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Chris Hedges on 9/11, Touring U.S. Economic Disaster Zones in “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”

StorySeptember 11, 2012
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In the new book, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” journalist Chris Hedges and illustrator Joe Sacco look at the poorest areas in the United States, “sacrifice zones” where human beings and natural resources have been used and then abandoned. A former New York Times correspondent, Hedges reported from Ground Zero beginning just after the 9/11 attacks. In 2002, he was part of the team of reporters at the New York Times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. Over the past decade he has become one of the leading chroniclers of the state of the nation. Hedges joins us to discuss the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and his tour of the nation’s economic disaster zones. “The most retrograde forces within American society have used the specter of the war on terror or terrorism in the same way the most retrograde forces within American society used communism or anti-communism to crush any kind of legitimate dissent or any questioning of the structures of power,” Hedges said. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Events are being held across the country today to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Our guest, Chris Hedges, was a reporter at the New York Times 11 years ago today, reporting from Ground Zero beginning just after the attacks. In 2002, he was part of the team of reporters at the New York Times that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism over the past decade.

Chris Hedges has become one of the leading chroniclers of the state of the nation. In 2002, he wrote War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. His latest book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt_, co-written with the graphic illustrator Joe Sacco. His most recent 20120910/”>piece for Truthdig is “Growth Is the Problem.”

9/11, how you reflect back, this 11 years later, where we are, where we were?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, it’s been an awful deterioration. You know, the most retrograde forces within American society have used the specter of the war on terror or terrorism in the same way the most retrograde forces within American society used communism or anti-communism to crush any kind of legitimate dissent or any questioning of the structures of power. The collapse of the Soviet Union left an ideological vacuum. These people only define themselves by what they are against. They used al-Qaeda, and however horrific the attacks of 9/11 were, they never posed an existential threat in any way to the United States.

And we have watched, in the last four years, the Obama administration further erode civil liberties. I would argue that Obama has carried out far more egregious assaults against civil liberties than even George W. Bush, whether that is the refusal to restore habeas corpus; the FISA Amendment Act, which retroactively makes legal what under our Constitution has been illegal—the warrantless wiretapping, monitoring, eavesdropping of American citizens; the use of the Authorization to Use Military Force Act to justify the assassination of American citizens; the use of the Espionage Act six times to shut down whistleblowers in this country, essentially ending any kind of serious investigative journalism into government work crimes and malfeasance; and of course the National Defense Authorization Act. We sued the president over this issue. Judge Katherine Forrest in the Southern District Court of New York issued a temporary injunction, and we are now waiting to see whether that will become permanent. She should rule very soon.

All of that has been used to essentially, in this reconfiguration of American society, which is really the heart of this book, into an oligarchic state, a neofeudalistic state—you criminalize dissent, because they know very well what’s coming, as they reduce roughly two-thirds of this country to subsistence level.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about sacrifice zones in your book, and you talk about heroes, like one we had in our news headlines today, Larry Gibson of West Virginia, who just died.

CHRIS HEDGES: Yes, and we open the chapter on West Virginia with Larry, who saved the top of his mountain, his boyhood home, hundreds of acres around him devastated in mountaintop removal, a process by which you blow the 400—top 400 feet off of mountains, poison the air, the water, the soil. I mean, nothing can be reclaimed. Joe and I flew over the Appalachian Mountains, hundreds of thousands of acres gone, which will never come back. This is what—you know, we went to these sacrifice zones to expose what unfettered, unregulated capitalism, what this utopian ideology of kneeling before the marketplace, actually does. And we wrote it off the ground for that reason, because you can’t argue with it, finally. And what it does is essentially destroy human beings. It’s an act of violence. And within all of these pockets, within Camden, within West Virginia, within Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where of course we open the book with Pine Ridge, because that’s where it all began.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Pine Ridge for us.

CHRIS HEDGES: Pine Ridge is a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The average life expectancy for a male is 48. That is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. At any one time, 60 percent of the residents have neither electricity or running water, 80 percent alcoholism rate, because you break—you break these people. You create a culture of dependence. You make self-sufficiency impossible. And then people anesthetize themselves.

