Despite attempts to
co-opt its rebel spirit and broadsides launched against
it by any number of conservative voices, Howard Zinn's
A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present
remains the bible of the progressive movement.
Zinn has written or co-written
more than a dozen other books, including his smartly named
autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train,
but the 79-year-old emeritus professor of political science
at Boston University will always be best-known for his
take on the nation's formative years. In the two-plus
decades since it was first published, A People's History
has sold close to one million copiesa remarkable
figure for a book with an initial print run of 5,000.
It was Zinn who gave
voice to those who were denied the chance to speak for
themselves; in A People's History, the heroes are
the native Americans, the workers, the protestersnot
the Europeans who "discovered" this country, the captains
of industry or the military generals.
So who better than Zinn
to put these strange days in American history into some
context? Speaking recently from his home outside Boston,
Zinn talked about the "war on terrorism," the failure
of the press and the Pentagon to better inform the public
about the human toll of the military campaign in Afghanistan,
the impact of September 11th on the nation's
cities and its college campuses and the Bush administration's
handling of the crisis.
You've described the
American military campaign in Afghanistan as "itself a
form of terrorism." What do you mean by that?
I assume that terrorism
is the killing of innocent people for some political purposeand
for a military purpose. But, in any case, it is the killing
of innocent people for some larger movement, and that
certainly describes what happened at the Twin Towers in
New York. They weren't simply out to kill peoplethey
were obviously trying to convey something to the United
States with their fanatical and irrational and outrageous
act. But they made that outrageous act by way of genuine
political grievance. They're trying to say something to
the United States and say it by means of massive violence.
The United States has been dropping bombs on Afghanistan,
and they're killing a lot of innocent people. We don't
know what the numbers aretheyre anywhere from
1,000 to 4,000 [civilian deaths in Afghanistan]. And the
number of injured people, children who have lost limbs
or were blindedwe don't know those numbers. The
number of people who have been displaced from their homes
by the bombing probably run into the many hundreds of
In both cases, this is
terrorism. One is terrorism committed by individuals or
by a gang; the other is terrorism committed by a government.
And usuallyin fact, almost alwaysthe word
"terrorism" is applied to individuals or groups who are
illegitimate or fanatical. But the word terrorism is rarely
applied to governments, although governments, they do
what terrorists do. And they do it in fact on a much larger
scale. I consider that what the United States did in Vietnam
was terror on a very large scale, much larger than that
which was done in New York and Washington by whoever did
it, whether it was bin Laden or somebody else.
Recently, you've also
talked about the lack of attention paid here in the United
States to the deaths of hundreds or perhaps thousands
of Afghan civilians. Is it the press's fault? Is it the
Pentagon's fault? Who's to blame for this lack of focus
on civilian deaths?
Well, it's both the Pentagon
and the press. The Pentagon simply dismisses talk of civilian
casualties. They're not really interested in that. I recall,
at the end of the Gulf War, a reporter asked Colin Powell,
"Well, what about Iraqi casualties?" And he said, "Well,
that is not a question I am particularly interested in."
That's how [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld has behaved
when questionedand the questions are rare, I might
sayabout civilian casualties. He doesn't know how
many casualties there are, and the truth is he doesn't
care. And he dismisses the issue by saying, "Well, accidents
happen"; "We didn't intend to do this"; "It is collateral
damage"and thus passes it off like it's an unimportant
The Pentagon has as much
access to newspapers and to reports and accounts as I
do, and they could simply add up the number of civilian
casualties reported by Western reportersnot by Middle
Eastern reportersby Western reporters in the New
York Times, in the Washington Post, in the
Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, Reuters,
Agence France-Presse, the Independent of London. The Pentagon
has enormous capabilities for picking up that information.
They could pick up that information, and they would then
have at least a rough idea of how many casualties there
are. But they don't want to say anything.
So the Pentagon misleads
the public, does not inform the public, gives very lame
excuses for civilian casualties. And then the press is
complicit in this because the press itself does a very
poor job of reporting thisespecially television.
While there have been reports of casualties which have
appeared in newspapers from time to time in the New
York Times and Washington Post, there's virtually
nothing on television about civilian casualties. And,
in fact, we've seen memos circulated by executives of
networks telling their reporters that they shouldn't make
a big deal of civilian casualties and when they do they
should report them in such a way so as to communicate
that the sources are dubious.
So yes, the media and the
Pentagon together have managed to keep the public uninformed,
ill informed about these civilian casualties. And I think
this accounts for the public's overwhelming support of
the campaign in Afghanistan. I do believe that if the
public were confronted with the human realities of the
suffering we've caused in Afghanistan, then I think the
American people would have second thoughts about their
enthusiasm for the war and their support of Bushbecause
I think the American people are compassionate people.
I think most people everywhere are moved and unhappy about
the deaths of children, the deaths of civilians in wars.
What alternatives, then,
were there to the way the "war"the retaliation,
as it's being described, against al Qaeda and the Talibanwas
The alternatives were to
reconceptualize itby that I mean to see it not as
a war against this nation, Afghanistan, because there
shouldn't be war against one nation if there's going to
be a "war on terrorism." As the administration itself
has said, terrorism has many, many different sources in
many, many countries. They talk about al Qaeda cells in
20 or 30 different countries. They're talking about them
now in the Philippines and Germany, and so to see it as
requiring a war against one country doesn't make any sense
if it's a "war on terrorism."
