A driven and highly accomplished humanitarian with his sense of humor intact, Larry Cox has dedicated his life to ending suffering. Thirty years ago, in 1976, he became Amnesty International USA’s first press officer. He went on to become the organization’s first Communications Director, first Deputy Executive Director and later the Deputy Security General at Amnesty International’s London headquarters. In 1990, he was named Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation, an international organization that works to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon. In 1995, Larry went to work for the Ford Foundation, where he traveled around the world to bolster human rights efforts in countries including Indonesia, China, India, Cambodia, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. In January 2006, Larry’s life of humanitarian service came full circle when rejoined Amnesty International USA as Executive Director. Larry’s return was sparked by the Bush administration’s flagrant attack on basic human rights here at home in post-9/11 America and the grave influence this has on governments around the world.
After meeting Larry at the Darfur Peace Rally in Central Park in September, I sat down with him in his office on Election Day. As we spoke for over an hour, Americans were already beginning to rise up at voting precincts around the country, rejecting the war in Iraq, but also voicing their objections to (among other abuses) torture, secret prisons, cruel and inhumane treatment – both of our own citizens, as with, say, Katrina, and of foreign “enemy combatants” – and this White House’s abdication of America’s role as a human rights leader. I left our second meeting with a sense of hope for our country and even for our species. Flawed as they both are, they still managed to produce a man like Larry Cox.
MediaBloodhound: What is the current state of Darfur?
Larry Cox: It’s worse probably than it’s ever been. Since the rally that we had for Darfur, as you know, the Sudanese government has refused to allow U.N. troops and, in fact, has launched probably the largest military offensive in more than a year. That military offensive continues to result in the deaths of many civilians - men, women especially, and children. It’s also spilling over into Chad. So that we now have not just conflict in Sudan but increasingly a regional conflict, in which those groups which have allied themselves with the rebel forces are coming under attack in the same way. Which means that groups which are of the same ethnicity as the rebel forces are targeted. So the situation is extremely alarming. The African Union force has had its mandate extended, but only until the end of December. We’re now in November. In any case, it does not have the means to adequately protect anyone. It’s not protecting people who are displaced. It doesn’t do anything when people report to it that there have been rapes, that there have been killings. It’s a disgusting situation. And we have, like the whole world, watched as it’s gotten worse. We have tried, and continue to try, to mobilize as much pressure as we can on all governments to unite with the African Union in an effort to put the maximum amount of pressure on Sudan to allow U.N. troops. It’s the only way that we believe that lives can be saved – to have U.N. troops on the ground and have mandate which would allow them to adequately protect people and bring to justice the people who are carrying out what really can only be described as massive human rights violations. So it’s not a pretty picture.
MB: The United States declared more than two years ago that atrocities in Darfur amounted to genocide, yet, as Reuters reports, “has been unable to stop the violence or to persuade the [Sudanese] government to accept a U.N. peace-keeping force of up to 22,500 troops and police.” Especially in light of the Bush administration’s zeal to invade Iraq, why is it, in essence, negotiating now with the Sudanese leader, a war criminal, as to how it might intercede?
Larry Cox: Well, I think the inadequacy of the response to Darfur is not unrelated to the loss of U.S. moral authority and credibility, not to mention capability, as a result of its approach to fighting the so-called War on Terror. It’s one of the many consequences of that war. So that the United States, while on Darfur - and do I believe that enormous pressure has been brought to bear on the Bush administration - has issued statements, words, that are much better than any other governments - it must be said - it hasn’t backed up those words with the kind of forceful action that is necessary, the kind of leadership that is necessary. And it gives the impression often, to be honest, that it is content to be able to say we have called for this, we have called for that, we have backed the U.N. resolution, without really mobilizing the kind of pressure that needs to be mobilized on behalf of the Sudanese. Or without, and again this is not unrelated to its loss of moral credibility, playing the role in persuading other nations that we need much more aggressive intervention and pressure on the Sudanese government. So we of course have, and continue, to try to bring pressure to bear on the U.S. government, but at the same time we bring pressure to bear on other governments that also bear responsibility. It’s not simply the U.S. government. The Russians in particular, the Chinese in particular, have played a very, very negative role in blocking any kind of effective pressure on the Sudanese. But I do think the world is seeing one more terrible, horrible bit of evidence of the way that the United States has squandered its moral authority in the world and its inability to really mobilize effectively to do something meaningful for the people of Darfur. It’s good to issue statements, but not if they simply are hollow and people continue to be raped and killed.
MB: The United Nations was created to stop horrors like what’s been going on in Darfur. Why hasn’t it been more effective? And what do you think is it’s biggest impediment in carrying out the promise of its charter?
