Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 8/8
Previous segment | Next chapter | Contents | Overview | Archive

Well after the 1984 elections that established "democracy" in El Salvador to the applause of the Free Press, the human rights organization Socorro Juridico, operating under the protection of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, observed that the continuing terror is still conducted by

the same members of the armed forces who enjoy official approval and are adequately trained to carry out these acts of collective suffering... Salvadoran society, affected by terror and panic, a result of the persistent violation of basic human rights, shows the following traits: collective intimidation and generalized fear, on the one hand, and on the other the internalized acceptance of the terror because of the daily and frequent use of violent means. In general, society accepts the frequent appearance of tortured bodies, because basic rights, the right to life, has absolutely no overriding value for society.62

The last comment also applies to the supervisors of these operations, as underscored by George Shultz in one of his lamentations on terrorism, a talk delivered just as the United States was carrying out the terror bombing of Libya. In El Salvador, he declared, "the results are something all Americans can be proud of" -- at least, all Americans who enjoy the sight of tortured bodies, starving children, terror and panic, and generalized fear. And James LeMoyne, in one of his "carefully reported, sensitive accounts," concludes that "American support for elected governments [in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras] has been a relative success." No doubt true, by some standards.63

The observations of Socorro Juridico on Salvadoran society under "democracy" were presented at the First International Seminar on Torture in Latin America, held at Buenos Aires in December 1985, a conference devoted to "the repressive system" that "has at its disposal knowledge and a multinational technology of terror, developed in specialized centers whose purpose is to perfect methods of exploitation, oppression and dependence of individuals and entire peoples" by the use of "state terrorism inspired by the Doctrine of National Security." This doctrine can be traced to the historic decision of the Kennedy administration to shift the mission of the Latin American military to "internal security," with consequences that are -- or should be -- well known.

The conference passed without notice in the U.S. media. None of this falls within the canon of terrorism as conceived in the civilized world or has the slightest bearing on the noble efforts of the United States to defend the imperfect but advancing democracies and to "restore democracy" to Nicaragua. Similarly, no celebration of the passionate U.S. commitment to human rights would be sullied by mention of the striking correlation between U.S. aid and torture worldwide documented in several studies, particularly in Latin America, where the leading academic specialist on human rights in the region concludes that U.S. aid "has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens, the hemisphere's relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights." This was prior to the Reagan administration, with its dedicated commitment to terror and torture.64

In one of their commentaries during the period we have been reviewing, the Times editors declared that "the Sandinistas have to understand that their neighbors and Washington rightly see a connection between internal and external behavior."65 It must be, then, that the behavior of "their neighbors and Washington" illustrates this deep commitment to human rights. The editors also asked whether the Reagan administration could "bring itself to take [the calculated risk of a political settlement] and tolerate a Marxist neighbor, if it is boxed in by treaties and commitments to rudimentary human rights," commitments unnecessary for the "fledgling democracies" or their sponsor. They urged that the United States test the possibility of "securing Sandinista agreement to keep Soviet and Cuban bases, advisers and missiles out of Nicaragua" and agree not to "export revolution across Nicaragua's borders." The missiles and Soviet and Cuban bases are presumably added for dramatic effect, and Nicaragua's repeated offers to eliminate foreign advisers and installations are unmentioned, and are regularly unreported, just as no notice is merited when Cuba's foreign minister in early 1988 "reiterated his country's offer to withdraw its military advisers from Nicaragua once the U.S.-backed contra campaign against the Sandinista government ends."66 The perceived problem throughout has been to find some way to "rein in the Sandinistas" and "contain their aggressive thrust" (Washington Post), to compel Nicaragua to "rein in its revolutionary army," as Democratic Senator Terry Sanford demands, an army that is illegitimately rampaging in Nicaragua when it seeks to defend the country from U.S. attack.67 That Nicaragua might face some security problem remains beyond imagining.

