When I picture a high-ranking government official, I think of someone who is corrupt. I think of a corporate shill. I think of someone who is not a friend to the people of this country. I think of Lord Acton’s famous line about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. I think of the disdain with which so many Americans have viewed so many of their leaders for so many years.
Former attorney general Ramsey Clark is different. Despite having once been the chief law-enforcement officer of this country, he consistently takes the side of the oppressed.
Born to power — Clark’s father was attorney general in the 1940s and later a Supreme Court justice — the University of Chicago Law School graduate was appointed assistant attorney general by John F. Kennedy in 1961 and went on to head that department as attorney general under Lyndon Johnson from 1967 to 1969. During his years in the Justice Department, Clark was a staunch supporter of the civil-rights movement. While in charge of government efforts to protect the protesters in Alabama, he witnessed firsthand “the enormous violence that was latent in our society toward unpopular people.” He had a similar experience when he was sent to Los Angeles after the rioting in Watts and discovered abuses by the police and the National Guard.
Although back then, Clark didn’t take the strong antiwar stance he advocates today, his Justice Department record boasts some major accomplishments: He supervised the drafting and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. He denounced police shootings and authorized prosecution of police on charges of brutality and wrongful death. He opposed electronic surveillance and refused to authorize an FBI wiretap on Martin Luther King Jr. He fought hard against the death penalty and won, putting a stay on federal executions that lasted until this year , when Timothy McVeigh’s death sentence was carried out.
After a failed bid for the Senate in 1976, Clark abandoned government service and set out to provide legal defense to victims of oppression. As an attorney in private practice, he has represented many controversial clients over the years, among them antiwar activist Father Philip Berrigan; Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier; the Branch Davidians, whose compound in Waco, Texas, was destroyed by government agents; Sheik Omar Abd El-Rahman, who was accused of masterminding the World Trade Center bombing; and Lori Berenson, an American held in a Peruvian prison for allegedly supporting the revolutionary Tupac Amaru movement there. Clark’s dedication to defending unpopular, and even hated, figures has also led him to represent such clients as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and far-right extremist Lyndon LaRouche.
Clark is founder and chairperson of the International Action Center, the largest antiwar movement in the United States. A vocal critic of U.S. military actions around the globe, he calls government officials “international outlaws,” accusing them of “killing innocent people because we don’t like their leader.” He has traveled to Iraq, North Vietnam, Serbia, and other embattled regions of the world to investigate the effects of American bombing and economic sanctions there. The sanctions, he says, are particularly inhumane:
“They’re like the neutron bomb, which is the most ‘inspired’ of all weapons, because it kills the people and preserves the property, the wealth. So you get the wealth and you don’t have the baggage of the hungry, clamoring poor.”
After the Gulf War, in 1991, Clark initiated a war-crimes tribunal, which tried and found guilty President George Bush and Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, among others. Clark went on to write a book, The Fire This Time (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992; International Action Center, 2002), describing the crimes he says were committed by U.S. and NATO forces during the Gulf War. When asked why he focuses on the crimes of his own country, instead of those committed by Iraq, Clark says that we, as citizens, need to announce our principles and “force our government to adhere to them. When you see your government violating those principles, you have the highest obligation to correct what your government does, not point the finger at someone else.”
The interview took place on a dreary day last November , when the presidential election was still undecided. We have a new [illegitimate] president now, but Clark’s criticisms of U.S. foreign policy are, if anything, more relevant with George W. Bush in the Oval Office. I met with Clark in the offices of the International Action Center (39 West 14th St., #206, New York, NY 10011, www.iacenter.org). Books lined every wall, except for a fairly large area devoted to photographs of Clark’s two children, his numerous grandchildren, and his wife of more than fifty years.
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Jensen: According to the federal government’s Defense Planning Guide of 1992, the first objective of U.S. foreign policy is to convince potential rivals that they “need not aspire” to “a more aggressive posture to defend their legitimate interests.” The implication seems to be that the U.S. intends not to let other countries actively defend their own interests. To what extent does U.S. foreign policy in action reflect that goal?