Larry Cox: Yeah, it’s easy. The biggest impediment is its members. The United Nations has only ever been as strong as its members allow it to be. And, you know, I think there’s a need to strengthen the United Nations. There’s a need to give the United Nations some autonomy, some ability to act independently, give it some force. Because it has none. As we know, it has to rely on governments to provide it with armed force when it needs to intervene. Kofi Annan long ago recognized this and called for reforms that would allow the United Nations play a more aggressive role. But we have seen a campaign, certainly in the last six years, and earlier, to discredit the United Nations rather than strengthen the United Nations, to persuade, especially the American people, that the United Nations is either irrelevant or a bad idea because it somehow hampers the United States from doing what it wants to do. And the world has paid a terrible price for that. So that you have a body which, instead of being stronger and able to take effective action, serves as a kind of scapegoat that can be blamed when governments don’t really want to do anything. It’s interesting that, of course, the United States didn’t believe it needed the United Nations to invade Iraq, but it’s very happy to blame the United Nations for not doing more to stop the killings in Darfur. And, uh, what we need is to return to the original vision that gave birth to the United Nations, which is a world in which human rights has the primacy in values and all governments are held accountable for their failure to live up to human rights. But, at the moment, I’m afraid we have the opposite, which is, as I said, a body which grows weaker and weaker as the world’s need for some body that can take effective action grows stronger and stronger.
MB: What are your thoughts on Kofi Annan’s replacement? Do you think he’s going to weaken it further?
Larry Cox: Well, you know, the United Nations is a lot like –
MB: It’s more a body than one person.
Larry Cox: Well, it is more than one person and also you can’t predict what will happen to people once they become…there are Secretary Generals that one thought to be very strong who then turned out to be very weak and vice versa. It’s like Supreme Court Justices. You can’t always tell. In any case, and this is really the point that needs to be made, any Secretary General needs to be pushed by public opinion and by world opinion. And that’s what Amnesty’s role has always been. You know, you can’t rely…there’s no savior that’s going to come in. It really belongs to the people of the planet, if they want to enough, to take the kind of action that would give backbone to the United Nations, that would fight against the kind of propaganda that’s been very shamelessly issued to weaken the United Nations. The United Nations has many, many faults. There’s no doubt about that. The question is, do you try to weaken it more or do you actually try to strengthen it so that it can play the role it was once meant to be?
MB: Members of the United Nations and Kofi Annan have spoken out when they’ve been assailed by the Bush administration for the reasons you were just saying. But you don’t hear very much about that in the mainstream media. You hear more probably from human rights groups and their quotes in response to such attacks than you do from members of the U.N.
Larry Cox: Yeah. I think if I wanted to make a list of the stories that I think have been badly handled, the issues that have been underreported or badly reported, I would put the United Nations very close to the top. Especially in the U.S. media. It differs when you go around the world. In much of the world, people actually look to the United Nations as a source of hope. But in this country, in particular, the government has gotten away with this campaign, I would call it, against the United Nations. And the mainstream media has more or less been complicit in that, has gone along with it or has helped it. And it’s an easy target. It’s an easy target because it’s made up of governments. But there’s been very little adequate coverage with what’s really wrong…you know, if you don’t like the United Nations, what could take its place? Because there’s no doubt, as you look around the world, that the need is tremendous there. You know, related to this, of course, is the campaign against something like the International Criminal Court, where the United States has again really led the fight to weaken it to make sure it can’t work effectively. And the U.S. media again I think has all to often simply repeated what really can only be described in all honesty as falsehoods – about what that body can and can’t do, what kind of threat it represents. And we all pay a huge price for this because if you don’t have a strong United Nations, if you don’t have an International Criminal Court, the kinds of horrors that lead to the kinds of conflicts that we’ve seen over and over and over again will continue. And the United States then will feel either it will have on its hands the blood of innocent people because it does nothing or it will be further encouraged to take unilateral actions, which often, as I think the whole world has seen, can make things worse.
MB: In the movie Hotel Rwanda, Colonel Oliver, a fictitious amalgam of then U.N. peacekeeping officials, is brutally honest with Paul Rusesbagina, the hotel owner on whom the real-life story is based. At one point, he says, “We think you’re dirt, Paul….You're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African. They’re not going to stay, Paul. They’re not going to stop this slaughter.” How much of a part do you think race has played in the international community’s slow reaction to stop the genocide in Darfur?
Larry Cox: Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt that if this kind of conflict were going on, if this kind of repression, this kind of massive violation of human rights, were going on in Europe, there would be much greater response. I think this is related both to race and it’s also related to which countries are regarded as strategically important because they’re sitting on important natural resources. I think the positive aspect of this story, which was also underreported, is that I think the people of this country – and especially young people – have not responded in a racist way to the conflict. On the contrary, they have really seen that this is for them the moral test of their generation and have been the leaders in - we saw this at the rally in Central Park - the leaders in the fight to say that this should not happen again. So I think one has to make some distinctions between who’s responding. There’s no doubt in my mind – this is more of a personal opinion than an official Amnesty opinion – that were, you know, the victims in Darfur of European descent that the U.S. response would be infinitely stronger. And I think we’ve seen that time and time again in other situations as well. I mean I think it’s inconceivable that we would have stood back and watched the kind of genocide that took place in Rwanda take place in Europe. You don’t want to overstate it because we were very slow as well in the former Yugoslavia. But still, I think it does make a difference.
