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A Review of 2003 With Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Katha Pollitt, Martin Espada, Michael Parenti and Aarti Shahani

StoryDecember 31, 2003
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As 2003 comes to a close, a small number of stories dominate the headlines and newscasts of major media outlets. The Michael Jackson and Koby Bryant cases, the Mad Cow Scare, the nine democratic candidates for president verbally assaulting one another. But there is one word that characterizes 2003 more than any other — war. The war abroad and the war here at home.

On the international front, as the Bush administration expanded its occupation and war in Afghanistan, it intensified its battle to sell a war against Iraq. The American public was bombarded with stories of the grave danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Administration officials spoke of mushroom clouds and smoking guns. In his January State of the Union address, televised across the world, President Bush accused Iraq of attempting to procure uranium for a nuclear weapons program, an accusation that was the lynchpin of the administration’s justification for war. Though the administration was eventually forced to retract the charge after former US ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson blew the whistle , the damage was done.

On March 20 at approximately 5:35am Baghdad time, the Bush Administration unleashed what it bragged was a shock and awe campaign, raining bombs and missiles down on Iraq. US forces poured across Iraq’s borders, bombing and shooting their way toward Baghdad and other cities, accompanied by cheerleading journalists, who were embedded with the forces. At the onset of the invasion, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said “One of the things that we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we’re going to own that country.” Dan Rather of CBS said, “Good morning Baghdad.”

The 24-hour news coverage on the networks was dominated by an endless string of current and retired generals and other military figures. Many news outlets broke away from the commentaries of the generals only to go live to official briefings at the Pentagon, State Department, White House or Central Command in Doha Qatar. It gave new meaning to the term “general news.” But most of the rest of the world saw a very different picture. International news agencies, most prominently Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language networks, showed the real face of war — the civilians trapped under the bombs, the hospitals, the women, children and men killed by US missiles. The overwhelming majority of people and nations in the world were against the war before it began, and the civilian consequences increased the outrage.

Though US forces encountered unexpected resistance from Iraqis in the south and north, Washington’s massive military power could not be stopped.

On April 8, in one of the most televised moments in history, US forces pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad. The American public was inundated with images of jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets as they dragged the statue’s head around the square. What was not reported was that there were only a handful of Iraqis at the event, who had been brought in by the US forces. In reality, most of the 150 or so people in the square that day were journalists and soldiers. Some of the Iraqis in the square that day were later identified as agents of the Iraqi opposition figure Ahmed Chalabi, who has a long history of working with the CIA. But none of this mattered to the generals and pundits on the networks, as they praised the operation for its swiftness and success.

On, May 1, in a highly orchestrated event that many viewed as a film shoot for a Bush election campaign ad, the president landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Behind him hung a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” Since then, 340 soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq, the vast majority of the more than 475 killed since the invasion began.

Bush has banned the media from filming the return of caskets to the United States and has yet to attend a single funeral for a soldier killed in action during his time in power. US soldiers are being killed on a daily basis in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as resistance to the occupations increase. But the heaviest price has been paid by the civilians of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq alone, some estimates put the number of civilians killed at more than 9,000.

2003 was also a deadly year for journalists. In Iraq, more than a dozen journalists were killed, some of them clearly targeted by US forces. Tariq Ayoub, Al Jazeera’s correspondent was killed outside of Jazeera’s office. The Pentagon knew it was the agencies Baghdad headquarters. In the same attack, the Baghdad offices of Abu Dhabi TV were also hit, though no journalists were killed.

The office of the Reuters News Agency at the Palestine hotel in Baghdad was hit by a rocket launched by US troops. The attack killed 2 journalists and wounded several others. It was a well known fact that the Palestine was home to scores of journalists — in fact almost all of the unembedded journalists in Baghdad. Later in the year, a veteran Reuters cameraman, Mazen Dana, was killed as he filmed US troops at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Pentagon spokespeople later said they mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Today on Democracy Now!, we are going to look back at 2003, a year defined by war, invasion, occupation and resistance. Later in the program, we will be speaking with Noam Chomsky, with Katha Pollit of The Nation magazine , author Michael Parenti, Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom and poet Martin Espada. But first we go all the way across the world to Australia, where it is already 2004. We are joined by veteran filmmaker, author and journalist John Pilger.

