The war in Ukraine is part of Putin’s all-out war on democracy. By contrast, the “War on Terror” backed for 20 years by the U.S. establishment exemplified the undermining of democracy from within.
I. Military deception
II. People deception
III. Killing the messenger
IV. Democracy Incorporated
It is not news that Putin is an autocrat. Animated by a nationalistic ideology and deeply despising Western societies, he considers democratic ideals to be a definite sign of moral decline. Trained in the 80s as a KGB operative, his formative years apparently converted him to the virtues of dictating to people what to think. Rapidly becoming president for life, he has shown time and again that the only way of governing he considers a sound one is to exert control in utter indifference to basic human rights. That used to be the KGB’s doctrine; he added to it his personal compulsion for dominance, be it physical or political. After Thechenia, Georgia, Syria, and, of course, political opponents in Russia, Ukrainians now suffer the devastating consequences of one man’s authoritarian and imperial delusions.
But if we want to be coherent in denouncing today a blatant denial of international laws with the war in Ukraine, we must reflect on how and why the United States led their infamous “War on Terror.” Sergei Lavrov has a point when arguing that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the way it unfolded disqualify us from taking the moral high ground. Precisely because it is morally unacceptable—if your neighbor is a murderer, this does not allow you to become one—this argument asks a real question for Americans: has the United States eventually decided to understand its mistakes and change course for the future?
It does not look like it. While the “War on Terror” banner has somewhat been relegated to the background, the U.S. military budget keeps expanding year after year, reaching more than $780 billion in 2022. That, in the meantime, Congress seems unable to make the country’s genuine needs in infrastructure, education, or access to healthcare a priority is puzzling. We are, by far, the world’s first military power but are we still a country? Said otherwise, the United States is nothing like Vladimir’s dictatorship, but what political regime do American citizens effectively live under?
To answer these questions, the dynamics of our own warmongering must consequently be addressed. Since it was a master feat of propaganda that duped both its military and its population, the United States’ war on terror stands as a privileged case study in that respect.
I. Military deception
The United States government undertook “counterterrorism” activities in no less than 85 countries between 2018 and 2020.1 The financial and human cost of this global war on terror has no equivalent in U.S history, standing in 2021 at $8 trillion, 900,000 deaths, and 37 to 59 million people displaced, according to two respective reports from the Costs of War project at Brown University.2 In spite of such numbers, President Biden’s decision to pull out from Afghanistan that same year was a highly contentious one in Washington and in the media sphere. The vast majority of U.S. lawmakers had long proved by their vote to raise the defense budget year in and year out that they are adamant the U.S was and still is on the right track.
Aren’t they missing something?
Aside from the humanitarian cost that seems irrelevant to these noble souls, the war on terror’s counterproductive results in regard to its proclaimed practical and strategical goals do not make them budge either. Yet, since hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year for defense purposes in general and against terrorism in particular, it would seem that the number of battlefronts should eventually decrease, not increase. Arguing that it is because of the way terrorists operate only implies that they have been calling the shots all along. Simply put, a war that drags on for years and requires ever more resources is not a war that you are winning. In that respect and regarding the financial bottomless pit it fell into since its inception, the so-called “War on Terror” is an absolute record failure in military history. As a long-term strategy, furthermore, it does not fare any better. How to ensure a stable future for the concerned regions, and consequently for us as well, when dozens of millions of people have been displaced after they saw the political and economic infrastructures of their countries shattered by our self-righteous war on terror?
The military option against a threat with no definite outlines and the counterproductive results it would necessarily entail lead to addressing its inanity. According to the National Institute of Justice—the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice—“Terrorists are those who support or commit ideologically motivated violence to further political, social, or religious goals.”3 This, of course, immediately calls into question the predominance of a military approach in fighting terrorism. In the perpetual game of hide-and-seek played by small units of fiercely determined individuals, regular troops’ involvement can only be ill-suited. Fighting terrorism has to be based on intelligence work and, most of the time, be dealt with on an individual basis. By its very nature, terrorism does not intend to defeat armies but to provoke mayhem in civil societies.
Terrorists see themselves as the fighting units of an ideological cause. They hope that it will eventually prevail thanks to a growing number of sympathizers, who will also see violence as the most effective way to convey their exclusive view of the world. To people in such a state of mind, violence is a purifying act against what they see as the world’s filth. There is no genuine rationale toward a positive goal on their part, but an absolute stance cutting them off from the rest of humanity in a purely nihilistic attitude. If and when this attitude translates into the seizing of actual territories and the persecution of populations, the case for military intervention can be made with all due care. But in any case, dropping bombs and sending troops will never address the psychological twist through which acts of terrorism appear as a sacred duty to those who commit them.
Aside from the shortsightedness of the military option as an answer to terrorism, another important consideration to keep in mind is that war is not an end in and by itself. From a basic moral standpoint, war can only be a temporary segment of a broader solution toward lasting peace. That terrorists do not want peace is not relevant in the real scheme of things; sick and crazy people will always exist. What is relevant is that we have numerous allies to rely on for peace and security: all the people of goodwill who long for both of these in the countries we so casually bomb and invade. It all comes down to our faith in humanity—or the lack thereof. Violence may appear as the ultimate answer to those who do not share this faith; the rest of us understand that war can never be a substitute for building peace and that violence for the sake of violence is counterproductive.
Unfortunately, almost all elected representatives in the U.S. see terrorism as an opportunity to compete on who will appear the toughest on crime. Instead of a genuine vision constructively framing a way out of the issue, all we get from them is a motto saying “As long as there are terrorists, we will be out there fighting them!” As if by some supreme decree, the “War on Terror” is allowed to break free from any basic requirement of intellectual honesty and moral integrity, equating terrorism to a pest that simply needs to be eliminated. Quite logically, then, questions regarding the deeper and broader genesis of terrorist organizations are brushed away. Yet, holding dear some self-satisfying moral indignation rather than trying to understand why such organizations came into existence is not part of a sound strategy against them.
Most importantly, this empty-headed stance against terrorism bears two very worrying consequences. Intellectually, the scope of action is implicitly broadened to everything and anything that might suggest even the slightest suspicion of terrorism. It is an all-out war that deserves all possible means to be used in all directions. Morally, war is not only being seen as a solution—however dubious that might be in regard to addressing the real causes of terrorism—but as the absolute and definitive answer against an absolute evil. The “War on Terror” is a crusade as much as it is an effort to defeat an enemy.
As a matter of fact, where conventional conflicts always end up with the realization that building peace is far more effective and far less costly for populations to be secure, the “War on Terror” deliberately takes the reverse course. Breaking free from both reason and rationality, the less it works as a military answer, the more we are supposed to go at it. Said otherwise, the very reason why this strategy should be questioned is masqueraded as proof that we haven’t done enough of the same yet. All with little or no consideration for the human cost.
What is the inner logic of such an attitude? Many wars have depicted the other side as evil; it is the oldest trick in the book of warfare. Killing people is not a natural thing to do; dehumanizing them is for that reason almost unavoidable and is most conveniently done by referring to them as the “enemy.” As a category, the enemy is an indistinct and diffuse mass where no individual can shine as a person with a name, a life, a family, or projects. They all deserve to be eliminated—the sanitized expression for killed—if that’s what it takes to get rid of their threat.
The “War on Terror” adds a twist to this already debilitated take on humanity. In its narrative, we confront individuals whose mindset is to kill us for the sole purpose of doing so, not for any political or territorial gain in particular. Though correct to some extent, this assertion is nevertheless superficial and can only reinforce the mental depiction of an intrinsically evil enemy. By its sole name, as many people have noticed, the “War on Terror” doubles down on this sense of moral outrage and the emotional blindness that goes along with it. In contrast to wars of the past, the “War on Terror” overtly asserts its abstract nature. Our enemy has no specific identity because it is “Terror” itself. The call to human fear and ignorance used in this way has proven to be a masterful feat of propaganda, delivering its poison and allowing business as usual in the alleys of power like no other in modern history.
How stupid are we supposed to be? Evil does not stand on its own, and, as die-hard and crazy as they might be, terrorists do not suddenly appear out of nowhere. All of them belong to a singular context of life that, at one point or another, opened them to be prepared to eventually commit the unthinkable. And, sadly, we all know that we can leave it to human madness as such, not exclusively to so-called terrorists, to commit the unthinkable. Opposing the forces of good against the forces of evil in an abstract and absolute way may be relevant in movies; in the real world, it is an insult to human intelligence.
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The implicit message delivered by the “War on Terror” to the public is that it is not about going from war to peace with actual people but about indefinitely fighting against the forces of darkness. For what results? After having determined that military conflicts are not the proper answer to acts of terrorism and having understood the deeply deceptive nature of the “War on Terror,” one could only assume that, at least, some goals have been achieved in the fight against terrorism. It is a matter of perspective. Terrorists have been killed, but primarily chasing an abstraction is something very different than achieving well-defined and legitimate goals.