MB: To date, over 400,000 men, women and children have been slaughtered and over 2 million displaced. What are the further consequences for Darfur if an international force is not sent in?
Larry Cox: It’s hard to even imagine what could happen. I mean it will certainly continue. I think it could make even those figures look small in comparison. That’s the real danger. I mean we ran out of language to describe it. You know, we started talking about a human rights catastrophe. Well, if those numbers, if hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions of people displaced doesn’t already constitute a human rights catastrophe, then I don’t know what does. So you run out of language to describe what will happen. I think, uh, apart from the continued killings and rapes and burnings of villages, the real threat is it will continue to widen. As I said, it’s already now in Chad. You would think that if nations can’t respond on a humanitarian basis, they would at least see that we threaten to have a whole region go up in flames. But there’s no doubt that the situation will greatly worsen if we don’t get U.N. troops.
MB: It’s very easy for people to become desensitized to descriptions of genocide or the word “genocide” itself. Is it a constant struggle to find the right language that will not initially push people away rather than get them to listen?
Larry Cox: Yeah, I would say in our work it’s the constant struggle. It’s the center. And people have become desensitized to death. I, and this may be just my memory, but I can’t remember a time in my lifetime when I felt the world has gotten more used to massive horrors and killings, at least since World War – well, in my lifetime – which would be post-World War II. The very things that the human rights framework and the United Nations were set up to prevent are now happening. People are once again…you know, we read it in the paper, we see it on television. It just doesn’t seem to register. And if it does register, it’s hard for people to know what to do. I mean that’s the real problem. You have all of these people. You saw. People have rallied all over the world in massive numbers on Darfur. And yet governments seem to be able just to carry on. So people give up, people get discouraged. We have from the beginning believed in the power of the individual story because people have a hard time grasping, you know, two to four hundred thousand dead or millions of people displaced. They have a much easier time empathizing with and feeling the pain of a story. That’s why films like Hotel Rwanda and other films are so powerful. They tell the story of an individual and everyone can see for themselves, can imagine themselves in that situation. And that’s what we try to do. We try to lift up individual stories not only because each individual story deserves to be told but because I don’t know any other way to get across to people the horror of what’s going on. I mean most people if you tell them, you know, two hundred thousand, four hundred thousand, a million people are dead, they go, “Well, O.K., we all die.” You tell them a story about a woman who goes out to get firewood to cook and is caught and is brutally tortured and then raped in front of her children and most people will respond.
And here the media has a hard time as well because it doesn’t – I notice it in Darfur and I also notice it, of course, in the reporting on the war in Iraq – these kinds of euphemisms that are used. You know, six troops were killed. It doesn’t mean anything. If you think about a nineteen-year-old kid, you can’t bear it. And there have been studies done on the way people live with knowledge. So that the mechanism of denial is actually very important for people to be able to carry on their lives as if everything is just fine. People have these mechanisms and we all use them and the media becomes part of the mechanism. It reports things in a way that we read about it and then either we come to the conclusion that nothing can be done – that helps us to justify doing nothing – or it just doesn’t even register because what’s being reported is not the story of an individual but a statistic.
MB: Along those lines, we’re all familiar with the saying, “Never again,” which is often associated with the Holocaust but is a common reaction, in hindsight, to genocides throughout history. Yet we’re just six years into this new century and genocide continues without abatement. What do you think drives human beings to commit genocide? And what do you think causes so many others to become complicit through inaction and silence?
Larry Cox: Wow. [Laughing.] That’s a small question. Well, what we know is that all human beings are capable of incredible atrocities to each other. I’m not sure I know exactly why, but I know the sort of conditions that facilitate it. The demonization of the other. Fear. The feeling that these people that we’re killing would kill us. And, you know, you watch this over and over again, starting with the Holocaust, Cambodia – you have to be able to describe the people you’re doing these things to as less than human. That’s why human rights is such a threat to all of this. Because human rights insists that nobody is less than human. The whole basis of all this stuff is that the person who’s being the victim of these horrors is always described as both less than human and also a threat. So, in the case of Darfur, you have the rebels and you have, by association, anybody who looks like the rebels as seen as people that want to take our land or keep us from getting the land that we need. You add to it the fact that the Janjiweed are probably given other kinds of inducements and help to get in a kind of state that allows them to do it. And we saw this in Rwanda as well. You know, in Rwanda the language, long before the first killing you knew it was going to happen because when you start referring to people as cockroaches, you’re preparing the way. And we’re no different than this. I mean we now refer to people as the worst of the worst, monsters, killers, enemy combatants, whatever we want to call them, as a way to prepare ourselves for being able to torture people. We don’t want to think of them as people.
