Skip to content

Town Hall on Terror

Here’s a lightly abridged transcript of a neighborhood forum that we sponsored at the Lilypad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 22, on the subject of the rule of law and the war on terror—or was that the rule of terror and the war on law?

We invited Kade Crockford of the Massachusetts ACLU and author and MIT professor Noam Chomsky to talk with us about certain overlooked facts and circumstances pertaining to the federal terror trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon. With jury selection under way, the people of Boston were said by their media representatives to be not in the mood for unlicensed discussion of larger issues surrounding the judicial proceedings. “Baffler sponsors terrorist talk with Noam Chomsky” ran the passive-aggressive headline in the Boston Globe.

Thanks a lot for nudging NSA algorithms in our direction, Globe, but for the record, our forum was to be a conversation about terrorism, one that took nothing for granted—newspaper monopolies least of all. Indeed, the discussion on the evening of January 22 turned out to be so much broader than our title, “The Tsarnaev Trial and the Rest of Us,” that we’ve adopted a new one here.

The jury wound up hearing fifteen days of testimony from the prosecution and all of two days from the defense. On April 8, the jury found Tsarnaev guilty on thirty counts in less time than it takes to binge watch the first two seasons of Orange Is the New Black, and ultimately sentenced him to death. Tsarnaev himself never testified, and the proceedings—closed to television cameras, with only three seats allotted to media—remained opaque.

The nervous silence that greeted the jury selection back in January quickly soured with news that the federal death sentence would be imposed. That didn’t stop the Boston police commissioner from glinting before the television cameras amassed outside the courtroom in order to sum up the triumph of law-and-order over the bad guys. “We send a strong message that we’re not going to tolerate terrorism.”

Yeah, death to martyrs. That’ll teach ’em.

—John Summers


John Summers: Good evening. As the trial for the bombing of the Boston Marathon begins, Paris shakes from the assassination of French magazine satirists. “A New Era of Terrorism” has commenced, according to the New York Times. Governments, to be sure, emit loose talk of “fundamental values.” Patriotic slogans such as “Boston Strong” paper over global anxiety, as everyone prepares for further massacres and retributions.

On behalf of The Baffler, I’d like to welcome you to this neighborhood forum on the war on terror and the rule of law. We present Noam Chomsky, author of 9-11 and many other books on politics and international affairs, and Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty Project. We meet tonight in the heart of Inman Square—the same neighborhood where the alleged perpetrators of the marathon bombing lived, worked, shopped, worshipped, and went to school among us.

Take a left out of the Lilypad and walk a few blocks, and over on Norfolk Street you’ll find the apartment where the brothers lived. Walk a few more blocks up Norfolk Street and you’ll find The Baffler’s office. I myself live right around the corner. Even for those of us who are not affected directly by the violence, this is a hard case not to take personally.

So we wanted a community forum that would run in parallel to the first part of the judicial proceedings, the most important domestic terrorism trial since Timothy McVeigh was tried for the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, because we felt a near-total absence of discussion on the ongoing damage done to our legal, civic, and political institutions. As the trial begins, there’s a sense in which we are once again being rather aggressively asked to “shelter in place,” to stop asking uncomfortable questions.

We’re here tonight, among other reasons, to defy any such expectations, to air alternative views of the new turn in the war on terror, and to imagine what we can do to prevent the war technique, in its numerous permutations, from becoming a permanent part of our civic life, from the neighborhood on up. Kade Crockford will speak first, and after her, Noam Chomsky.

Kade Crockford: Thanks, John. There are definitely a host of troubling questions raised by the trial itself, in addition to the circumstances surrounding the [accused] brothers [Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] and the case against Dzhokhar.

We can start with the trial. First of all, the trial should not be held in the city of Boston. The McVeigh case is a good example of a counterpoint. That trial was not held in Oklahoma for very good reasons. The judge agreed with the defense that the population in Oklahoma—in Oklahoma City—could not put forth an impartial jury to look at the facts without bias. As we’ve seen over the past week or so here in Boston, Judge [George] O’Toole’s decision to reject numerous defense motions to move this trial out of Boston was the wrong decision. The voir dire process has gone badly thus far.

Every day, we hear on the radio and read in the press stories about people who are asked questions by the prosecution and the defense and who answer things like, “X person in my family was directly related to the bombing in Y way,” or “I work for the company that sponsored the Boston Marathon,” or “I lived down the street from [Martin Richard], the little boy who lost his life that day, and I cry about it every single day.” The Department of Justice has already said in motions to the court that it intends to present an argument that not only the entire city of Boston was victimized by the attack, but that the entire state of Massachusetts was traumatized and victimized. Now they turn around and say that it’s possible to field an impartial jury, while we’ve seen that that’s going to be difficult if not impossible. So there’s the voir dire issue.

What can we do about terrorism? One easy suggestion comes to mind: we can stop participating in it.

Another really important thing that people need to realize about this trial is that it’s a death penalty trial, as you do know, but what a lot of people don’t know about death penalty trials is that they’re more likely to convict. They’re more likely to be composed of people with right-wing politics, white people, men. Women, people of color, and people with left-wing politics are more likely to oppose the death penalty, and if you oppose the death penalty you cannot sit on this trial.

