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Howard Zinn on Terrorism, Global Security and the Peace Movement in a Time of Endless War

StoryFebruary 22, 2002
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The United States ambassador for war crimes said yesterday that the Geneva Conventions are outdated and need to be rewritten to deal with the threat of international terrorism. His remarks, in an interview with The Independent, represent the first time a senior figure in the Bush administration has spoken so unambiguously about an overhaul of the conventions, which are largely believed to have tempered some of the worst excesses of modern warfare. They reflect Washington’s exasperation at criticism by Western allies and international organizations of its treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

During a time of seemingly endless war, there are few more important voices than that of longtime radical historian and peace activist Howard Zinn. We go now to a speech he gave in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 10. It is called “Where Are We Heading: Terrorism, Global Security, and the Peace Movement,” a talk given at a benefit for the Alliance for Democracy. It was recorded by Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! That was Bobby McFerrin, “The 23rd Psalm.” I’m Amy Goodman.

The U.S. ambassador for war crimes said yesterday the Geneva Conventions are outdated and needs to be rewritten to deal with the threat of international terrorism. His remarks in an interview with The Independent represent the first time a senior figure in the Bush administration has spoken so unambiguously about an overhaul of the conventions, which are largely believed to have tempered some of the worst excesses of modern warfare.

We’re going to turn right now to Howard Zinn, radical historian, activist and author of A People’s History of the United States, who spoke recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the group Alliance for Democracy about the issue of terrorism and war.

HOWARD ZINN: When I saw that I was going to speak on the topic, “Where are we headed?” I shuddered. Do you think I know? I’m a historian. I know about the past. You see? The future? Well, it’s up to us. And where we are headed depends on us and where we go.

Yes, as Ronnie said, I’ve been talking all over the country about the war, the war on terrorism. And interestingly enough, I’ve been talking to, you know, yeah, large groups of people, I mean, a thousand, 1,500, 2,000, Santa Cruz — you might say, “Oh, well, that’s Santa Cruz” — 1,600 people in Oregon, you know, 1,400 in Ames, Iowa, a thousand in Greensboro, North Carolina, a thousand in Burlington, Vermont. I’ve been talking to audiences of a thousand to 2,000 people. I don’t believe that I’m talking to a thousand or 2,000 radicals in each place. I mean, I’d be happy if I were. But I don’t think that’s so.

I think there are a lot of people in the country who really don’t know what to think about the war. And very often they — you know, they may be even putting up American flags. Or they may be saying yes to the Gallup poll when it puts a microphone in front of them and says, “Do you support the president?” Because it’s hard and seems to be hard not to say you support the president in the kind of atmosphere that has been created in this democratic country.

So, I get the impression, just going around the country, because of the reactions to what I’ve been saying, you know, have been very, very positive and enthusiastic — and I get the impression that there are huge numbers of people out in the country who do not go along with this war on terrorism, and whose opinion and whose ideas are not registered in the polls. Or if there are people who have been registered in the polls, that support for the president is very thin and very superficial. And as soon as people are presented with some facts, as soon as a few questions are put before people to make them think about the answers to those questions, I find they have second thoughts about the so-called war on terrorism.

So, yeah, I will — well, what have I been saying where I go? I’ll give you a quick summary of what I’ve been saying. I say that the war is wrong, on both pragmatic and moral grounds, on pragmatic grounds in terms of, you know, is it effective, does it work, against terrorism? Well, all you have to do is think. Since we started bombing Afghanistan, people feel more secure? Have you noticed a lifting of the atmosphere of fear in the country as a result of the bombing of Afghanistan? And, you know, something is wrong there. It’s not working. We’re not — we’re not doing anything about terrorism. We’re just killing people indiscriminately wherever they are, a village here, a Red Cross here. And, I mean, these, the reports that come. And here it’s not now a pragmatic question anymore, but it’s a moral question of the number of people we have killed and the number of people we have injured, and the kids on hospital beds across the border in Pakistan who have lost an eye or lost a leg because of the bombing or because they picked up a cluster bomb. There’s a pragmatic issue and a moral issue, and when you put them together, this war cannot possibly be supported on any ground. And this must be said, must be said by as many people as possible, because they’ve tried to make it as hard as possible for us to say anything against the war. And, of course, you know, there are all these cries of unity, all these cries, “You must stand behind the president.” Stand behind this president? No, no, no.

