’s aggressive militarism and threats and “axis of evil” and all the rest quickly led to a revival of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. By 2006 North Korea had developed eight to ten nuclear weapons and had resumed long-range missile tests. One of the many successes of the neocons.

A year earlier, 2005, an agreement had been reached under which

North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs and allow international inspections in return for international aid and a non-aggression pledge with the United States along with commitments from the two sides to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize relations.

That didn’t work. The Bush administration immediately undermined that agreement. Immediately. They disbanded the international consortium that had been set up to provide North Korea with light water reactors, they renewed the threat of force, they pressured international banks to freeze North Korea’s hard currency accounts that included proceeds from ordinary foreign trade. And then North Korea reacted, predictably, in their strange and incomprehensible ways.

There have been other interactions since. I won’t run through them. Sigal concludes that

North Korea has been playing tit for tat, reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates, retaliating whenever Washington reneges.

It’s doubtless a horrible place, but the record does suggest directions that could be taken to reduce the threat of war, if that were a concern, not military maneuvers and simulated nuclear bombing on the borders. You can think that one through.

Let’s turn to what’s called “the gravest threat to world peace”—I’m now quoting both presidential candidates Obama and Romney in the last foreign policy debate, duly repeated the next day in the nation’s press— Iran’s nuclear program. That raises a couple questions. Who thinks it’s the greatest threat to world peace and what is the threat? We have answers to that. It’s a Western obsession, primarily a U.S. obsession. The nonaligned countries—that’s most of the world—have vigorously supported repeatedly, quite recently again, Iran’s right to enrich uranium. As signers of the Nonproliferation Treaty, they have that the right.

What about the Arab world right next to them? What we hear and what we read is that the Arabs support the U.S. on Iran, which is not totally false, because in the U.S., when we talk about a country, we talk about the dictators, not the people. And it’s true that the dictators tend to support U.S. policy. But we know something about the irrelevant people. There are regular polls taken by U.S. polling agencies in the Arab world. The results are quite interesting. The Arabs don’t like Iran. There are hostilities that go back forever. But they don’t regard it as much of a threat. They don’t like it, but they don’t regard it as a threat. They do see threats—the United States and Israel. Those they regard as major threats. In fact a poll right before the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt found that though Egyptians don’t like Iran, a pretty large majority of them, thought the region might be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons to fend off the authentic threats, U.S. and Israel.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why the U.S. and its allies are so strongly opposed to any democratization in the Arab world. That’s not the rhetoric; I’m talking about the actions. The rhetoric is that we always love democracy, just as Stalin did and everyone did. But you don’t pay attention to soaring rhetoric. If you want to be serious, you look at actions. It’s obvious why the U.S. and England and France don’t want democracy in the Arab world. Democracy, if it means anything, means that public opinion is supposed to have some influence over policy. And what I’ve just mentioned are hardly the policies that the U.S. and its allies want.

What about the next question? What’s the threat supposed to be? Let’s say we take the U.S. point of view, that this is “the gravest threat to world peace.” What is it? Actually, there’s an authoritative answer to that. You can read it, you can find it on the Internet. It comes from the highest sources. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence provide a review of the global security situation to Congress every year, and, of course, they talk about Iran. And they do regard it as a very grave threat. But it’s very interesting to read why. These are not secret documents, perfectly public. They say that Iran is not a military threat: it has very limited capacity to deploy force. Its military spending is low, even by the standards of the region, minuscule as compared to Israel or, of course, the U.S. They have a strategic doctrine. Their doctrine is defensive. It’s to try to deter an invasion long enough for diplomacy to set in. They, of course, talk about nuclear weapons. U.S. sources say they don’t know if Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but if it does, it would be part of their deterrent strategy. If any country needs a deterrent, it’s Iran. It’s surrounded on all sides by major nuclear powers. It’s under direct, constant threat by the global superpower, which is, incidentally, in violation of the UN Charter, if anybody cares about that. That’s what it means when Obama says all options are open. That means, I disregard the UN Charter, which bans the threat or use of force in international affairs. But by the Yglesias principle, we can put that aside. So they’re under constant, serious threat. Conceivably, they’re developing a deterrent.