So right off the bat, you have a big problem. U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz, widely despised both by the computer privacy and security community as a result of her persecution of Aaron Swartz and by the Muslim community for her persecution of Tarek Mehanna, a pharmacist from Massachusetts convicted a few years back of dubious “material support for terrorism” charges, has plowed ahead, saying that we should hold the trial in Boston and that we should go for the death penalty, a decision ultimately made by [U.S. attorney general] Eric Holder.

I find it confounding, not just because it is going to ensure that this trial drags on for decades and costs taxpayers millions and millions of dollars through appeal after appeal, but also because the death penalty is illegal in Massachusetts. The voters have said multiple times that we oppose execution by the government as a form of punishment. In fact, the Boston Globe took a poll, and they found that Boston residents opposed execution even for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev himself. So this flouts the will of the public, and because of the propensity for death penalty juries to convict, it also threatens Dzhokhar’s Fifth Amendment right to due process.

This is a pattern that the government is engaged in, and not just related to the Tsarnaev trial: saying something in public, usually through anonymous leaks through reporters, and then saying something entirely different in court. It has happened with the CIA drone operations—[CIA director] John Brennan goes before cameras and says we are engaged in righteous and precision strikes against terrorists. And then in court, when the ACLU asks for the drone memos, the CIA says we can neither confirm nor deny our involvement in those programs.

Well, we’ve seen something similar happening in this case. The leaks after the marathon bombing initially said that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was involved in the Waltham murders; a year later, Carmen Ortiz’s office is saying in court that they have no evidence of his involvement.[*]

And another strange thing (which I haven’t seen nearly enough exploration of in the press): just days after the marathon bombing, in May of 2013, we read in CNN (again through anonymous law enforcement leaks) that the government has found forensic evidence that the bombs that exploded at the marathon were built in Tamerlan’s apartment, just down the road [at 410 Norfolk Street, near the Lilypad]. They said they found explosives residue all over the place—in the kitchen, in the bathroom.

A year later, in May 2014, Carmen Ortiz’s office files a brief in court in U.S. v. Tsarnaev that says the exact opposite. It says we actually didn’t find much of any evidence in Tamerlan’s house, and we don’t know who built the bombs. Well, that’s quite an admission, and it’s not the only time that the government has said that in court.

The fact remains that the majority, if not all, of the major terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States and in Europe since September 11, 2001, have been perpetrated by people who had been investigated at some point by law enforcement. So the notion that the government should be recording details of every phone call we make, sucking up vast quantities of our private communications through surveillance programs conducted by the NSA, as well as other government agencies—which they do—in order to “stop terrorism,” is clearly bogus. These dragnet surveillance programs do not have any more effective impact on stopping terrorism.

Surveillance of this sort, as [Edward] Snowden has said—and as other dissidents have said repeatedly over time not just in the digital age but since the time of Stasi surveillance—exists for political, social, and economic control, not for public safety, and I don’t think we could have a clearer example than in the Boston Marathon bombing.

Noam Chomsky: Well, I don’t have anything to add about the terrorist acts in Boston and how they’re being handled, so what I’d like to try to do instead is to bring up some more general reflections and concerns about the issues of terrorism, what they raise, and what we can do about it.

Let me begin with something that may seem pretty far afield, a film review in the New York Times a couple days ago. It begins by ridiculing America’s “coastal intelligentsia,” which has “busied itself with chatter over little-seen art dramas” while “everyday Americans showed up en masse for a patriotic pro-family picture,” which broke attendance records in its opening days. At the end of this quite laudatory review, the reviewer mentions that there was another film that opened at the same time, but with quite limited attendance, Selma, which was timed for release with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Well, what was the patriotic, pro-family film that so entranced everyday Americans? It’s about the most deadly sniper in American history—a guy named Chris Kyle who claimed to have used his skills to kill several hundred people in Iraq. He wrote memoirs, and in the memoirs he describes what the experience was like. His first kill, he says, was a woman who walked into a street with a grenade in her hand as Marines attacked her village. Chris Kyle killed her with a single shot and explains how he felt about it: “I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. . . . Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemies ‘savages.’ There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.”[**]

The film reviews—I haven’t seen the film but I read reviews—they varied. The New Yorker thought it was great. They kept praising the cinematic values—nice photographs, and so on. There were others who found it appalling.

Jeff Stein is a former U.S. intelligence officer, he worked in Vietnam, and he wrote a very critical review [of Kyle’s memoir in 2012]. He recalled a visit he made to a club at a Marine base, a clubhouse for snipers. To quote him: “The barroom walls featured white-on-black Nazi SS insignia and other Wehrmacht photos and regalia. The Marine shooters clearly identified . . . with the marksmen of the world’s most infamous killing machine, rather than with regular troops.”

Well, going back to Chris Kyle, he regarded his first kill as a terrorist, this woman who walked into the street with the grenade when the Marines were attacking her village, but we can’t really attribute that to the mentality of a psychopathic killer, because we’re all tarred with the same brush, at least insofar as we tolerate or keep silent about official policy.