So, you know, I want to put the war on terrorism in some sort of historical perspective. I always claim I’m putting everything in historical perspective. It lends a lot of weight to what I say. But if any of you had the nerve to listen to Bush’s State of the Union address, and you start [inaudible] we are winning the war on terror. Wow. Good. Few paragraphs later, he said, “But tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large. Terror training camps still exist in at least a dozen countries. There is a grave and growing danger.” Does that suggest we’re winning the war on terrorism? Something is wrong there. How do you explain a war on terrorism that cannot defeat terrorism, that has no chance of defeating terrorism, in fact, that is only likely to incite more terrorism? How do you explain this? And I suggest that terrorism is not the objective of this war. Really, it is not. Terrorism is not the objective of this war.

And here’s where a little history comes in. History comes in handy sometimes. If you don’t have history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, you’ll believe whatever anybody in authority tells you. You have no way of checking up on it, you see. But with a little history, you might become dubious. With a little history, it doesn’t prove that the government is lying to you today. It just asks you to inquire if it is, and then decide for yourself.

I’m thinking now of the history of the Cold War, which also was a war against an elusive enemy, an enemy hard to identify. Oh, sure, there was the Soviet Union. There was China. But communism was everywhere, you may remember. And Bob Dylan did a song about that, as some of you may remember, about the John Birch Society and how it scared the hell out of him. And he was looking for communists everywhere, you know, under his bed and… But if you think about the Cold War, you might ask yourself: Was it really about communism? You know, I suggest that it wasn’t. I suggest that it was — there’s a great mythology about the Cold War, that communism served as a very useful target for objectives that were different than defeating communism or blocking the Soviet Union.

And you may recall that during that long period of the Cold War, presumably, you know, from the end of — from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to 1989, the United States was engaging militarily, overtly or secretly, in many, many different places in the world under the guise of battling communism. But if the objective was communism, then why did we overthrow a government in [Iran] in 1953? It was not a communist government. Turned out it had to do with oil and with [Iran] resisting the privatization of the oil. There’s no greater crime than resisting privatization and nationalizing something and putting it at the service of the public. And so the Iran government had to go. But it was not a question of communism. When the United States overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1954, it was not because Guatemala was a communist government. It was — well, it was a kind of left-leaning government. Its most radical act — and this was the problem, not communism — its most radical act was to take over the lands of the United Fruit Company, which had taken them from the people of Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. His latest book, Terrorism and War. We’ll be back with Professor Zinn in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “This May Be the Last Time,” Carolyn Hester, here on Democracy Now!, Breaking the Sound Barrier. I’m Amy Goodman, as we go back to Howard Zinn, speaking in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Alliance for Democracy.

HOWARD ZINN: Actually, they weren’t really revolutionaries, these people in Guatemala, because they offered actually to pay United Fruit for the land. The real revolutionary would have said, “Goodbye. This is ours.” No, they offered to pay them for the land. Of course, they offered to pay them not as much as United Fruit wanted. They offered to pay them the value of the land that United Fruit had declared for tax purposes, you see. This was unfair, could not be tolerated. And so the United States government went to work, and the CIA went to work, and the government of Guatemala was overthrown. But it wasn’t communism, you know.

And, you know, if you think about all places in the world where the United States supported military dictatorships and where communism was not the issue, but the issue really was: Are we going to have democracy, and are the peasants going to be taken care of, and who is going to rule in this country? And so, we did all sorts of things under the guise of stopping communism.

Now, there were real radical governments around. The Sandinista government was a radical government. But was it really — were these governments that were radical really a threat to the United States in the way that communism was presented as the evil empire and, you know, a threat to America’s existence? Was the Sandinista government in Nicaragua a threat to the existence of the United States? Well, Reagan thought so. Reagan was worried about Nicaragua. He said, “They are two hours’ flying time to Texas.” This was very scary. You could imagine the Sandinistas getting on a Delta flight to Texas and then hopping a train to Washington, D.C., you see. But there were all these things happening around the world which were magnified into enormous communist threats, and which therefore justified American military intervention, therefore justified maintaining the most repressive regimes, so that, in the end, 200,000 people die in Guatemala as a result of the terrorist regimes that we helped set up in Guatemala.