  • * John Pilger,* journalist and filmmaker. His latest documentary is titled “Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror.” He is speaking to us from Australia where the New Year has just arrived.
  • * Katha Pollitt*, she writes a bi-weekly column “Subject to Debate” for The Nation magazine. Her essays and poems have been published in The New Yorker, Harpers, Glamour and The New York Times, among other places. She is the author of the book Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture and Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism. Her latest column in the Nation is titled “Good News for Women.”
  • * Martin Espada*, poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he teaches creative writing, Latino poetry, and the work of Pablo Neruda. Sandra Cisneros calls Espada the “Pablo Neruda of North American authors.” Others have called him “The Latino Poet of his Generation.” He is the winner of the American Book Award, among other honors. He is the Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts.
  • Aarti Shahani, organizer with immigrant advocacy group Families for Freedom.
  • * Michael Parenti*, author of several books including The Terrorism Trap, To Kill A Nation and Democracy For the Few. His most recent book “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome” has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT and the author of over 100 political books including the recent book “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” [ Archived Democracy Now! shows featuring Noam Chomsky]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by veteran filmmaker, author and journalist John Pilger. John, it’s already next year for you. Tell those of us still stuck in 2003 what we have to look forward to.

JOHN PILGER: Well, I hope you have a much better year in 2004 to look forward to. I suppose I’m not a person for New Year’s, having just watched the fireworks explode over Sydney Harbor Bridge, but there is always an element of hope, and I suppose that’s a comforting thing, but hope really doesn’t figure to much in way we look at things. We have to analyze them, we have to be aware, we have to insure that we understand exactly what is happening in the world so that we can comprehend and do something about its dangers. I don’t think it’s any different this morning, January 1, here than it is with you on the last day of the year.

AMY GOODMAN: John, you did the film, “Breaking the Silence — Truth and Lies in the War on Terror.” You have done many films, which you are acclaimed for around the world. very few of them make it onto television here in the united states, paying the price, killing the children of Iraq, death of a nation about east tea more. Palestine is still the issue. many films you have done on Cambodia. As you reflect on this year, 2003, how does it compare?

JOHN PILGER: It compares very badly in terms of lost lives, and lost opportunities. The war — rather, let’s not dignify it as a war — the invasion happened. You described that very accurately. You described it really as a cowardly act, it was an enormous event of the world’s most powerful military machine crushing a defenseless country. I think back of the propaganda, welcome back to Portsmouth in England of a nuclear powered submarine, which had fired cruise missiles from way off somewhere into Iraq. Now, I think I have — the total cost these cruise missiles was something like — that were fired were something like $5 million or something like that, but the point was that it was firing them at a nation made up of about 40% of children, of suffering nations. A nation that had endured a decade of the most vicious embargo. More like a medieval siege which had been driven by a British government and American government, and here was a submarine just firing these monsters into a country that effectively certainly had no air force, had no missiles, had no anything, really, and its army packed up. I thought — I mean, that was simply a metaphor for us. It was a real metaphor for what had happened during the whole monstrous shock and awe campaign. So, that — that loss of life, you mentioned,000. I think that’s really the bottom figure. Robert Fisk, not long ago described in one day touring the morgues of Baghdad, and he reckoned that something like 1,000 people a week were dying as a result, direct and indirect of the occupations.

AMY GOODMAN: John, we only have a minute, and I wanted to ask in addition to the occupation and the invasion about resistance. Months ago, we broadcast the protest footage from Britain. You were one of those who spoke in the massive anti-war protests that took place there. right now, you’re in Sydney, Australia, which is the place that — the area where you were born. What about the resistance and the protests?

JOHN PILGER: I think the resistance in Iraq is incredibly important for all of us. I think that we depend on the resistance to win so that other countries might not be attacked, so that our world in a sense becomes more secure. Now, I don’t like resistances that produce the kind of terrible civilian atrocities that this one has, but that is true of all of the resistances. This one is a resistance against a rapacious power, that if it is not stopped in Iraq will go on as we now know to North Korea where Mr. Cheney and others are just chomping at the bit to have a crack at that country. So, what the outcome of this resistance is terribly important for the rest of the world. I think if the United States’ military machine and the Bush administration can suffer — Well, the let’s say, quote, defeat, unquote, because it was never a complete defeat in Vietnam, but if they suffer something like that in Iraq,

AMY GOODMAN: John Pilger, I want to thank you very much for being with us and happier new year in 2004.

JOHN PILGER: And you to, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. John Pilger, speaking to us from Australia where it has just turned 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Martin Espada.