Clark: Our foreign policy has been a disaster since long before that planning guide — for a lot longer than we’d like to believe. We can look all the way back to the arrogance of the Monroe Doctrine, when the United States said, “This hemisphere is ours,” ignoring all the other people who lived here, too. For a part of this past century, there were some constraints on our capacity for arbitrary military action — what you might call the inhibitions of the Cold War — but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we’ve acquired a headier sense of what we can get away with.
Our overriding purpose, from the beginning right through to the present day, has been world domination — that is, to build and maintain the capacity to coerce everybody else on the planet: nonviolently, if possible; and violently, if necessary. But the purpose of our foreign policy of domination is not just to make the rest of the world jump through hoops; the purpose is to facilitate our exploitation of resources. And insofar as any people or states get in the way of our domination, they must be eliminated — or, at the very least, shown the error of their ways.
I’m not talking about just military domination. U.S. trade policies are driven by the exploitation of poor people the world over. Vietnam is a good example of both the military and the economic inhumanity. We have punished its government and people mercilessly, just because they want freedom. The Vietnamese people had to fight for thirty years to achieve freedom — first against the French, and then against the United States. I used to be criticized for saying that the Vietnamese suffered 2 million casualties, but I’ve noticed that people now say 3 million without much criticism. Yet that war was nothing compared to the effects of twenty years of sanctions, from 1975 to 1995, which brought the Vietnamese people — a people who had proven to be invincible when threatened by physical force on their own land — down to such dire poverty that they were taking to open boats in stormy seas, and drowning, to get to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, a place no one in his or her right mind would want to be. They went simply because they saw no future in their own country.
I went to North Vietnam in the summer of 1971, when the U.S. was trying to destroy civilian dikes through bombing. Our government figured that if it could destroy Vietnam’s capacity for irrigation, it could starve the people into submission.
Jensen: Which, in itself, is a war crime.
Clark: Sure, but since when does international law stop the U.S. government — except when it comes to laws made by the World Trade Organization, where it’s to the advantage of the owners of capital for the government to obey them?
The U.S. figured that if the Vietnamese couldn’t control their water supply, then they couldn’t grow rice, and they wouldn’t be able to feed themselves. At that time, they were producing about five tons of rice to the hectare, which is extremely productive. The economy was based on the women. The men were living in tunnels to the south with a bag of rice, a bag of ammunition, and a rifle; some had been there for years. And we were still bombing them mercilessly, inflicting heavy casualties. Yet they survived.
The sanctions, on the other hand, brought their economy down below that of Mozambique — then the poorest country in the world, with a per capita income of about eighty dollars per year.
All of this reflects a U.S. foreign policy that is completely materialistic and enforced by violence, or the threat of violence, and economic coercion.
Jensen: Do you think most Americans would agree that U.S. foreign policy has been “a disaster”?
Clark: Sadly, I think most Americans don’t have an opinion about our foreign policy. Worse than that, when they do think about it, it’s in terms of the demonization of enemies and the exaltation of our capacity for violence.
When the Gulf War started in 1991, you could almost feel a reverence come over the country. We had a forty-two-day running commercial for militarism. Nearly everybody was glued to CNN, and whenever they saw a Tomahawk cruise missile taking off from a navy vessel somewhere in the Persian Gulf, they practically stood up and shouted, “Hooray for America!” But that missile was going to hit a market in Basra or someplace, destroy three hundred food stalls, and kill forty-two very poor people. And we considered that a good thing.
It’s very difficult to debate military spending in this country today — which is unbelievable, because our military spending is absolutely, certifiably insane. Just to provide one example: We still have twenty-two commissioned Trident nuclear submarines, which are first-strike weapons. Any one of those submarines can launch twenty-four missiles simultaneously. Each of those missiles can contain as many as seventeen independently targeted, maneuverable nuclear warheads. And each of those warheads can travel seven thousand nautical miles and supposedly hit within three hundred feet of its predetermined target. If we fire them in opposite directions, we can span fourteen thousand nautical miles: halfway around the world at the equator. This means we can take out 408 centers of human population, hitting each with a nuclear warhead ten times as powerful as the bomb that incinerated Nagasaki.
