Democracy Now: Noam Chomsky, on people and “unpeople”

Noam Chomsky uses the occasion of the Palestinian prisoner exchange with Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to speak about America’s history of dividing the world into people and unpeople, starting with Native Americans. Only people count; unpeople don’t matter. “These are all unpeople, so, naturally, nobody cares. . . the racism . . so profound that it’s . . . like the air we breathe.

I am reminded of a short video that I can’t relocate, of a middle-age woman, at an Occupy march, saying something like this: “It’s about human dignity. Everybody in the world deserves to be treated with dignity.”

October 18, 2011

Noam Chomsky on Israel-Palestine Prisoner Exchange, U.S. Assassination Campaign in Yemen

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home today after five years in captivity in Gaza in exchange for 477 Palestinian prisoners. Another 550 are slated to be released in two months. Forty of the Palestinian prisoners will be deported to Syria, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan. In his first interview, Gilad Shalit expressed support for the freeing of all Palestinian prisoners. While Palestinians are holding a massive celebration in Gaza today, Palestinian prison support groups note over 4,000 Palestinians remain locked up in Israel.

We turn now to MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and political dissident. He spoke Monday night here in New York at Barnard College about the Israel-Palestine conflict, the prisoner exchange, and the Middle East, overall.

NOAM CHOMSKY: About a week ago, the New York Times had a headline saying “the West Celebrates a Cleric’s Death.” The cleric was Awlaki, killed by a drone. It wasn’t just death; it was assassination—and another step forward in Obama’s global assassination campaign, which actually breaks some new records in international terrorism. Well, it’s not true that everyone in the West celebrated. There were some critics. Almost all of the critics, of whom there weren’t many, criticized the action or qualified it because of the fact that Awlaki was an American citizen. That is, he was a person, unlike suspects who are intentionally murdered or collateral damage, meaning we treat them kind of like the ants we step on when we walk down the street. They’re not American citizens, so they’re unpeople, and therefore they can be freely murdered.

Some may remember, if you have good memories, that there used to be a concept in Anglo-American law called a presumption of innocence, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Now that’s so deep in history that there’s no point even bringing it up, but it did once exist. Some of the critics have brought up the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which says that no person — “person,” notice — shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Well, of course, that was never intended to apply to persons, so it wasn’t intended to apply to unpeople.

And unpeople fall into several categories. There’s, first of all, the indigenous population, either in the territories already held or those that were expected to be conquered soon. It didn’t apply to them. And, of course, it didn’t apply to those who the Constitution declared to be three-fifths human, so therefore unpeople. That latter category was transferred into—theoretically, into the category of people by the 14th Amendment, that—essentially the same wording as the Fifth Amendment in this respect, but now a person was intended to hold of freed slaves. Now that was in theory. In practice, it barely happened. After about 10 years, the category of three-fifths human were returned to the category of unpeople by the divisive criminalization of black life, which essentially restored slavery, maybe something even worse than slavery, actually went on ’til the Second World War. And it’s being reinstituted now, past 30 years of severe moral and social regression in the United States.

Well, the 14th Amendment was recognized right away to be problematic. The concept of person was both too narrow and too broad, and the courts went to work to overcome both of those flaws. The concept of person was expanded to include legal fictions, sustained—created and sustained by the state, what’s called corporations, and was also narrowed over the years to exclude undocumented aliens. That goes right up to the present, to recent Supreme Court cases, which make it clear that corporations not only are persons, but they’re persons with rights far beyond those of persons of flesh and blood, so kind of super persons. The mislabeled free trade agreements give them astonishing rights. And, of course, the court just added more.

But the crucial need to make sure that the category of unpeople includes those who escaped from the horrors we’ve created in Central America and Mexico, try to get here—those are not persons, they are unpeople. And, of course, it includes any foreigners, especially those accused of terror, which is a concept that has taken a quite an interesting conceptual change, an interesting one, since 1981, when Ronald Reagan came into office and declared the global war on terror, what’s called GWOT in current fancy terminology. I won’t go into that here, except with a comment, a note, on how the term is now used, without any—raising even any notice.