And so, during a period of the existence of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union, yes, this — if you want to call it a communist state, whatever it was, there was something palpable there in the Soviet Union, but the actuality was magnified for the American people, so that communists were everywhere. And here’s a test of whether American intervention in other countries has been due to, as we claimed all through the period of the Cold War, due to the communist threat. The Soviet Union took power — the Bolshevik Party took power in 1917. That’s when the communist threat began. We might then assume that before 1917, the United States was a quiet nation, untroubled, didn’t have to intervene anywhere. There was no communist threat before 1917. Then how come, in that long period of American history before 1917, the history of the United States is a history of endless expansion, expansion here in this country, the taking over of Indian lands, the instigation of a war against Mexico, the moving into Cuba, pretending to be helping the Cubans, fighting a war in the Philippines? No communism there, but the United States is expanding.

I remember the — in the school rooms on the wall, they would put this map called “westward expansion.” And we were very proud, as we saw the United States move from this scraggly bunch of colonies on the East Coast all the way to the Pacific and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And expansion seemed almost like a biological process. But, of course, it was a series of bloody wars against the Indians in this country and against Mexicans. And then, after we had expanded far enough on this continent, then we moved into the Caribbean and into Cuba and Puerto Rico, and then across to the Philippines, and then, in the early years of the 20th century, into Panama and overthrowing a government in Nicaragua in 1909 — before there were Sandinistas, before they were communists — and then, in 1914, sending an expeditionary force to Mexico and bombarding Mexican cities. This is Woodrow Wilson, our idealist president. I was somewhere recently where somebody asked me, “What do you think of Woodrow Wilson as an idealist?” I said, “Well, typical idealist.” Bombards the coast of Mexico. In 1915, he sends an invading army into Haiti, and we take over Haiti and occupy Haiti from 1915 to into the early 1930s; and then, 1916, into the Dominican Republic and occupied the Dominican Republic for many years — all of this before the Soviet Union exists. It suggests that there was a drive for American expansion in the world that went on for a very long time before there was any such thing, you know, as a communist threat.

And then, if you want to sort of add to the test, you can say, “Well, what about after 1989?” The Soviet Union has now disintegrated, is no longer a communist threat. And now, you know, people are talking — remember, people are talking about the peace dividend. I haven’t heard that in a while. The peace dividend, do you remember that? And the idea was, well, we’ve been on a sort of war footing with the Soviet Union, with all the — spending $250, $300 billion a year on the military. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, we have all this money. We can do great things with it. It will be a peace dividend. Well, you know what happened. No, the military budget remained. We still kept spending $250, $300 billion a year on the military budget. And we still kept intervening in other countries. We’re still selling — you know, and this under Bush, under Clinton. It doesn’t matter whether the president is Republican or Democrat. When it comes to — you’ve heard of bipartisan foreign policy, right? It’s a euphemism for both parties joining to exploit as much of the world as they possibly can. And so, Bush did it, and Clinton did it.

And Bush goes into Panama and — to take care of the drug trade. Catch Noriega, and we’ll end the drug trade. And so we went into Panama, bombarded Panama, killed — we don’t know how many people, destroyed neighborhoods in Panama, put Noriega in jail. And you notice there’s no more drug trade.

And then, of course, there’s the Gulf War. And there always — now that communism is gone as a rationale — see, before the Soviet Union, there were other rationales for expansion. There was manifest destiny, or we’re going to Christianize the Filipinos. A little — the idea of going, invading another country in order to Christianize them goes all the way back to Christopher Columbus, who Christianized so many Indians that there were none left, after a while, you see. But after — so, there’s always a — something has to be held up as a target. Somebody has to be held up as a target. And in the case of the Gulf War, some justification has to be given. In that case, you know, it was the invasion of Kuwait, which was real, of course. Yes, Iraq did invade Kuwait. What was hard, really, to believe was that President Bush was so heart-stricken over the invasion of Kuwait that he went to war for that reason, since the United States had watched the invasion of country after country, often by ourselves, without being heart-stricken over it. And it’s not hard to imagine that oil was somehow behind the Gulf War.

