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“Shock Doctrine” Author Naomi Klein on State-Sanctioned Torture and Disaster Response for the Chosen

StoryNovember 07, 2007
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Author and journalist Naomi Klein reacts to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of Michael Mukasey, which she calls an endorsement of state torture. And she turns to California, where in last month’s wildfires a spate of new companies offered privatized solutions to emergency management — only for those rich enough to afford it. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Mukasey’s nomination thrusts the issue of waterboarding and torture into the spotlight. In her latest book, The Shock Doctrine, award-winning author Naomi Klein has a chapter all about the history of torture. She joins me now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Naomi.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you, Amy. Good to be with you again.

AMY GOODMAN: Respond to what you’ve just heard.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I think that was an absolutely shocking display, and I think what’s most shocking about it is this idea that this is somehow a question of good government and the torture question can be belittled. I mean, what we just saw was lawmakers knowingly voting in favor of someone who has said that one of the classic modern torture techniques — I mean, the classic torture techniques of the French in Algeria, for instance, were simulated drowning, electroshock and rape. These are the three main tools of contemporary torture. And this is a man who has said to the world that one of those key techniques, simulated drowning, water torture, is not illegal. So, with that knowledge, he was just endorsed.

And to elevate a man who has said this to the highest legal office in the country, I think, just puts everyone of those lawmakers, but particularly the Democrats who voted for him, into bold new territory. They have just crossed a line, because they can no longer pin this on Bush. They can no longer claim ignorance. Anyone who faces these techniques in the future, they will be complicit in those war crimes, in those crimes against humanity — everybody who voted for this man.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, you just heard Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, saying we can just pass a law against waterboarding. Of course, Ted Kennedy said we have passed laws against torture. But that idea passing a law — but that law also has to be signed by President Bush. And whether or not he signs it, if he does sign it, he can do what he has done more than a thousand times, which is sign a signing statement next to it, which says he doesn’t have to abide by this law.

NAOMI KLEIN: Exactly. And — exactly. And it’s amazing to belittle the importance of what it would mean to take a stand in this moment, in the face of this statement that Mukasey has made that he does not — he’s not sure that waterboarding is illegal. He has put that forward. And now there’s an opportunity for an absolutely unequivocal repudiation of that position. That power is there, and it’s just slipping away.

It’s an amazing moment. It’s an amazing crossing of the line into active complicity. It’s bad enough that you have Democrats in power who are unwilling to hold the Bush administration legally accountable for the war crimes they have already committed, but now they’ve moved into endorsing it. And they can say all they want, that they’re not actually voting for him when it comes to torture, but they just did it, because he has said it publicly, and they no longer have plausible deniability. It’s gone.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written about torture in Chile and Argentina.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, and waterboarding or simulated drowning. And when you read the Truth Commission reports from Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, these are — it’s a technique that comes up again and again. It is — you know, Amy, what waterboarding is, is it’s instilling the belief that you are going to die. We talk about — and people often do die. I mean, it’s happened many times.

And we talk about torture so often in this country as being just about getting information. Torture is a tool of state terror. That is what torture is, and that is why it’s prohibited. It is about instilling — it’s a method of instilling terror in an individual, and it’s also a method of spreading terror throughout a whole society, saying we are willing to use these techniques; if you cross us, you will be subject to these techniques. So it is the science of terror. It is literally terrorism. You know, if you have somebody in your control, and your goal is to convince them that they are going to die, and as they gasp for breath their lungs are filled with water, what are you, if not a terrorist?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, we had Stephen Grey on yesterday, the independent journalist from Britain who has done so much to track extraordinary rendition flights, these kidnapping flights. And he said in the end that he wants to apologize for himself and all journalists that he has always used that term “simulated drowning,” but that waterboarding is actual drowning, because you’re filling the torture victim’s lungs with water.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you are approaching death, and you believe you are going to die. You have the ultimate fear. And so, how does this not fit every definition, both international and domestic, against the prohibition of cruel treatment?