So the alternative would
be to treat it as a criminal act engaged in by some unknown
terrorist group whose whereabouts are not known. And,
in fact, it's clear we don't know their whereabouts after
they weren't able to find bin Laden. We don't know where
they are, and so you can't simply go ahead and bomb one
particular place. You have to go on a search and treat
it as a police investigation. Otherwise, you'd be as if
you were a police force confronted with a terrible crime
and decide that the criminal is located in a particular
neighborhood and bomb the neighborhood. Or a particular
criminal is hiding in a particular town, and you bomb
The long-term alternative
is to reconsider American foreign policy. The long-term
alternative is to ask what are the roots of terrorism?
It's not hard to figure that out: Anybody who's spent
time in the Middle East will tell you there are very deep
grievances there, and these are grievances against American
foreign policyfor the stationing of troops in Saudi
Arabia, for maintaining sanctions on Iraq and supporting
Israel. And, therefore, if you want to really get at the
roots of terrorism, you have to do something about those
roots that feed terroristsand you have to reconsider
American foreign policy. That's something, of course,
the administration does not want to do.
And the press, which concentrates
on military actionswhere we're bombing this time,
what caves we're looking at this timethe press pays
very little attention to foreign policy in this matter.
And so the administration, not wanting to look at foreign
policy, diverts the public's attention from the root causes
of terrorism by carrying on a bombing campaign. And nothing
will so focus the eyes and ears of the public as a war,
so you give them a war. So every night they can read the
war reports, hear the military briefings, not think about
what really lies behind the terrorism.
Do you worry about the
climate in this country with regard to civil liberties
and basic freedoms?
It's very obvious that
it's been very difficult for people to criticize the war
when the leaders of government declare that if you're
not with us, you're against us and when spokesmen for
the White House talk about how this is no time to criticize
and dissent. When government leads, it is then followed
by people around the country who wave flags in great numbers.
While many of the people who wave flags are just waving
them in sympathy with the victims of the Twin Towers,
the other people wave flags as a kind of intimidating
device for people who don't wave flags or people who don't
support the war.
We have many stories of
people who've lost jobs, reporters who've lost jobs for
being critical of the war, people not being given access
to the airwaves because they have wanted to speak out
against the war. We have had a totalitarian atmosphere
created in this country in which dissenting from the war
becomes a dangerous thing to do.
What part of society
here at home in America has felt the greatest impact of
September 11this life dramatically
different as you've seen in the nation's cities or on
the nation's college campuses?
There have been protests,
demonstrations in cities around the country and in towns.
My wife and I were just driving in Cape Cod yesterday,
and there in the little town of Eastham, Massachusetts,
there was a group of people alongside the road. We were
startled because it was the last thing we expected to
see in Eastham, and there's a group of people in the road
with signs and banners saying, "War is not the answer."
Well, I mean thats just one, but the fact that it
can happen in a little town on Cape Cod suggests that
maybe these things are happening in places all over the
country and we never hear of them. I'm sure that this
action in Eastham was not reported anywhere else in the
nation. I don't even know if it was reported in the local
Cape Cod newspaper.
I have been talking on
college campuses around the country and talking to audiences
of 1,000 or 2,000 who have been overwhelmingly against
the war, and those gatherings are not reported in the
press. Maybe they're reported in the student newspapers.
But my point is that even though there has been stifling
of dissent, which the government and the media have been
complicit in, there still have been protests against the
In fact, a number of peoplefamilies
of people who died in the Twin Towershave spoken
out against the bombing. And several of the families of
people who died in the Twin Towers recently flew to Afghanistan
to meet with Afghan families who have lost members of
their families as a result of the bombing. And here were
the families of victims from the United States and families
of victims in Afghanistan getting together. I think this
is a very important event, but it got virtually no notice
in the American media.
In the New York Times
this morning, I read that Bush still has an approval rating
of 82 percent. On the whole, how would you say the administration
has doneon terror, on the economy, etc.?
Obviously, in my view,
its done the wrong thing on terror; its carried
out actions that have hurt a lot of people and has done
really nothing to stop terrorism. With all the bombing
that's taken place, they're still asking for more and
more money for "homeland security" and so on. And obviously,
we're not more secure as a result of the bombing. So the
so-called war against terrorism, to me, is absolutely
an enormous waste of our resources. This connects to the
economy because here we arewe don't have enough
money for education, they're cutting funds for Medicare
and Medicaid, they're cutting funds for social services
of all sorts and they're demanding an increase in the
To me, this is the road
to disaster. And sure, the American people may, at this
moment, be sort of flushed with the so-called victory
in Afghanistan, approve of Bush, seeing him as a great
military leader. But I think that the costs of all this
are going to come back to the American people. I think
that this misuse of our resources is going to come back
to haunt usand it already has. We're already seeing
rising unemployment, we're already seeing layoffs, we're
already seeing people being hurt, we're already seeing
the results of unbridled capitalism with the Enron affair
and there must be many other smaller Enron affairs going
on that we don't know about.
I think the Bush administration
has been leading the American people down a very, very
perilous road, and I think we are all going to suffer