Some of you may remember that when there was a Senate debate — before we actually started hostilities in Iraq, there was a Senate debate on the question of whether the resolution should be passed giving Bush the power to take military action. Suddenly, in the gallery of the Senate, where citizens come to watch the Senate in action, in the midst of this debate, a group of young people suddenly held up a great banner, which said, “No blood for oil.” Well, it didn’t last long, because, as you’re suggesting, we have no free speech in the Senate of the United States — and not too many other places, either, but certainly not in the Senate. But oil was behind it. So, yes, there seem to be justifications found. And it may be one thing in one era and another thing in another era, and maybe communism in the era when the Soviet Union exists, and after the Soviet Union is no longer a threat and an entity, then we find other reasons for going into Panama or Iraq or for sending F-16s to Indonesia or for maintaining a huge military budget.

And now we have terrorism. And so I’m suggesting that terrorism is very useful. Now, it’s real. Terrorism is real. The terrorist act on September 11th was a horrific event, and the killing of 3,000 innocent people is something that can only be looked at with horror. At the same time, to isolate that from all the other horrible things that have been going on in the world, and now to use that as an excuse to wreak vengeance on Afghanistan, to rain bombs on Afghanistan, to kill people indiscriminately in Afghanistan, and to promise to do that to other countries in the world, that seems to me going beyond the notion of grieving for those 3,000 people or doing something about terrorism.

And I’m suggesting that it has been very useful to declare a war on terrorism, useful because when you declare war, you create an atmosphere in which dissent becomes dangerous. And maybe you’ve heard the stories of the guy on the West Coast, a retired telephone worker, who was working out in his sports club and said something critical of Bush. And then he was visited by the FBI, who asked him, “Are you a member of this sports club?” A sports club can be a terrorist organization. “Are you a member of this sports club?” “Yes.” “Did you say something critical of the president?” “Yes.” “Oh, OK. Take note of this.” And then the young woman whose apartment was visited by the FBI men, who heard, as they told her, that she had posters in her apartment which showed President Bush in a bad light. Can you possibly show him in a good light? You know. And we’ve had — I mean, the number of instances of this around the country are multiplying and multiplying. And I suggest that wartime is a very convenient time for the government to suppress dissent and make it very difficult to criticize whatever the government is doing.

And it’s very useful to have enemies who are elusive, who can’t be identified, who can’t even be found. I won’t mention his name, because you never know. You know, is Cambridge a possibility? If we even hint at that, Cambridge will be bombed. I mean, basically, this is what we’ve been doing. There are terrorists. There are terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. We don’t really know where they are, but we’ll bomb. Really, that’s the way it’s been. We may, by accident, hit a terrorist. We may, by accident, kill Osama bin Laden. In the course of it, we’ll kill a lot of other people, but that’s all right. This is a war on terrorism. And I suggest that it’s very useful because it deflects our attention. When you have enemies that are elusive and enemies that are hard to identify and hard to locate, then you can have an endless war.

And that’s what Bush has promised us, an endless war, because it’s not only Afghanistan, it’s 12 other countries, it’s 15 other countries, or sometimes they’ve said 30 other countries, and sometimes they’ve said 50 other countries. And truth is, they don’t know. And when you have so many enemies in so many different places in the world, it is possible then to deflect attention, to concentrate all concern and all fear on the issue of terrorism, even though you are not really doing anything about terrorism, but to concentrate everybody’s attention on terrorism and to take their attention away from other things that are going on in the world, other atrocities that have been taking place, that are taking place in the world.