On the ground, the “War on Terror” battlefields have by and large nothing to do with preventing terrorist attacks. Let’s just take three glaring examples. Very few Afghans would be able to make sense of the U.S. military presence on their soil for so many years and the bombing of so many villages. No Yemeni has ever been part of a terrorist plot abroad; nevertheless, they have collectively suffered the wrath of the “War on Terror” in unimaginable ways since 2016. If most Iraqis do not regret Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, they certainly do regret that they once had a country functioning at the highest modern standards in all other respects. The “War on Terror” doesn’t care. For a very long time now, it has proven to be above any strategic accountability and above right and wrong as ordinary people understand it.
Ironically enough, the metaphysical deception of supposedly fighting terrorism as a war against some “Axis of Evil,” as Bush senior and junior would have said, contradicts the very definition of terrorism given by the National Institute of Justice itself. Stating as it does that “Terrorists are those who support or commit ideologically motivated violence to further political, social, or religious goals” leaves explicitly open the terrorists’ ideological background. Practically speaking—since this is exclusively how acts of terrorism should be looked at—what unhinged individuals believe in is not the issue; that they resort to violence to further their cause is.
As opposed to this practical approach, using “Axis of Evil” and other PR concocted abstractions to seek its justification defines the “War on Terror” itself as an ideological endeavor. Going after terrorists as some pest to eradicate is a lousy excuse for bombing entire innocent populations. Since they need an ill-defined enemy, ideological wars cannot have focus; they thrive on the opposition of good against evil, not on being an adequate, self-restrained, and quick answer to an ill. This gives them leeway to proclaim as they go who to strike next. Anyone, or any country for that matter, may end up on the terrorist list for no other reason than they are a convenient target. Contrary to the defensive goal of preventing the blind violence of terrorist attacks, which counter-terrorism is about, the “War on Terror” ideological banner makes us the lunatics.
The effective answer to terrorism, on the other hand, is necessarily twofold. One aspect is counter-terrorism itself, led professionally toward precisely and legitimately defined targets. The other relates to the conditions that breed or help terrorism. In its principle, the first aspect is no more subject to questioning than regular policing to keep everyone safe (as long as police officers do not go rogue). Preventing the conditions of breeding terrorism, on the other hand, requires defining a specific strategy. One can only wonder at how counter-productive the “War on Terror” has been in this regard.
First, pretending to stop actual terrorists by bombing the whole neighborhood where they are supposed to be hiding may not be the most efficient way to go. It could be said, on the contrary, that in its own twisted way the “War on Terror” wins by making sure that enough people will be tempted to retaliate because of their accumulated resentment and desperation. And where to turn, other than toward those who are already organized and have a doctrine giving credence to the idea that we are the evil ones? The “War on Terror” victory is not one for peace but it is a victory indeed—one for the fake legitimization of the trillion of dollars spent in its name.
The intelligence work has to go all the way in individually determining who, where, how, and when. Yet, when considering the dozens of people killed and maimed almost daily,4 it seems that the “War on Terror” decision process in choosing a target lies more often than not on a “just in case” or “you never know” basis.5 The indiscriminate spying on American citizens by their own government proceeds from that same logic of casting a broad net of suspicion instead of following leads.
Second, why not dry up terrorists’ finances as much as possible? It has long been established that 9/11 had entirely been paid for by officials and members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia6. As a matter of fact, their strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has led these affluent individuals to support terrorist groups for decades all over Africa and the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world. Still, for some reason that makes sense only to people in power, Saudi Arabia is held as our regional main ally against terrorism. That not only adds insult to injury for the families who directly suffered from 9/11; it also keeps money flowing in for various terrorist groups. By this measure alone, the “War on Terror” is a sad joke.7
Third, local populations plagued by extremist groups’ presence in their midst would be significantly helped by encouraging the democratic evolution of public life in their country. Rather than bombing them or toppling down their government, diplomatic action could work wonders by favoring international connections with actors of good faith. If they saw us as allies against a common threat—which, by the way, takes a much higher toll in these populations than it does in western countries—such collaboration would certainly deprive would-be terrorists of the passive resignation they locally benefit from. This would require, of course, that we believe ourselves in the universality of democratic values.
Finally—though this is far from a complete list—why not tackle terrorism at its root? For the trillions of dollars that the “War on Terror” has cost by now, how many schools have been built? If we truly thought that terrorism can and must be defeated, why do we not start where everything begins: education? Sending girls to school is surprisingly inexpensive in all countries where we are waging the “War on Terror” in such a formidable way. If we had started to help to do so a generation ago, there is no question that the threat of terrorism could be very different today. But as it might have become clear by now, this is not what the “War on Terror” is about.
II. People deception
From a strategic standpoint, the “War on Terror” sold to the public was nothing but a sham. Invading and bombing countries can hardly prevent the planning of terrorist attacks by a loose web of highly motivated individuals, let alone address the psychological, historical, and ideological roots of their motivation. Moreover, the official justification of chasing evil can only allow for all and any war crime on the pretense that our cause is right. Finally, and in total contradiction with its alleged end, this fantasized crusade forbids working on effective solutions to uproot terrorism.
But if the concept of a “War on Terror” is so blatantly skewed, why is it that so many people believed in it? The answer can only be that somehow they needed to. It is easy to be emotionally trapped, even more so when your government has concocted a rallying cry no one would spontaneously go against. The lack of investigative journalism in mainstream media is, for its part, the nail in the coffin of collective sanity. Since these three elements of war propaganda—fear, a rallying cry, and disinformation—were actively relied upon during the “War on Terror” episode, let’s examine their respective dynamics.
In 2006, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young set off on their Freedom of Speech Tour in support of Living with War, a Young solo album written in response to the Iraq War. That they got a mixed reaction from some of their audiences is an understatement. When exiting concert halls, many people were seen yelling their disgust and contempt at what these talented and otherwise beloved musicians had dared to do against the sacred cause of the “War on Terror.” “Our country is in grave danger!” was the common cry of that anger, expressed on the background of the 9/11 collective trauma. That Iraq had no connection whatsoever with what had happened on this day was obviously irrelevant to the upset public.
The less an idea is questioned, the more, paradoxically, it can gain emotional strength and appear valid. Certitude is a feeling, which is why the “War on Terror” used to bear its own evidence beyond rationality. Most of those yelling at Neil Young had been accustomed to reacting in fear and anger when it comes to terrorists and terrorism. A healthy state of mind, by contrast, consists in effectively questioning what we believe, aware that the mental images and their emotional connections our brain provides us with might just be that—images and conditioned feelings. If we do not educate and train ourselves to do better than simply following the easy trend of reactions most familiar to us, all hell can break loose. Fear and anger are powerful emotions. One can ponder here that no crime is ever being committed without its perpetrator thinking he is justified to commit it, and that this delusional state of mind is, unfortunately, the norm rather than the exception for the human psyche.
From a logical standpoint, moreover, the emotionally charged “War on Terror” mantra has no leg to stand on. Using the word “Terror” as self-evident and in an absolute way is only meant to obscure the effective and complex conditioning of bad and sometimes horrendous actions in real life. Hurting people is morally reprehensible, but making “bad”, “evil”, or “terror” a category of their own that supersedes the understanding of what is actually going on leads nowhere. By legitimizing the simplistic narrative of inherently good people against inherently bad ones, such a statement is not only morally questionable but also plain stupid.
This is quite a big deal. What is at stake is the difference between sanity and insanity. Demonizing others is all we need to eventually feel that it is ok to wipe them off the face of the earth. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn wrote to that effect in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Sanity requires making ourselves available to our own humanity, which sometimes amounts to a feat of genuine heroism. Insanity, on the other hand, is easy; you only have to convince yourself that you are on the right side. Which usually amounts to not thinking at all.
Solzhenitsyn’s direct rebuke of the logic at play with the “War on Terror” comes from a man who suffered long years of imprisonment in Siberia and witnessed the mass deportations and absurd deprivation of freedom imposed by the communist regime on the Russian people. When he secretly wrote these lines, he was physically and morally enduring what the Soviet apparatus was designed for, from Stalin’s callousness to the daily brutality of the guards in the detention camp. He saw this madness for what it is: a call to deepen our understanding of its roots in all human hearts. By giving space to humanity, his own as well as that of all actors in the command chain of the Soviet dictatorship, he set himself free from the suffering caused by the sterile contemplation of his own predicament. Nelson Mandela also took this deep and vital spiritual path. This was happening at a time when, ironically, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were considering him to be a terrorist.8
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But such mental clarity is not just a matter of moral courage. How we label things, and people, makes them become in our mind what we say they are. Words matter; their choice is never neutral or innocent. Delivered publicly, they may acquire that much power. Being a perfect example of how a slogan can weaponize ignorance, the “War on Terror” motto was meant to become a popular success.
When a “War” is declared on human scourges (war on drugs, war on poverty, etc.), the primary intent is to have a self-satisfactory and broad catchphrase under which everybody can rally. Yet, the reference to war does not hold anything aside from a martial stance. It carries the image of a wiped-out field but says nothing about what should come next, why, and how. Using this image in a slogan is, thus, deliberately distracting from the real nature and context of the issue to be dealt with, as well as from its effective means of remediation.
