Noam Chomsky: ‘Oppression Is Not a Law of Nature’

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An Interview with Noam Chomsky

Nicholas Haggerty
April 9, 2015

In a corner of his office at MIT, Chomsky has a painting of Oscar Romero and the six Jesuits murdered in El Salvador in 1989.

Nicholas Haggerty: I’m here to ask you about the subject of that painting.

Noam Chomsky: I keep it there to remind myself of the real world. Also, it’s turned out to be an interesting kind of Rorschach test. I ask people often if they know what it is. Americans, almost nobody. Europeans, maybe 10 percent. Latin Americans, it used to be all of them, but younger people don’t know.

NH: In a recent article, you mentioned the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre of those Jesuits. Why do you continue to think and write about this one particular incident?

NC: For one thing, it’s pretty horrible, but for another it’s of enormous historic significance. That act culminated ten years of terrorist atrocities in Central America. The decade began with the murder of Archbishop Romero, it ended with the murder of the six Jesuit intellectuals. In between, two hundred thousand people were slaughtered. The United States was condemned for its involvement in some of these atrocities at the International Court of Justice, rejected it, and expanded the war. It was a really horrifying period. And that’s not all. It also culminated something longer. In 1962, President Kennedy changed the mission of the Latin American military from “hemispheric defense” to “internal security.”* Internal security means something. It means war against your own population. And that set off a hideous record of crimes and atrocities. In fact, Charles Maechling, who was the head of counterinsurgency and defense strategy under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, later said that this changed the United States from merely tolerating the rapacity of the Latin American military to directly supporting some of the methods used by Heinrich Himmler. Which is correct. And there’s more: 1962 was Vatican II. That’s when Pope John XXIII tried to return the church to the gospels, to what it was before Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was taken seriously by the Latin American bishops. They pursued the preferential option for the poor, they tried to get peasants to read the gospels, to organize them. That set off a war against the church. It was a brutal and bloody war. Religious martyrs all the way through, and plenty of others. Neo-Nazi-style national-security states in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina. Finally they came to Central America in the 1980s. It was a hideous period. And it basically ended on November 16, 1989, with the murder of the six Jesuits in El Salvador. That is an event of very great historic significance. People in the United States ought to know about it. We’re responsible for it. It’s much worse than anything that happened in East Europe in that period.

NH: You mentioned John XXIII moving the church back to the gospels. Do you see Pope Francis moving the church in a similar direction?

NC: It’s kind of a work in progress. I think there are some indications, some steps in that direction. We’ll see.

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