So take, for example, the case of Omar Khadr. Omar Khadr is the first case that was brought to trial—what’s called a trial—a military trial at Guantanamo. First case under Obama. He was a Guantanamo prisoner. He was apprehended when he was a fifteen-year-old child. He was in a residential complex that was attacked by special ops. They shot him, wounded him badly. He’s blinded; they didn’t finish him. They had a discussion about whether to finish him off but they decided to send him off to [Afghanistan’s] Bagram airbase, which is not inspected by anyone, it’s off-limits, but from the reports of prisoners, it’s the worst of the CIA torture chambers, apparently much worse even than Guantanamo, no inspection. He was there for a couple of [months], and then he was sent off to Guantanamo. Altogether he spent eight years in detention, torture, and so on. After eight years, he was granted a trial, a military trial. His lawyers were told that he had two options: one was to plead guilty of the charge. The charge was like the woman in the village. He’s alleged to have thrown a grenade when [American] forces attacked his residential complex. He could plead guilty, they said, in which case, he would have eight more years of imprisonment, or he could plead innocent, in which case he would be in there forever. So his lawyers advised him to plead guilty, which he did. He’s a Canadian citizen, and at that point, Canada finally intervened and said they would agree to take this deadly terrorist, the fifteen-year-old kid, back to Canada to serve the rest of his sentence there. So that’s what we call a terrorist, just like Chris Kyle called the woman in the village a terrorist.

This mentality helps explain why it’s so easy to ignore what is clearly the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern history, if not ever: Obama’s global assassination campaign, a campaign which officially is aimed at murdering people who are suspected of maybe someday planning to harm us. If that’s what they’re suspected of doing in the morning sessions with Brennan and so on, then we blow ’em away. And I’d really advise you to read some of the transcripts of the drone operators. They’re hair-raising—the guys who are sitting in front of computers in Las Vegas or somewhere. I can’t repeat it. Obama, you may recall, when he won the Nobel Prize, said, “Make no mistake, evil does exist in the world.” He’s right, and he knows exactly where to find it.

There are lots of other examples that are quite pertinent today. In the context of what’s called “renormalizing” our relations with Cuba, which means relaxing our relentless attack on Cuba for half a century, one thing that’s ignored is a massive terrorist campaign that John F. Kennedy launched against Cuba. It almost brought the world to a terminal nuclear war—the Cuban missile crisis—and after that it was immediately relaunched. This is ignored and dismissed. You find almost no reference to it, except for some witticisms about the silly CIA plots to try to poison [Fidel] Castro or something like that, which did take place, but that’s the least of it. And the same is true of numerous other atrocities by our side.

Right after the latest famous terrorist atrocity, Charlie Hebdo, the leading head of the Israeli labor party, Isaac Herzog, was quoted as saying, “Terrorism is terrorism. There are no two ways about it.” That’s quite wrong. There are two ways about it, and we know about it very well. We look quite differently at the retail terrorism that’s done by them against us, as compared with the wholesale terrorism that we carry out against them, which doesn’t count. Incidentally, it’s hardly a new observation. George Orwell defined what he called the nationalist: “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” Orwell didn’t go far enough. He also has—we also have—a remarkable capacity for denying them or even lauding them, case after case, and this usual pattern was followed after the latest atrocity in Paris.

The crime was vividly reported by the veteran Europe correspondent of the New York Times, Steven Erlanger. He described the aftermath as “a day of sirens, helicopters in the air, frantic news bulletins; of police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris.”

And Erlanger also quoted surviving journalists, who said, “Everything crashed. There was no way out. There was smoke everywhere. It was terrible. People were screaming, it was like a nightmare” and “There was a huge detonation and everything went dark.” Erlanger comments, “The scene was an increasingly familiar one of smashed glass, broken walls, twisted timbers, scorched paint, and emotional devastation.”

As some of you may recognize, I’m cheating. That [last part] was not his report after the Paris Charlie Hebdo bombing. Rather, this was April 23, 1999, and it didn’t make it to the front page. It was buried on an inside page—it wasn’t terribly important. It was the U.S. missile attack on Serbian state television headquarters, which knocked the television station off the air. It killed sixteen journalists, several more than Charlie Hebdo.

Erlanger reports that American officials defended the attack as “an effort to undermine” the government that the U.S. was attacking, and therefore the television station was a legitimate target. Richard Holbrooke, a distinguished diplomat—he was then the envoy to Yugoslavia—described the successful attack as “an enormously important, and I think, positive development,” echoed by many others. There was an international—still is—criminal tribunal for Yugoslavia. They were asked by some Canadian lawyers to look into the NATO attack, and they concluded that it was not a crime, but they did say that “civilian casualties were unfortunately high, but they do not appear to be clearly disproportionate.” That’s in contrast to Charlie Hebdo, where obviously they were very much proportionate—I don’t know proportionate to what, but that’s the quote.

Unemployment, no hope, imprisonment—well, out of that comes crime, what we call crime. It has roots.

Let’s go back to Chris Kyle. Some of his exploits were in Fallujah during the Marine attack on Fallujah in November 2004, one of the worst war crimes of the invasion itself—the worst war crime of the millennium. Here it is regarded as an example of marvelous heroism of our soldiers in liberating Iraq.

