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Dissent Essential When Govts. Engage in Conflict

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 4, 2003

Dissent is Essential when Governments Engage in Illegal Conflict and Impose Repressive Measures

Interview with Joy Gordon, Fairfield University philosophy professor conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

As President Bush ordered the first air attacks against Iraq's cities, protesters took to the streets in legal and civil disobedience actions around the U.S. and abroad to express their opposition to a war that much of the world views as unjust and unnecessary. In response, right-wing politicians and conservative commentators have branded those opposing the Bush administration's war as "unpatriotic" and "traitors." Meanwhile, the Clear Channel Radio Network, whose vice chairman has close ties to the President, has organized what they call "Rallies for America" in many cities to "support U.S. troops." Clear Channel, a giant conglomerate which built their empire on deregulation of the radio industry, is looking to the White House for support to further loosen the rules governing broadcasters.

Although the U.N. Security Council refused to authorize an invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration claims that UN resolutions from the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the more recent resolution 1441, provided all the legitimacy they needed to initiate hostilities. After the war began, the White House boasted they had 35 coalition partners -- most of whose populations oppose this war, with only Britain, Australia and a few others sending their soldiers to fight Saddam Hussein's regime.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Joy Gordon, professor of philosophy at Fairfield University, who has closely examined the toll taken by 12 years of U.N. economic sanctions on the people of Iraq. Here, Gordon considers the ethical questions surrounding the U.S. justification for war and the role of citizens when their government defies international law and adopts repressive measures.

Joy Gordon: The U.N. charter, devised at the end of World War II in the way the League of Nations was, comes after the human catastrophes of two world wars, and both are envisioning structures that (were meant to) be very, very strict in restraining aggression between nations. The U.N. charter says no member state may interfere with or violate the territorial integrity or political independence of another member nation. And the only exception to that is under Chapter 7, which has to do with breaches of the peace, aggression, and threats to the peace. The other is Article 51, which has to do with self-defense against armed attack.

If one of those two is not the case -- if it's not authorized by the Security Council as a response to aggression on behalf of the institution of the U.N., not by individual nations -- and if it's not self-defense in response to armed attack, then it is aggression. It is precisely what the U.N. Charter was designed to prevent.

Between The Lines: What is the obligation of a citizen in a nation whose government is breaking international law?

Joy Gordon: On the one hand, this is a time when I feel quite proud to be an American as I was in New York on Saturday, March 22 and marching and (seeing) the tremendous passion and intensity of those marchers. That seems to me to be a democratic expression when Congress fails to represent the will of the people, when the executive fails to represent the will of the people, then that is something Americans can do … protest in a very active way.

The other thing that we have to give thought to is how much the Bush administration and the press have framed the issues, have really sort of permeated our consciousness and very much sort of shaped our sensibilities and not just in the case of the war against Iraq.

Look at the USA Patriot Act and the racism and xenophobia that that's engendered : the idea of holding prisoners in Guantanamo (U.S. Naval Base in Cuba) and deciding quite by fiat that they are neither prisoners of war subjected to the protections of the Geneva Convention nor criminals, subject to the protections of the U.S. Constitution, but some third category not subject to any protections. The invention of a court to do that -- the invention of a new form of military tribunal in which those charged have no access to attorneys may have no access to see the evidence against them. So we should be quite sensitive to what this means about what a democracy is or what a sound government is or what a decent society is. And for many of us, these things don't touch us personally. If you don't look Arab, then you may not have problems getting on planes. You'll merely be inconvenienced and be told to take your shoes off with a metal detector.

I'd like to read, if I could, a kind of lengthy quote from a book by Milton Sanford Mayer, called "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1938 through 1945." It's describing the sense of what it was to be German in the 1930s and the sense of how increasingly aberrant the society was becoming and at the same time how difficult it was to wonder when it would be very clear, where it would be clear to everyone how aberrant it was.

It runs like this:

"Nazism gave us some dreadful fundamental things to think about and kept us so busy with continuous changes and crises and so fascinated by the machinations of the national enemies without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing little by little all around us. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well-explained or on occasion regretted, that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these little measures must lead to someday.

"No one more saw it developing day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. Each act is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great, shocking, occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow. You don't want to act or even talk alone. You don't want to go out of your way to make trouble. And it's not just fear that restrains you, it's also genuine uncertainty and you are an alarmist. You are saying, 'This must lead to this,' and you can't prove it. But the one great shocking occasion when tens or hundreds of thousands will join with you never comes.

"That's the difficulty. The forms are all there. All untouched, all reassuring. The houses, the shops, the jobs, the meal times, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the life-long mistake of identifying it with the forms has changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves. When everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. You have accepted things you have not accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father could never have imagined."

Joy Gordon is professor of philosophy at Fairfield University. Her article: "Cool War: Economic Sanctions as Weapons of Mass Destruction," appeared in the November 2002 edition of Harpers Magazine which can be read online at


Scott Harris is the executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, nationally syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (, for the week ending April 4, 2003.

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