I don’t know what the answer is to the philosophical question of why human beings do it. I know what it takes to stop human beings from doing it. And that is to have real strong both standards and then enforcement of those standards. We know that human beings will do it unless there are effective mechanisms for stopping it. The U.N. was created as a way of creating those mechanisms. It hasn’t ever been given what was needed to do it. So it goes on and it will continue to go on until we get really effective mechanisms. There is a small set of incremental steps towards this. The International Criminal Court is one. At least on paper now there exists something which can bring people to justice for these acts. For decades, Stalin’s line – I think it was Stalin but it might have been somebody else, who said if you kill one person you’re a murderer, if you kill thousands of people you’re a hero – was true. And people could get away with mass genocide and no one was tried. Pol Pot never was tried. It took forever before we were able to finally get some action against Pinochet.
So, yeah, I don’t know the answer to why we do it as human beings. We are really a very flawed species. But I do know that it takes really enforceable laws and protections and mechanisms to make sure those laws are protected, to protect us from ourselves. What we worry about here at Amnesty International is that when people get away with the open violation of those laws and standards, it further weakens the idea that they exist at all. It gives encouragement to people all over the globe. If we feel threatened, if we feel grieved, we can do whatever we want to do because there are no laws and there are no standards.
MB: For people who are on the fence about getting more involved in human right causes, like ending the genocide in Darfur, what would you say to them?
Larry Cox: Well, here’s what we say. We have tried - and this is the glory of this organization that I’m a part of – to give people a way to do something. Most people are not going to devote their entire lives. People have lives. They want to have families. They have jobs. They want to go for a walk in the park. They don’t want to spend every…you would go out of your mind if you thought really about the fact that there are people starving to death, there are people in prisons who don’t belong there. If you tried to do everything to end that, you’d go out of your mind. Amnesty’s goal is to persuade people they can do something. And that if enough of us just do something, together we can have an impact. And you can make a difference. You don’t have to give up everything else that you want to do in life. You don’t have to give up every dream. You don’t have to give up every pleasure. You just have to be willing to do something. And we try to offer people a way to do that. Whether it’s writing letters, whether it’s going to a demonstration, we try to identify for people what they can do and then we try to show them that it can make a difference. It’s easier to do that in the case of individuals. Every week, we participate in the freeing of people from jails and from torture chambers and from execution chambers. We know that that works. We know that people can make a difference. We have a harder time with things like Darfur. And that’s the real challenge for us. How do we demonstrate that if enough of us come together that we’ll make a difference? And that’s what’s in question right now because - you know, you saw it, you saw the rally in Central Park, you’ve seen a lot rallies probably and demonstrations - every time you do that and then nothing happens, you’re sending, in effect, a message that nothing can happen. And that makes it easier for us to just dismiss it. Our goal is to send just the opposite message. Our goal is to make it impossible for people to say no. I got into this business of human rights because I met people who could say and who believed, and who made me believe, that they were alive and they were back with their loved ones because of something that people like me did. And once you have that experience, you go like, “Well, how can I refuse to do that? How can I turn my back on somebody?” You know, what if it was my brother or sister or mother? Would I just say, “Sorry, I’m a little busy”? I’d do something. I might not do everything, but I’d do something. And that’s what I tell people, that there is something they can do. But, right now, that’s really the battle: Can we succeed in continuing to convince people that there’s an effective way to end the kind of suffering that we see in Darfur. If you don’t have that, if you just show people the suffering but you don’t give them a way to do anything about it, I think you’re actually probably doing the opposite of what you want to do. You’re actually persuading people that they should just turn their eyes away because they can’t stand to look at it and there’s nothing they can do. If you can show them that there’s an effective way to take an action, then you can build a kind of movement we need in this world. In the past, Amnesty has done that. It hasn’t always succeeded. There are gross failures. Rwanda would be one. But there are plenty of other situations where people thought it was hopeless and where enough people acted and it changed things. I’ve seen it in my lifetime, so I have a hard time believing that we’re now at a point in history where that’s no longer the case. But I have to be honest and say that it’s really difficult - it’s become really difficult - to persuade people they can make a difference.
MB: A recent report estimated that 655,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003, what some might well now consider another genocide. On the day this news broke, just one member of the White House press corps asked President Bush to comment on these findings. Though these numbers were carefully calculated based on sound scientific methodology, Bush said the report had been “largely discredited” while giving no evidence to back up his assertion and no one in the press corps called him on it. The topic was then summarily dropped and has since fallen off the mainstream media’s radar. How much have members of the mainstream media abdicated their responsibility to hold this administration accountable for its actions?
Larry Cox: Well, I think the question is how much have all of us abdicated our responsibility? I’ve never been a great believer that the media is a leader in anything. I think the media follows where the people go. I’ve been around a long time on the planet, so I was around during the Vietnam War. And it’s sort of deju vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said. I mean you see back then the media also began thinking this is really a great war, we have to do this. People who dissented were seen as marginal, people that were irresponsible, un-American, blah blah blah. And only after hundreds of thousands, millions of people were dead, if you include the Vietnamese, did the media begin to question.