Jensen: This is all from one submarine?
Clark: One submarine. And we have twenty-two of them. It’s an unthinkable machine. Why would you have it? What kind of mind would conceive of such a machine? What justification could there be for its existence? What would be the meaning of daring to use it?
Yet the debate about military spending in this country never raises these questions. Think back to 1980, when President Carter and Governor Reagan were arguing about the military budget. At that time, you could see the end of the Cold War approaching; the risk of superpower conflict was waning rapidly. Carter came in with a 7 percent increase in the budget, when it should have been reduced. And Reagan, of course, topped him with a proposal for an 11 percent increase. Carter’s response was that he could spend 7 percent more effectively than Reagan could spend 11 percent, so we’d be stronger on Carter’s program. Nowhere in this debate did we — or do we now — hear anything about the morality or the sanity (even the fiscal sanity) of such huge military budgets.
Our foreign policy is based on the use of our military might as an enforcer, exactly as Teddy Roosevelt implied when he said that we should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” What does that mean? It means: “Do what I say, or I’ll smash your head in. I won’t make a lot of noise about it; I’ll just do it.”
Jensen: How many times has the United States invaded Latin America in the last two hundred years?
Clark: It depends on who’s doing the counting, but in the twentieth century alone, it was undoubtedly almost once per year. Off the top of my head, I could count probably seventy instances.
Jensen: And, of course, it was the same in the nineteenth century.
Clark: We sent the word out pretty early. We had to worry about the British and the Spanish for a long time, but we were determined to make this “our” hemisphere — while, at the same time, certainly not confining ourselves to just this side of the world.
We hear a lot of rhetoric about how the United States exports democracy all over the world, but if you really want to understand U.S. influence on other peoples, probably the best places to start are Liberia and the Philippines, which are our two preeminent colonies — I think it’s fair to call them that — in Africa and Asia.
We started in Liberia well before 1843, planning to send freed slaves there as one of the “solutions,” so to speak, to our slavery problem. Liberia became a U.S. colony in every sense of the word: “Liberia” is the name we gave the country; the capital, Monrovia, and the great port city, Buchanan, are both named after U.S. presidents; the government was organized and put in place directly by the United States; the national currency is the U.S. dollar. Given these close connections, you’d expect Liberia to be relatively well-off. But it would be difficult, even in Africa, to find a people more tormented and endangered and impoverished than Liberia’s.
It’s the same story in the Philippines, which we conquered during the Philippine-American War — commonly (and inaccurately) called the Spanish-American War. More than a million Filipinos died during that war from violence and dengue fever, a byproduct of the fighting. We had government testimony of widespread use of torture by U.S. troops and of a general giving orders to kill all of the males on Negros Island. Once, that island could feed more than the population of the entire Philippine archipelago. And what’s the condition of that island now, after a hundred years of American benevolence? It’s owned by twelve families and produces 60 percent of the sugar exported from the Philippines. The children of those who chop the cane starve because their families don’t even have enough land to grow their own vegetables. Per capita income in the Philippines ten years ago was less than six hundred dollars. Per capita income in Japan, by contrast, was more than twenty-four thousand dollars. Even the poorest countries in the region have per capita incomes double or triple that of the Philippines.
So what have Liberia and the Philippines gotten out of being de facto colonies of the United States? Poverty, division, confusion, and tyrannical governments: Ferdinand Marcos was our man in Manila. We installed one dictator after another in Liberia.
These two countries represent a small part of our foreign policy, but it’s a part where you would expect us to be the most attentive to the well-being of the people. Yet few have suffered more in other parts of the world.
Jensen: So how do we maintain our national self-image as God’s gift to the world, the great bastion of democracy?
Clark: But we’re not a democracy. It’s a terrible misunderstanding and a slander to the idea of democracy to call us that. In reality, we’re a plutocracy: a government by the wealthy. Wealth has its way. The concentration of wealth and the division between rich and poor in the U.S. are unequaled anywhere. And think of whom we admire most: the Rockefellers and Morgans, the Bill Gateses and Donald Trumps. Would any moral person accumulate a billion dollars when there are 10 million infants dying of starvation every year? Is that the best thing you can find to do with your time?
