Institutional Violence: My interview with Noam Chomsky
When I was 15 years old, I was cast as the lead in a film about a young woman’s coming-of-age in a time of global crisis in which I got to interview a bunch of leading intellectuals and political dissidents such as Noam Chomsky, Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, Paul Watson, Ralph Nader, Grace Paley, Linda McQuaig, Howard Lyman and Maude Barlow. The film came out many years later as Deadly Mistakes? a two-part documentary on US foreign policy and interventions during the second half of the 20th century: the overthrow of the government of Iran, intervention and genocide in Guatemala, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, Somoza and the Contra War in Nicaragua, and the Cold War.
Here’ is a transcript of my interview with Chomsky in his office at MIT. Keep in mind that though I was only 16 at the time, the role (a fictional character named Sparrow Goldman) required me to play ignorant. My favourite memory of the hour long interview is not included in the official transcript, so I’ll add it here: Half way through the interview, the cameras stopped rolling to change tapes, and I awkwardly averted my eyes not knowing how to small-talk with Chomsky. Earlier that morning, as someone sat in for him in the chair across from me to prepare the cameras and lighting, I got annoyed with their inability to make eye-contact. Now, just as my gaze got shifty, Chomsky said “isn’t it funny how humans have such trouble looking each other in the eyes?” My jaw almost unfastened at his seeming telepathy, and we proceeded to have a staring contest while bantering about this phenomenon in humans and dogs and squirrels…
Sparrow talks with Noam Chomsky
with Isabeau Doucet as Sparrow Goldman
Sparrow: Um, so I’m supposed to introduce you tonight, and uh, what exactly are you going to be talking about?
Chomsky: Well, exactly I never know but in general I’ll be talking about institutional violence.
Sparrow: Institutional violence, what is that?
Chomsky: ….[snip] When you saw on TV US missiles hitting a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan which produces a substantial part of the country’s pharmaceuticals and fertilizers, this wasn’t called violence, but was called self-defense.
But suppose that someone, a terrorist let’s say, a Sudanese terrorist, had bombed US pharmaceutical and fertilizer plants destroying say maybe half of our pharmaceuticals and fertilizers. You would have seen that on TV too, and that would have been called violence. ….[snip]
During the Reagan years, hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Central America by state terrorist forces or straight, non-state terrorist forces in some cases that were organized, armed, trained, and directed by the United States.
Sparrow: Wait a minute now, are you sure about that?
Chomsky: Yeah, well, the evidence is overwhelming, let’s say, and I don’t really think it’s debatable.
Sparrow: Hundreds of thousands of people?
Chomsky: Yeah, probably about that. The usual estimate is about two hundred thousand killed, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of refugees, maybe a million or so orphans, endless numbers wounded, many brutally tortured. Numbers on all of these things are always questionable, nobody really knows the actual numbers killed anywhere, but those are fairly solid estimates.
Sparrow: Where did this happen?
Chomsky: Central America. Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, primarily, to some extent Honduras.
Sparrow: How come we never heard about any of this?
Chomsky: Oh, we heard about it. It just wasn’t called violence.
Look, the conflict in Nicaragua was probably the lead news story for much of the 1980’s. …[snip] I mean there were hundreds, literally hundreds, of editorials and op-eds within a few months on just the war in Nicaragua. None of them describes it as our violence. What they discussed was: what’s the best way for us to win?
I don’t want to say none; in the survey maybe 98% were concerned with what’s the best way for us to win. Is it by terrorism or is it by other forms of institutional violence, like starving the population through economic embargo? The doves said the latter and the hawks said no, the first way was the best way to win, and they were split about fifty-fifty…. Overwhelmingly the disscusion between the hawks and the doves was what form of institutional violence will acheive our ends in Nicaragua. …
I can’t think of a case when [institutional violence] wasn’t presented as defensive. I mean when the Germans were massacring the Jews it was supposedly in self-defense. Look at the Nazi propaganda. They were defending themselves against a Jewish assault, actually a Jewish-Bolshevik assault which was going to undermine the origins of Western Civilization, which they were upholding, you know–the legacy of the Greeks and so on and so forth. I suppose if we had the records of Genghis Khan we’d find something similar.