MB: What do you think has kept them from doing a better job?
Larry Cox: I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the media wants access, if the media just wants to present a view of the world in which the U.S. government is seen as the good guys, if it doesn’t want to be accused. I mean there are always exceptions. There are media, usually marginal media, who do raise the hard questions.
MB: Sure, well, I’m talking more about mainstream media.
Larry Cox: But I think the mainstream media looks around and they see whether there seems to be a majority, a consensus.
MB: [Raises finger in the air.]
Larry Cox: Yeah, they put their finger to see which way the wind is blowing. If it seems it’s something most American believe, they don’t want to be the ones…they want people to buy their newspapers and buy their magazines and think that they’re good. It takes a lot of guts to stand up against majority opinion. And it takes a lot of guts to stand up against a government which has an enormous amount of power to control access, to control who gets the interview and who doesn’t get the interview. I think the media only begins to demonstrate that kind of courage either when the situation has gotten so horrendous that the American people themselves have turned off or when there are movements that challenge it. If you look at the media in the South during the civil rights era, I mean all of those horrors were known. They were all there. But it was only when people began to march and people began to risk their lives and people began to force that you began to get the kind of drumbeat in the media that this was something intolerable. I think the same thing is happening now. I think we have to build the kind of public opinion that the media will respond to. I don’t have any faith that the media itself will take the first step. We have to, as citizens, have to begin to demand that our government be held accountable and then the media I think will begin to follow. There are journalists I’ve seen who have taken courageous stands, who have been in the vanguard, as it were. But, for the most part, I think the media follows where they think the American people are at. And they take risks directly in proportion to what they think the American people want, the majority of the American people.
MB: I agree with that, but then also, in the sense of how much they do shape opinion, many people cannot imagine a Democratic presidency even a fiftieth as incompetent as this administration and having not been impeached, having not all of their incompetencies been front-page news every day. So that liberal media bias myth does seem to also play into this as well.
Larry Cox: Well, I think you do have a new phenomena in the media, which is you have had the development…you know, this is not unrelated to what I’m talking about. It’s also not unrelated to how people who are sort of on the right side, or what we would consider to be the right side, understand how to use the media. I think there is development of a media which has seen itself I think quite openly as shilling for the U.S. government and has done it extremely well. And it goes back to what you were talking about earlier. What are the elements that lead people to commit these kinds of mass human rights violations? Fear is a huge factor. Nationalism is a huge factor. And if you have a media which knows how to push those buttons in a really effective way and does it and has the power of course, gets the airwaves. And we’ve weakened over time regulations on balance and forcing the media to give voices that aren’t heard a chance at least to be heard. So if you combine all of that, you create the situation where, yeah, people are not getting the information they need to make intelligent decisions. They’re just being manipulated in the sense of their fears and their deepest worries are being sort of taken and then handed back to them in the form of propaganda. But that’s not new.
MB: They’re just better at it.
Larry Cox: They’re just very good at it. You know, there are other regimes that have been very good at it, too. Hitler was very good at it. Various demagogues on the left have been good at it. But, at the moment, the folks who have been on the side of justifying what is unjustifiable have been better at it than the people who are opposed to it. I think we all have to begin to try to figure out how do we respond to people’s fears and after 9/11 that was not so easy. How do we respond to people’s fears in a way that helps them overcome their fear rather than exploits their fear and deepens their fear so that they can be led down the road to support things they ordinarily wouldn’t support. That’s how you create mass human rights violations. That’s how you get people to support torture. And the difference is that we always thought about it happening in other countries. How did so many people in Chile support Pinochet disappearing and torturing and killing people? Well, they were told that those people were a threat and they were fearful and they were happy to have somebody strong say I’ll take care of it. Now we see, in the light of 9/11, people saying, “Well, you know, let the government protect us by doing whatever it has to do.” And the president openly says if you don’t agree with me that torture is OK, if you don’t agree with me that I can use these kind of alternative techniques, then people are going to die, people are going to be attacked. And the media has, as you have just said, has not been aggressively challenging them. It’s gone along with it because it doesn’t want to be accused of being on the side of terror. Human rights groups, we’ve been accused. We get accused all the time.
MB: I was going to ask you about that.
Larry Cox: We get accused all the time.
MB: That you guys must be under attack.