Jensen: I remember seeing a statistic a few years ago that summed up our priorities for me: for the price of a single b-1 bomber — about 5 million — we could provide basic immunization treatments to the roughly 575 million children in the world who lack them, thus saving 2.5 million lives annually.
Clark: Such comparisons have a powerful illustrative impact, but they imply that if the money weren’t spent on bombers, it might be put to good use. The fact is, however, that if the b-1 were canceled, we still wouldn’t spend the money on vaccinations, because it wouldn’t serve the trade interests of the United States. It’s not a part of our vision.
Jensen: What, then, is our vision?
Clark: Central to our foreign policy has been the active attempt to deprive governments and peoples of the independence that comes from self-sufficiency in the production of food. I’ve believed for many years that a country that can’t produce food for its own people can never really be free. Iran is a good example of this. We overthrew the democratically elected government in Iran and installed the Shah. For twenty-five years, Iran was our surrogate in the Middle East, a hugely important region. After the Shah was overthrown by his own people, CIA chief William Colby called installing the Shah the CIA’s proudest achievement and said, “You may think he failed, but for twenty-five years, he served us well.”
Jensen: Serving us well, in this case, included killing tens of thousands of Iranians just in the year before he left office.
Clark: He certainly killed as many as he dared, especially in that last year, 1978. I’ve always said it was about thirty-seven thousand that year, but we’ll never know exactly how many. I think there were two thousand gunned down on Black Friday alone, that August. There were a million people out on the streets that day, and they came through Jaleh Square, many wearing shrouds so that it would be convenient to bury them if they were killed. Huey helicopters fired on them from a hundred feet in the air with fifty-caliber machine guns.
Jensen: U.S.-supplied Hueys?
Clark: The Hueys were fabricated in Esfahan, Iran, from U.S.-supplied parts. In fact, the fabrication of those Hueys provides an interesting insight into the effects of U.S. influence. In 1500, Esfahan was one of the ten biggest cities in the world, with about half a million people. Culturally, it remained almost pristine until 1955, the year after the Shah took power. As part of the Shah’s efforts to fulfill his dream of making Iran the fifth great industrial power in the world, he made Esfahan a center of industrialization. By 1970, the population had increased to 1.5 million, including about eight hundred thousand peasants who had come to live in the slums around this once fabulous city.
Once again, the result of U.S. foreign policy was poverty, anger, hurt, and suffering for the majority. While the canal systems that had supported enough agriculture to feed the population for a couple of millennia were going into decay, causing Iran to import most of its food, the country was buying arms. We sold them more than billion in arms between 1972 and 1977 — everything they wanted, except nuclear weapons.
Iran isn’t the only Middle Eastern nation dependent upon food imports. Today twenty-two Arab states import more than half of their food. This makes them extremely vulnerable to U.S. economic pressure.
Egypt is a great example of this. It’s the second-largest U.S.-aid recipient in the world, after Israel. Can you imagine what sanctions would do to Cairo? You’ve got 12 million people living there, 10 million of them in real poverty. The city would be bedlam in ninety days. There would be rebellion in the streets.
The same is true of the other Arab countries. They might think they’ve got wealth because of their oil, but Iraq has oil, and it hasn’t helped that country survive the sanctions. There, sanctions have forced impoverishment on a people who had a quality of life that was by far the best in the region. They had free, universal healthcare and a good educational system. Now they’re dying at a rate of about eighteen thousand per month as a direct result of sanctions imposed by the United States in the name of the UN Security Council — the most extreme sanctions imposed in modern times.
The U.S. helped maneuver Iraq into a position where it was one of those twenty-two Arab nations importing more than half its food, and I have always believed that we maneuvered it, as well, into attacking Iran, in that god-awful war that cost a million young men their lives for no purpose. After the collapse of the Shah’s regime in 1979, Iraq thought that Iran couldn’t defend itself, but didn’t take into account the passion that twenty-five years of suffering had created in the population — a passion so strong that you had fifteen-year-old kids running barefoot through swamps into a hail of bullets, and if they got near you, you were dead. They had a pair of pants and a rifle, and that was about it. Meanwhile, Iraq, which was supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States, had artillery it could mount shoulder to shoulder and armored vehicles with cannons and machine guns. But the war was still a stalemate.
