Revolution #167, June 7, 2009

Night of the Living Dead


Two major speeches were given on May 21, 2009. One was by Barack Obama. He defended his move to suppress thousands of photos that, according to retired Major General Antonio Taguba, depict “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” And Obama broke startling new ground, going even beyond what the Bush Regime formally implemented. He demanded the legal power to imprison, for as long as he wishes, without trial, people “who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.”

Obama’s speech was followed by an extraordinary rebuttal. No, not by an opponent of torture. Not even by someone representing the millions who had supported Obama and were now angry at his adoption of much of the essence of the Bush program. Instead, the rebuttal came from a widely despised ex-Vice President who was given the national stage to give a fire-and-brimstone speech upholding the crimes of the Bush Regime.

What does it mean that these are the terms of the “debate” as framed in the mainstream media, and “legitimate” politics? And what are the implications, and challenges, for those who do not accept torture being carried out in their name?


First, what are we really talking about here? Speaking at a press conference called by World Can’t Wait and others at the West Hollywood, CA City Hall, attorney Michael Rapkin described the conditions under which his former client, Mohammed Kahn, was sent to Guantánamo when he was 17 years old, and has been in isolation for two years:

“He exhibits signs of serious mental trauma. More recently he began smearing excrement again on his walls. He didn’t clean it up. And instead of mental health professionals coming to assist him, he was met by ten large guards in riot uniforms who came and beat him up severely. These are called the IRF troops. They sprayed him with tear gas. He later began smashing his head again. He began bleeding at his head. He screams and mumbles incoherently. The military authorities at Guantánamo, and I am talking about what happened just a few months ago, that is going on today in Guantánamo—the authorities do not help Mohammed. He has no fresh air. He has no sunlight. He has no social interaction. He has no contact with his father. They strip him and remove his thin sleeping mat and make him sleep in his cell three days with his excrement. Gitmo has had over 800 prisoners pass through. And every prisoner there, everyone has a face, and everyone has a story to tell.”

That is going on today.  Now multiply that by thousands. Go beyond Guantánamo, to Abu Ghraib, to Bagram prison in Afghanistan that by all accounts is worse than even Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, to the secret CIA hell-hole prisons around the world—to the 98 people (at minimum) who have died in these hellholes at American hands. These are stories that must be brought to the light of day, crimes that must be prosecuted, and criminals, up to the top of the chain of command, who must be brought to justice. And this must halt.

Cheney the Sequel: Night of the Living Dead

Obama has said he will not prosecute those who gave the orders for such crimes against humanity, and he is covering up these abuses by: suppressing 2000 plus photos documenting torture; blocking a lawsuit by people who were “renditioned” (kidnapped by the CIA and sent to other countries for torture); reviving the so-called trials conducted under the Military Commissions Act, and even—now—demanding the right to imprison people, formally, and indefinitely, without trials. 

And yet Cheney and still-powerful forces in the U.S. ruling class are lashing out with real vengeance at Obama. The level of contempt Cheney and those he represents have for Obama was reflected in the fact that Cheney—who after all holds no elected office—basically complained Obama had spent too long making his speech, and should just shut up and let Cheney speak (“It’s pretty clear the president served in the Senate, not the House of Representatives, because in the House we have the five minute rule”).

What is going on here? Obama has taken over the essence of the Bush program, while changing the wrapping. In a piece in the New Republic Jack Goldsmith, who took over the position of head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bush (and overall supports Bush’s agenda), walks through one by one how this is true: from Guantánamo, to assassinations, to spying on Americans, to torture, Obama’s policies follow very closely along the lines set under Bush. Goldsmith sums up, and it is worth listening carefully to this: “The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. This does not mean that the Obama changes are unimportant. Packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric, it turns out, are vitally important to the legitimacy of terrorism policies.”

If Obama has taken over the essence of the Bush program and just changed the wrapping, why is Cheney—representing powerful sections of the ruling class—on such a ferocious counterattack?

First, Cheney represents a section of the ruling class—the neo-conservatives—who basically stand for a very overt, unbridled and aggressive assertion of U.S. military power, and domestic policies to serve that. In his speech, Cheney blasted Obama for releasing the torture memos—legal rulings by top White House lawyers authorizing torture. Cheney railed that “when they [the terrorists] see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along. Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for—our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted. In short, they see weakness and opportunity.”