Most of the time, slogans’ purpose is simply to mobilize people’s attention, and they might prove useful or even necessary in that regard. But when falling for the “war” seductiveness, they subvert their own cause. There is a difference, in that sense, between a slogan that invites to consider a specific issue in a specific way—such as, for instance, “Divest from fossil fuels” about climate change—and a “war” slogan. The former leaves open the question of the relevant actions to be taken to achieve its declared aim; the latter buries the specifics under the empty notion of “war” as being itself the solution.
Unfortunately, a “war” slogan is not just ineffective; it also has dire consequences when it comes to actual weaponized endeavors. Operating in denial of the specific causes and conditions that created the issue in the first place, the reference to “war” used so lightly can only serve one purpose: giving comfort in the idea that it is ok to wipe out the field where the problem stands. If that includes wiping off actual people who happen to be on that field, well, they had it coming. Three characteristics, more particularly, make “war” slogans effective at enticing this type of moral and intellectual abdication.
First, what is at stake is to allow emotions to auto-justify themselves and run wild. The reference to war suggests the total rejection of something unacceptable and virtually dangerous. After all, why would you ever try to give the issue of drugs or terrorism a context and understand how they came to be? Isn’t it good enough to know that they cannot be tolerated?… Obviously, with such mindless logic, the more you denounce the “bad guys” without knowing what you are talking about, the more you feel entitled to join the crusade against them.
Second, even though running high on emotions, a “war” slogan has no real target. What is “terrorism”? If it is about terror and blind violence for political purposes, the U.S and its allies are the terrorists in chief. Millions (!!!) of people have been facing starvation for years in Yemen, for instance.9 That should remind us on which side successive U.S administrations have truly stood. The word “terrorism” is so vastly expansive that the Nazis were not shy of using it as one of their main propaganda tools. Thrown in the air independently of any valid context, it is meaningless. The same deception is at play with the “War on Drugs.” One pharmaceutical company, in particular, has knowingly caused a heroin usage epidemic in the U.S by deceptively lobbying for its pain killers.10 Once eventually trialed, its owners received what amounted to them to a tap on the wrist. At the other end of the social spectrum, pot dealers get harsh jail sentences for selling a product that is already legalized in many states. Apparently, it pays off in more ways than one to be a pharmaceutical executive responsible for the death of dozens of thousands of people. Where is the so-called “War on Drugs” in that instance?
Third, as a consequence, a “war” slogan necessarily turns into an excuse to discriminate against entire categories of populations, who become the necessary targets of its righteousness. Without any other specifics than “terror” or “drugs,” the enemy is flagged based on highly visible but loosely relevant criteria. This is how all Muslims end up being potential terrorists in the public’s mind, or black and brown people drug dealers.
Therefore, the lesson behind such declared “wars” is that they are necessarily counterproductive. Whether through bigotry and ignorance or for more practical benefits, their purpose is to perpetuate a deeply flawed perception of the issue at stake among the public. Not only does this comfort the established order of things, but this allows those in charge to do the very thing they officially fight against—be it inflicting terror on people or perpetuating the illegal drug trade.
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In 2006, when Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young went on their Freedom of Speech Tour, 43% of Americans still believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11.11 This speaks volumes about the utter disregard for professional journalistic standards in “news” corporations. That so many people would still believe, years later, a blatant lie that had been immediately contradicted by each and every armament expert outside the Bush administration amounts to a genuine feat of propaganda, even if only by default.
Far from pointing at news outlets as “Fake News” to delegitimize journalism as such, the point, here, is to assert the absolute necessity of investigative work on their part and their duty to speak truth to power. Either journalism works as a counterpower or it quickly becomes a shadow of itself, keeping a narrative in line with political and economic interests. An echo chamber is then created where facts and data are distorted, ignored, or downright invented to make room for regurgitated talking points. By and large, the “War on Terror” was publicly served this way, to the military-industrial complex’s greater benefit. If you regularly watch what is supposed to be the news on TV, then, brace yourself for a few facts.
The majority of victims of terrorist attacks worldwide are Muslim.12 And although most of these attacks occur in Muslim-majority countries, there has also been in recent years an increase in attacks targeting Muslims in Europe, in the United States, and other countries. Aside from terrorist attacks, Muslims endure a steady onslaught of hate crimes in many parts of the world. The fate of Rohingyas in Myanmar made headlines in 2017 because it amounted to a genocide attempt. But who knows that in Germany more than 3,500 (!) aggressions on refugees, largely Syrians, and refugee hostels were perpetrated in 2016 alone?13 These trends have not faded away.
Regarding specifically terrorist attacks, journalists are much less likely to cover those not perpetrated by Muslims. In a study published online in January 2019, researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Alabama found that attacks committed by Muslims get 357 percent more media coverage than attacks committed by other groups.14
Yet, the Jewish organization ADL, among others, reminds us that “over the last decade, a total of 73.3 percent of all extremist-related fatalities can be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4 percent can be attributed to Islamic extremists [in the U.S]. The remaining 3.2 percent were carried out by extremists who did not fall into either category.” In 2018, “right-wing extremists have been linked to at least 50 extremist-related murders in the United States”.15 For their part, Islamic extremists scored 0 fatalities in the U.S. that same year, fortunately. The Hate Map put together by the Southern Poverty and Law Center organization illustrates these numbers plainly and simply.
These facts should not in any way exempt authorities from closely monitoring organizations such as ISIS or their remnants. Still, they clearly offer another perspective on the fight against terrorism than the one commonly given by mainstream media.
Don’t blame yourself if you are somewhat surprised by these ratios; you are probably not someone in charge of broadcasting the news. At a deeper level, and like all other military aggressions in history, the “War on Terror” needs to justify itself to posterity. It is then no wonder that more or less subtle arrangements with the truth will occur. No propaganda, no war; this has been particularly well understood since WWI.
The unmissable irony of all this “War on Terror” talk in the US is, of course, that domestic terrorism, which has been wilfully ignored for decades, is now more or less openly backed by members of Congress and the President himself (the one who claimed he won the 2020 “fraudulent” election by a landslide). As the integrity of the election process is wantonly called into question and voting rights are trampled in all Republican states, it seems a matter of time before the country’s democratic institutions stop working entirely. To achieve his dream of destroying the United States, Oussama ben Laden strategized that we just needed a push to do it ourselves. That was 9/11 and its ensuing “War on Terror.”
Neofascist crackpots simply fill the political void left by more reasonable people. While the former vociferously oppose what does not look like them, the well-mannered ones vote year after year and without blinking an oversized military budget, condoning a policy that creates untold and gratuitous suffering in many parts of the world. Feeding the insatiable military-industrial complex beast and listening to its cries for more mayhem in the name of security, we are foolishly oblivious of what democracy is supposed to mean at home. This attitude requires on the part of lawmakers, journalists, and armament industrialists a genuine indifference to the real good of the country and to human suffering overall. Up until some dictator snatches the low-hanging fruit of political power.
As during the Weimar Republic, today’s ruling class in the United States happens to be the country’s best enemy. True cynics are rare among them, though. This is why they do the rest of us a great favor by forcing us—especially those in charge of being a public voice— to face the moral filth of our own lies when condoning state violence. Confronting the hypocrisy with which we refer to moral values, they rightly see themselves as a special kind of heroes who do not shy away from their responsibility in the demise of others. They dare to tell the truth about our weaknesses that everybody else would rather keep ignoring.
To illustrate the point, this is the well-known confession that Gustave Gilbert, the prison psychologist during the Nuremberg trials16 received from Hermann Göring, Hitler’s Reich Marshall:
– “Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Göring shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
– “There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”
– “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Gilbert may claim that the United States is a democracy, but Göring is right. Power must not be confused with the institutions that represent it. These institutions can be subverted and eventually rendered obsolete through the manipulation of the citizenry. All that is left, then, is a direct relationship between the leader and his people, an emotional fantasy that makes no political sense and necessarily results in silencing free-thinking and all forms of dissent. As all good dictators know, the emotional trick of addressing the crowds as one same silent majority ignored by the elites (but fervently heard by the dictator himself) is the best way to sever all links to a rational debate and to open the gates of resentment, bigotry, and hatred of the other. “It works the same in any country.”
This is why governing on emotions will always be the number one rule in demagogues’ playbook. They do not seek to foster the genuineness of positive emotions but the intensity of reactive ones. When people are in that victim mindset where things aren’t right because of others, they are easy prey to fear and anger. It only takes regularly fanning these flames to see a huge swath of the population seizing in relief the license to intellectual and moral irresponsibility handed down so benevolently to them by their dear leader. And many indeed will praise the revenge taken on innocent others on behalf of their own imaginary “real patriots’” grievances. Think, for instance, about the separation of families at the southern border in the United States—a formal crime against humanity casually condoned by Trump’s crowds.