In any case, by the late 1980s, Iraq was emerging as too powerful a nation in the Middle East. And, fatally for Iraq, it wasn’t reliable enough to be our new surrogate. No one would be as good a surrogate for us as the Shah’s Iran had been.
So we had to take out Iraq, under the pretense of defending Kuwait. First we bombed Iraq brutally: 110,000 aerial sorties in forty-two days, an average of one every thirty seconds, which dropped 88,500 tons of bombs. (These are Pentagon figures.) We destroyed the infrastructure — to use a cruel euphemism for life-support systems. Take water, for example: We hit reservoirs, dams, pumping stations, pipelines, and purification plants. Some associates and I drove into Iraq at the end of the second week of the war, and there was no running water anywhere. People were drinking water out of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
The Gulf War showed, for the first time, that you could destroy a country without setting foot on its soil. We probably killed a hundred thousand, and our total casualties, according to the Pentagon, were 157 — most of them from friendly fire and accidents. The Iraqis caused only minimal casualties. One of those notoriously inaccurate Scud missiles, fired toward Saudi Arabia, came wobbling down and somehow hit a mess-hall tent, killing thirty-seven American soldiers. That’s a big chunk of the total casualties right there. We didn’t lose a single tank, whereas we destroyed seventeen hundred Iraqi armored vehicles, plinking them with depleted-uranium ammunition and laser-guided missiles.
But, as with Vietnam, the sanctions that followed the war have been infinitely more damaging, causing fifteen times the number of casualties. The sanctions against Iraq are genocidal conduct under the law, according to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — which, by the way, the United States refused to endorse until 1988 and explicitly refuses to comply with to this day. The sanctions against Iraq have killed more than 1.5 million people, more than half of them children under the age of five, an especially vulnerable segment of the population. Particularly in their first year, children are more susceptible to disease and malnutrition, and to the malnutrition of their mother. Many Iraqi mothers are now so malnourished that they cannot produce milk. They try to give their children sugar water as a substitute, but because the United States destroyed the infrastructure, the water is contaminated: within forty-eight hours, the child is dead. And that child could have been saved by a rehydration tablet that costs less than a penny, but is not available because of the sanctions. This is in a country that once produced 15 percent of its own pharmaceuticals: now it can’t even get the raw materials. We have, in an act of will, impoverished a whole population.
Jensen: Where do you see such policies taking us?
Clark: The great issue of the twenty-first century will be that of the relationship between the rich and poor nations, and of the elimination of some percentage of those whom we consider not only expendable, but even undesirable. In many parts of the world, we’ve got 30 percent of the labor force unemployed and unemployable, and new technology renders them unnecessary. Why, then, from the perspective of capital — and, therefore, from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy — should we support them? Why worry about AIDS in Africa? Why worry about hunger and malnutrition in Bangladesh or Somalia?
Jensen: Let me see if I’ve got this right: From the perspective of those in power, it’s desirable to keep the poor alive only insofar as they’re useful, and the poor are useful only as labor, or as an excess pool of labor to drive wages down. Beyond that, who needs them?
Clark: Yes. It’s hard for me to see how we will find meaningful and desirable employment for the poorest segment of the world’s population in the face of both ecological degradation and technology’s capacity to produce more than we need. How did Dostoevski put it? “The cruelest punishment that can be inflicted on a person is to force him to work hard at a meaningless task.” That may or may not be true, but we do know that such make-work is a form of psychological torture. If your labor isn’t needed, if you don’t have skills, then what are you worth to a society that won’t even bother to vaccinate your children or provide food for your starving infants?
In 1900, half of the labor force in the United States was involved in agriculture. Now it’s probably less than 5 percent. In 1900, 80 percent of the labor force in China was involved in food production. When that figure comes down to 10 percent, what are those other 90 percent going to do?