You know, shortly after September 11th, The New York Times sort of had a reporter talk to people in various other parts of the world, getting their reactions to the September 11th bombing. And all of them said, you know, “It was bad. It was terrible. And we sympathize with you in the United States who have endured this bombing, and with the victims of the bombing.” And then they said, “But consider this, that there have been other atrocities committed. There have been other disasters taking place. There have been hundreds of thousands of people killed in other countries, and very often due to the policies of the United States.” There were several hundred thousand people killed in Indonesia by a terrorist government whose arms were supplied by the United States. There are people, huge numbers of people — many more than 3,000 died in India, you know, as a result of carbon, right? As a result of a great corporation — right? — seeking more profits in India. And people from Africa said, “It’s true, you know, you’ve lost thousands of people in the World Trade Center. But you shouldn’t forget that there are millions of people in Africa who are dying of AIDS, millions, and the United States is giving a pittance.” There are people who could be saved. Huge numbers of people could be saved. At least their life could be extended for 10 years or 20 years or 30 years, because there are medicines around now that can do that. And the medicines cannot be purchased. And this is very serious. This should be considered a long time — alongside this tragedy that that you are now consumed with, the tragedy of September 11th.

AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, speaking recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Alliance for Democracy. Back in a minute with more Howard Zinn. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with professor Howard Zinn.

HOWARD ZINN: … that are happening all over the world. There are people dying. There are children dying of hunger every day in the world. In the one day the 3,000 people were killed in the Twin Towers, there were 11,000 children who died in various parts of the world of hunger. And so, it’s not a matter of diminishing our compassion for the people who died in the Twin Towers, it’s a matter of enlarging our compassion to consider that there are people all over the world who have been enduring, enduring terrible things, you know.

And while the perpetrators of the Twin Towers are not easily identifiable, the cause of hunger and sickness is identifiable, you know, and it’s the system of profit, of corporate profit, of greed, of privatization, a system in which the profits made by corporations come before the needs of human beings. And so we face — yes, we face real terrorism in the form of people who will blow up buildings. And we face also, at the same time, a silent terrorism, or as the World Health Organization put it, thinking of the millions of people who die each year as a result of sickness and hunger, they talked about a silent genocide which is taking place.

And to not be aware of that, to focus our attention solely on terrorism and solely on what happened on September 11th deflects our attention from the other victims, victims not only all over the world, but victims in this country, the one-fifth — you know, remember, one-fifth of the children born in this country are born into poverty. I mean, there are people homeless in this country. There are people who are having to engage in lotteries — right? — to draw for beds in shelters. And some of the people win, and they have beds in shelters, and the other people don’t win, and they don’t have those beds.

So, there are victims in this country, victims all over the world, and our attention is being deflected from that, because if we thought about that and if we asked questions about that, we would be asking, “Why is this necessary? What is the reason for this? Why, in a world so rich, are so many people hungry and are so many people sick? Why, in a country so rich, are 40 million people without health insurance, and so many people homeless or living under terrible conditions?” People might ask those questions.

And if they ask those questions, they might then conclude that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the systems which now rule the world. And these are systems run by the business interests, the corporate interests of the world, that are represented by those people who gather in these luxurious World Economic Forums, here and there and everywhere. And if people were deflected from the war on terrorism to think about the cause of the greater terrorism that has been going on, the silent genocide all over the world, well, that would be very dangerous for the people who now hold power and who now hold the wealth of the world in their hands.

So, I’m suggesting that we’ve been diverted from an idea that maybe more and more people will recognize as true, and it’s a startling idea, that our most deadly enemies are not in caves and compounds abroad, although we may have enemies in caves and compounds abroad, but we have even more deadly enemies in the corporate boardrooms and government offices where decisions are made, you see.

And I think that while it’s important to keep speaking against the war, to defy the admonition to keep silent, while it’s important to do that, I think it is important also to call attention to what they don’t want us to think about as we concentrate on the war against terrorism, and to think about the something that is at the root of terrorism and to think about who owns the world, who owns the country, and who should, and think about democracy, about true democracy in a country which is supposed to be the most democratic country in the world, but where the political system is undemocratic and corrupt, and where the economic system has no democracy at all — well, until it’s forced, to some extent, to be democratic, when people organize and they go on strike and they boycott and they protest and they resist. Only then does democracy come alive.