AMY GOODMAN: I encourage people to go to our website at to the day before yesterday’s show, Monday’s broadcast, when we interviewed Henri Alleg, who is the French journalist who was covering the Algerian Revolution in 1957, taken by French military and subjected to water torture, to waterboarding. This is Democracy Now!, When we come back, we’ll talk to Naomi Klein about another issue she has been addressing, the second part of the title of her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Rapture Rescue 911: Disaster Response for the Chosen.” That’s the title of Naomi Klein’s latest article in The Nation. It’s about the wildfires that have just ravaged Southern California and the spate of new companies that offer privatized solutions to emergency management — only for those rich enough to afford it. Wildfires in California and now floods in Mexico, Naomi Klein, talk about what you call “disaster capitalism” and how it’s played out in this time of global warming.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, disaster capitalism, what I mean by that is the use of disasters to push through very unpopular policies, often involving privatization. The last frontier for the privatization of the state is the privatization of those core state functions. You know, the only thing left that hasn’t already been privatized and outsourced is — and this is pre-Bush administration — is the army, is the police, are the fire departments. And these core state functions are really seen as the last great privatization free-for-all. It’s already entered healthcare. It’s already entered water. It’s already entered electricity, the media. So this is the last frontier.

And what we saw during the California wildfires was something really extraordinary. People have gone back to their neighborhoods now, and they see neighborhoods which have just been destroyed by the fires, but a few houses standing, and are asking questions about why some of those houses were saved. And in some cases, you can’t explain it, you know, it’s mysterious. But in some cases, it’s not mysterious. The reason why some houses were saved and others were not is because the people who lived in those saved houses pay insurance to the company AIG, and AIG offers privatized fire response. So —

AMY GOODMAN: American Insurance Group.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, exactly. And they have a special service, a sort of VIP concierge service, where they spray the homes of the wealthy in certain select zip codes — these are people who pay around $19,000 a year in insurance premiums. And as part of this special service, they get men in fire trucks, with the red hats and the bright red fire trucks — they look, for all intents and purposes, like real firefighters — spraying down their homes with fire retardant. But during the California wildfires, they actually did more than that. They actually put out fires and bragged to the press that they saved houses, while the house next to it went up like a candle.

So this is what I mean by “rapture” — “Rapture Rescue 911.” I mean, it’s a bit of a flip statement, but, you know, I think many of us have known for many years, and we’ve talked about the fact that there more and more people in this country very close to the Bush administration, inside the Bush administration, who really believe that the “end times” are coming, and, you know, they think them and Kirk Cameron are, you know, going to be saved, that the hand of God is going to bring them up to the gated city and the rest of us are going to burn. And this is, you know, the fantasy of the Rapture, this escape from the inferno down below.

And I think, actually, what we’re seeing is that heaven can wait; we’re getting the Rapture down here on earth, that we’re getting like a reenactment of these biblical scenes. And maybe this is the appeal of this End times fascination among some Republican lawmakers, that this is actually their response to climate change. They don’t need God’s hand; they have a privatized disaster response.

And maybe it also explains, Amy — and this is what’s really alarming — is that, you know, the environmental movement, the language of the environmental movement, we often hear, you know, “This is one crisis that we’re all facing together. Even Dick Cheney has grandkids. We all are in this together.” But when you see these privatized disaster responses, privatized firefighting — you have Blackwater in the midst of this, pitching themselves as privatized humanitarian response and building tent cities and saying, you know, “We can do this better than the state” — then, you know, I think we really need to question this basic premise that we are all in this together, and that maybe this explains the slowness and the unwillingness to take real action on the most pressing issue of our time, which is climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about Florida homeowners in last year’s hurricane season and another company.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, I write about this in the book, that a year after Katrina a new company was launched called HelpJet, which is a charter air service that launched with the slogan “Turn a disaster into a luxury vacation.” And it’s once again this concierge model. All of these new companies work on what some of them are calling a “country club model.” You pay an annual fee, or you pay a one-time lump membership payment. So there’s another company called Sovereign Deed that is even bigger than HelpJet and is offering comprehensive VIP disaster rescue. You pay $50,000 a year.