MARTIN ESPADA: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: I reached him yesterday in north Hampton, Massachusetts. Martin is world renowned poet, a professor, and an author, and his teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He teaches creative writing there. Sandra Cisneros called him the Pablo Neruda of North American authors. others have called him the Latino poet of his generation. He’s the winner of the American book award among other honors, the Poet Laureate of Northampton Massachusetts. I asked him to reflect on 2003.

MARTIN ESPADA: I, like many poets was involved in the movement called Poets Against the War. I still am. I participated in that in a variety of ways, and when the war in Iraq really got underway, I was still — still part of the poets against the war movement. But I think it’s really important at the end of this year now to reflect on some of the people in our midst who are really, to my mind, neglected poets when it comes to war. I’m thinking now of the Vietnam veterans who came home and turned against that war, who are against this war, and who in some of the — are against all wars. The most eloquent and articulate of those people are poets. There are any number of them that I could name. Some of them are pretty well known, but there was one, a friend of mine named Jeff Male, who was not well known. He in fact was just starting to publish, and he had just gotten his M.F.A. and so on. He died suddenly. This was in October. He was 57, and he — you know, he just passed away, some heart trouble. He was one of those neglected prophets that I’m talking about. He was one those people who we should all be listening to when it comes to war with a capital or this particular war. Now he’s gone. So, the poet theme I ended up writing was more personal than that. It has to do. It references Vietnam, but it has to do with an act of kindness. One act of generosity, which Jeff displayed towards me, and which I never forgot, and when he died, this became something I couldn’t stop thinking about until I wrote it down, and again this is for the neglected prophets in our midst. the Vietnam veteran, poets and others who are against this war and all wars. This is a poem called, “The Poet’s Coat,” for Jeff Male, 1946 to 2003.

“When I cough, people duck away, afraid of the coal miner’s disease, the imagined eruption of blood now on the chin.
In the emergency room, the doctor gestures at the x-ray where the lung crumpled like a tossed poem.
You heard me cough. Flip off your coat and draped it with ceremony across my shoulders, so I became the king of rain and wind.
Keep it, you said.
You are my teacher.
I kept it, a trench coat with its own film noir detective swagger.
The war in Vietnam, snake rivers are burning san-pan through your brain, but still your, hands filled with poems gleaming like fish.
The highways of Virginia sent confederate ghost patrols to hang new dreams, a black man with too many books, but still, you tug the collar of your coat around my neck.
Now, you’re dead.
Your heart throbbing too fast for the doctors at the veterans’ hospital to keep the beat.
Their pill bottles rattling in a ma’am way for the doomed.
And the night of your memorial service in Boston, I wore your coat in a storm along the Florida shoreline, the wind stung my face with sand, and with every slap, I remembered your ashes, with every salvo ar arrows in the rain, your coat was the armor of a samurai.
On the beach, I found the skeleton of a blowfish, his spikes and leopard skin eaten away by the conqueror, salt.
Your coat banished the conqueror back into the sea.
Soon, your ashes fly to the veterans’ cemetery at Arlington, where once a Confederate General would have counted you among his mules and pigs.
This poet’s coat is your last poem.
I want to write a poem like this coat, with buttons and pockets and green cloth.
A poem useful as a coat to a coughing man.
Teach me.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Espada. poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, reading his latest poem called “The Poet’s Coat.”

We continue to look back with Aarti Shahani. She is a long time immigrants right activist with the group called Families for Freedom. We have talked about the war abroad. Now we want to talk about the war at home, particularly the crackdown on the most targeted populations, Muslims, Arabs, Arab-Americans. Thousands of people have been detained in this country. Many have been deported in secret airlifts that few know about. Can you talk about the state of America in 2003?

