From Cuba to North Korea: Torture Disappears From the Media

Hardly had the good news that the US would stop its policy of isolation of Cuba and open an embassy on the Island state when a news item about North Korea captured the airwaves and the Internet. The torture report, or rather the summary of the redacted Senate report on torture, disappeared from the headlines to remain in the alternative media only. Can there be a link between all these events or even a deliberate act on the part of the newsmakers, or is that a stretch too far?

The torture investigation and the publication of a minimal but revealing summary had immense international resonance. Suddenly, the US lost its grandstanding, hectoring, lecturing posture. Countries that have themselves less than a stellar record on human rights, such as China or Russia or even, yes, North Korea, could laugh out loud and denounce the hypocritical “leader of the free world.” If the US tortures, then it is in no position to moralize or blame others for their violations of human rights. Human rights then become a fig leaf, a propaganda move to be invoked in a Machiavellian way only to demean enemies.

Torture is a clearly illegal, immoral and terrible violation of human rights and humanitarian law and its use by the country praising and vowing to export democracy undermines the very idea of human rights and respect for international law. In terms of image, the torture report was extremely negative for the US. I say “was,” for it soon disappeared from view although key issues were not resolved and there is no investigation of the torturers and their enablers or order-givers in sight. The world was “shocked but not surprised,” to use the same expression an official of Human Rights Watch used on “Democracy Now!” given that reports about torture Abu Ghraib and Bagram had reached the eyes or ears of those who wanted to know a long time before the Senate confirmed their worst fears.

Torture was sidelined by the news about Cuba – which all progressives, of course, welcomed, since peace and diplomacy are always preferable to bombs, undercover operations and spying. After 50 years of stealth operations by the US and repression in Cuba, a new era seems to be dawning. Progressives from Latin America to Asia and Europe cheered Obama. Talking to one’s enemies is always preferable to bombing them and causing backlash. Obama was lambasted by some segments of the right, but his decision is popular among Americans and even more so abroad. Even sectors of the business world rejoice over the opportunities normalization will afford them.

Yet Obama decided immediately to resort to the same methods of isolation and pressure that had largely failed in Cuba (though caused the régime there to become more repressive) in relation to Venezuela. What is happening in Venezuela and the extent to which any violations of human rights there are in part a reaction to international pressure are not clear. What is clear, though, is that the US is using punitive measures to make the country toe the Washington line. With a great deal of help from Saudi Arabia, the Western ally which beheads gay people but is not blamed for it, the price of oil is going down. The US can therefore kill two birds with one stone, if not three birds. Venezuela, like Russia and Iran, is taking a bashing from the rapidly plummeting price of oil. The US shows it still rules the world in economic matters and can obtain what it wants geopolitically by using the money weapon. The news about Venezuela, however, never made the headlines.

Suddenly came the flap over The Interview, the movie Sony wanted to release for Christmas. At first, of course, I learned only about the censorship efforts by a group, interestingly calling itself GOP (not for the Republican Party though but for Guardians of Peace). Then after watching the trailer and surfing on the Net, I discovered that the movie depicted the execution of the North Korean leader in an orgy of blood and that the State Department had been involved in the writing of the script and making of the movie. Very quickly the FBI pointed the finger at North Korea which had, allegedly, hacked Sony and was now threatening the US with 9/11 type attacks. The whole thing was couched as a first amendment issue, with George Clooney becoming the hero of freedom of speech.

Now there is one thing I admire the US for and that is freedom of speech. I fully agree with Noam Chomsky, the radical critic of US foreign policy, who often says that the US is the freest country in the world. Freest in the sense that access to information is the easiest. I also think the ACLU approach to free speech is better, more progressive than European conceptions of free speech which condone restrictions in some cases. So, of course, my initial reaction was to feel that, yes, the movie, even the atrocious movie called The Interview should not be censored by anyone, dictator or not. I still hold to that view.

Yet the whole thing is far from being a simple first amendment issue. The first amendment is often interpreted in mendacious ways. For instance, the Supreme Court invoked it in the McCutcheon case to allow more contributions by the super rich to their super conservative friends running for office. In other words, the first amendment, a cornerstone of American freedom and democracy, is hijacked to bash democracy and favor plutocracy. In 2004, the first amendment protected the terrible lies of the Swif boat veterans aiming at shooting down Kerry’s chances to be elected President. Could the GOP attack on Sony and the blaming of North Korea be a case of swiftboating?

North Korea is not an attractive place, to say the least. We know people there starve, the régime is a Stalinist holdover, there are few freedoms in North Korea and also very few computers and people connected to the World Wide Web. No one expects the North Korean leaders to tell the truth. The country is a backward dictatorship, no doubt about it. No first amendment there. So it is of course easy and tempting to believe what the FBI claimed: that North Korean leaders were offended by the movie and wanted to frighten Sony into censoring it. Ah, but wait a minute, we’ve been there before.

In 2003, when the Bush-Cheney team, the same one that condoned and ordered torture, wanted to have its war against Iraq, it claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was lying about it. Now we know that the tyrant, for Hussein was a terrible tyrant who often lied, told the truth about these WMDs, but that Bush-Cheney lied through their teeth and caused the deaths of thousands of people with their fabrications. Could one be in a similar situation today? I don’t know, for it would not be above the North Korean dictatorship to pull a fast one, but it wouldn’t be unusual for the CIA, FBI or State Department to pull the wool over our eyes either. I also remember the story of the Iraqis supposedly taking away babies from incubators which was a total fabrication to justify military action.

Cuba, North Korea and the first amendment have pushed the torture report away from the news. Maybe the truth will come out later, as it did in the case of the Swiftboat liars and of the Kuwaiti incubators. In these two cases, the truth came out when it was too late: Kerry was defeated and the War in Iraq had been launched. The only wise and decent attitude then is to avoid certainty: the truth about the GOP attack is not yet out. Wait and see.

Yet from what we already know without a doubt some conclusions can be drawn. How would the world react if a Hollywood movie depicted the assassination of, to take a few examples, the French president, the Pope, the Israeli Prime Minister, the Saudi King or the Secretary General of the Chinese communist party? Anger, riots and possibly terrorist attacks in some cases. Strong official rebuke, but no discussion about freedom of speech which would not be challenged. It is actually safer to deride or fictionally assassinate the North Korean dictator for North Korea has no real allies and no admirers in the West.

We also know that Hollywood glorifies the attacks which US and international law prohibit. With Zero Dark Thirty Hollywood worshipped vengeance and Cheney’s love of the “dark side” to the point of legitimating torture. With The Interview, Sony and Hollywood legitimize the assassination of a foreign leader – which is illegal in US and international law – and offer a spectacle of total racist violence with the head of a non-European nation being blasted in a bloody explosion. Morally repulsive. The fact that the non-white, non-American who is blasted to death is a dictator and a terrible leader for his fellow country-people does not change the repulsiveness one bit. Even if turns out that backward North Korea found the expertise to hack Sony computers, even if it is not a new Kuwaiti incubators Swiftboating story, the repulsiveness will not disappear. Zero Dark Thirty was a facilitator of torture. The Interview makes régime change and assassination comedy stuff although they are crimes that should be punished.