But back to HelpJet, you pay as if you’re joining a country club, and then if a hurricane is coming to your part of Florida, you get an early alert and a concierge calls you, or you call the HelpJet concierge, and you tell them if you want to go to Disneyland, if you want to book in some five- star resort, and they bill it as an escape from the failures that we witnessed during Hurricane Katrina. It says, you know, escape the madness, the lines, the chaos; just have “a first-class experience.” I mean, it’s quite extraordinary. You read this, and it seems like something that the Yes Men — you know, the satirists — have pulled off. You know, when I first read about this, I actually emailed the Yes Men and asked them if they were behind it, but it is not satire. This is actually happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, Sovereign Deed, you mentioned. Talk about this company.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. Well, this is happening simultaneous to the wildfires. There’s a company called Sovereign Deed. It’s one of the key — it’s connected to the mercenary firm Triple Canopy, and also a retired brigadier general back from Iraq named Richard Mills is one of the key executives in this company. And they have just announced plans to set up a kind of a privatized FEMA in Pellston, Michigan, northern Michigan, a rural part of Michigan, that happens to have a very modern regional airport. And the idea is that they’re going to be turning Pellston, Michigan, into their national disaster response center — once again, only for their members.

So if you go to the Sovereign Deed website — and I really recommend that people do read about this company in their own words, because what’s really extraordinary about it, Amy, and this is where you have some similarities with a company like Blackwater, is that it’s run by people straight out of the military and intelligence who now have gone into the private sector, and they’re saying to people — they’re scaring people — they’re saying: you can’t count on FEMA, you can’t count on the National Guard, we live in disastrous times. Their website is just filled with sort of apocalyptic news about terrorist attacks, climate change, all of the — pandemics, all of the things that we might face. And we think we’re going to face them collectively, but their message is: you can’t count on the government; I should know, I used to work there last week, or whatever it is. Pay your $50,000 membership and $15,000 annual fees, and this company is stockpiling drugs, fuel, water, and for an extra premium payment, you can get a VIP rescue in the midst of some sort of unnamed disaster. And this is just amazing, Amy.

I mean, think about the way the country responded after September 11. The heroes of that tragedy were the first responders. And when the Bush administration announced the Department of Homeland Security and this whole new era of homeland security, I think people really thought that that meant a support and funding of the public first responders whose mission it is to protect the whole country, everyone, not just the VIPs. Now, here we are, six-and-a-half — six years later, and the situation in California, we heard once again there weren’t enough firefighters; the National Guard was in Iraq; the public sector, you know, despite all the propaganda around Schwarzenegger, there were many, many failures. But now we see this emergence of this parallel VIP privatized disaster infrastructure.

AMY GOODMAN: On that issue of AIG, American International Group, that has Firebreak, the Firebreak Spray Systems, the wealthiest zip codes in the country, you write about, protected. What does this mean for higher insurance rates for regular working people in California?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, Amy, I think what they set — they changed — they set the bar at a whole new level. And I think what’s going to happen now, and we’re hearing this, Firebreak is saying they’re getting many more calls and that this is the new standard. This was their little laboratory. And, you know, if your house burned down next to somebody who had this level of fire protection, you’re going to call your insurance company and go, “Why didn’t I have my home sprayed with special fire retardant?” I mean, why wouldn’t you, if you’re paying very high premiums already? So now, what I think we’re going to see is a new race where all of the insurance companies are now going to start offering these VIP services. And, yeah, rates will go up.

And if — but I think, more than that, you know, as I’ve been talking about this with people, what we’re going to hear more of is sort of blaming the victims of these natural disasters who don’t pay the higher premiums to get this special service. You’re starting to hear the language of personal responsibility, much like the sort of welfare debates of, you know, “It’s up to you to protect you and your family. You can’t look to the government.” It’s very similar, actually, to the way in which people discuss healthcare, that it’s your personal responsibility. Now, it’s your personal responsibility to protect your family from terrorist attacks, from climate change.