AARTI SHAHANI: Right. Amy, it’s been a very bad year. I want to actually go over three things that have happened this year that I think a lot of Americans actually don’t know about, that have fundamentally changed the way this country operates and will operate. The first thing is the Supreme Court decision. Back in January of this year, the Supreme Court heard a case called, Demur vs. Kim. That case argued over the constitutionality of mandatory detention. Mandatory detention is a law under which the government has the right to incarcerate non-citizens, immigrants, solely because they are not citizens of this country and they fall within a very broad legal category. A lot of federal courts Had overruled it and said it’s not unconstitutional. You cannot hold people because they are not citizens of this country. The Supreme Court decided to hear the case out. In April, they actually ruled to uphold the constitutionality of mandatory detention. It was the first time since Japanese internment that the court actually upheld that blanket incarceration is in fact okay by our sort of basic legal standards. A huge reversal of norms because of the decision we’re are seeing an explosion in the incarcerated population of the U.S. Already we’re at 2 million Immigrants are the fattest growing segment of the domestic prison population. I don’t think there’s any reversal in that. The immigrants are going to grow in the prison population and feed the prison industry, feed the jails and prisons in the country that are looking to inmates for money. Another thing that happened was special registration. Special registration was a program under which the Department of Justice required men and boys 16 or over, from 25 predominantly Muslim countries to come to the Federal Plaza closest to them and if they were not citizens or green card holders to register themselves. Provide information, biographical information, credit card information. Over 80,000 men went and over 13,000 were placed into deportation proceeds and are currently kicked out of country and are now starting their trials in immigration department. The Department of Homeland Security announced a suspension of the special registration program. It seems like it should be a victory.

Men and boys from these countries and others are not going to have to humiliate themselves under this process, but along with the so-called suspension, what we are seeing is a change of how the U.S. is treating its borders. It’s now requiring exit entry requirement for people–for a variety of countries all over the world, and it’s also discretionary. Basically, the way that the borders were reduced to work. You come in and have you your visa. You give your information, you live your life in the U.S. and spend your time here this is a nation of immigrants, right? Now what’s happening is a much more policing regime. People have to go to the airport check in, provide information about where they’re staying, what they’re doing and be on call to be called into the Federal Plaza and give information about themselves? It’s really the way that we’re surveilling immigrants coming into the U.S. is change and heightening. The last thing I want to point out is a real change in enforcement practices in the country. Since September 11, we have heard an explosion in detentions and deportations of Arab, Muslims and South Asians. I don’t think people realize how expansive enforcement has become and how many different people, especially people from communities of color have been targeted. Recently there was a lawsuit file against attorney general John Ashcroft. He seems to be popular for lawsuits and he should be sued for a lot of things. Attorney General Ashcroft announced that the department of justice was going to start putting the names of immigrants into the national crime information center database–NCIC. That database was created in the 1940’s or 1950, in order to track people who had outstanding warrants.

Now immigrants’ information is going to be put into that database and basically now, in New York — the haven, bastion immigrants where so many people in this country who were not born here. Now when police stop you on the street and they can go to their database, the NCIC database and look up whether or not you are an immigrant and whether or not you have immigration problems, and enforce the laws, even though that’s not their mandate. I put all of that out there, because I think in 2003, what we have been seeing through the growth in the incarceration of immigrants and the loss of rights to not being incarceration and the requirements for people who are not citizens like if you come to this country you have to register yourself. You have to go do this and go do that. Now the increasing powers of the government or the local police to enforce immigration laws, I’m really concerned in 2003 we are seeing the deepening divide between citizens and non-citizens. Legal, social and economic divides are deepening. And 50 years from now, I wonder if we are going to look at this year as the beginning of an apartheid against non-citizens in this country or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Aarti Shahani, I want to thank you for being with us. We will continue to look ahead with you, and monitor what is taking place in this country. Aarti Shahani, is an organizer for Families for Freedom, long time immigrants’ rights activist. Her contact information, Families for Freedom, will be at our website at democracynow.org. As we continue to reflect on this past year, now with Michael Parenti, who joins us from the West Coast. We started with John Pilger, who was already in 2004, Michael Parenti, his latest book is The Assassination of Julius Caesar,–A People’s History of Ancient Rome. His other books include, The Terrorism Trap–To Kill a Nationand Democracy for the Few. The Assassination of Julius Caesar has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. John Pilger was just going to sleep in 2004. You’re just waking up in California. Thank you for doing that for democracy now! Your brief thoughts today as we end this year?

MICHAEL PARENTI: I do think that there was one remarkable thing that happened in the year 2003. That is people all over the world in February mobilized, and asserted their democratic sovereignty against the rulers of the planet. They marched in these massive demonstrations of unprecedented numbers and a scope that’s unprecedented from Japan to Lithuania, to Poland, to Finland to Spain, to Mexico, to Canada, to Indonesia; all over the world literally millions upon millions of people demonstrated against the U.S. action in Iraq before the war ever took place, and there were many of these countries that had no cultural or historic link to Iraq. They were demonstrating both out of regard for the Iraqi people but also out of regard for themselves. They were serving notice, namely that U.S. leaders cannot presume to be rulers of the planet, to attack any country at will, in acts of criminal aggression to decide, to take it upon themselves to decide who shall live and who shall die. And to be in effect, you know–to be in effect the autocratic monarchs of the planet. People were fighting for their own national sovereignty and their own democratic sovereignty for their own right to exist and be left alone in peace. And that war of imperial aggression has turned sour and gone a lit wrong for the United States right now.