Apart from regular unsupported allegations of Sandinista aid to the Salvadoran guerrillas, to which I return, the proclaimed basis for these fears concerning the Sandinista threat to the hemisphere is another coup of the State Department's Operation Truth, based upon a speech by commandante Tomás Borge. In it, he expressed his hopes that Nicaragua would be an example that others would follow, explaining that Nicaragua cannot "export our revolution" but can only "export our example" while "the people themselves of these countries...must make their revolutions"; in this sense, he said, the Nicaraguan revolution "transcends national boundaries." In a conscious and purposeful fraud, State Department Psychological Operations converted these words into the threat of military conquest in pursuit of a "revolution without borders." The phrase was used as the title of the pathetic September 1985 State Department White Paper on alleged Nicaraguan subversion,68 and repeatedly since, sometimes accompanied by the claim that this is a Sandinista Mein Kampf, as George Shultz warned Congress. The same fabrication served as the climax for Reagan's successful effort to obtain $100 million from Congress for the proxy army just as the World Court called upon the United States to terminate its aggression, and it remains a media staple in news columns and commentary, as I have reviewed elsewhere. The hoax was exposed at once by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and even received marginal notice in a review of State Department "public diplomacy" in the Washington Post. But none of this deterred media Agitprop in service of the worthy project "to demonize the Sandinista government" and "to turn it into a real enemy and threat in the minds of the American people," as a Reagan administration official phrased the goal.69 Nor are these exercises of "perception management" deterred by the evident absurdity of the idea that Nicaragua could pose a threat of aggression while the U.S. stands by in helpless impotence. Again, a most impressive demonstration of what can be achieved by a mobilized independent press.

There was, to be sure, a basis for the perception that Nicaragua posed a threat. The real fear was that Borge's hopes might be realized. As Oxfam observed, Nicaragua posed "the threat of a good example." Like Arévalo and Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile, and many others, Nicaragua was perceived as a "rotten apple" that might "infect the barrel," a "virus" that might infect others, a "cancer" that might spread, in the terminology constantly used by planners when they contemplate the dread prospect of independent development geared to domestic needs. The real fear was expressed by Secretary of State Shultz in March 1986, when he warned that if the Sandinistas "succeed in consolidating their power," then "all the countries in Latin America, who all face serious internal economic problems, will see radical forces emboldened to exploit these problems."70 It is therefore necessary to destroy the virus and inoculate the surrounding regions by terror, a persistent feature of U.S. foreign policy, based on the same concerns that animated Metternich and the Czar with regard to the threat to civilized order posed by American democracy. But these truths too lie far beyond the bounds of what can be expressed or imagined.

Returning to the range of expressible opinion, the second sample of opinion columns, like the first, confirms the expectations of the propaganda model, as do others. News reporting satisfies the same conditions, as has been documented in many investigations, ensuring that public opinion will not stray from proper bounds, at least among those segments of the population that count.

Go to the next chapter.

62 Torture in Latin America, LADOC (Latin American Documentation), Lima, 1987.

63 Secretary Shultz, "Moral Principles and Strategic Interests: The Worldwide Movement Toward Democracy," State Dept. Bureau of Public Affairs, Current Policy no. 820, address at Kansas State University, April 14, 1986; LeMoyne, NYT, Feb. 7, 1988.

64 See The Political Economy of Human Rights, vol. I; Lars Schoultz, Comparative Politics, Jan. 1981. See also his Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America.

65 NYT, March 15, 1987.

66 AP, Feb. 1, 1988.

67 Editorial, WP Weekly, March 31, 1986; Pamela Constable, BG, March 15, 1987.

68 For a detailed analysis, see Morley and Petras, op. cit.

69 See my article in Walker, Reagan vs. the Sandinistas; Culture of Terrorism, 219f.; WP, Oct. 15, 1985; Peter Kornbluh, Nicaragua (Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, 1987).

70 Ibid.