Larry Cox: Yeah. If we report that people have been, you know, have been held in Guantanamo for years, four years without legal recourse…and we campaign on it, as we’re campaigning on it, and people say, “Well, you know, you’re on the side of the terrorists, you’re pro terror.” And we have to find a way to more effectively than we have convince people that, on the contrary, this approach of violating human rights - as it always does – has led to greater dangers for us, greater insecurity, greater threat, is destroying the very values that make this society worth living in and worth fighting for. And that we’re not on the side of terror; we’re on the side of decency and values that, without which, why do we want to live? So I think we have to get better at doing that. We’ve launched a campaign right now in which we’re trying to take back from the people who have used patriotism, love of country, to justify the betrayal of the best of this country and have instead used it to continue the worst traditions of this country, which there are no shortage. We call it the “America We Believe In” campaign. And we’re saying the America we believe in doesn’t torture. The America we believe in doesn’t run secret prisons. It’s not the America that’s existed. I mean we know that the America we live is an America that falls short. But we’re trying to remind people that there is an America that people aspire to see, that people have fought to see, and to reject the notion that if you’re patriotic you accept the people who actually betray the most basic values that this society holds up as the ideal. That’s what we ought to aspire to. Sorry.
MB: No, no.
Larry Cox: I get carried away.
MB: No, no, no. I do, too.
Larry Cox: [Laughs.]
MB: Just ask my friends and my girlfriend. Same thing. And my family.
Larry Cox: [Laughing.]
MB: [Laughing.] OK…when Bush signed the Military Commissions Act into law, he legalized torture, nullified habeas corpus and made all American citizens fair game to be jailed without legal recourse if deemed, by him alone, to be aiding the enemy. Did you ever imagine that this could happen in the United States of America?
Larry Cox: I imagined that torture could happen. I know that it has happened. I didn’t imagine that I would see a U.S. government openly defend it. That’s the difference. This country has always had a record of falling short on human rights standards. What’s different is I didn’t imagine an administration that would be openly saying this is OK. That we intend to hold people indefinitely without charges or trial. That we intend to subject people to torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. In fact, we’ll fight against anyone who wants to affirm that torture and cruel and inhuman treatment should never be applied. Which they did with the McCain amendment. They openly fought against it. That I never imagined that I would see in my lifetime. And it’s really scary that they’ve been able to do that and that they’ve been able to get away with it. And, again, it goes back to knowing how to manipulate people’s fear. The reason I came to work at Amnesty International – because I had left it for a while – was because I think this is one of the gravest threats to human rights I’ve ever seen. You have the world’s most powerful democracy, a country which has long talked about the value of human rights, openly now violating human rights. It’s a threat to human rights everywhere in the world. So we have to change that.
MB: Three weeks have now passed since Bush signed this into law. One of the biggest blows to our Constitution, to the bedrock of our country, and yet the mainstream media has completely dropped the topic. It’s as though it never happened. What do you feel is the mainstream media’s complicity in allowing our freedoms to be stripped away?
Larry Cox: Well, there are some voices in the mainstream media, mostly columnists, who have continued to try to raise this issue.
Larry Cox: I think this requires, and I’m sure what’s going to happen, is there will be new cases of abuses under this new regime that’s been created. The problem is the mainstream media treats all this stuff as if it’s simply kind of a political game – who wins, who loses. Once you win, then we drop it. Well, they won. They won the Military Commissions Act. And it was a great victory for them. Everything is a sporting event. Who wins, who loses. And what you would like to see is real investigative journalism, in the best sense, of people trying to find out what the hell this means. What about the cases of people that we know, we’ve documented, who are being held who have been found to be completely innocent of any crime whatsoever. Why isn’t the mainstream media sort of holding this is up and saying, you know…there are some. But, again, it’s going to take pushing from the American people and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create the conditions where the media begins to ask these questions and hold the administration accountable. I have no doubt that if you liked Abu Ghraib, you’re gonna love what’s going to come from secret detention sites and no habeas corpus. Because these are the conditions that – we know, I mean we documented this all over the world for decades – you hold people in secret, you deny people access to the courts, it doesn’t matter what you say about the fact that you’re not going to torture. You know torture is going to take place. That’s why you hold people in secret conditions. [Laughing.] There’s no other reason. So I think we haven’t seen anything yet in terms of the horrors that are going to come out of this new policy. And when that does, maybe the mainstream media will want – as it did with Abu Ghraib at least for a while – it will highlight them.
MB: According to journalist Sidney Blumenthal, Retired U.S. Army Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, estimates that 35,000 detainees are being held in U.S.-run secret prisons around the world and that only about 5% of these detainees have anything to do with terrorism. What do you know about this?
Larry Cox: Well, we know that a lot of people have been held in secret prisons that had nothing to do with terrorism. That’s one of the first things that we have to begin to get across. Even if they were the worst terrorists in the world, they wouldn’t deserve to be tortured or treated in inhuman ways. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of these people are totally innocent. You know, there are cases that we all know about: this guy who was just changing planes at JFK was taken in and he was sent off to Syria where he was tortured. Or there are cases of people who’ve been picked up and taken to secret prisons - God knows where, we’re not exactly sure where – where they were tortured for months and months until it was discovered that they had somebody with the wrong name. We know that there are shepherds who were simply seized by warlords in Afghanistan or in Pakistan because there was a bounty. You could get a $1,000 for turning over an al Qaeda member. So what do they think? I mean people are going to - desperately poor, and they got some enemy, some guy they never liked - say this is an al Qaeda guy. And that’s enough to get the whole process started. Since there’s no way to examine the truth of this, there’s no court that looks into it, these people can be held for years. So I have no idea the exact number. That’s the problem. I think those estimates could quite well be true. They could quite well be low. We don’t know. That’s the problem.