The war in Vietnam was a far more extreme case. The number of people killed there was in the millions, probably four million or so. Three countries destroyed. Maybe they’ll never recover. I mean there’s still thousands of people dying every year in Laos, one small country… [snip]
Sparrow: Institutional violence– does this usually happen in the Third World I guess, or–
Chomsky: The victims are usually weak, meaning the Third World or the poor at home or people who are under control and so on. Rich powerful people are rarely subjected to institutional violence, because of their dominance of the institutions….[snip]
Sparrow: You said terrorism is one of the options, is one of the forms of institutional violence.
Chomsky: State terrorism is an extreme form of terrorism, generally much worse than individual terrorism because it has the resources of a state behind it….
And there’s plenty of state terrorism. Take the US war in Nicaragua…. You could argue whether it was aggression or terrorism, but probably it’s fair to call it terrorism, which is less extreme than war. Or we could use the term used by the International Court of Justice, the World Court, when it condemned the United States and ordered it to desist from, and pay huge reparations for, what they described as, unlawful use of force. That’s a fair term for terrorism.
Thousands of people were killed, Nicaragua was destroyed; it still hasn’t recovered, and in fact it’s been declining ever since the US victory–seriously declining.
The effects were enormous, it’s now the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti.
Well that’s state terrorism. What went on in–
Sparrow: You’re saying the US is responsible for that?
Chomsky: Oh, that’s not even debatable, that’s part of US history, we take credit for having been responsible for it.
It was US run. The US organized a terrorist army on the Honduran border…. They were directed by South Cong, the US Southern command in Panama, which in fact ordered them to hit what they called soft targets. Soft targets means undefended civilian targets, like agricultural villages, health clinics and so on–
Sparrow: Why would they want to attack–
Chomsky: Well the wording of the commanding general was you should hit soft targets and not duke it out with the Sandinistas. In other words, try to avoid the national army that’s protecting people because then you’ll get killed, and look for soft targets, un-defended targets. Actually, that was published, so it’s not that it was unreported, and that was–
Sparrow: That’s ridiculous!
Chomsky: Ridiculous? Well, let me tell you what happened.
When this was published, there was a harsh critique by Human Rights Watch, the main human rights monitor. And there was an editorial in The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley. He’s the man who in those days was representing the left, you know, the left and the doves, on television debates and so on–he’s some kind of leading liberal intellectual. He was actually editor of the New Republic. He had an editorial in which he criticized Human Rights Watch for taking such a harsh stand on this.
The State Department by the way confirmed that yes, that’s our policy, and Kinsley said you can’t just assume that the policy of hitting soft targets is wrong. You have to carry out cost benefit analysis, and ask whether the amount of blood that flows in is compensated by the outcome, which he called democracy, which of course we define, and if the amount of blood and tears and so on that’s put in at one end, is compensated by the outcome that we like at the other, by the pragmatic criterion we have to accept this as legitimate, and it’s wrong to just condemn it. Well yeah, that’s the liberal soft dovish side of the argument. I won’t even quote the harsh hawkish side, who just said let’s kill.
Sparrow: And this is the United States that is…
Chomsky: This is you and me. It’s not just the United States. We’re responsible for it. We let it happen.
Sparrow: But I didn’t…
Chomsky: We let it happen. We knew about it. Maybe you didn’t, you’re too young. But everybody certainly knew about it at the time.
Just as you couldn’t fail to know what was going on in Indochina, when the US Air Force under John F. Kennedy began the bombing of South Vietnam. Remember we attacked South Vietnam. That was a war against South Vietnam, primarily.
When the US attacked South Vietnam in the early 60’s, that was escalating from years of US run state terrorism which had already killed maybe sixty or seventy thousand people.