And the assumption is we can’t count on the state, which is just extraordinary, when you think about the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been spent since September 11 in the name of homeland security. Where has all that money gone? It’s gone to these private companies who have built this parallel sort of shadow state.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, talk about the floods in Mexico that haven’t gotten half as much attention.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, this is — in many cases, people in Mexico are saying this is a greater disaster than Hurricane Katrina, more displacement. And it’s really made very, very little — there’s been very little news. There’s been very little charitable giving, comparatively. People are talking about a kind of a disaster fatigue.

I have been tracking it, and we’ve been getting emails to our website about sort of early examples of disaster capitalism in Mexico. It’s a little bit too early to tell, but I think what we’re seeing internationally and what I think we should watch for in Mexico is that in the same way that we see these companies domestically who see climate change as an emerging market, a big business —- not, we have to be clear, in developing alternative energy, sustainable energy, but just in servicing this increasingly volatile, dangerous warming world -—

Well, in Peru this summer, there was an earthquake, and there was another one of these breakthroughs in disaster capitalism, where after the earthquake an American company, an American service company called Aramark, got the contract to build evacuation camps, which is something that’s traditionally done by the U.N., traditionally done by NGOs. Now it’s a private contractor, a for-profit company that actually provides food for prisons, going in there and seeing disaster response as — internationally — as an emerging market. And these are the first evacuation camps in the world, that I know of, that come with many McDonald’s outlets.

So, I mean, this really is seen — and I think we need to understand this — disasters are seen by a growing sector of the economy as an exciting new market opportunity. And so, we’re in a situation where these companies are going to be putting, or are already putting, a counter-pressure on the government, where, you know, the citizens, the people of the world, are saying, “We want action on climate change,” but these companies have a vested interest in just staying on the same disastrous course. But the two-tiering of disaster response, I think we really need to think of very urgently, because this is moving really fast.

You know, Amy, at the end of the book, at the end of The Shock Doctrine, I sort of predict that this is what’s going to happen and didn’t expect it to happen three months after the book came out. I was thinking, you know, years, not months. And, of course, you know, I take no pleasure in being right about this prediction. This is what I call in the book a situation of disaster apartheid. And when you — the stakes of this, you know, I think we see really clearly in the healthcare system and in the education system, that when the elites can opt out of a public system, the urgency about addressing a crisis in the public system — a crisis in the public school system, a crisis in the public health system — totally erodes, because they are outside the system. They’re sending their kids to private schools, to charter schools. They have, you know, hospitals that are in great shape. So the urgency of a crisis in the public system dissipates.

If you bring that same logic, the logic of the healthcare, of a private multi-tiered healthcare system, to firefighting, to the police, to the response to disasters, then you have something really frightening, because it’s not just that they don’t — they lose the urgency to fix a crisis in first responders, to fix the fact that there aren’t enough fire trucks; it’s that they lose the urgency to address the most pressing issue of our time, which is climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that in the elections yesterday in Utah — Republican governor, Republican-led legislature — and school vouchers were defeated.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, because these are not popular policies. And, you know, this comes down to such a core principle: is every life of equal value? And people are seeing that erode and all of these two-tiered models. People, I think, are increasingly identifying this logic throughout and rejecting this logic.

You know, I wrote in the column that in all of the privatized responses — Blackwater has been saying — Blackwater has been using the fires in the San Diego area as a real public relations gift. They have been building tent cities. They have been handing out all kind of humanitarian aid. And they say, you know, “This is just what we do. We just help communities.” But the fact is that we know that Blackwater doesn’t just — isn’t a humanitarian organization. They have the mission: protect the principal, protect whoever paid them. And this is what permeates all of this privatized disaster response. It’s not “protect everyone”; it’s “protect the principal.” So if we believe in other principles, besides that you should pay to be saved, the time has come to “protect the principle.”

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Naomi Klein is author of the New York Times bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

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