MB: That’s the scary part.
Larry Cox: That’s the scary part. The secrecy. It’s hard to comprehend how the President of the United States can announce that there are secret prisons and the Congress and the American people say, “Oh, fine. There are people being held in secret.” It’s outrageous.
MB: Upon the signing of this law, you said, “Amnesty International will to continue to push the administration and Congress to provide clarification. We're not giving up. We're fighting back and we're fighting back hard.” What actions has Amnesty International taken since then? And what can average Americans do to help reverse this tyrannical law?
Larry Cox: Well, we have launched this campaign that I’ve talked about. And it’s only the beginning. And there will be specific legislation that we’ll be pushing. We’ll be pushing legislation to end renditions. That’s the practice of sending people to countries that torture. We’ll be pushing legislation to require that all prisoners held by the United States are registered with the International Red Cross, so at least we know where they are. We will be pushing hard to persuade members of Congress that they should be begin slowly but surely to repeal the act that was passed. It’s not going to be easy because of the fear factor, which this administration has - more blatantly than any other administration that I’ve ever seen - exploited. But the response to the act that passed on our side was strong. A lot of people worked very, very hard to oppose it and in numbers that were significant. And we think it’s only the beginning. We think there’s evidence that the American people – and not just liberals, not just progressives, not just people on the left, but all Americans - are beginning to see that it’s wrong what we’re doing, that we made the world hate us in a way that they’ve never hated us, that we’re helping people who do want to do harm recruit, that we’re the best friend they ever had. We’re like doing recruitment videos for them. So we’re not safer. And that this is a betrayal of everything we were ever taught. You know, even if we’re…whoever we are, you know, we all grew up sort of having to pledge allegiance to a flag that said we were for liberty and justice for all. We didn’t grow up saying, you know, for the flag for the republic that stands for torture and disappearances and kidnappings. And I think – it’s slow because people want to believe in their government, in the people they elect – but I think people are beginning to open their eyes. So we are fighting back hard. We’re going to continue to mobilize people. And beginning in January when Congress comes back, we’ll be there. We’ll be in the halls. We’ll be in every district in the country trying to persuade our members of Congress that this is un-American.
MB: Both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have said repeatedly that the U.S. does not torture prisoners. Do you think this is merely rhetorical sleight of hand since the torture is predominantly taking place in overseas prisons to which we are sending and holding detainees?
Larry Cox: Well, first of all, I’m not sure it only takes place in overseas prisons.
Larry Cox: Yeah, predominantly. Because I think we haven’t yet made the connection that when you do this stuff overseas, it’s also…you know, there are maximum security prisons in this country that if, again, the mainstream media was really doing investigations, looking into how those people are being treated, they would discover that most of the stuff that we did Abu Ghraib, we’ve been doing here. So that’s the first problem.
MB: I actually just wrote about something a few weeks ago - I don’t remember if I first saw it on your site or if it was Human Rights Watch – but it was on those prisons in our country that are using attack dogs to get prisoners out of their cells.
Larry Cox: Yeah. Many of the tactics that we’re so shocked to see –
MB: Which no one…when I told people about this, no one could believe it. They were beyond shocked.
Larry Cox: You know, again, it goes back to deciding there are certain people that we don’t care very much about. And that’s often conflated with class and race in this country.
MB: Because they’re in prison, they deserve to be there, so whatever happens to them…it shouldn’t be a picnic.
Larry Cox: Yeah, yeah. Uh…but I think the reason that the president and vice president have learned to say that we are against torture is because of the response of people to their battle, for example, under the McCain amendment to hold on to the ability to torture. They have at least got it clear that people don’t want to live in a country that openly tortures. So now they say, “Well, what we’re doing is” – they’re redefining torture – “what we’re doing is not torture.” And the challenge for us goes back to the challenge you asked actually about how do you communicate what’s really going on in Darfur. You know, torture is a word that’s beginning to lose its meaning, lose its context. Once you begin to banter it around, once you begin to debate it as if it’s an issue you can debate. You know, is it a little torture? Can we torture a little?
MB: Torture light.