If you go back to the reporting of the Fallujah attack, it’s extremely interesting. I happened to be in New York when it took place, I had some talks, I stopped all the talks and each day just talked about the front page of the New York Times. The first day of the attack, the front page had a big picture of a hospital. The Marines had attacked a hospital, which is, of course, a war crime. The photograph showed that they had thrown the patients out of their beds and onto the floor and tied their hands behind their backs. They’d done the same with doctors. There were some questions about it. Reporters asked, “Why attack the hospital?” and they were told that the hospital was a legitimate target. The reason was that it was producing propaganda for the rebels, namely casualty figures. So therefore it was entirely legitimate to destroy it, to prevent this propaganda agency from continuing to spew forth its violent materials.

Well, these questions and these considerations directly inform the question of what we can do about terrorism. It’s serious; it’s a serious problem. What can we do about it? Well, one easy suggestion comes to mind at once: we can stop participating in it. We can stop carrying out large-scale terrorist atrocities. That would sharply reduce the amount of terrorism in the world more than anything else I can think of, and incidentally, by doing so, we would also reduce that small component of terrorism that makes its way into living memory—namely, what they do to us. It’s well known that the drone attacks are a very effective terrorist-generating mechanism. That’s been demonstrated over and over. And, in fact, if you take a look at the reports, the extensive discussions in the Charlie Hebdo case, they’ve made it very clear that what incited them to jihadism were things like Abu Ghraib and the U.S. attack on Iraq and other events of humiliation of Muslims, and violence against them, not to speak of the conditions in the suburbs of Paris, where they’re subjected to contempt and harsh repression while they try to survive.

If you go to the U.S. Senate reports on torture, they are quite interesting to read. They dealt with a single question: Did it work? The question is, can you achieve results by torturing people? And they concluded that you couldn’t achieve results, so therefore the liberal commentary on torture was that it wasn’t worth it. That’s the limit of the official discussion.

But there’s pretty good evidence that that’s irrelevant, because the evidence is pretty strong that getting results was not the purpose of the torture. The Cheney-Rumsfeld torture machine was initially designed for quite a different purpose, pretty explicitly. The purpose was to try to elicit some information, true or false, didn’t matter—some information that would tie Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, which is a crazy idea, but that’s what they needed in order to justify the attack on Iraq.

That was the initial purpose of the torture, but it actually gets worse. I’m quoting from a very well-documented study, a Seton Hall Law report that just came out, on what the government called the “Battle Lab.” They were seeking to obtain “information on the most effective ways to torture a human physically, information on the most damaging ways to break a man psychologically, and insight as to just how far the human body could be pushed in pain and terror before organ failure or death.” That’s the Battle Lab. And that was a large component of the torture that we talk about at Guantanamo. Other places are worse.

Crockford: A few things came to mind while I was listening to you talk, Noam. One is that I didn’t get into the question of whether or not—if Tamerlan Tsarnaev did kill those three people in Waltham—the marathon bombings would have happened had he been apprehended before April 2013. It’s an important question, because it gets to an issue that affects “the rest of us,” as the forum here advertises. As Noam has identified, dragnet surveillance clearly doesn’t protect public safety. There is something that protects public safety: individualized suspicion of wrongdoing.

So, if it’s actually true that the government had evidence way back when in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev killed those three people [in Waltham], as they leaked to the press that they did after the marathon bombings, and if Tamerlan had been investigated for that specific crime, given that there was specific evidence of wrongdoing against him, it would have prevented the marathon bombings, because he would have been in prison, having been convicted of killing three people. It’s a really perfect, very condensed, and locally relevant example of why individualized suspicion is actually a much better public safety policy than dragnet surveillance.

Another thing that is so interesting about the Paris attacks is that in the wake of the shootings, Al Qaeda took responsibility for at least training some of the people who were involved, if not for financing the operation. We don’t know if it’s true or not, but they took responsibility. They told Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept that they were responsible.

They also said something really interesting. They said, I’m paraphrasing, why is it okay for you to kill our propagandists, and we can’t kill yours?[***] Now, you’ll recall that the United States government announced to the world that it intended to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, with a drone, before they did it. The ACLU, working with al-Awlaki’s father, sued, and said, hold on, you can’t kill a U.S. citizen without due process. This is absurd. All those lawsuits failed, and he was killed eventually. The U.S. government killed him with a drone. A U.S. citizen. They alleged that he was operational. There’s no evidence of this at all. He was a propagandist. There’s plenty of evidence that he was a propagandist. They hated him because he spoke in English, and he spoke very eloquently denouncing the United States government. They murdered him. They murdered Samir Khan, who was another U.S. citizen and who edited the magazine Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language propaganda outlet. It’s a question that is uncomfortable, I think, for the United States government and for the West more generally. Why is it okay to kill their propagandists and it’s not okay to kill ours? Of course, I don’t agree with killing any propagandists.

Think of the actual public safety threat that terrorism poses. There was a study done a few years back that showed that you’re more likely to be killed by your furniture in the United States than by a terrorist. Your television is more likely to fall on your head and kill you than you are likely to be killed by someone who has political motives. Just consider that every time you hear the FBI and the NSA—even local police now—say that they need some new power or new technology to invade your rights to protect you. Are they going to protect you from your television? That’s the question you should be asking.

