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as devastating as ever

Noam Chomsky’s got a piece in Salon, the first time (I think) they’ve published him. Indeed, Chomsky seems to have been relatively quiet recently, perhaps because he’s now over eighty. But the Salon piece both reminds you of all his strengths: in particular, his willingness to push beyond the polite consensus to reach discomforting conclusions. Most of the liberal commentators on the torture debate (it still astonishes me that these two words aren’t oxymoronic) portray the Bush administration as departure from traditional American foreign policy. Chomsky discusses the continuities, arguing that the Bush gang simply used slightly different techniques from their forebears:

Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book “A Question of Torture.” He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury’s penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: “Truth, Torture, and the American Way.” So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the global sewers lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.”

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. “[H]is is a return to the status quo ante,” writes Nairn, “the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”

As always with Chomsky, the points he makes aren’t necessarily particularly startling on their own. It’s just that he’s one of the very few people prepared to say such things. Everyone knows that, under Reagan, the US funded the atrocious terror attacks conducted by the contras against Nicaragua. Thus Chomsky presents the ‘ticking time bomb’ fantasists with a counterfactual of his own:

There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information — the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.

Back in the day, Chomsky used to occasionally appear in the Australian broadsheets. Now, not so much. Reading him again reminds me that, despite the information bonanza available online, the views presented in the mainstream media seem, if anything, even narrower than in the past.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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