But it wasn’t working, so Kennedy escalated it, sent the US Air Force to bomb targets in South Vietnam.They authorized napalm. They authorized crop destruction–
Chomsky: Napalm was authorized in 1961 against–
Sparrow: What’s Napalm?
Chomsky: Napalm? Jellied gasoline. Burning jellied gasoline that sort of burns everybody up. It’s a real terror weapon.
The crop destruction was used to try to create famine in areas where the guerrillas as they called them, the people they didn’t like, were living.
Huge numbers of people, I forget the exact number, probably millions, were driven into concentration camps called strategic hamlets. It was all over the news papers. It was no secret and there was no protest either.
Sparrow: When you say massive atrocities, and international terrorism, and compared the United States to Hitler and Genghis Khan– I mean don’t you think you’re being a little extreme?
Chomsky: I didn’t compare it to Hitler and Genghis Khan. What I said was that, even Hitler, you know the extreme of, maybe the worst human being who ever lived, or even Genghis Khan– in the case of Hitler we know, is the case of Genghis Khan we don’t– defended even their atrocities by the claim of self defense. So the claim of self defense in fact is uniform. You very rarely hear anyone say I’m carrying out atrocities or we’re carrying out atrocities because we like to torture people. There’s almost always some justification.
That’s not a comparison of the war in Indochina to Hitler or Genghis Khan, but it is a comparison, which is accurate, of the kinds of justification that we’re offered for attacks and violence and terror even by the worst people, and we do the same thing.
Sparrow: But don’t you think we’re being a little extreme, I mean…
Chomsky: We’re being extreme?
Sparrow: Well you’re–
Chomsky: Well I think killing people is extreme.
Sparrow: I mean, I don’t know…What am I supposed to do about any of this?
Chomsky: It depends on whether you consider yourself a citizen of this country, and a moral human being. If you’re a moral human being who is a citizen of this country, and therefore responsible for what happens here, sharing in the responsibility, then you should act in the same way you would if you were witnessing acts of individual violence.
Sparrow: But what can I do, like, I mean, there’s no way I could stop any of this.
Chomsky: Yeah, there is.
Chomsky: I mean, same way citizens got together to stop slavery for example, or to allow the rights of women, or to stop, you know, to prevent torture of children and so on . There’s plenty of ways to do it. That’s what organizing and activism and participation and social change are all about.
Sparrow: You said “torture” before. Are you saying the US supports torture?
Chomsky: It’s not just support. It’s carrying out torture. US penal practices have been very harshly condemned by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and other the major human rights groups, because of the form in which imprisonment is carried out. It’s extremely harsh.
The United States happens to be one of the only countries that executes juveniles.
Juveniles are defined as people who have committed a crime before the age of eighteen. In fact one of the reasons the US refuses to sign the International Convention on Rights of the Child and added reservations when it did sign other anti-torture conventions, is because of this practice.
On the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United States is not alone in refusing to sign it. One other country, Somalia, has refused, and that’s because it doesn’t have a government, so it couldn’t sign and ratify it. But among countries with a government the United States is the only one that wouldn’t sign it….
Look, in 1980 the rate of imprisonment of people in the United states was approximately like that of other industrial societies. Kind of at the high end, but within the range–and the same is true incidentally of the rate of crime. Contrary to what you hear crime is not higher in the United States than in other societies.
There is one exception: homicide with guns. That’s much higher. But this has to do with the gun laws and the gun culture, and so on. If you look at other kinds of crime –murder rape, armed robbery and so on– the United States is sort of at the high end in the industrial world, but not off the spectrum.
And at that time the same was true for incarceration. Since 1980 however the rate of incarceration has just exploded.
It about tripled during the Reagan years.
It’s going up, it’s still going up at the same rate–even faster.
There are now about 1.7 million people in prison. That’s far beyond any other industrial country.
Sparrow: Why is this?
Chomsky: Well, there’s a narrow answer: We can ask who’s being imprisoned. Who’s being imprisoned is black males, mostly, and they’re being imprisoned for drugs. This is a direct consequence of what’s called the drug war, and it’s being aimed pretty much overwhelmingly at minorities, mostly African American.
