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Noam Chomsky: Destroying the Commons - How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta

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Headlined to H3 7/23/12

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The issue arose after the presidentially ordered assassination-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of inciting jihad in speech, writing, and unspecified actions.  A headline in the New York Times captured the general elite reaction when he was murdered in a drone attack, along with the usual collateral damage.  It read: "The West celebrates a cleric's death." Some eyebrows were lifted, however, because he was an American citizen, which raised questions about due process -- considered irrelevant when non-citizens are murdered at the whim of the chief executive.  And irrelevant for citizens, too, under Obama administration due-process legal innovations.

Presumption of innocence has also been given a new and useful interpretation.  As the New York Times reported, "Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." So post-assassination determination of innocence maintains the sacred principle of presumption of innocence.

It would be ungracious to recall the Geneva Conventions, the foundation of modern humanitarian law: they bar "the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."

The most famous recent case of executive assassination was Osama bin Laden, murdered after he was apprehended by 79 Navy seals, defenseless, accompanied only by his wife, his body reportedly dumped at sea without autopsy.  Whatever one thinks of him, he was a suspect and nothing more than that.  Even the FBI agreed.

Celebration in this case was overwhelming, but there were a few questions raised about the bland rejection of the principle of presumption of innocence, particularly when trial was hardly impossible.  These were met with harsh condemnations.  The most interesting was by a respected left-liberal political commentator, Matthew Yglesias, who 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," so it is "amazingly naïve" to suggest that the U.S. should obey international law or other conditions that we righteously demand of the weak.

Only tactical objections can be raised to aggression, assassination, cyberwar, or other actions that the Holy State undertakes in the service of mankind.  If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional Western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as "silly," Yglesias explains -- incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt.

Executive Terrorist Lists

Perhaps the most striking assault on the foundations of traditional liberties is a little-known case brought to the Supreme Court by the Obama administration, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.  The Project was condemned for providing "material assistance" to the guerrilla organization PKK, which has fought for Kurdish rights in Turkey for many years and is listed as a terrorist group by the state executive.  The "material assistance" was legal advice.  The wording of the ruling would appear to apply quite broadly, for example, to discussions and research inquiry, even advice to the PKK to keep to nonviolent means.  Again, there was a marginal fringe of criticism, but even those accepted the legitimacy of the state terrorist list -- arbitrary decisions by the executive, with no recourse.

The record of the terrorist list is of some interest.  For example, in 1988 the Reagan administration declared Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to be one of the world's "more notorious terrorist groups," so that Reagan could continue his support for the Apartheid regime and its murderous depredations in South Africa and in neighboring countries, as part of his "war on terror." Twenty years later Mandela was finally removed from the terrorist list, and can now travel to the U.S. without a special waiver.

Another interesting case is Saddam Hussein, removed from the terrorist list in 1982 so that the Reagan administration could provide him with support for his invasion of Iran.  The support continued well after the war ended.  In 1989, President Bush I even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production -- more information that must be kept from the eyes of the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders."

One of the ugliest examples of the use of the terrorist list has to do with the tortured people of Somalia.  Immediately after September 11th, the United States closed down the Somali charitable network Al-Barakaat on grounds that it was financing terror. This achievement was hailed one of the great successes of the "war on terror." In contrast, Washington's withdrawal of its charges as without merit a year later aroused little notice. 

Al-Barakaat was responsible for about half the $500 million in remittances to Somalia, "more than it earns from any other economic sector and 10 times the amount of foreign aid [Somalia] receives" a U.N. review determined.  The charity also ran major businesses in Somalia, all destroyed.  The leading academic scholar of Bush's "financial war on terror," Ibrahim Warde, concludes that apart from devastating the economy, this frivolous attack on a very fragile society "may have played a role in the rise... of Islamic fundamentalists," another familiar consequence of the "war on terror."

The very idea that the state should have the authority to make such judgments is a serious offense against the Charter of Liberties, as is the fact that it is considered uncontentious.  If the Charter's fall from grace continues on the path of the past few years, the future of rights and liberties looks dim.

Who Will Have the Last Laugh?

A few final words on the fate of the Charter of the Forest.  Its goal was to protect the source of sustenance for the population, the commons, from external power -- in the early days, royalty; over the years, enclosures and other forms of privatization by predatory corporations and the state authorities who cooperate with them, have only accelerated and are properly rewarded.  The damage is very broad.

If we listen to voices from the South today we can learn that "the conversion of public goods into private property through the privatization of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one way neoliberal institutions remove the fragile threads that hold African nations together.  Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities, and a nation.  This is one of the benefits that structural adjustment programmes inflicted on the continent -- the enthronement of corruption." I'm quoting Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in his searing expose of the ravaging of Africa's wealth, To Cook a Continent, the latest phase of the Western torture of Africa.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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