Jensen: While we’ve been talking, I’ve been thinking about a conversation that took place years ago between Senator George McGovern and Robert Anderson, the president of the military contractor Rockwell International. McGovern asked Anderson if he wouldn’t rather build mass-transit systems than b-1 bombers. Anderson said he would, but they both knew that there was no chance Congress would appropriate money for public transportation.
Clark: They were absolutely right. Capital in the United States would never accept that sort of shift in priorities, for many reasons. The first is that the military is a means of international domination, and any change that might threaten that domination will not be allowed to take place. The second reason is that capital requires continuing, ever expanding demand, and mass transit shrinks demand for automobiles and gas.
When my family moved to Los Angeles when I was a kid, before World War II, it was a paradise. The word smog hadn’t been invented. There were no such things as freeways. There were mountains, beaches, deserts, and wildlife, and 49 percent of the land in the area was owned by the people of the United States. But the machinery that would destroy that paradise had already been put in motion.
In the 1920s, there had been struggles over whether there would continue to be mass transit in Los Angeles, which at the start of the century had an elaborate streetcar system. But powerful industries — the oil refiners and the automobile manufacturers — fiercely opposed what the people obviously needed. The citizens of Los Angeles were a fast-growing population with long distances to travel, and they needed to get there fast and cheaply. If they’d developed more mass transit, it would have led to an entirely different way of life. Instead, LA is now a big, sprawling metropolis with a tangle of freeways and millions of cars, unbelievable in its endless banality and congestion and noise and pollution. But think of what LA’s maintaining its excellent mass-transit system would have done to the petrochemical industry and the automobile industry, with all of their accessories — tires, parts, and so on.
Capital promotes activities from which its owners can reap enormous profits. It does not matter if those activities are detrimental to living beings or communities. For example, those in power seem to have an unlimited imagination for conjuring up new excuses to throw money at the military. I was saddened by the almost pathetic naiveté of the people of this country some ten years ago, when we were talking about reaping a “peace dividend.”
Jensen: Which, of course, we never hear about anymore.
Clark: But people believed there would be a peace dividend! Instead, we’ve devised incredible schemes like SDI — the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, which is back again.
Jensen: The argument now is that we need SDI to protect us from North Korea.
Clark: That’s crazy. In the current election, even more than in 1980, when Carter and Reagan were debating the military budget, we saw two candidates vying to prove that they each would provide a stronger defense. But defense from what? In order to keep increasing the demand for military products, we’re teaching moral and fiscal insanity. I was in South Africa a couple of weeks ago. After all the people there have suffered, you have to be so hopeful for them, yet they just spent over a billion dollars on a bunch of naval vessels.
And we’ve been consistently sold a bill of goods that has made people believe they’ve been heroic when they’ve done terrible things in the name of their country through military actions. I mean, how many of those pilots who bombed Vietnam — even the ones who became prisoners — ever said to themselves, “I wonder what it was like being a Vietnamese villager when I was coming over and dropping those bombs”?
Jensen: I kept thinking about that when Senator John McCain used his former-prisoner-of-war status to gain political capital, and I never heard anyone publicly confront him about killing civilians.
I remember once, when I lived in Spokane, Washington, there was a gala event called “A Celebration of Heroes.” The headliner was the Gulf War commander Norman Schwarzkopf. Neither the mainstream nor the alternative papers published articles, or even letters to the editor, about Schwarzkopf’s war crimes. I think that holding up mass murderers as heroes is as much a problem as holding up the rich.
Clark: Violence may not be as harmful as greed in the long run, because it’s harder to kill people directly than it is to kill them with sanctions. If you killed that many with bullets, your finger would get tired.
Colin Powell seems to be a compelling figure, but when he was asked during the Gulf War how many Iraqis he thought the United States had killed, his response was — and this is a direct quote — “Frankly, that’s a number that doesn’t interest me very much.” Now, aside from international law, which requires that all participants in war count their enemy dead, that is an extraordinarily inhumane statement. And then you see a fellow like General Barry McCaffrey, whom Clinton later named as his drug czar, coming in and attacking defenseless Iraqi troops as they withdrew, killing several thousand people just like that. [Snaps his finger.] That’s a war crime of the first magnitude. And yet these men are rewarded; they’re seen as heroes.