Chomsky: Routinely, the United States goes after what it calls propaganda agencies and destroys them. I happened to be in Islamabad right at the time when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, and of course, all the journalists in the world flocked to Islamabad, because that was the way to get into Afghanistan. If you’ve ever been in a place where a lot of journalists flock together, you’ll know how it works. There’s a couple of hotels, and they hang around the hotel bars, and they have fun and have drinks and talk to each other and so on. And the big joke among the journalists in the Islamabad hotel bar was about the U.S. bombing of the Al Jazeera television and radio outlet in Kabul. It had been attacked and destroyed by U.S. missiles. And the official story—which, incidentally, all the journalists reported—was that it was an accident, that they were aiming at something else. Everyone in the bar was laughing about how ridiculous this is. Of course they targeted the Al Jazeera office and destroyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing you report. That’s routine. You’re quite right.

Crockford: And the U.S. killed Al Jazeera journalists in Iraq as well.

Chomsky: Exactly.

Summers: Okay, we’re going to take a couple of questions.

Audience member: The Muslim population of France is about 7.5 percent, but something like 70 percent of all prison inmates in France are Muslim, mostly from the Middle East or North African nations. You sort of see the same trend here in United States prisons—with mostly people of color, mostly black people. So what are the implications, if we continue doing this? Prisons are the hotbed for whatever they term “domestic terrorism” in France and radicalization. What are the implications for the United States, which is disproportionately imprisoning people of color and immigrants?

Chomsky: Well, I think the implications are pretty clear. It’s pretty much like defense against terrorism or surveillance. If the purpose of the so-called criminal justice system was to protect people, prevent crime, and so on, you wouldn’t have these results. So that tells you the purpose is something else. What’s the purpose? Just look at the results. Go to the banlieues, the suburbs of Paris, where it’s mostly North Africans, and the conditions are pretty awful. I’ve seen worse poverty, but they’re pretty bad. But the worst thing, the thing that people complain about, is the utter contempt that is felt toward them by those rich guys in Paris an hour away, and the way they’re treated if they dare to get into Paris. You have to live with this constant assault on your dignity and your personal rights. There’s plenty of violence and repression, too. Unemployment, no hope, imprisonment—well, out of that comes crime, what we call crime. But it has roots.

Same in the United States. The highly disproportionate number of black men in prison is not because they’re genetically different. There’s a history of four hundred years since the first slaves came, which has a very strong residue. The current explosion in imprisonment since Ronald Reagan is because of a very clearly racist drug war, designed on racist grounds from police action all the way through up to sentencing and post-release treatment. As a result, prisons are full of blacks.

It happens to be a repetition of what happened after the Civil War. There were ten years, roughly, during which blacks had a moderate possible access to being part of the world. After that, there was a North-South compact that essentially told the slave states they could do whatever they like. So what they did was criminalize black life. Pretty soon, the black male population was back in jail, a large part of a labor force for the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Now we’re doing it again. It’s been going on for four hundred years now.

Audience: Kade, I noticed you tweeted something earlier this morning about how the judge [presiding over the Tsarnaev trial, George O’Toole,] said that the presumption of innocence is just kind of a bon mot and not really to be taken seriously.

Crockford: A “term of art,” is what he said.

Audience: Yeah, “term of art.” Do you think it’s possible to compose an impartial jury in Massachusetts, especially given that if you admit in the jury selection process that you would ever doubt the word of a police officer, then they just kind of reject you off the bat? Do you think there’s any hope for the jury at all?

Crockford: Well, yeah, the second question points to a larger problem in the criminal punishment system. You’re right. If you say that you don’t like cops or that you distrust cops, then you will never serve on any jury in this country. But certainly, I don’t think an impartial jury will be fielded in this case. Even if the jury is impartial by O’Toole’s standards or even by the standards of the defense, I don’t think that it’s possible for there to be an impartial jury, given that this is a death penalty case. As I said before, you cannot serve on the jury unless you support execution as a political matter.

Audience: In the discussion today, I think we’ve highlighted that there’s deceit on the part of the government against the American people. What can we do now? Where do you see that we can go to take a step back and kind of awaken the people who are passively allowing this to continue?

Chomsky: Well, think of that film that I mentioned that not enough people are going to see, Selma. What is it about? It’s about one of the later steps in a creation of a huge, mass popular movement that compelled a very reluctant government to pass some limited rights that should have been available centuries earlier—but they did pass them. If you had asked in 1960, what can you do about these things, the answer would have been nothing. But a couple of people did try to do things. A couple of black students sat in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Immediately they were arrested, of course. That could’ve ended it, except that a couple more came back the next day. Pretty soon you had SNCC formed.

The Freedom Riders going through the South and facing extreme violence was far worse than anything we can think of today in the country. Killing, murder, all kinds of attacks, but they kept coming. And the greatest courage was from the black rural people who were willing to dare to get to register to vote. Finally, you’ve got things like Selma, which was brutal and vicious, but did get national attention enough so that it was possible to create large-scale public pressure that led Congress and the president to put through some legislative measures that did improve things.