III. Killing the messenger
Yet, the United States is not, so far, a formal dictatorship—however hard the Republican party is working on it. But that should not fool anyone. If the war on terror has revealed one thing, it is that the entire political staff in Washington was on board with the “weapons of mass destruction” utter lie, the inanity of a “War on Terror” led by the military, and the terrorism fearmongering that surreptitiously led to the downright illegal NSA’s mass surveillance of American citizens. Revisiting the war on terror today helps us understand that using lies as one main lever of governance is not just for exotic dictators. Therefore, the most fundamental aspect of the war on terror relates to what drives politics inside the two countries that decided to wage it—the UK and the U.S.
Since the late 1970s, public policies in both countries have been heavily influenced by corporate lobbies backed by their media and political clients, to the point that they have now become full-fledged corporatocracies.17 Corporatocracy is another antithesis of democracy. The corporate establishment does not write laws for the common good but for its own sake and to make money.
Abiding by the values of accountability and transparency toward the people has always run contrary to the power of a few. To the power of money and the rule of corporations in politics, it is a death sentence. This is why the war on terror was not just a military blunder and a master feat of propaganda from the administration of George W. Bush. Revealingly, it has given way to one of the fiercest and most vicious state persecutions against a vital element of democracy: knowing the truth. This is the real war taking place, as opposed to the one distracting us about Islamist terrorist attacks that have statistically far fewer chances to strike anyone than a lightning bolt. Going back to the historical facts of this persecution is, for that reason, a necessary eye-opener about the corporate establishment and how far it is willing to go to keep its power unquestioned.
On April 5, 2010, at Washington’s National Press Club, Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, presented “Collateral Murder” to the world, an eighteen-minute video that places the viewer inside a U.S. combat helicopter circling over a residential area of Baghdad on July 12, 2007. American troops on the ground were searching the area for insurgents when the helicopter spotted a group of men and shot them down under the suspicion that one of them might have carried a weapon. A few minutes later, people attempting to rescue the wounded were shot as well. That was a shock to the opinion. Since the characterization of this particular event as a war crime had never been confirmed or denied through judicial assessment, it meant that casually murdering people was simply part of the job for the U.S. chain of command.
When looking at the video, the first attack was reckless at best; the second was criminal without question. The soldiers knew it, their commanders knew it, and so did the U.S. Department of Defense. Against solid evidence to the contrary, the internal investigation conducted by the U.S. Army command concluded that the soldiers had acted in compliance with the laws of war. The American public would never have known about this murder had the U.S. government had its way. Just like with the “Pentagon Papers” during the Vietnam war, the photos from Abu Ghraib, or the almost 7,000 pages of the Senate committee report18 exposing the personal and institutional responsibilities for the CIA’s systematic torture practices. Officially, it is the whistleblowers who are “traitors to the country” and the journalists who are acting “irresponsibly,” not the secretive authorities suppressing the evidence of their crimes.
Confidentiality might be necessary to conduct state affairs successfully, but secrecy is a whole different matter. Simply put, the latter consists of attempting to remove certain facts from public knowledge and judicial oversight once and for all. In a democracy, therefore, there can be no justification for any sphere of governance to act in secrecy. The principles of accountability and transparency are at the core of political life for a good reason. Collusion and corruption otherwise immediately appear when influential stakeholders’ reputations and essential interests are concerned. This is human nature.
Most people have heard of Julian Assange as someone who illegally published confidential military documents and consequently endangered soldiers’ lives as well as the security of the United States. The country, therefore, has dutifully tried for years to extradite him so that he answers for his crimes. But what are Assange and Wikileaks accused of, more specifically?
Contrary to what is often claimed, information that could expose individuals to danger is systematically redacted by the organization. In 2010, then U.S. vice-president Joe Biden acknowledged during a session at the UN Security Council that WikiLeaks’ publications had caused “no substantive damage” other than being “embarrassing” for the U.S. government. A politically convenient euphemism to say that these publications endangered the impunity of officials at all levels of the chain of command for war crimes, torture, and corruption. And since the last thing that powers acting in secrecy want is to defend their case in broad daylight and according to its genuine merits, the government went for an all-out war against Manning and Snowden, two whistleblowers, as well as Assange, who published what they leaked. No one’s security had been seriously put at risk by these three, no government went bankrupt, and no war was lost, but the impunity of the powerful had been challenged.
Julian Assange created WikiLeaks in 2006 to serve as a clearinghouse for sensitive or classified documents that the organization would judge essential to public knowledge. He had thereby deliberately placed himself in the crosshair of powerful interests, and it was just a matter of time before they tried to silence Wikileaks for good. Still, indicting a publisher to do publishing work is an awkward political and legal twist on the part of supposedly democratic governments. Even more so when the publisher was awarded the Sydney Peace Foundation’s gold medal in 2011—an honor that had previously been bestowed on Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama—for his “exceptional courage in pursuit of human rights.” The said governments, chiefly the United States and the United Kingdom in the occurrence of Iraq’s invasion, needed a good pretext and an even better strategy to reach their aim.
The pretext was found with the identification of Manning as the source for the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Since the act of publishing is not a crime, the trick was to create a smokescreen by gratuitously charging the publisher himself with “computer intrusion.” The strategy, then, had to have three complementary aspects: – Distilling a public image of Assange as a despicable character; – Eroding his fighting spirit and energy by making his personal life a living hell; – Thoroughly rigging the judicial process. A regular path for any government that wants to crush dissent.
Nevertheless, one may still wonder why going to such lengths and for so long. After all, if Assange is the rapist, hacker, narcissist, and filthy individual he is made out to be, he would sooner or later fall back in his own insignificance. Despicable characters cannot amount to much in front of a government’s accountability and transparency in its good deeds. Unless, of course, “Collateral Murder” was just the tip of the iceberg, and the said government routinely engages in secrecy. In such a case, it makes sense to wage war on the Wikileaks front too, and for as long as it may take to win it entirely. An example had to be made that would leave no room for doubt about what Wikileaks emulators would expose themselves to.
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In 2012, Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London because he feared that going to trial in Sweden to answer the rape allegations held against him there would result in subsequent extradition at the request of the United States. As neither Sweden nor the United Kingdom was willing to offer any assurances against his extradition, the status quo of Assange’s asylum at the embassy was likely to continue indefinitely. In 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) stated in a report that by not acting upon Assange’s request to clarify the situation, both countries were arbitrarily depriving him of his inalienable right to liberty.19 All the while, trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy where he had been granted three small rooms as his living quarters, Julian Assange had literally no physical, emotional, and intellectual breathing space. Deprived of everything that makes human life worth living, this specific form of stress predictably deteriorated his mental and physical condition during the course of almost seven years spent there.
Dr. Sondra Crosby is a medical doctor and a professor of medicine at Boston University. A renowned professional, her specialty is the examination of victims of torture. Her credentials had notably led her to be one of the first physicians to independently examine detainees in Guantanamo. Upon visiting Julian Assange in February 2019, Dr. Sondra Crosby’s conclusion was unequivocal: “It is my professional opinion that the synergistic and cumulative effect of the pain and suffering inflicted on Mr. Assange – both physical and psychological – is in violation of the 1984 Convention Against Torture, Article 1 and Article 16. I believe the psychological, physical, and social sequelae will be long-lasting and severe.”20
After six months of high-security confinement of Assange in Belmarsh prison, a group of more than 60 medical doctors wrote to the UK Home Secretary on Nov 22, 2019, similarly expressing their grave concerns about his physical and mental health.21 This document provides a chronology of relevant visits, events, and reports from a medical perspective and concludes: “It is our opinion that Mr. Assange requires urgent expert medical assessment of both his physical and psychological state of health. Any medical treatment indicated should be administered in a properly equipped and expertly staffed university teaching hospital (tertiary care). Were such urgent assessment and treatment not to take place, we have real concerns, on the evidence currently available, that Mr. Assange could die in prison. The medical situation is thereby urgent. There is no time to lose.”
What had happened? The same group of doctors said in an article published by The Lancet on February 17, 2020,22 “Prior to his detention in Belmarsh prison in conditions amounting to solitary confinement, [Assange] spent almost 7 years restricted to a few rooms in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Here, he had been deprived of fresh air, sunlight, the ability to move and exercise freely, and access to adequate medical care. . . . The UK Government refused to grant Assange safe passage to a hospital, despite requests from doctors who had been able to visit him in the embassy.23. . . There was also a climate of fear surrounding the provision of health care in the embassy.24. . . Disturbingly, it seems that this environment of insecurity and intimidation, further compromising the medical care available to Assange, was by design. Assange was the subject of a 24/7 covert surveillance operation inside the embassy, as the emergence of secret video and audio recordings has shown.25 He was surveilled in private and with visitors, including family, friends, journalists, lawyers, and doctors. Not only were his rights to privacy, personal life, legal privilege, and freedom of speech violated, but so, too, was his right to doctor-patient confidentiality.” Last but not least, Assange’s access to legal documents and lawyers has been systematically obstructed or even denied once he was held in Belmarsh prison.26
This psychological torture has taken place in a concerted effort ever since Assange found refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012. As the Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations, Nils Melzer, said, “Psychological torture is not torture ‘light.’ Psychological torture aims directly at a person’s personality and deliberately tries to destabilize him by making his environment arbitrary, making everything unpredictable, isolating him, depriving him of social contacts and all means of reaffirming his human dignity. All of this is systematically withdrawn from the torture victim over a prolonged period of time, until such abuse finally leads to cardiovascular collapse, nervous breakdown or irreversible neurological damage. These are very serious forms of ill-treatment, but they are carried out in such a way that the individual components look almost harmless on their own. In combination and with increasing duration, however, they have a murderous effect.”27
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The appalling treatment of Julian Assange by British authorities concerning his physical and emotional well-being mirrors the one concerning his legal rights. Beyond smearing him in public and destroying his mental and physical integrity in private, this third aspect of the strategy was crucial. Legally legitimizing Assange’s state persecution would not only sign a victory; it would send a clear message about anyone else’s endeavor to similarly speak truth to power.