And we shouldn’t be discouraged because of the enormous power that is wielded by those people who have the arms, and they have the money. They have the jet planes. They have all of that. They have the television stations and the newspapers. And they seem omnipotent, but they really aren’t. And history comes in handy here, too, because we’ve seen before in history how what seemed to be unassailable power crumbled in the face of mass protest. We’ve seen it happen in various countries around the world, where dictators, who seemed to be totally in charge, suddenly awoke one day, and there were 500,000 people in the streets, and soon the dictator was on an airplane with a suitcase full of goodies, leaving the country, going somewhere, probably to Florida, you see.

But power — the power that’s wielded by the presumably all-powerful is hollow, and it begins to crumble as soon as people withdraw their support and their allegiance. And we’ve seen this happen in other countries, and we’ve seen it happen in this country also, where social movements have succeeded in bringing about change, in spite of the power of corporations, in spite of the power of the government. It wasn’t the government that took care of the problem of racial segregation. The government was an obstacle to it. It was the Black people in the South who did it by themselves They organized and did it, you see.

And we’ve seen this — we’ve seen this again and again in our time, where democracy is not something, you know, that’s represented by the three branches of government, which is what you learn in junior high school — you know, the executive and the legislative and the judicial and the checks and balances, and the lines going back and forth on the blackboard. How neat, you see, a wonderful system, except that when you get out into the world after junior high school and you look around, no, it doesn’t work that way. Democracy is not something you can put on a blackboard. Democracy is something that comes alive when citizens get together and begin to organize and protest and act together and make demands and see to it that those demands are carried out. That’s when democracy comes alive.

And so, we have to — so we have the job of bringing democracy to alive — bringing democracy alive by the things we do, by engaging in any kind of activity we’ll engage in, however small the act. Remember, great movements are made up of thousands and thousands and thousands of small acts by people who engage in those acts, not knowing where they will lead, not knowing that there are other people in other cities and other towns and in other countries all over the world who feel the same way. But there are. These people exist all over the world. I’m encouraged when I see that soldiers in Israel are refusing to occupy the Palestinian territory, you know.

I’m encouraged when I read — somebody sent me a copy of a magazine. I don’t read regularly the magazine Seventeen. And somebody sent me a copy of Seventeen and a story about a 17-year-old girl, a high school student. And where is it? And this is in — she’s in a high school in Charleston, West Virginia. And what she did was to wear a T-shirt, which — let’s see if I have — if I have that. But — oh, she wanted — oh, I should mention this, just, yeah, because I have to, because this really is serious. She wanted to start an anarchist club in Charleston, West Virginia, you see. She said, “We’re not for violence. We’re not for terrorism. But we like anarchism.” And she wore a T-shirt to school which said, “When I saw the dead and dying Afghan children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God bless America.” She was suspended from school and brought up before the school board, but she held fast to her beliefs. And she said that her mother had hung a flag out. But she said, when this happened — she went over her mother — her mother came to her support and defied everybody in town and everybody on the school board and stood up for her daughter.

But I’m encouraged when I see people all over the country standing up, when I see organizations on the move, when I see the Alliance — yeah, when I see the Alliance for Democracy, when I see all over the country, in every — every town, there are groups and organizations that are working for justice and working, you know, against the great powers that be and trying to make a more decent life for people. And so, it should be — we should not be discouraged by the fact that when we watch TV, all the people we see up there are not our friends. But there are other people who don’t appear on TV, and yet they exist all over the country, and they are our friends. And there are people all over the world who are our friends.

And I want to end by just reading a poem written by a friend of mine, Daniel Berrigan, a priest, a poet, an antiwar, anti-military activist. And he wrote this poem in memory of Mitchell Snyder, who was an advocate for the homeless in Washington, D.C., and became very discouraged and at some point —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States. His latest book is about terrorism and war. That does it for today’s program. You can go to our website at Email us at Democracy Now! is produced by Miranda Kennedy, Lizzy Ratner, Jeremy Scahill and Kris Abrams. Anthony Sloan is our engineer and music maestro. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for listening to another edition of Democracy Now!

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