So, I think there is some hope there that people are not totally taken in. Unfortunately, the one country where they are taken in is in the United States itself in rather large numbers. We have almost half of the people still supporting George Bush in that endeavor. Which proves something that I have said years ago, that the U.S. is maybe not the most brutally suppressed country in the world, but it is the most successfully suppressed. That suppression and rule is most effective when you are not using the police and such, but when you have people co-opted and you have got them convinced there’s something out there threatening them and therefore they have to rally around the president and they have to surrender their rights just as your previous speaker was talking about. There’s nothing–the constitution mentions nothing about citizens. The word doesn’t appear in the constitution, nor does immigrant and nor does alien. For due process and equal protection of the laws, the only word that appears is persons. No persons–person shall be denied due process. No person shall be denied equal protection. No person shall be denied habeas corpus. It looks like the courts have ruled that person- doesn’t mean person, and again that a violation, violence to our language is done, one of the first steps done to distort things. No person shall be denied rights means no person, that means every man, woman, child, citizen, non-citizen, whatever else, but that’s not way they have come to read it. Unfortunately.

So, we have these terrible trends, but we also have some hope here that people are awakening and there were even huge demonstrations in the United States also. I never for a moment thought that those demonstrations would stop the U.S. from its criminal aggression. U.S. leaders from their criminal aggression. But what it did do, it did curb them and put a limit on how brutal they could be in Iraq. It did force them to talk about how they’re really bringing democracy and a better life and prosperity to Iraq. So, you have George Bush acting like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a new dealer in Iraq. He wants to build schools and roads and create jobs, and housing and all of that in Iraq while he’s acting like a William McKinley in the U.S. and trying to strip or destroy, or Herbert Hoover, maybe, destroy the gains that the American people have made in the 20th century.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Parenti. I want to thank you very much for being with us. I look forward in the New Year in 2004, to speaking to you about Julius Caesar.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, as we wrap up our look back at 2003. We have perhaps the most well-known dissident in the United States. Almost never seen or heard in the corporate media, Noam Chomsky, who has just turned 75 years old on December 7. When he was 13, Pearl Harbor was bombed on his birthday. The day he turned 47, Indonesia invaded East Timor. He is the author of more than 100 books. His most recent, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Dominance.” welcome to Democracy Now!, Norm.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us on this last day of 2003. Could you share your thoughts as a 75-year-old in this country.

NOAM CHOMSKY: My thoughts on the past year?


NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, it had ups and downs, maybe the most positive development, indication of hopeful future was the huge demonstrations against the war in Iraq. I agree with the words I just heard from Michael Parenti about this it, was clear that it would never stop the war. Nevertheless, it’s — we should recognize that it’s historically — it was a historical event without any precedent, and-in the history of the United States or for that matter, a European imperialism. There’s never been a case where there was such an enormous protest against the war before it was even officially launched. That’s a sign of significant changes in the United States and in Europe, and in opposition to aggression and violence, and I also agree with the last words of Michael that I heard about the fact that this was not merely either in the — in the United States, or particularly elsewhere in the world, not merely opposition to an aggressive war undertaken without credible pretext or international authorization but against a much broader program of which the war was intended to be an exemplary action, and now we’re reaching the low end of the developments of the past year. The war was understood, I think correctly, to be a demonstration to the world that the United States government means exactly what it said in the national security strategy, namely that, it reserves to itself the right to dominate the world, by force, if necessary.

Again, without need for pretext or international support revealed utter contempt for the institutions of international order that offer some weak protection for those who are defenseless and some hope for surviving a dangerous future. Those were part of the shreds that continues just in the last few weeks. The U.N. disarmament committee has been again meeting, passing important resolutions which reported calling for an end to the militarization of space, which was perhaps one of the greatest threats to survival, reduction of nuclear weapons, creating a nuclear-free zones in critical parts of the world like the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Noam Chomsky, we have to leave it here, but I look forward to many conversations with new 2004. Happy birthday and Happy New Year.

NOAM CHOMSKY: You, too. Yep.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for today’s program.

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