All good American and British patriots and all who see themselves as freedom lovers must read The Trial of Julian Assange, by Nils Melzer.28 Already mentioned, the author is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and a professor of international law at the University of Glasgow. He also holds the Human Rights Chair at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, in Switzerland. Not your average political activist. His thoroughly documented and precise testimony about Julian Assange’s ordeal will be largely quoted here.
Lenín Moreno, the new Ecuadorian president elected on April 2, 2017, had made clear that he wanted Julian Assange out of the embassy sooner rather than later. Fully aware that the probability of Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States could only grow as long as he remained in judicial limbo, Nils Melzer sent an official letter to Ecuador on April 8, 2019, as well as another one to the United Kingdom the same day. Both letters reminded officials of the universal principle of “non-refoulement,” which establishes an absolute prohibition against returning or deporting people to a country where their human rights are seriously at risk.29 These letters, says Melzer, “announced my intention to visit the embassy on 25 April and requested face-to-face meetings with Julian Assange and the Ecuadorian ambassador in London. This was to be followed by meetings with British government officials, particularly those who would be responsible for the decision-making process in the event of Assange’s expulsion from the embassy and a US extradition request. The declared purpose of my visit was to find a long-term solution to Assange’s situation in compliance with human rights requirements.”
The answer from the British ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva came two days later. It denied the UN special rapporteur to meet British officials because “it would not be appropriate for officials to speculate on hypothetical scenarios.” These words referred to the idea that Assange might be arrested and extradited by the United Kingdom to the United States. Lo and behold, the following day, April 11, Assange was dragged out of the embassy, swiftly convicted during a fifteen-minute hearing of a bail violation committed seven years earlier, and sent to Britain’s toughest high-security prison to await sentencing. The ambassador had lied.
The Ecuadorian government, for its part, was fully complicit in the setup. “Assange clearly had not been offered any form of due process, as would be imperatively required prior to any revocation of asylum. He had not been informed of the [Ecuadorian] government’s intention in advance and had not been given the opportunity to consult with a lawyer, nor to comment on, object to or appeal the decision – he was simply expelled by a unilateral ‘order’ of the Ecuadorian president. Moreover, Assange had been granted Ecuadorian citizenship in 2017, and that country’s constitution categorically prohibits the extradition of nationals. Therefore, one hour before Assange’s expulsion, Ecuador not only revoked his asylum but also ‘suspended’ his citizenship, allegedly due to ‘irregularities’ in his papers and, again, without any form of due process.”
The public revelation that the events of April 11, 2019, had been planned and coordinated well in advance between Ecuador, the United Kingdom, and the United States came with the publication of Alan Duncan’s memoirs, the then British minister of state for Europe and the Americas. Nils Melzer writes, “direct negotiations started around the time of the secret US indictment in March 2018.30 In October of that year, Duncan notes: ‘The Assange issue is progressing. Our channels into Ecuador are paving the way to a solution.’ It seems Assange’s expulsion had originally been planned for 9 January 2019. However, on 8 January, the minister notes in his diary, ‘Annoyingly Assange’s forcible exit from the Ecuadorian embassy has been delayed.’ The following months see regular diary entries by the minister recounting a slow but steady progress in the negotiations between British and Ecuadorian officials. By 28 March, Duncan is confident. ‘I think I am nearly there with Ecuador to get Julian Assange out of their London embassy. It’s taken months of delicate negotiations, but nearly, nearly …’ Then, on 11 April: ‘Suddenly it’s game on: I’m told that Assange will be sprung from the embassy today. So I drop everything and head to the Operations Room at the top of the Foreign Office.’”
“Within an hour of his expulsion and arrest, the United States handed over their extradition request to the British authorities and unsealed their secret indictment against Assange. To the surprise of most observers, the indictment turned out to be much less severe than anticipated. Assange was not, as some expected, charged with espionage, but only with a single count of ‘conspiracy to commit computer intrusion’. More precisely, he was accused of having conspired with his source, Chelsea Manning – then still known as US Army Private First-Class Bradley Manning – to help decrypt a password hash for the US Department of Defense computer system. Importantly, Manning already had full ‘top secret’ access privileges to the system and all the documents she leaked to Assange. So, even according to the US government, the point of the alleged attempt to decode the password hash was not to gain unauthorized access to classified information (‘hacking’), but to help Manning to cover her tracks inside the system by logging in with a different identity (‘source protection’). In any case, the alleged attempt undisputedly remained unsuccessful and did not result in any harm whatsoever.”
Mezler continues, “Be that as it may, a new fait accompli had now been established, in a manner that set all alarm bells ringing in my mind. Why now, suddenly, after almost seven years of lethargic stagnation, this hasty expulsion, arrest and conviction in such obvious violation of due process and the rule of law? Why this suspiciously mild US indictment, which virtually screamed for worse? And why had the British ambassador lied to me? Why such contempt for my mandate? After all, I was no enemy, political activist, or dissident. I had been appointed and mandated by states to exercise my function in partnership and constructive cooperation with them. What was going on here? Something was obviously wrong – and now I began to seriously doubt the good faith of the governments involved.”
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Nils Melzer’s suspicions were well-founded, particularly when considering that Julian Assange was arrested on behalf of the Swedish government for a bail violation on a now non-existent case. “The Swedish extradition request, in relation to which Assange had been arrested and subsequently released on bail in December 2010, had been formally withdrawn in May 2017, after the Swedish prosecution had closed its preliminary investigation into allegations of rape for the second time in almost seven years.” In her ruling on February 13, 2018—that would lead to Julian Assange’s arrest—, Emma Arbuthnot, senior district judge at Westminster Magistrates Court, simply dismissed the argument by saying “He [Assange] appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour.” A flabbergasting projection of what she was precisely doing, and for which she was called “A disgrace to the English justice system” by Craig Murray, a UK senior diplomat turned human rights activist.31
The reason for this sad mockery of justice would only appear in hindsight. “What Assange’s lawyers could not know is that none of the legal arguments they raised during this [February 13, 2018] hearing ever mattered. The real plot being played out was an entirely different one. Exactly three weeks later, on 6 March 2018, a US Grand Jury would issue its secret indictment against Assange. Judge Arbuthnot, no doubt, was well informed. Already two months earlier, on 22 December 2017, the United States had transmitted a diplomatic note to the British government requesting Assange’s provisional arrest in preparation for his impending indictment. On the very same day, Judge Snow at Westminster Magistrates’ Court – the judge who would summarily convict Assange of bail violation on 11 April 2019 – hastened to comply and issued a second arrest warrant for Assange. Had Arbuthnot cancelled the first arrest warrant as requested by Assange, the second warrant requested by the United States would have been difficult to conceal. So, in February 2018, it was absolutely crucial to uphold the first arrest warrant, relating to the alleged bail violation, as a smokescreen for the second. Accordingly, until the very moment of Assange’s expulsion and arrest, the impending US indictment and extradition request had to be treated as a ‘hypothetical scenario’ which ‘it would not be appropriate for officials to speculate on.’”
Even though things appeared to have been well-prepared between the U.S. and the UK, it nevertheless seems that the American government wanted to secure the Swedish side of the setup too. On May 13, 2019—one month after Assange’s arrest and three days after Nils Melzer visited him in Belmarsh prison— the Swedish Prosecution Authority announced the reopening of their preliminary investigation against Assange—for the third time since 2010. The prosecutor explained that Assange’s expulsion from the Ecuadorian embassy had brought him once more within the reach of Swedish authorities. A new European Arrest Warrant would be requested to ensure his extradition to Sweden as soon as possible after he had completed his prison sentence in London for bail violation. In all likelihood, this decision on an accusation for which the prosecution had been unable to provide any evidence for almost eight years was the sequel of the U.S.’ long-time maneuvering to get hold of Assange. “In a next step, says Nils Melzer, Assange would be sent to the United States, most likely through the mechanism of ‘temporary surrender’, a loophole in the US-Swedish extradition treaty permitting the United States to ‘borrow’ a suspect from Sweden for the purposes of criminal prosecution without full extradition proceedings. While such surrender must remain ‘temporary’, its duration is to be agreed by the two governments on a case-by-case basis – enough room for a tailor-made arrangement ensuring Assange’s permanent disappearance into the black hole of a US Supermax prison.”