Jensen: On another subject, you’ve also spoken out against our nation’s prison system.
Clark: One of the most devastating things that have happened in this society — and one of the most ignored — is the stunning growth of the prison system and the use of capital punishment. In the 1960s, a time of maximum domestic turbulence, we were able to bring the government out against the death penalty, leading to a halt in federal executions in 1963. In fact, the first year in U.S. history that there were no executions anywhere was 1968. We also had a moratorium on federal prison construction. The federal-prison population was then around twenty thousand. Now, of course, we’re building prisons like mad, and the federal-prison population is currently about 145,000.
In 1971, prisoners at Attica in New York State rebelled against horrible prison conditions. (Conditions overall are worse today.) The suppression of that rebellion is still the bloodiest day of battle between Americans on American soil since the Civil War: thirty-seven people were killed. At that time, there were fewer than thirteen thousand prisoners in the whole New York prison system; today there are about seventy-five thousand. And the population of the state hasn’t risen 5 percent.
Across the country, more than 2 million people are in prison. And in California — which we tend to think of as a trendsetter for the rest of the country — 40 percent of African American males between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven, the most vital years of their lives, are either in prison or under some form of community supervision or probation. What’s the reason behind this? It’s a means of controlling a major segment of the population. But what does it do to the people?
And what does it mean that we’ve got politicians like New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who insists on sending people to jail for what he calls “quality of life” crimes? What does it mean when 70 percent of young-adult African American males have arrest records? What does it mean when so many of these African Americans have had frightening and damaging experiences with the police? We say we’re “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” yet we have a prison system unrivaled in the so-called democratic societies, and probably in any society on the planet today. And we’re Lord High Executioner.
In the 1960s, South Africa was the world’s leading executioner for postjudicial convictions, executing about three hundred people every year — nearly one each day. Most years, all of those executed were black, with the occasional exception of a white who had been convicted of being part of the African National Congress’s resistance to apartheid. Back then, the principal argument we made in this country against the death penalty was “We don’t want to be like South Africa.” Part of the reason that argument worked is that the civil-rights movement was ascendant. Another is that people recognized that our executions were racist: For instance, 89 percent of the executions for rape, from the time statistics began to be collected until the Supreme Court abolished executions for rape, were of African American men. And although we don’t know the race of all the victims, because those statistics weren’t kept, those whose race we have been able to determine were all white. The imposition of the death penalty was — and remains — blatantly racist.
Now South Africa has abolished the death penalty; its constitution prohibits it. Prior to that, its supreme court found the death penalty to be a violation of international and domestic laws. Yet we come on like gangbusters for capital punishment. George W. Bush executed more people than any other governor in the history of the United States.
Jensen: You seem to be a good person, yet you filled a major government post. That seems to me an immense contradiction.
Clark: If your premises are correct, then that’s a terrible indictment of the system. There is something desperately wrong if we don’t have the best among us in government service. But it’s true; we drive them out.
I joined the Marines during World War II, but a bunch of my buddies were conscientious objectors. Even then, I realized that they were better men than I, that what they did took more courage. I mean, to join the Marines is a piece of cake: all you’ve got to do is go down to the recruitment center and sign up. But I’ve watched my conscientious-objector friends over the years, and I have to say that they’ve been very lonely; in some ways, their lives were pretty much wasted. We’re social creatures, and these men — boys, really, when they first made that decision — were ostracized for what they did, for following their conscience. And I think that lack of social esteem affected how they perceived themselves.
It seems the best among us often get purged. I have seen many new congresspeople come into Washington, and some of them are just such good people that you can hardly stand it — bright, articulate, and caring about issues. But it seems that, if they get reelected a few times, they start to sit around and scowl and drink too much, and their families break up. If you see this happen enough times, you begin to realize the enormous corrupting power of our political system. To be successful in it, you might have to make compromises that will cause you not to like yourself very much. And then you’ll have to compensate for that in some way. You can become excessively ambitious, or greedy, or corrupt, or something else, but something’s got to happen, because if you don’t like yourself, what do you do?