Cheney is fighting very hard to embed the open exercise of torture, and the whole modus operandi of the Bush Regime’s “war on terror” permanently into U.S. policy and indeed the U.S. legal structure. This is part of the reason why Cheney and those in his camp are making the point in public that the Democrats have been in on and are basically continuing on that course, even if the Democrats are trying to coat those policies with a layer of invocations of constitutionality and “rule of law.” In his speech, Cheney said, “Some members of Congress are notorious for demanding they be briefed into the most sensitive intelligence programs. They support them in private, and then head for the hills at the first sign of controversy.” And he pointedly noted that “President Obama has reserved unto himself the right to order the use of enhanced interrogation should he deem it appropriate.”

Second, Cheney is positioning the section of the ruling class that he represents—the neo-conservatives—to take advantage of any major setback that the U.S. now might encounter. The forces that cohered around and were represented by the Bush Regime, especially the neo-conservatives and Christian Fascists, may be out of the Oval Office for now, but they remain unrepentant, and powerful. Cheney’s attacks, practically accusing Obama of aiding “the terrorists,” come in an atmosphere of other attacks on Obama from openly fascist forces like Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh insists on calling Obama a “socialist” (which he is not), which serves to paint Obama as illegitimate and beyond the pale of acceptable politics. Along with this, Fox News and others orchestrated and whipped up the “tea party” demonstrations, which used the symbolism of the American revolution and “overthrowing tyranny.” And, these forces still hold many powerful positions in government, including in the CIA.

And these forces are especially entrenched in top levels of the U.S. military. An article entitled “Jesus Killed Mohammad” in the May issue of Harpers paints a picture of the U.S. military in Iraq openly flaunting Christian fascism (the title of the article comes from a message painted on a military vehicle driven by U.S. troops through Iraq), and how dominant these forces are in the military. GQ magazine recently released photos of quotes from the  Bible, combined with bizarre photoshopped images that stamped triumphalist Biblical images over the military reports Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld provided to Bush for his military briefings.

These forces have never accepted any oppositional forces, even within the U.S. ruling class, as legitimate. And they still don’t. Cheney is preparing these forces to figuratively—and literally—“keep their powder dry.”  So while there is great similarity in the Bush and Obama policies, Cheney still wants the open gangster style bullying in the driver’s seat—and is rallying forces for that. As part of signaling to their followers to keep the “powder dry,” people like Newt Gingrich have in the past—and people like Glen Beck are today—openly invoking the specter of civil war. (For a strategic perspective on these and related questions, we urge readers to study The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era, by Bob Avakian, at

What Obama Represents

Speaking of Obama’s preventative detention—holding people without trial, indefinitely—a civil liberties activist told the New York Times, “We’ve known this is on the horizon for many years, but we were able to hold it off with George Bush. The idea that we might find ourselves fighting with the Obama administration over these powers is really stunning.”

What is going on here?

Leading up to the last election, ruling class commentator Andrew Sullivan, a political conservative who broke with Bush, argued that the basic agenda for the U.S. was set, regardless of who became president. That the Iraq occupation “has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade.” That all presidential candidates are “committed to an open-ended deployment in Afghanistan and an unbending alliance with Israel.” But, he argued, Obama was the best “face” for both ongoing war, and domestic repression. Sullivan wrote, “ If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close.” And, in the event the U.S. rulers felt “forced to impose more restrictions on travel, communications, and civil liberties,” that Bush (and by implication a new president associated with him) “would be unable to command the trust, let alone the support, of half the country in such a time.”

Substantial sections of the U.S. ruling class did adopt the approach of bringing in Obama to restore the domestic and international credibility of the United States. But, whatever face is put on the situation, basic underlying challenges confront the U.S. empire—which is mired down in occupation and War in the Mid East and Central Asia, and hit with a historic economic crisis.

And Obama was quite consciously supported by sections of the ruling class in part as a vehicle through which to channel the discontent and anger of broad sections of people, seething, but largely passive, into the electoral arena. These forces saw the promotion of Obama, and the approach and style he brings, as an opportunity to bring many who had begun to question the whole set-up back into the fold. 

On the day Obama and Cheney gave their speeches, Charles Krauthammer, a prominent neoconservative columnist, wrote a piece that reveals much: “The genius of democracy is that the rotation of power forces the opposition to come to its senses when it takes over.  When the new guys, brought to power by popular will, then adopt the policies of the old guys, a national consensus is forged and a new legitimacy established.

“That’s happening before our eyes.  The Bush policies in the war on terror won’t have to await vindication by historians.  Obama is doing it day by day.  His denials mean nothing.  Look at his deeds.” (“Obama in Bush Clothing,” May 21, Washington Post).