As for the specific reason why Julian Assange’s arrest happened so unexpectedly, it is linked to another serious catch. Lord Arbuthnot, judge Arbuthnot’s husband, was chairman of the Defense Select Committee, whose tasks included overseeing the English military. WikiLeaks had published numerous documents relating to professional and political connections close to him. Judge Arbuthnot herself is said to have received gifts from a security company exposed by WikiLeaks. Based on the evidence of possible conflicts of interest, Assange’s lawyers filed an application for recusal on 8 April 2019. As Nils Melzer notes, “It is therefore reasonable to assume that, in addition to my press release of 5 April and my two letters to the British and Ecuadorian governments of 8 April, Assange’s application for recusal put the authorities under considerable time pressure.”
It was simply high time to wrap up the judiciary masquerade. “In normal circumstances, any such objection [of conflict of interest] would have required Judge Snow to suspend the hearing in order to formally address the question of recusal – particularly since a well-documented application to that effect had already been submitted to the same court three days earlier. But Judge Snow reportedly found it ‘unacceptable’, ‘grossly unfair’ and ‘improper’ for Assange to raise the due process objection of judicial bias against Judge Arbuthnot, ‘just to ruin the reputation of a senior and able judge in front of the press’.” He allowed Assange no more than fifteen minutes of preparation time with his lawyer; the entire hearing did not last more than half an hour.
“On 1 May, a third judge, Deborah Taylor,32 handed down the sentence: fifty weeks in prison – just two weeks shy of the maximum sentence of one year. According to Taylor, it was ‘difficult to imagine a more serious example of a bail violation’.” A breach of bail that Assange was unable to avoid if he wanted to accept diplomatic asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy33 Aside from this rational argument against bail violation, the vast majority of such cases are punished with fines or disciplinary sanctions—definitely not with 50 weeks of jail in a high-security setting intended for violent people and terrorists. Yet, isn’t Assange supposed to be one of them?
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As Nils Melzer rightly notes, “no government spends millions of dollars on surveillance and extradition proceedings for more than a decade simply to investigate and prosecute a single inconsequential conspiracy like the one alleged in the US indictment against Assange.” The optics of the indictment that the U.S. Grand Jury issued on March 6, 2018, did not make much sense indeed. How likely was it that the U.S. government would conduct a full-blown extradition trial simply to convict Assange of computer intrusion, an offense committed against the same government by hundreds of hackers on a daily basis?
A much more credible take about this indictment is that the U.S. wanted to avoid officially charging Assange with espionage, a political offense for which his extradition would have been blocked under Article 4 of the Anglo-American extradition treaty of 2003. Computer intrusion, on the other hand, satisfied the requirement of “dual criminality” according to which a person can be extradited if the alleged offense constitutes a crime in both countries. It also allowed eluding any embarrassing public discussion about the implications of Assange’s indictment for press freedom.
But there is more to this extradition treaty. Article 18 stipulates that the extradited person may also be detained, tried, or punished for “a differently denominated offense,” as long as it is based on the same facts as the offense on which extradition was granted. This explained, says Nils Melzer, “why the description of facts in the extradition request was unusually broad and clearly exceeded what was required for a single count of computer intrusion.” The potential addition of new charges opened the door to more severe sanctions than a paltry five-year jail time, the maximum sentence in the United States for computer intrusion.
With the other guy in the oval office, however, all diplomatic façade and pretense of multi-lateral equality and cooperation quickly went out of the window. Side-stepping the Swedish demand for extradition formulated on May 13, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice transmitted its first “superseding indictment” on May 23, 2019, extending the list of charges by seventeen additional counts under the Espionage Act of 1917. “From now on, the US case against Assange was no longer about some failed attempt to decode a password hash, but plainly and blatantly about espionage – the classic textbook example of a political offence. Moreover, since all seventeen new charges accused Assange of obtaining, receiving or disclosing national defence information, it was also clear that the indictment constituted a frontal attack on press freedom as guaranteed in the US Constitution.”
For each count, Assange now faced an additional sentence of up to ten years in prison, resulting in a possible prison sentence of up to 175 years. On June 24, 2020, a second superseding indictment beefed up the initial “computer intrusion” charge, drawing out the character of Assange as the enterprising “hacker” undermining any of his possible journalistic or publisher credentials. It also cast a wider net against WikiLeaks and its associates, while expanding the timeline of alleged nefarious acts from 2009 to 2015.34
Even if the approaches differed between Obama’s cautiousness and the other guy’s heavy footing, the goal was clearly the same: making room in the legal framing to charge Assange to the widest possible extent. By doing nothing to end this parody of justice, their successor confirms that what is at stake for the U.K. and the U.S. remains far more important than petty concerns about press freedom and justice itself.
IV. Democracy Incorporated
Potentially resulting in a sentence to life imprisonment for crimes he did not commit, Julian Assange’s ordeal is nothing short of the viciousness displayed in the infamous political trials orchestrated under Stalin’s dictatorship. What is of real significance, in his case, is the persistency with which it has been pursued. Four successive U.S. presidents and as many British prime ministers have worked on Assange’s extradition under the pretense that he had to answer for his actions. Beyond the fact that in regard to international law the U.S. asking the U.K to extradite an Australian citizen is like Mexico asking France to extradite a U.S. one to Mexico City, what does motivate such pertinaciousness?
With the advent of the internet, gathering data, ensuring sources’ anonymity, and reaching out to the public can be done much more efficiently than traditional journalism ever could. Powers that want to keep acting away from public scrutiny need to dissuade anyone from taking that liberty. Incidentally, the second super-indictment of Assange officially spilled the beans by extending the charges all the way to 2015. From one day to the next, phony allegations of computer intrusion or endangerment of soldiers’ lives in 2010 were not front and center anymore. This sudden broadening of the legal scope revealed that anything will do and that Assange is, simply put, a threat to get rid of.
Still, if lying and persecuting are to be expected from tyrants to remain in power, why do supposedly democratic governments emulate them? The answer is that this has nothing to do with bruised egos in circles of power—although Assange has likely caused some of that—and everything with a system of power. If he and anyone else had to be violently deterred from doing investigative journalism, that is because the so-called democracies involved in the so-called “War on Terror” need to perpetuate in the public’s mind the official narrative of fighting for democracy.
The more a government relies on power over rather than with citizens, the more it will tend to refer to “democracy” as the ultimate value it stands for while cautiously leaving undefined what democracy should imply in the reality of people’s lives. “Democracy” is the trump card with which it will cement its power. In that respect, the lunacy that Wikileaks fights against democracy and is abetted by Russia (Hillary Clinton) or—why not?—a terrorist organization (Mike Pompeo) is a smokescreen intended to protect a whole system of governance. In 1961 already, Dwight Eisenhower famously cautioned Americans about the subversion of democracy through the “military-industrial complex” slow-motion coup he was witnessing. How does this subversion operate and to what extent does the “War on Terror” illustrate it?
The military-industrial and, to a broader extent, corporate coup over democracy is nothing violent. Subverting is the opposite of confronting. For most Americans, even though aware that money in politics is an issue, a democracy managed under corporate rule does not seem to be particularly harsh against our basic freedoms. We seemingly have freedom of the press and free elections. Way more than Russians, for instance, would ever dream of under their autocratic regime. But this is precisely the point. Instead of brutally confronting these freedoms from behind an oversized desk, as Putin does, it is much more efficient to empty them out while duly maintaining the appearance of their proper functioning. No one in particular pulls the strings, all do; democracy becomes the corporate establishment’s playground. How does this hollowing out of the political space take place?
Regarding freedom of the press, cable TV and mainstream newspapers largely depend on the corporate world for their financing. Lacking the independence given by direct individual subscriptions, they are culturally part of the establishment they depend upon financially. Quite logically, they are also its voice, and auto censorship is their second nature. Corporate media pundits, for their part, will easily convince themselves that the business model they live on is fully respectable and above public justification. After all, they do not tell factual lies to the public, or rarely. But the issue is not about blatantly lying; it is about the particular framing of the news and, ultimately, about the specific assumptions that command this framing. This is what Noam Chomsky characterized long ago as “manufacturing consent.”35 It is not manufacturing news, as any classic dictatorship would, but manufacturing consent by framing the news according to the narrative expected by our present-day corporatocracy. If you need an example, think of the “How will you pay for it?” systematically asked against social investments but never, oddly enough, about much costlier military expenditures devoid of objective justification.
The one thing mainstream corporate “news” media will never do, therefore, is to follow the money. In an era of shameless, blatant, legalized, and overwhelming bribery in the United States government, one would think it is relevant and newsworthy. They don’t. Systematically avoiding putting U.S. politics back into its overall context, mainstream media prove daily that their business is about anything but giving the news. The printed press is a little better than cable TV in the sense that their format allows going into more details, as well as their smaller audience to take a somewhat more critical stance. Still, their readers were never allowed to enjoy Noam Chomsky’s insights. Freedom of the press, it seems, is not meant to point at the financial power the press and society at large are ruled under. In Washington, that is called “decency.”