So take, for example, Omar Khadr. He’s a 15-year-old child, a Canadian. Now, he was accused of a very severe crime, namely, trying to defend his village in Afghanistan from U.S. invaders. Obviously, that’s severe crime, a serious terrorist, so he was sent first to secret prison in Bagram, then off to Guantánamo for eight years. After eight years, he pleaded guilty to some charges. We all know what that means. If you want, you could pick up a few of the details even in Wikipedia, more in other sources. So he pleaded guilty and was given eight more years’ sentence. Could have—would have gotten 30 more years if he hadn’t pleaded guilty. After all, it is a severe crime, defending your village from American aggressors. He’s Canadian, so Canada could have him extradited. But with typical courage, they refused. They don’t want to offend the master, understandably. Well, the crime of resisting aggression, it’s not a new category of terrorism. There may be some of you old enough to remember the slogan “a terror against terror,” which was used by the Gestapo—and which we’ve taken over. None of this arouses any interest, because all of these victims belong to the category of unpeople.

Well, that—coming back to our topic now, the concept of unpeople is central to tonight’s topic. Israeli Jews are people. Palestinians are unpeople. And a lot follows from that as clear illustrations constantly. So, here’s a clipping, if I remembered to bring it, from the New York Times. Front-page story, Wednesday, October 12th, the lead story is “Deal with Hamas Will Free Israeli Held Since 2006.” That’s Gilad Shalit. And right next to it is a—running right across the top of the front page is a picture of four women kind of agonized over the fate of Gilad Shalit. “Friends and supporters of the family of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit received word of the deal at the family’s protest tent in Jerusalem.” Well, that’s understandable, actually. I think he should have been released a long time ago. But there’s something missing from this whole story. So, like, there’s no pictures of Palestinian women, and no discussion, in fact, in the story of—what about the Palestinian prisoners being released? Where do they come from?

And there’s a lot to say about that. So, for example, we don’t know — at least I don’t read it in the Times — whether the release includes the Palestinian—the elected Palestinian officials who were kidnapped and imprisoned by Israel in 2007 when the United States, the European Union and Israel decided to dissolve the only freely elected legislature in the Arab world. That’s called “democracy promotion,” technically, in case you’re not familiar with the term. So I don’t know what happened to them. There are also other people who have been in prison exactly as long as Gilad Shalit—in fact, one day longer. The day before Gilad Shalit was captured at the border, Israeli troops entered Gaza, kidnapped two brothers, the Muamar brothers, spirited them across the border, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, of course. And they’ve disappeared into Israel’s prison system. I haven’t a clue what happened to them; I’ve never seen a word about it. And as far as I know, nobody cares, which makes sense. After all, unpeople. Whatever you think about capturing the soldier, a soldier from an attacking army, plainly kidnapping civilians is a far more severe crime. But that’s only if they’re people. This case really doesn’t matter. It’s not that it’s unknown, so if you look back at the press the day after the Muamar brothers were captured, there’s a couple lines here and there. But it’s just insignificant, of course—which makes some sense, because there are lots of others in prison, thousands of them, many without charges.

There’s also, in addition to this, the secret prison system, like Facility 1391, if you want to look it up on the internet, a secret prison, which means, of course, a torture chamber, in Israel, which actually was reported pretty well in Israel when it was discovered, also reported in England and in Europe, but I haven’t seen a word about it here, in at least anywhere that anybody’s likely to look. I’ve written about it, and a couple of others. All of this is—these are all unpeople, so, naturally, nobody cares. In fact, the racism is so profound that it’s kind of like the air we breathe: we’re unaware of it, you know, just pervades everything.

Coming to the title of this talk, it could mislead, and it could be interpreted—misinterpreted—as supporting a kind of conventional picture of the negotiations, such as they are: United States on—over here and then these two recalcitrant forces over there; the United States is an honest broker trying to bring together the two militant, difficult groups that don’t seem to be able to get along with one another. Now that’s—it is the standard version, but it’s totally false. I mean, if they were serious negotiations, they would be organized by some neutral party, maybe Brazil, and on one side you’d have the U.S. and Israel, on the other side you’d have the world. That’s literally true. But that’s one of those things that’s unspeakable.

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