This, from the mouth of a ruling class operative, is something those who demand justice, and real change, need to listen to and confront.

The “Pyramid of Power”

For a framework to understand the real and sharp differences, as well as the fundamental similarity between Obama and Cheney in this “debate” over torture and other questions, it is illuminating to refer back to the “pyramid” metaphor invoked by Bob Avakian:

“At the top of this pyramid are the people that rule this society and in particular you’ve got those that are represented by the Democratic Party on the one hand and the Republican Party on the other hand. And there is struggle between them. This is very obvious, right. Think back to the 2000 election: that was the most boring election in recent memory, and all of a sudden it turned into an extremely intense and interesting thing, not because of what they said and did while they were campaigning, but because of the way the election came out (or didn’t come out). So then you could see that there is very sharp struggle among them.

“And if you look at this kind of pyramid thing, on the top of this pyramid is the ruling class and its different political representatives, which (even though it may be a bit oversimplified) we can look at as the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on the other. And for decades now these people who are grouped around Bush and the kind of people that they represent have been working and preparing a whole thing in society—a whole infrastructure you might call it—a whole structure within the society itself that could move this society in a whole different way towards a fascistic kind of thing when things come to that.” (“The Pyramid of Power: And the Struggle to Turn This Whole Thing Upside Down,” by Bob Avakian, available at

Later in this same piece, Avakian makes the following point: “On the other hand, here are the Democrats at the top of this pyramid (on the so-called “left”). Who are the people that they try to appeal to—not that the Democrats represent their interests, but who are the people that the Democrats try to appeal to at the base, on the other side of this pyramid, so to speak? All the people who stand for progressive kinds of things, all the people who are oppressed in this society. For the Democrats, a big part of their role is to keep all those people confined within the bourgeois, the mainstream, electoral process...and to get them back into it when they have drifted away from—or broken out of—that framework. Because those people at the base are always alienated and angry at what happens with the elections, for the reason I was talking about earlier: they are always betrayed by the Democratic Party, which talks about ‘the little man’ and poor people and the people who are discriminated against, and so on. And at times they’ll even use the word oppression. But then they just sell out these people every time—because they don’t represent their interests. They represent the interests of the system and of its ruling class. But they have a certain role of always trying to get people who are oppressed, alienated and angry back into the elections.”

This is the role Barack Obama is playing. By nature of the fact that this is Obama imposing draconian repression and declaring torture will go unpunished (and, by default, reserving the right to do it again), a “bi-partisan consensus” is also being imposed, resetting the terms of what is supposed to be allowable discourse further and further to the right.

In a sense, the “Cheney vs. Obama” debate, while representing some real differences, also works to provide cover for Obama, who, it can be endlessly argued, is just a little bit better than Cheney—meanwhile the whole agenda of war and repression rolls on and deepens.

Doing The Right Thing Now

What does all this mean, now?

It means people must be honest with themselves. If torture, Guantánamo, endless war for empire, and shredding of civil liberties were wrong under Bush, covering these things up, and continuing them, is still wrong under Obama!

It means some serious soul-searching about what kind of world you want to live in. It is not in the fundamental interests of the vast majority of people in this country to enter into a devil’s bargain of trading your ability to live high on the imperialist food chain in return for terror and repression against people all over the world, as well as seriously diminished rights for people within the U.S.  You understood that this was fucked up under Bush; it is not better under Obama.

And it means that there are storms still brewing; that the sights of millions cannot be confined in this situation to how best to “work within” a system to patch it up. Instead, people can come to see that there is something far better that is possible—both in the sense that a different system with a far more radical vision of freedom is possible; and that the very faultlines that find expression in the rantings of a Cheney and the attempted deceptions of an Obama could also open up the possibilities for millions of people to actively consider a whole different system, and the revolution that could bring it into being, as things develop—and for thousands more to take this vision and orientation up today.

And all this speaks to the need for more and more determined political opposition to the whole direction this country is on—and politically breaking out of the straightjacket of the terms of the Obama—Cheney “debate.”  

To those who say we should “give Obama a chance”—the question is: a chance to do what? Obama has no problem with this system that causes so much misery and oppression, death and destruction, for so many people throughout the world—he is anxious to take over as head of this system. His problem is that this system is in serious crisis and faces all kinds of heavy challenges. For those who really want an end to oppression, injustice and unjust war, our problem is this system. Our challenge is to make revolution to get rid of this system and emancipate all of humanity from its horrors.

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP,USA


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