Regarding free elections, the party duopoly exclusively focuses on them, running electoral politics like a show it has learned to control. The citizenry has been replaced by the “electorate,” which, instead of influencing policies, is invited to have “opinions,” i.e. measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them. The dicing of the public into ever more refined categories (“between 20 and 35 years old,” “white male over 40,” “female college graduate,” etc.) has severe impacts on citizens’ potential mobilization. As the great political theorist Sheldon Wolin explains, “The effect is to accentuate what separates citizens, to plant suspicions and thereby further promote demobilization by making it more difficult to form coherent majorities around common beliefs.”36 Moreover, the use of opinion polls translated as political reality through cheaply reproduced “focus groups” renders constituents more easily manipulable. Lastly, people are not obligated to act on their “opinions” since an opinion entails no political responsibility, as opposed to a conviction or a critical approach regarding proposed policies. Overall, electoral politics makes citizens mere consumers of what the power elite has to sell them, replacing the healthy confrontation of policy ideas with the distraction of wrestling matches between public figures.
For sure, electoral politics is way cooler and stress-free for this power elite than an overt dictatorship. In the meantime, beyond promoting literacy, job training, and other essentials for a population barely getting by in the globalization of the economy, the same elite can remain quietly hostile to social democracy. For decades now, Republican and Democrat administrations alike have done virtually nothing to protect the buying power of average Americans, while ever more money and political clout have kept running into the hands of a few. “Everyone for herself” is, in the name of freedom, the highest expression of the establishment’s benevolence. A cruel joke in a “free” marketplace where rules are rigged in favor of those who have the means to buy lawmakers. No wonder most Americans feel disconnected from the political world; it is not theirs, the one they live in. Fed by talking points regurgitated by mainstream media, unfortunately, many of them genuinely think that the government is the issue, not the sharks hijacking it with campaign contributions.
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Acknowledging that behind the window dressing of electoral politics lawmakers will only serve one type of people—their corporate donors—is an important first step. An even more decisive one is to realize that democracy is not something over our heads, only to be dealt with in better times by people mandated to do so. As the late John Robert Lewis said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” Democracy can never be an abstraction to anyone.
This is why having the Constitution is simply not enough. The hollowing out of what could be an effective democracy is not about denying the Constitution but turning it around by pretending that corporations are people. As Sheldon Wolin points out, “Why negate a constitution, as the Nazis did, if it is possible simultaneously to exploit porosity [between corporate and public powers] and legitimate power by means of judicial interpretations that declare huge campaign contributions to be protected speech under the First Amendment, or that treat heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations as a simple application of the people’s right to petition their government?”
Interestingly, the ideological background for hollowing out the political space is exposed in the document officially justifying the war on terror. Undoubtedly positive in its tone, The National Security Strategy of the United States of September 9, 2002 (hereafter NSS)37 lays out a corporatocratic utopia, asserting that there is some unquestionable truth concerning what the right order of society should be, suggesting how to establish that order, and considering the preemptive war against Iraq as the opportunity to achieve such a goal.38
Conflating corporate power with people’s freedom was regularly done by George W. Bush, notably when saying as a matter of pride that the United States is the “greatest power in the world.” Probably unaware that equating power to greatness has never bode well for democracy, he effectively opened an era of expanded executive powers regarding the right to war, citizens’ privacy, and public liberties. It somewhat made sense. Putting in balance being the greatest power in the world and being a paragon of democracy is a shortcut to making people stop referring to the proper functioning of the institutions and shift to the idea of some inherent goodness of the country. And, by that token, the more economic and military power the country has when compared to others, the more there is a reason to feel good about the course of the world in general and ours in particular. If we are the “greatest power in the world,” why should we bother looking too closely at the power of, by, and for themselves mere citizens have left?
We should, nevertheless, look closer. The worldwide corporatocratic order backed in the NSS is to democracy what Wall Street is to the end of famine in poor countries. It is, in no uncertain terms, the project of a superpower running above nations and people, accountable only to the guardians of what defines freedom itself: the so-called “free market.” “For freedom to thrive, asserts the NSS, accountability must be expected and required.”39 Of course. The NSS, however, does not refer to accountability toward people or their representatives but to the United States, the free trade grand scheduler. “Thus, adds the insightful Sheldon Wolin, freedom is granted conditionally and performance is accountable to the power that makes freedom possible. What began as the challenge posed by terrorism becomes conflated into ‘a great mission’ that comprehends virtually all of the world’s ills and, in the process, inflates national power into global power.”
To the NSS authors, additionally, so-called economic freedom does not only equate to freedom overall but also to security. The economy is, in their minds, more than just about exchanging goods and services; it is the inner core of politics. “Ultimately, the foundation of American strength is at home. It is in the skills of our people, the dynamism of our economy, and the resilience of our institutions. A diverse, modern society has inherent, ambitious, entrepreneurial energy. Our strength comes from what we do with that energy. That is where our national security begins.”40 If this might ring true at a practical level, the message, here, is that free trade is a system of power that deserves to be considered as much a part of the foundation of political society as the institutions prescribed by the Constitution.
It is not indifferent either, as Sheldon Wolin notes, that in the trinity of “freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” devoutly referred to in the NSS, freedom and democracy are “clearly subservient to free enterprise, a relationship that, by providing ‘cover’ for the political incorporation of the corporation, assumes great significance in light of the fact that the economic structures defining free enterprise are inherently autocratic, hierarchical, and primed for expansion.”
Sheldon Wolin uses the phrase “Inverted Totalitarianism” to characterize the corporatocratic utopia laid out in the NSS. Classic forms of totalitarianism such as Nazism or communism required the mobilization of the masses to hasten the advent of their global, all-encompassing version of the truth. In its first instance, their fight to end any genuine political space could only be political. Inverted totalitarianism, as the name suggests, works the opposite way. Stemming from a vision held by privileged children of power, its purpose is not to indoctrinate anyone but to let the so-called “free” market gradually privatize society. In their dream-like version of the world, there is no need to forcefully shut down the expression of dissent. The freedom of doing business, it is assumed, will eventually supersede the necessity for open, direct, and constant debates about where we are collectively heading.
This vision is totalitarian for two reasons. Like classic forms of totalitarianism, it is an ideological take postulating the key functioning of the world. Stepping over the falsifiability criterium that is the mark of all rational endeavors, it does not offer the possibility of its own validation and thus bears no questioning. The second reason is that since it pretends to be the end-all and be-all of a happy world by ignoring the difficult and uncertain ways of democracy, it holds within itself the authoritarian side of classic forms of totalitarianism. The latter hailed the people only to enslave them under their ideological abstraction. With inverted totalitarianism, it is the people who are the abstraction; they simply cease to exist as the legitimate focus of power.
The cheap ideology of the wisdom of the market is totalitarian by default, so to speak. It kills democracy by pretending that democracy equates to the possibility of free trade and is, therefore, a done deal that does not deserve any particular scrutiny. What we should worry about instead is free trade itself, the core answer to all of humanity’s ailments and the defining trait of a secure, free, and prosperous society. Like classic forms of totalitarianism, however, the corporatocratic inverted one is utterly failing on its promises. Unlike the former, it is not dead yet. Far from it.
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The “War on Terror” never was what it pretended to be. Everyone knew it made as much sense to invade Iraq after 9/11 as to invade Mexico. Still, almost no one cared in Washington and mainstream media. The very few that did were immediately denounced as unpatriotic. The drumbeat of war was all that mattered, as G.W. Bush’s administration was eager to use the military to the broadest extent possible. This, also, made no sense against an enemy who did not need a conventional military strategy to maintain their networks’ striking capacities. Until retreating from Afghanistan in 2022, trillions of dollars were poured into a twenty-year war that led nowhere. It made the world less safe by shaking the political foundations of many countries, directly and indirectly killing at least one million people and displacing millions of others. To anyone with a heart and a functioning brain, this should be an unbearable shame.
If it is not felt this way in Washington, it is partly because you cannot be blamed for not achieving a non-existent goal. “War on Terror” was an empty slogan meant to dodge any strategic question regarding how to address the conditions for Al Qaeda’s terrorism to flare up. If it had been front and center, as proclaimed, this issue would have prompted the United States to foster democratic alliances in the concerned regions and to help build schools as well as basic infrastructures—all for far less than trillions of dollars. But the primary goal was, instead, to show the strength of the American empire. Since it had started losing its hegemony in the economic field, this empire felt the need to assert it in the military one. Incidentally, this is why the only winners of the war on terror were the armament and fossil fuel industries, along with war-dog private contractors.