Young people often ask me if they should go to law school, and I always say, “If you’re not tough, you’ll get your values beaten out of you, and you’ll move into a kind of fee-grabbing existence where your self-esteem will depend on how much you bill per hour and what kind of clients you bring in to the law firm. You might find yourself turning into nothing but a money mill.”
If we are to significantly change our culture, we need to recognize that we are held in thrall by two desperately harmful value patterns. One is the glorification of violence. We absolutely, irrationally, insanely glorify violence. We often think that we enjoy watching the good guys kill the bad guys, but the truth is that we enjoy watching the kill itself.
The other value is materialism. We are the most materialistic people who have ever lived. We value things over children. Indeed, the way we show how much we value children is by giving them things, to the point where a mother’s self-esteem depends on whether she’s the first in her neighborhood to get her child some new toy.
I think the hardest part for us is to break through the illusory world that the media create. Television is a big part of our reality. Children spend more time watching TV than they do in school or participating in any other activity. And television is a preacher of materialism above all else. It tells us constantly to want things. More money is spent on commercials than on the entertainment itself. And that entertainment is essentially hypnotic.
I think often of the Roman poet Juvenal’s line about “bread and circuses.” All these distractions that now fill our lives are an unprecedented mechanism of social control, because they occupy so much of our time that we don’t reason, we don’t imagine, and we don’t use our senses. We walk though our day mesmerized, never questioning, never thinking, never appreciating. From this process we emerge a synthetic vessel without moral purpose, with no notion in our head or our heart of what is good for people, of what builds a healthier, happier, more loving society.
You began this interview by asking me about U.S. foreign policy, and I said that it’s been a failure. Here is the standard by which I would judge any foreign or domestic policy: has it built a healthier, happier, more loving society, both at home and abroad? The answer, in our case, is no on both counts.
Jensen: So what do we do?
Clark: I think the solution relies on the power of the idea, and the power of the word, and on a belief that, in the end, the ultimate power resides in the people.
In discussing the effects of U.S. foreign policy, we’ve been talking about only one part of the story. Another part is resistance — the power of the people. We saw that in the Philippines, when Marcos was deposed in a nonviolent revolution, and we saw that in Iran, when the Shah’s staggering power was overcome, as well, by a nonviolent revolution.
Of course, just getting rid of Marcos or the Shah is not the end of the story. People sometimes think that, after the glorious revolution, everybody is going to live happily ever after. But it doesn’t work that way. What they’ve gone through in the struggle has divided them, confused them, driven them to extremes of desperation.
I think what all of this means is that we each have to do our own part, and become responsible, civic-minded citizens: we have to realize that we won’t be happy unless we try to do our part. And if a small portion of us simply do our part, that will be enough. If even 1 percent of the people of this country could break out of the invisible chains, they could bring down this military-industrial complex — this tyranny of corporations, this plutocracy — overnight. That’s all it would take: 1 percent of the people.
We also have to realize that we’re going to be here only one time, and we’ve got to enjoy life, however hard it is. To miss the opportunity for joy is to miss life. Any fool can be unhappy; in fact, we make whole industries out of being unhappy, because happy people generally make lousy consumers. It’s interesting to see how the poor understand all of this better than the rich. This morning, I was in court over in Brooklyn, representing a group of Romany — they’re often called Gypsies, but they don’t like to be called that — who were claiming recognition for losses in the Holocaust. The Romany lost 1.5 million people, yet nobody pays any attention to their claims. In fact, last year , the city of Munich, Germany, enacted legislation that is almost a verbatim reproduction of 1934 legislation prohibiting Romany from coming into the city: they’ll be arrested if they do. The Romany might be the most endangered people on the planet — even more so than the 200 million indigenous people around the globe. They are fugitives everywhere they go, persecuted everywhere. Yet, like the traditional indigenous peoples, they are people of exceptional joy. They sing and dance and have fun. They can’t see life as so much drudgery.
I saw that same joy among the civil-rights protesters in the 1960s. Watching them sing as they marched, I couldn’t help but realize that you feel better when you’re doing something you feel is right — no matter how hard it is.