Things are much better than they were in many respects. Right now, surveillance is really awful stuff, undoubtedly, but compare it to what was going on in the 1960s and early ’70s, COINTELPRO. Nobody talks about that very much. But that was a program run by the national political police, the FBI, under four administrations. It started under [Dwight] Eisenhower, took off under [John F.] Kennedy and [Lyndon B.] Johnson, continued into [Richard] Nixon. This was a program that started off, as always, with the Communist Party but then expanded to just about everything; the women’s movement, the New Left, the black movements were the main targets. And it wasn’t just surveillance; it went all the way up to assassination—Gestapo-style political assassination. Police breaking into the apartment of a black organizer, Fred Hampton, murdering him and another organizer. That’s direct political assassination. It barely elicited any interest or attention, but it was severe, and there was plenty of it. It was finally terminated, and compared with that, we’re pretty well off. It’s not to say that it’s good now, but it’s been worse before.

Audience: I’m reminded of the death of Robert Kennedy at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian, and how little interrogation was done at the time of his motives, which, by his own candid admission, had to do with [Kennedy’s campaign promise to] deploy fifty bombers to shore up the Israel Defense Forces. I think of the note that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev composed on the side of the boat when he was awaiting capture and bleeding; he wrote something to the effect of, you are facing men who look down the barrel of a gun and who see heaven, and how can you compete with that?[****] I wonder if someday someone will anthologize all these statements of terrorists, whose methods we don’t condone, and say, jeez, they were being pretty emphatic and clear for fifty years at least. I wonder how you account for our radical, ahistorical obtuseness in this half-century long war? I hear myself sounding very unpatriotic, but how on earth do we forgive ourselves for not internalizing a rather simple message?

Chomsky: How do we forgive ourselves? We’ve got a lot to forgive ourselves for. Take the fact that we’re a wealthy privileged people, as all of us here are, I suppose. Where did that all come from? Well, a large part of the wealth of the society, not just the United States, but also England and the Continent, came from slave labor camps, vicious slave labor camps of a kind that would’ve impressed the Nazis. Cotton was much more important than oil in the nineteenth century. It was the basis for the development of the modern economy. Manufacturing, finance, merchants, commodities, trade—all developed out of the cotton production. Where did cotton production come from? Slave labor camps. Vicious, murderous slave labor camps, which were very efficient, incidentally, where productivity increased faster than it did in industry, and where there were no technological innovations—just the bullwhip and the pistol and driving people harder and harder so they could produce more and more cotton. That’s why we share in wealth and privilege, and not just us.

Is that something to apologize for? Well, yeah, we do apologize for it by throwing them in jail and by claiming that they’re genetically inferior, that’s why they do these bad things. And this has been going on, as I said, for four hundred years in one way or another.

There’s also the small matter that was reported in the New York Times this morning, interestingly. There was an article on Junípero Serra, who’s being considered for sainthood. He led the missions in California, which brought civilization to the Indians by exterminating them and by Christianizing them. So he’s a saint or almost a saint, soon will be. But to the credit of the reporter, [Carol Pogash], it did quote Indian activists who said, look, there’s another side to this: extermination, destruction of our culture, stealing of our lands, and so on.

Well, that didn’t happen just in California. Right here where we are, the same thing happened a little earlier. Is that something to apologize for, to think about? It is, and there are plenty of other things.

Audience: Thank you both. I’d like to hear more about the case of the individual who was killed by the FBI in Florida, [Ibragim Todashev], if there’s a little more detail you could share about that. What actually happened during the interrogation?

Crockford: Wouldn’t we like to know. I think part of the problem is that there’s been unprecedented secrecy around the Waltham murder investigation and what happened in Florida. The Florida state attorney, Jeff Ashton, I believe his name is, published a report clearing FBI agent Aaron McFarlane of wrongdoing in shooting Todashev. He was shot seven times, including three times in the back.

What we know, basically, is that two Massachusetts state troopers—one who was assigned to the violent fugitive task force, basically a fugitive hunter, and one who was a detective assigned to the murder investigation in Waltham—as well as this FBI agent, Aaron McFarlane, went down to Orlando in a mad rush to interview Todashev one last time (they’d spoken with him before) because they feared he was about to leave the country.

That is, on its face, a hilarious statement, because if anybody can stop you from leaving the country, it’s the FBI. Especially if this guy was connected in any way to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, they would have had no problem stopping him from leaving the country. So I find it to be bizarre that they had to rush down to Florida to interview him at his home, and at night. This was a guy who, if you will recall, was a very powerful mixed martial arts fighter. He was very strong, and physically threatening. In fact, I heard that the first time the FBI interviewed him, they sent seven agents because they were so afraid of his physicality.

But then to his last interview, they sent only two guys into the room at his home—highly unusual behavior. Typically, they would want to have him in a secure environment, somewhere where they could control what was going on. But no: at night, at his home, and only two guys in the room. So there’s already a lot of stuff that seems unusual, suspicious.