Why is that a threat to us? Think it through. If you’re a rogue state and you’re the Godfather, and you have to control everything, and you have to have a right to use force wherever you like, then a deterrent is intolerable. So that’s a major threat to us. That’s what the threat is.

I might mention that there is another rogue state that follows the same principle—our Israeli client. And it can act with impunity, thanks to the protection from the Godfather. We saw an interesting case a couple of days ago. As you know, Israel bombed military installations in Syria. Why? If you read the generally approving accounts in the press, they did give a reason. It was to prevent the threat that Syria might give Hezbollah weapons. Why is that a threat to Israel? Because they could be used to deter an invasion of Lebanon. Israel has already invaded Lebanon five times. They might do it again. If Hezbollah has missiles, that’s a deterrent. And if you want to be the regional sub-Godfather, you can’t admit such a deterrent.

There’s a third question besides who thinks it’s a threat and what is the threat? And that is, how can you deal with the threat, whatever it is? There are some ways. For example, a way was found in May 2010, when Turkey and Brazil reached an agreement with Iran that Iran would send its low enriched uranium out of the country for storage to Turkey, and in return the West would provide Iran with isotopes that it needs for its medical reactors. As soon as that agreement was announced, the U.S. government and the media immediately launched into an attack on Brazil and Turkey for daring to end “the gravest threat to world peace.” Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, commented that

the U.S. refuses to take yes for an answer.

The foreign minister of Brazil was kind of annoyed, and he released a letter that had been sent from Obama to the president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, in which Obama had proposed exactly what they did, probably assuming that Iran wouldn’t accept and he could get some propaganda points. Well, Iran accepted. So therefore Obama raced new sanctions through the UN, Washington and the press denounced Brazil and Turkey for their effrontery, and that option was gone.

There’s a more far-reaching proposal. It happens to have been raised recently by the nonaligned countries, most of the world, but it’s an old proposal. It’s been pressed particularly by the Arab states for many years, Egypt in the forefront. That’s to move towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. There are such zones around the world. And it’s one of the ways to take steps towards what in fact is our legal obligation to move to get rid of nuclear weapons. These are steps. In the Middle East it would be extremely important, because, after all, that’s where “the gravest threat to world peace” is.

Can you do anything about that? Yes, you can. For example, there was a possibility last December. There was supposed to be an international conference in Finland last December to take steps towards advancing this proposal to develop a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Israel said they wouldn’t attend the conference. In November, Iran said they would attend the conference. Within days, Obama called the conference off. The Arab states said they would press it anyway, but they can’t do anything. The European parliament passed a resolution appealing for quick renewal of the proposal, but they can’t do anything. In fact, the only people who could do anything are people like you, if citizens of the U.S. could do something about that. But there’s a precondition. They have to know about it. You can’t do anything if you’ve never heard of it. And you can’t hear of it, because the press, with astonishing uniformity, did not report a single word about this, any of it. Try to find it. It’s not orders from the government, it’s not collusion. It’s just kind of an internal understanding that you just don’t report things like that. So there won’t be any protest, and we may march on to what looks like a war.

Let’s finally have a couple of words about China. That’s a potential confrontation, maybe a serious one. Actually, China also has memories, just like North Korea. For example, the Chinese no doubt remember that in 1962, six months before the missile crisis, Kennedy sent offensive missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa aimed at China at a moment of extreme tension in the region. In 1962 there was kind of a war going on between India and China. You know, the weird Chinese, not happy about this. They remember it. It doesn’t get discussed here, because it’s our right. We’re the emperor, after all. We can molest the world. So it’s barely mentioned here.