It’s not simply the rate of imprisonment which is exploding, but the harshness of treatment and the length of sentences.
Sentences have actually been going down for violent crimes like say, murder. Sentences have been declining for murder but they’re becoming stratospheric for drugs.
There was a New York judge recently who was quoted –and again this was criticized all the time by the human rights groups– a New York judge was quoted in a recent Human Rights Watch report saying –it’s from memory, I may have the details wrong– condemning the New York laws where he said that you could get the same penalty for a street sale of maybe twenty dollars worth of drugs as for rape, murder, arson with intent to kill. That’s the drug war.
Now, it’s a highly punitive system. Doesn’t have much to do with the use of drugs. It’s highly punitive, it’s aimed at minorities.
It was understood that this was the case, when the latest phase of the war was called in the late 1980’s. Senator Moynahan, who’s one of the few senators who has a social science background and pays attention to the statistics and so on, pointed out that by passing these laws and by criminalizing drug use we’re deciding to declare war on minorities. And that’s exactly right and it was perfectly obvious. You just had to look at the trend lines in the use of drugs to see that was going to happen. The peak use of say marijuana, was around 1980. After that it declined. It declined for all kinds of reasons. It was parallel to a decline in all kinds of things involving health and lifestyle: coffee, red meat, alcohol, all this kind of substance use. And among the declines were drugs–but that was among the white educated population. If you looked at the poor minority population, it wasn’t declining, it was staying stable. At the point you extrapolate the trend lines, look at the point where the drug war was called, you can see exactly who was going to be targeted, a part from the fact that you simply think about police practices; if you’re a policeman and you have to get an arrest record, it’s a lot easier to go down to the urban slums and pick up a kid in the streets with a joint in his pocket than it is to go out into the rich suburbs and find some rich executive coming home from his, the financial office where he works and sniffing coke in the evening. You’re not going to get away with that, but on the street, no problem. And that’s just one of many factors including racism which have led to an explosion in prisons extremely harsh treatment no attempt at rehabilitation. All of this has been condemned by the human rights groups as in violation of the Declaration of Human Rights, for example, and even the US Constitution.
Sparrow: Well, I mean, I don’t understand. How come I’ve never heard of any of this, like–
Chomsky: See, I think it’s not really true that people haven’t heard of it. I mean they’ve heard of it. I mean one hears about the crime problem and imprisonment, everyone heard about the Central American wars, everyone knew about the Vietnam war. They’re just not presented this way.
It’s not that people don’t know that it’s happening, but it’s presented through a kind of distorting prism.
It becomes protecting ourselves. Or defensive. Or fighting for right and justice in the face of a terrible world that doesn’t understand our values. Now that’s the role of the ideological institutions: the press, the schools, the universities, the journals of opinion, the people called the respectable or responsible individuals.
Sparrow: So they’re pretty much lying to us.
Chomsky: Call it what you like, but it’s certainly not unique to the United States; in fact I think it’s close to a cultural universal that the atrocities and violence carried out by powerful institutions, including the State and corporations are reframed as a reflection of that same power in such a way that when they meet the public and often enter history they have a rather benign look about them.
If the Nazis had won the war, the Second World War, there would be a history that institutionalizes their self defense, noble self defense, against the Slavs and the Jews that would be history, just as it was their propaganda, and people would be learning it and studying it and so on.
Well O.K. — I mean it’s not very surprising, you know. It would be surprising if powerful institutions didn’t work like that. I mean, so take, say, the mass media. What are they? They’re huge corporations, massive corporations, linked up with even bigger corporations. They sell audiences to other businesses, namely advertisers. So when you turn on the television set, CBS doesn’t make any money. They make money from the advertisers. You’re the product that they’re selling, and the same is true of the daily newspaper. They’re huge corporations, selling audiences, potential consumers, to other business, all linked up closely to the government, especially the big media. What picture of the world do you expect them to present?