The next day, the FBI’s initial statements changed about forty times. Like I said before, first the story was that he came at them with a pole, then it was a knife, then it was a broom-handle, a candelabra, or a samurai sword, I’m not kidding. You can read these reports in the press. And then finally, they settle on the story that he’s sitting at a table not unlike this, and he’s writing his confession to the murder. Susan Zalkind, who might be in the room tonight, has reported that the things he wrote in this confession didn’t even comport with the facts of the crime scene in Waltham, so there’s some strange stuff there. Then he flips the table, and somehow the table boomerangs and lands on the back of the FBI agent’s head, giving him a giant gash in his head. There are photographs of the FBI agent’s wound made public. And then [Todashev] runs into the kitchen, shuffles to find the knife, and then boom, boom is shot—somehow in the back, three times.

So this is what we’re told. The FBI, as well as the Florida state’s attorney, cleared FBI agent Aaron McFarlane, said the shooting was justified. FBI officials have been cleared in 150 out of 150 shootings over recent years, as Charlie Savage of the New York Times has reported.

One of the things that I find to be the most bizarre, honestly, about this case is that some of the text messages between the officers that night were printed in the state attorney’s report in Florida. The day after Todashev was killed, one of the officers texts to another one, I’m paraphrasing here, but you can look this up, it’s on my blog, “Great job men, we got through it, and now we’re headed home.”[*****]

So I’m confused about that statement, because if I were a police officer who thought that this man was perhaps the only living witness to a brutal triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts, where three men were nearly decapitated, marijuana was dumped on the bodies, and lots of cash was left in the house, a truly bizarre crime . . . If you had killed, during an interrogation, the sole remaining witness to that crime, it strikes me as weird that you would then text, “Good job, we got through it, now we’re heading home.”

I don’t know what happened there. The government’s mum; information about the investigation is not being released because the government says that the Waltham murders are still under investigation, even though they’ve also said at times that the two prime suspects are both dead (both of them at the hands of the government), so, yeah, your guess is as good as mine.

Chomsky: Let me add a word about the reaction to the [Fred] Hampton assassination [in 1969], which is quite illuminating. There were some local protests. The biggest one by far was in Chicago, where the assassination took place. Actually, I flew out to Chicago for the funeral a couple days later. There was a massive funeral; must’ve been a thousand people there. Strikingly, there were almost no white faces, and that’s reflected in the coverage and the memories and the way it was dealt with; it simply did not enter into the national consciousness. There was virtually no reporting—some, but not much—because it wasn’t considered significant. So what if the national police carried out a Gestapo-style murder of two black organizers? Who cares about that?

Very strikingly, this happened in the same era as Watergate, almost the same time. Everybody’s heard about Watergate. What happened at Watergate? Nixon called some people bad names; there was an enemies list. Nothing happened to anybody on the enemies list. I happen to know that, because I was on it. They didn’t even investigate tax returns, not because I was on it, but because the head of IBM was on it, McGeorge Bundy was on it. So calling important people bad names in private—that’s a real crime, the foundations of the republic are crumbling.

Take a look at the Watergate indictment. First of all, things like COINTELPRO and the murder of Fred Hampton, of course are never considered. Who would care about that as compared with Watergate? But there was one crime on the original indictment that was actually meaningful: the bombing of Cambodia. It was taken off. That was not part of the indictment. And that tells you something. It tells you what we consider a crime—we, meaning the liberal establishment. It’s not a crime to murder black organizers in an operation run by the national political police. It is a crime to call important people bad names in private; that’s really terrible. And just compare the coverage and the memory of these two events, Watergate and the Hampton assassination; you’ll learn a lot about the prevailing moral and intellectual culture.

Crockford: I disagree a little bit with what you said about how things were worse under COINTELPRO. For one thing, the FBI now has access to information about all people that [FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover would have salivated over, died for perhaps, certainly killed for.

Chomsky: Well, you’re right about the information, but take a look at the actions.

Crockford: On the question of actions, I think the government has gotten smarter about how it pursues its devious intelligence activities. Are they murdering activists in their beds? No. Are they incarcerating activists and journalists? Absolutely. For long prison terms in federal prison.

Chomsky: They’ve been doing it to Leonard Peltier[******] and others—

Crockford: Sure, sure. Marcy Wheeler, a writer who focuses on national security issues, said something like this: Why are people so worried about drone strikes on U.S. citizens when the FBI and the police can kill people and get away with it? [In March 2013] a young man named Kimani Gray was shot dead by the New York police department in the street. The police claimed he had a gun and that he was waving it at them. Everyone who was in the street watching the murder take place said there was no gun, the police completely lied, they rolled up on him, two plainclothes detectives jumped out of the car and shot him dead. They got away with it because they’re police, and police don’t go to prison when they shoot young black men. The question of whether the government has simply changed its tactics—it seems to me to be impossible for police or FBI agents to get in trouble for shooting black people dead, so that hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Chomsky: Oh, I think it has, though. Take a look at the state troopers in Jackson, Mississippi [in 1970]. Police just can’t do that anymore.

Crockford: You mean shoot at a college campus?