China also can look around and see what’s happening. China is surrounded by U.S. military forces, all around it. Japan, which China has some memories of, is a major base for U.S. power. Okinawa, right to the south, is a huge base. The Okinawans have been trying to get rid of the American installations for years, protesting against them, but nothing doing. The U.S. is now, with Obama’s pivot to Asia, establishing new bases in northwestern Australia, in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in South Korea. There’s an island in South Korea called an “Island of Peace,” incidentally, the scene of huge massacres in 1948, when South Korea was under U.S. control. The U.S. and South Korea are now building a major naval base there, which is aimed at China. And Guam, of course. They can only see this as a threatening arc of military power that surrounds them, and also surrounds the waters that are crucial for their trade with the Middle East and elsewhere.

It’s kind of interesting to see how this is all formulated here. A couple of days ago The New York Times had an article very upset about China’s military buildup, incidentally, to a small fraction of ours. This is depicted as “a serious challenge to the United States in the waters around China.” “A serious challenge…in the waters around China.” This is not a challenge in the Caribbean or off the coast of California. Everybody would be blown away if there were any such challenge. But in the waters around China it’s a challenge. If you look at the U.S. strategic journals, analysts describe this confrontation as what they call “a classic security dilemma,” in which each side sees fundamental interests at stake over control of the waters around China. So the U.S. regards its policies of controlling those waters as defensive. China regards them as threatening, obviously. Similarly, the Chinese, oddly, are not happy when the U.S. sends the advanced nuclear aircraft carrier, George Washington, into waters near China that place Beijing within the range of its nuclear missiles. They don’t like that. Of course, the U.S. would never tolerate anything remotely like that. This “classic security dilemma” again makes sense on the assumption that the U.S. has the right to control most of the world by force, do what it wants, and that U.S. security, unlike everyone else’s, requires something approaching absolute global control, otherwise we’re not secure. An interesting notion, which goes back deep into American history.

Let me put that aside and turn to another threat to survival, not immediate but imminent. You’re all aware of it. It’s environmental catastrophe. The facts are familiar to anyone who bothers to read scientific journals. And each one is more alarming than the last one. To take a couple of very recent reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a government administration, gave its latest report on ocean surface temperatures off the northeast U.S. coast. They’re the highest in 150 years, with drastic effects on ecosystems. They keep going up. A couple weeks before that Science magazine, the main scientific weekly, reported a study that showed that

even slightly warmer temperatures, which are less than what’s anticipated in the coming years, could start melting permafrost [mainly in Siberia], which in turn will trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases, methane—[much worse than carbon dioxide]—that are trapped in the ice and that will set off escalating nonlinear processes of destruction.

Geologists and archeologists are now considering establishment of a new geological era. History is broken up into geological eras. The new era they are discussing is what they’re calling the Anthropocene, starting with the Industrial Revolution, which is having huge effects on the Earth. The preceding era, the Holocene, begins around 11,000 years ago, about the time of the rise of agriculture. And the age before that, the Pleistocene, lasted 2 1/2 million years. You take a look at the acceleration and that gives an indication of the fate towards which we’re careening. Meanwhile, research papers in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, super-respectable, report,

One hundred nine countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable power and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, one country, the United States, has not adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the national level to foster the use of renewable energy.

That’s not because of public opinion. Public opinion strongly supports measures to deal with the looming crisis. U.S. public opinion is not very far from that in other parts of the world.

That’s kind of interesting, because, as I’m sure you know, there has been a massive corporate offensive here for years to convince the public that either there’s no global warming at all or, if there is, we don’t have anything to do with it, no human contribution. That offensive is escalating, accelerating right now in interesting ways because of fears in the corporate sector that the public is just too infected by scientific rationality. That’s as big a threat as a deterrent. An interesting program is being initiated by a group you may know of, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It sounds innocuous. It’s a corporate-funded group that proposes legislation for state legislatures. You can imagine what they propose. And they’ve got plenty of clout, given the wealth and power behind them, so a lot of these get accepted. There’s a new one that’s just being started that’s for K-to-12, kindergarten to 12th grade, education programs. They’re trying to convince state legislatures that they should introduce what they call “balanced teaching to develop critical thinking.” That sounds good. What’s “balanced teaching”? That means along with teaching what’s called “climate science,” you should teach climate change denial to kindergarteners and all the way up. Then they will have critical thinking and we’ll be better off. There are a couple of states that have already adopted it. We can expect a lot more like this.