Larry Cox: Torture light. Is this really torture? And people don’t understand anymore what torture really is and what is does. And one of the things we’re trying to do is to elevate the voices of people who have experienced torture. Because anyone who’s seen it – it’s like an execution – anyone who’s seen or talked with somebody who’s experienced it knows that it really is the greatest evil you’ve ever seen. And doesn’t have to be a certain kind of torture. You know, I was just hearing somebody testify the other day who was a woman who was talking about her husband who had been forced to stand in an uncomfortable position for days. Most people think, “Well, they’re just standing in an uncomfortable position. Is that really torture?” Well, do it. Do it for a while. And have to defecate on yourself and you begin to lose any sense that you’re a human being and that’s the real point of it.
MB: To say the least, you don’t have a light job. You deal with the life and death of geo-political human rights issues every day. But you are only human. There must be some days, some moments, when it’s all just too much to bear. What keeps you going? What keeps you coming in to work every day?
Larry Cox: Well, you know, my job even on the hardest days is nothing compared to the people that we’re trying to help. And, uh, I’m not threatened. I haven’t been tortured. I haven’t been threatened with execution. I haven’t been locked up. And what keeps me going is the fact that I have seen the people who have experienced that be helped by people like me. And, you know, there’s the usual stuff in any organization where you get discouraged, where, especially in the current political climate, you start to think, “Well, maybe we’re not really making a difference.” And then you meet somebody who says to you, “The only thing that kept me sane was knowing that there were people out there who were working to end what was happening to me.” And everything else sort of pales after that.
MB: Also, I have to ask: Are you the guy at every party who is always cornering someone and speaking about politics?
Larry Cox: No.
Larry Cox: [Laughs.]
MB: [Laughs.] Why not? You’re able to keep it at the office?
Larry Cox: Because one of the things that I believe is really important in terms of building activism is to convince people that you don’t have to be less than human or some kind of guy who’s in love with suffering or whatever, that you can enjoy life and still be a human rights activist. If I had to convince people that if you care about human rights, you have to be the guy who ruins every party, how many people are going to choose human rights? I want to convince people that affirming life is what I do for a living. I’m trying to affirm life. And then, you know…
MB: A party’s a party.
Larry Cox: A party’s a party. A party’s an affirmation of life. That’s what I do.
[Laughing.] Have fun.
MB: You have worked for human rights organizations for three decades. As a kid, did you want to play center field for the New York Yankees or were you advocating even then – protecting your classmates from the school bully?
Larry Cox: Yeah, I wanted to do lots of things. I was an actor when I was a kid. I wanted to be in the arts. My kid is now in the arts and says that’s what he wants to do. I, uh, you know, I came out of a family that was poor, and I saw my parents suffer from things that they shouldn’t have had to suffer from. So I guess I got sort of the bug about ending suffering from that experience. And a sense that it’s really about your inability to tolerate unnecessary suffering. Life is hard. People die. People get diseases. Lots of suffering in life. But to see somebody suffer for no reason, unnecessarily, the worst kind of suffering imaginable, I just from a very young age decided I was not going to allow that to continue and I would do everything I could to stop it. And the trick has been what we just talked about earlier, which is that you actually don’t help people who suffer by suffering yourself. They don’t need your suffering. [Laughing.] They need help. They need your help. They need your energy. They need your vision. They need hope. But you don’t help them by suffering yourself. So I had to learn, as we were just talking about, that one can both enjoy life and fight to end suffering. That took me a lot longer to learn that than it did to make the decision that I would spend my life trying to reduce suffering.
MB: Having your vote count is a human right in any democratic society. On this Election Day, with so much at stake, what are your thoughts on our current system’s ability to accurately count our citizens’ votes?
Larry Cox: Oh, well, I think one of the big issues we face is the ability of people to escape accountability. There’s no doubt that they way the system has been constructed that it’s much harder now than it ever was to hold people accountable. The odds are stacked so much in favor of incumbency and power and the ability of people to manipulate the system to stay in power no matter what, that one of the things - we don’t work on it – but one the things people have to work on is how to make democracy work in the sense of making it easier for citizens to hold people accountable when they have done stuff which is incredibly wrong.
MB: What other human rights crisis is happening in the world that we are not hearing anything about right now in the U.S. mainstream media?
Larry Cox: Oh God, it would be an enormous list. I would say Sri Lanka, for example, where there’s an incredible conflict that’s been going on forever. Congo where there’s an incredible war that has resulted in, you know, millions of people dead. Occasionally, it peaks its head into the, you know, you’ll get a little, you’ll get one article.
MB: A14 in The New York Times.
Larry Cox: Nobody really cares. And you could go on and on – you know, Burma, where it’s a human rights horror. You know, you hear more now about North Korea’s human rights violations than Burma’s because North Korea has the possibility of getting a nuclear weapon. So, yeah, there’s an endless number of cases. And one of the things that Amnesty was created to do was to keep what we call “forgotten prisoners” from being forgotten and we have to do now the same thing with countries.
MB: So it’s always a busy day for you.
Larry: Yeah. I gotta run.
MB: Thanks so much.
Larry: Yeah, yeah. Sure. And, you know, don’t ruin parties when you go. [Laughs.]
MB: [Laughing.] I won’t.