Chomsky: Beat them bloody, murder them. Killing them when nobody’s looking. I mean, it was monstrous. Look, what you’re describing today is bad, but I think we should not overlook that there’s a history that’s much worse. Just take repression: Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare practically destroyed independent thought in the country, destroyed the unions, kicked thousands of people out of the country, plenty of violence, and that was a liberal administration. COINTELPRO went through the most liberal administrations in American history, Kennedy and Johnson.

And the murder of Fred Hampton was just the peak. There were other killings, there was massive repression, there was breakup of political movements, pretty awful interference with personal lives and political action. And the history of really oppressed minorities, like blacks, is incomparably worse. Nothing like that is possible now.

I don’t see why one should think that the prospects for long-term political mobilization and activism are harder today than they were, say, in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the early 1960s, or the ’50s, or the ’40s when the background of the Civil Rights movement began. It’s not that it’s easy today. There’ll be plenty of surveillance of what you’re doing—it’s a burden—but being beaten and killed by the police is an even worse burden.

Audience: Back to the Tsarnaev trial and the secrecy surrounding it, it’s my understanding that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is under a gag order. He’s not been able to speak to anybody about his motives. All we have are some sort of cryptic scrawlings on a boat. And making the comparison with the Timothy McVeigh trial—one thing that was more fair was that McVeigh was able to speak freely about why he did it. It was in response to Waco and Ruby Ridge and the actions of the ATF and the FBI in slaughtering people at Waco. Could you speak to that gag order a little bit?

Crockford: Yeah, what you’re referring to are “Special Administrative Measures.” If there’s a more Orwellian term for the thing that that describes, then maybe it’s “Special Administrative Detention.” These SAMs, as they’re called, forbid Tsarnaev from speaking to anyone except for his immediate family and his lawyers. He can’t talk to the press, he can’t give interviews, and he can’t write statements that can be read by the general public. I’m not sure that his lawyers would let him, even if he could, but he can’t. The government won’t let him. Also, the government is monitoring all of his communications. They record—as far as I understand, wiretap—his conversations with his family when they visit him.

And those SAMs are not unique to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I think it’s really important to remember that since 9/11 the government has created this special category of prisoner. There are super-supermaxes now; there’s one in Illinois, and in fact, the federal government is thinking about building a new one—where Obama wanted to move the remaining Guantanamo detainees before the Republicans barred any federal funds from being spent on such a maneuver. The only people in them are Muslims and left-wing so-called terrorists: eco-activists who lit fires at SUV dealerships, people like that. Nobody else goes to these places. Their communications are extensively monitored by the Bureau of Prisons. They have very, very restricted rights in terms of what kind of publications they can access while they’re incarcerated. So yeah, this kind of treatment that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is subject to during the trial is likely to extend for the rest of his life.

Audience: We have a lot of people here who are very much part of social media and the Internet, and I wanted to ask, what are your thoughts on all the access to media that we have today? Has that made any difference from the time when there were more gatekeepers?

Chomsky: It’s got very positive aspects to it. You can get access to information and material that would have been very hard to get before. You can read Glenn Greenwald’s regular reports; you can find information from the foreign press. These are things that you would have had to do intensive individual research for not long ago; you can now pick up in the morning with just a couple of keystrokes, and you can present your opinions, your interpretations. There are discussions, debates. Things that would have been very hard in the past are now much facilitated. Practically all the organizing that goes on today is through social media, which is, of course, far more effective than just trying to find people. So all that’s positive.

But there’s a negative side too—in practice it tends to separate people from one another. It tends to set up superficial relationships instead of real live personal relationships, and it tends to trivialize a lot of communication and interaction, and also to divert people. A tremendous amount of it is just diversion, and that’s harmful and negative. I think it’s kind of like any technology. The technology is kind of neutral. We can use it as a very significant force. But it’s an effort, and a battle, like anything.


[*] On September 11, 2011, in Waltham, MA, three men—Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman, and Rafi Teken—were murdered in Mess’s home. The victims’ throats were slit, and large amounts of marijuana and cash were left behind, making a robbery scenario seem unlikely. In 2013, the FBI claimed it came close to obtaining a written confession from a man named Ibragim Todashev that would have implicated him and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the crime. But according to the agency, in the midst of penning the confession, Todashev attacked an FBI agent and a Massachusetts state trooper. The FBI agent shot him seven times. Todashev’s killing is discussed below.

[**]Chris Kyle, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

[***] In a statement to The Intercept, one member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wrote of Charlie Hebdo supporters, “I find it funny how this type of people think. ‘It is a crime for a journalist to be killed,’ they claim. I would like to pose some questions to them: . . . Was it a crime to kill Samir Khan for being a member of Inspire Team? Was it a crime to kill Fuad Al-Hadhrami, the brother who accompanied journalists in S.Yemen? Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard remarked he didn’t ‘understand how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war.’ Isn’t Inspire a magazine? Are we to conclude that drones and missiles aren’t heavy weapons?”

[****] The quotation, part of a longer screed written by Tsarnaev on the side of the boat, is “Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that.”

[*****] The text message, which was sent by one of the Massachusetts state troopers, read, “Well done men we all got through it and are now heading home. Great work.”

[******] Peltier is a Native American activist who has spent forty years in prison after a dubious conviction for the murder of two FBI agents shot during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.