And yet, at Pine Ridge—and you have these heroic figures—Leonard Crow Dog, all sorts of people—who rise up, like Larry Gibson, and fight back. And if you asked Larry about the chances of saving the Appalachian Mountains, you know, he knew, in the same way that Judy Bonds and, you know, all sorts of activists that we interviewed in West Virginia, and yet they fought back anyway—utterly heroic, amazing figures, I found often whom were—essentially sustain themselves through faith. In Pine Ridge, of course, that was the traditional sweat lodges, sundances, returning to the Lakota traditions. But it’s incumbent upon us to look at these sacrifice zones to understand what happens when there are no restraints, no impediments on corporate capitalism, because they’re doing this globally.

AMY GOODMAN: The Immokalee workers.

CHRIS HEDGES: Immokalee is a case in point, and you’ve covered Immokalee very well. I mean, there you have repeated conditions that, in essence, are slavery, because these are the perfect workers in the eyes of the corporate state. They have no legal protection. They have no benefits. They gather every day in darkness at 4:00 a.m., hoping for work from crew leaders on buses to pick produce. And it’s, of course, the big corporations like Wal-Mart, one of the largest buyers of produce in the country, that determine the prices. That is, you know, they squeeze the growers, who profits get less and less. They take it out on the workers. We interviewed a worker who had been chained at night inside a truck, forced to defecate with the other workers in a corner of the truck, for over two years. And that’s not accidental. When they can’t get enough workers—

AMY GOODMAN: These are the undocumented workers.

CHRIS HEDGES: These are largely undocumented Haitian, Central American, Mexican. And when they can’t get enough work, because, of course, they’re paid by the day, they can’t afford the $50 a week. They are charged by this cabal of white trailer park owners, and they have to live near the collection points—20 mattresses in a dilapidated trailer filled with cockroaches and rats and holes in the floorboards. Then they sleep out under mango trees, literally. They sleep in encampments.

And that’s the awful logic of where we’re headed. You know, you see the forces of economic power, of corporate power, telling workers in this country that they have to be competitive in a global marketplace. That means being competitive with prison labor in China or sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. And we just saw the great labor advocate, Islam, Mr. Islam, being murdered by obviously opponents of any kind of labor organizing. They work 22 cents an hour, $37 a month. That’s the world that we are headed for. And it comes right back to the Chicago strike, because none of the established systems, formal systems of power, including the two political parties, are going to help us. And that was the importance of the Occupy movement. It essentially stated that fact: we’re on our own now.

AMY GOODMAN: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, you started before Occupy.

CHRIS HEDGES: Yes, because it was an understanding that unfettered, unregulated, unchecked, unimpeded corporate capitalism knows only one word, and that’s “more.” They commodify everything. Human beings are commodities, the natural world is a commodity, that they exploit until exhaustion or collapse. And we see that with the melting of the summer Arctic ice, 40 percent gone. What is the response of our corporate overlords? It’s to raid those waters for the last fish stocks, mineral, oil, natural gas. It makes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick the most prescient book in American literature. It’s utterly suicidal. These are all Ahabs. There’s a quote. I think Ahab says, you know, “My means and my methods are sane. My object is mad.” It’s utter insanity. And if we do not wrest power back from these corporate forces, if we do not reverse this corporate coup d’état, they will quite literally kill off the ecosystem on which the human species depends for life and force all of us in this downward race to the bottom, so that the conditions of workers in Immokalee, Florida, begin to replicate the conditions of workers everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds, but from New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, to getting arrested outside one of the world’s leading financial institutions here in New York, Chris?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I guess that’s called the upward trajectory of my career.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it at that. I want to thank you very much for being with us, Chris Hedges, who with Joe Sacco wrote Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

And that does it for our show. If you’d like a copy, go to our website at Our Election 2012 Silenced Majority Tour continues this week. On Thursday at noon, I’ll be at the Philadelphia Free Library; then to Pittsburgh at the McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University; on Friday at 5:00 p.m. in Cleveland at Visible Voice Books; then at 8:00 p.m. at Oberlin, Ohio, the First Church at 106 North Main Street. On Saturday, we’ll be at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, at noon; then at 3:00 in Columbus at the First Unitarian Universal Church; at 7:00 in Ohio University in Athens at the Baker Student Center. And on Sunday at 1:00, we’ll be in Cincinnati at the Crosley Telecommunications Center. The tour continues in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, then back to Washington and Virginia. And you can go to our website at

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