A show of incompetence and ineptitude, the war on terror was, most of all, just another episode in the ongoing corporate coup d’état that has progressively taken place in the United States after WWII. This corporate coup d’état led the country into its empire logic, assimilating the defense of freedom to the wealth of American corporations. Dwight Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about authoritarian dictatorships, took on him to denounce this political danger but his solemn addresses came to naught. In part, sadly, because he had himself largely compromised with this corporate coup, most notoriously when ousting Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran who was planning to nationalize oil production. However, the main reason the corporate coup d’état was never vehemently contested by the American people themselves is that it does not need to be overtly brutal with us. All it seeks is for Americans to replace their citizens’ responsibility with the smiley faces of consumers and periodic electors. Only when necessity dictates it can the corporatocracy turn vicious and forget about all rules, be they legal or moral. Since at least the Vietnam war, there has been no example of someone who followed their conscience and became a whistleblower without being prosecuted by the government for it—even when not being an American citizen, as is the case with the call for Julian Assange’s extradition.
That is where the totalitarian nature of this corporate coup d’état reveals itself. But, again, totalitarianism does not necessarily need to be brutal; it simply needs to end the possibility of any genuine political space. In that specific sense, the U.S. corporatocracy checks all the boxes of a totalitarian regime. First by its ideology, market fundamentalism. In the National Security Strategy of the United States of September 9, 2002—the document officially justifying the war on terror—, the market itself (under U.S. scrutiny) is the compass of global leadership since democracy is assumed to be its by-product. Second, by managing democratic institutions instead of outright destroying them—which is why the author Sheldon Wolin speaks of “inverted totalitarianism.” This is done by equating citizens to “electors” in a duopoly system where corporations lavishly finance both sides and intensely lobby elected officials afterward. Third, by making mainstream media “private,” i.e., privately owned corporate entities as opposed to people-owned non-profit ones, the latter being publicly financed or receiving individual subscriptions. In the first scheme, which is the one broadly offered to the American audience, journalistic “independence” means its exact opposite: manufacturing consent by using the corporate and political establishment’s pre-defined frame of questioning.
Once the background of the war on terror episode is understood, the paradox is striking. With all its noise and fury, the war on terror was merely a blip on the corporatocratic radar. It was business as usual. A bet from fossil fuel and mining companies to access the riches of Iraq and Afghanistan and an opportunity for the armament industry to push the envelope for as long as possible. Contrary to a dictator like Putin, who carries his own decisions in front of the rest of the world when he invades a foreign country, the U.S. corporatocratic system runs almost on autopilot. It draws its strength from its own evidence in the minds of governmental corporate obligés, who do not question the system they evolve into no more than a fish questions water. There are no twisted minds planning behind the scenes to rule the world; there is just faith in the market and that the United States is its benevolent conductor. With, of course, a lot of duplicity about what that entails.
Domestically, a political void has been institutionalized by a system where representatives, quite logically, represent their corporate donors and not the people who elected them. This void was to be filled with bigotry, racism, xenophobia, and all sorts of authoritarian sentiments. What else, when politics is considered to be a mere distraction for the masses during election cycles and civic education is entirely neglected at school? While we were chasing terrorists in faraway lands, domestic ones were making progress on their way to establishing good old fascism. In this regard, the war on terror signed the ultimate irony of the corporatocratic will of empire, and this establishment’s glorious spasm of hubris may have been the last one before the country implodes into definite darkness.
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- United States Counterterrorism Operations, 2018-2020, Watson Institute, Brown University.
- Costs of the 20-year war on terror: $8 trillion and 900,000 deaths, 1 September 21. Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars, 1 September 20.
- Link: https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/terrorism/pages/welcome.aspx
- Excellent overall information source on the human cost of the war on terror: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/
- See, for instance, Civilian Deaths Mounted as Secret Unit Pounded ISIS, New York Times, Dec. 12, 2021, and The Human Tolls of America’s Air Wars, New York Times, Dec. 19, 2021
- See Intelligence Matters – The CIA, The FBI, Saudi Arabia, And The Failure Of America’s War On Terror, by Bob Graham and Jeff Nussbaum. See also: 9/11 report’s classified ’28 pages’ about potential Saudi Arabia ties released. The report itself can be found here.
- See as well The One Thing NEVER Mentioned When Talking About Islamist Terrorism, by the Double Down Network.
- Why Nelson Mandela Was Viewed as a ‘Terrorist’ by the U.S. Until 2008.
- More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger, aid group says, Reuters, November 21, 2018.
- See, for instance, The Crime of the Century by Emmy and Academy Award winner Alex Gibney.
- CNN, September 25, 2006: Iraq war could wound GOP at polls. For a more recent view about the media’s utter lack of professional journalistic standards, see for instance This Russia-Afghanistan Story Is Western Propaganda At Its Most Vile, by Caitlin Johnstone. About the inner mechanics of auto-censorship, watch Why The Media Can’t Tell The Truth On Israel & Palestine, by Novara Media.
- Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/236983/terrorist-attacks-by-country/
- More than 3,500 attacks on refugees in Germany in 2016: report.
- Erin M. Kearns, Allison E. Betus, Anthony F. Lemieux: Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?
- Right-Wing Extremism Linked to Every 2018 Extremist Murder in the U.S., ADL Finds.
- See Nuremberg Diary, by Gustave Gilbert.
- On the idea that people have no voice anymore in the United States despite being regularly invited to the voting booth, see Domestic Politics in the Era of Superpower and Empire on this website.
- The full report remains a congressional document that is not, as such, subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A 500 pages redacted summary was made available in 2014.
- The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Deems the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Julian Assange as arbitrary. United Nations, Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, 05 February 2016.
- For a full review of all health statements concerning Assange, go to: https://heystacks.com/doc/541/update-re-julian-assange-in-belmarsh-to-6-sept-202
- Doctors for Assange, First letter to the UK Government. Concerns of medical doctors about the plight of Mr Julian Assange.
- End torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange
- Love S: Access to medical care, a human right, must also be guaranteed to Julian Assange, June 22, 2018
- The document goes on: “A medical practitioner who visited Assange at the embassy documented what a colleague of Assange reported: “[T]here had been many difficulties in finding medical practitioners who were willing to examine Mr Assange in the Embassy. The reasons given were uncertainty over whether medical insurance would cover the Equadorian Embassy (a foreign jurisdiction); whether the association with Mr Assange could harm their livelihood or draw unwanted attention to them and their families; and discomfort regarding exposing this association when entering the Embassy. One medical practitioner expressed concern to one of the interviewees after the police took notes of his name and the fact that he was visiting Mr Assange. One medical practitioner wrote that he agreed to produce a medical report only on condition that his name not be made available to the wider public, fearing repercussions.” The reference given is Dr [Redacted]. Medical report, evaluation of Mr Assange. https://file.wikileaks.org/file/cms/Psychosocial%20Medical%20Report%20December%202015.pdf
- Irujo JM: Russian and US visitors, targets for the Spanish firm that spied on Julian Assange, Oct 9, 2019.
- Julian Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, regularly publishes an update about his legal condition on crowdjustice.com. See her account here.
- State Responsibility for the Torture of Julian Assange, Speech by Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, at the German Bundestag in Berlin, 27 November 2019.
- The Trial of Julian Assange. Verso Books, 2022.
- “To forestall unpredictable knee-jerk reactions on the part of the involved states,” Melzer had previously issued, on April 5, 2019, a press statement entitled UN expert on torture alarmed at reports Assange may soon be expelled from Ecuador embassy.
- Issued by the U.S. Grand Jury at Alexandria, Virginia, on the 6th of that month. https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1153486/download
- All Pretence is Over in Persecution of Assange, blog post by Craig Murray dated 14 February 2018
- For a brief presentation of the main judiciary officials involved in Assange’s case, see: Misconduct in Public Office in the #Assange Case – Crime Reports Filed by a supporter for Paul Close, Emma Arbuthnot, Deborah Taylor, Michael Snow. WISE Up Action – A Solidarity Network for Manning and Assange, November 11, 2020.
- “Requesting asylum is one of the most fundamental human rights of anyone who is politically persecuted. So, if diplomatic asylum granted by a UN member state inevitably results in a bail violation in one of the persecuting countries, then such asylum is, if not a justification, certainly a mitigating circumstance and must be considered as such.” State Responsibility for the Torture of Julian Assange, Speech by Nils Melzer at the German Bundestag in Berlin, 27 November 2019.
- See: Special Analysis of the May 2019 Superseding Indictment of Julian Assange, by Gabe Rottman, Reporters Committee, May 30, 2019. And for the second indictment: Julian Assange Charged yesterday in Surreal “Superceding Indictment” by wendy davis, caucus99percent, June 25, 2020.
- Manufacturing Consent : The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky. See also the excellent Youtube video series Manufacturing Consent Explained, from Spencer Snyder.
- Democracy Incorporated, Ch. 3: Democracy’s Perversion.
- The document is accessible online at: https://nssarchive.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/2002.pdf
- See Democracy Incorporated, by Sheldon Wolin. The chapter about these three aspects of the corporatocratic utopia is summarized in The Utopian Theory of Superpower: The Official Version on this website.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., sec. 9, p. 24