Let’s put this aside and imagine what a future historian, assuming that there is one, and it’s not obvious that there will be—looks back at what’s happening right before our eyes, looks back at the early 21st century. For the first time in history humans are facing quite significant prospects of severe calamity, maybe destruction of the possibilities of decent survival, as a result of actions of theirs. It’s not secret. The facts are before our eyes. Despite the efforts of the corporate sector to conceal them, most people see them.

There’s a range of reactions around the world. At one extreme there are some who are trying to act decisively to prevent possible catastrophe. At the other extreme, policies are designed to enhance the threat, while the most powerful domestic actors are undertaking major efforts to deny what’s happening and to dumb down the population so they won’t interfere with short-term profits.

Leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster is the richest and most powerful country in world history, with incomparable advantages, along with Canada, which is in many ways even worse. We’re leading the effort. Leading the effort to preserve conditions in which our immediate descendants might have a decent life are the so-called primitive societies, the First Nations, tribal societies, indigenous societies, aboriginal societies. That’s going on all over the world. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, the countries with large indigenous populations, Bolivia and Ecuador, are pursuing efforts to introduce what they call “rights of nature.” We’ve got to protect “rights of nature.” Ecuador has a big indigenous population, it’s a majority in Bolivia. Ecuador is an oil producer, but they’re seeking financial aid from the rich countries so that they can keep the oil underground, where it’s supposed to be. That’s the backward, primitive societies. Meanwhile, here we’re racing with total enthusiasm towards quick disaster. Every time Obama or anyone else talks about 100 years of energy independence, as if it meant anything, what they’re saying is, Let’s destroy the world as fast as we can. So suppose we get every drop of hydrocarbons out by fracking and tar sands and anything else you can think of. What’s the world going to look like? Not our concern. That’s the concern of primitive, backward people, who have these sentimental ideas about the rights of nature. That’s what a future historian will see, if there is one.

Let me just make a last comment about this. All of this traces back to Magna Carta, 800 years ago. The Magna Carta had two components. One is the Charter of Liberties, the famous one, which I discussed, the foundation of Anglo-American law, now being torn to shreds before our eyes. The other part is what was called the Charter of Forests. That was dedicated to protection of the commons from the ravages of the power centers of the day. That record is preserved for us in things like the Robin Hood myths. That’s what they’re about.

What are the commons? The commons weren’t just the forests. They were the source of sustenance for the general population: food, fuel, welfare. There’s the classic image that goes back to the Bible of widows gleaning things from the commons for fuel and food. That’s what the commons were. They were very carefully nurtured and protected for centuries by people like these primitive, backward people today who are trying to save the planet.
In capitalist ethics, there’s a different concept. It’s called the tragedy of the commons. That’s familiar. The thesis is that if the common possessions are left to the population, they will be destroyed, so you have to privatize them and put them into the hands of the Koch brothers and so on. Then they’ll be protected. That’s capitalist ethics. Unless common possessions are privatized, they will be destroyed. There’s a principle behind it. It’s the principle that Adam Smith described as what he called “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: everything for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. That’s the concept that has to be drilled into people’s heads to make them total sociopaths. The reality is, of course, quite the opposite. Privatization leads to the destruction of the commons in pursuit of “the vile maxim.”

What happened to the Charter of the Forests that was an equal part of Magna Carta? It was dismantled with the rise of capitalism in England centuries ago by enclosures and other measures to privatize the commons. It was followed centuries later in the United States. This central part of Magna Carta has long been forgotten, apart from the traditional societies that are trying to fend off the disaster that’s approaching as we, in our brilliance, lead the way off the cliff like the proverbial lemmings.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the lecture were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

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