AMY GOODMAN: Christian televangelist, Pat Robertson, set off an international firestorm this week when he called for the assassination of Venezuela’s democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez. Robertson made the comment on his TV program, The 700 Club.
PAT ROBERTSON: He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent. You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop, but this man is a terrific danger, and the United States — this is in our sphere of influence. We can’t let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine. We have other doctrines that we have announced, and without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.
AMY GOODMAN: Pat Robertson, speaking on his TV show, The 700 Club. Robertson is 75 years old. He ran for president as a Republican in 1988. He is often used his show in the political advocacy group he founded, the Christian Coalition, to support President Bush. According to his website, the TV show, The 700 Club, has an audience of about a million people. At a news conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was questioned about Robertson’s comments.
REPORTER: Reverend Pat Robertson has suggested that the United States should assassinate Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president. What were your reactions to those remarks, and has that ever been considered?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Not to my knowledge. And I would think I would have knowledge. Certainly, it’s against the law. Our department doesn’t do that type of thing. He’s a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Robertson’s comments were also denounced by the State Department, which called them, quote, “inappropriate,” but the White House has remained silent, despite repeated calls for repudiation. Meanwhile, the Reverend Jesse Jackson called for the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Robertson’s comments. And the watchdog group, Media Matters for America, sent a letter urging the ABC Family Network to stop carrying his show. While some of Robertson’s allies distanced themselves from his comments, other conservative Christian organizations were not so forthcoming. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Reverend Ted Haggard, was questioned on CNNyesterday afternoon by Kyra Phillips.
KYRA PHILLIPS: I’m curious, is this religion leader — did he go a little too far here with his comments, from a Christian perspective?
REV. TED HAGGARD: Well, from a Christian perspective, yes, but you’ve got to remember this is a political commentary portion of his show. It is his television show, and essentially what he’s saying is that he’s scared about some of the developments going on in that section of the world, and he wants them minimized. He wants them taken care of in the most efficient way that he can. So he’s not speaking for evangelicalism. He’s not speaking for Christians. He’s just saying from a political point of view and from a social point of view, somebody needs to contemplate how to minimize this, so we don’t end up in a full-scale war.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Reverend Ted Haggard of National Association of Evangelicals, the president. Meanwhile, Robertson’s comments have set off an international firestorm. In Havana, Cuban President Fidel Castro criticized Robertson’s comments, saying, quote, “I think only God can punish crimes of such magnitude.” Meanwhile, Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, said Bush needs to guarantee Chavez’s safety at the next month’s U.N. meeting in New York.
BERNARDO ALVAREZ: We’re very disappointed with Pat Robertson’s statement over the Christian Broadcast Network. Mr. Robertson is, of course, no ordinary private citizen. He was a candidate for the [G.O.P.’s] presidential nomination in 1992. The organization that Mr. Robertson leads, the Christian Coalition, claims nearly 2 million members and has a multi-million dollar a year budget. In 2000, it was credited with helping George W. Bush win the important South Carolina primary and catapulting him to the nomination of his party for President. Mr. Robertson has been one of this president’s staunchest allies. His statement demands the strongest condemnation by the White House.
Mr. Robertson calls that U.S. government covert operative murder President Hugo Chavez is a call to terrorism. He called that President Chavez violently impose the outdated Monroe Doctrines on Venezuela. It’s a call for the American intervention in the sovereign affairs of our democratic country. The United States might not permit its citizen to use its territory and airwaves to incite terrorists abroad and the murder of a democratically elected president.
Venezuela demands that the U.S. abide by the international and domestic law and respect our country and its president. Pat Robertson’s statement must be condemned in the strongest term by the Bush administration, and we are concerned about the safety of our president. It is essential that the U.S. government guarantees his safety, when he visits this country in the future, including his scheduled visit to the United Nations in New York. From the messages we have received, it is clear that Pat Robertson does not speak for Christians in the U.S., not even for the Christian Coalition, when he calls for the assassination of our president.
AMY GOODMAN: Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, speaking at a news conference on Tuesday. In Caracas, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Venezuela was studying its legal options in response to the comments. He said, quote, “It’s huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country, there are entirely terrorist statements like those.”
Chavez has often accused the United States of plotting his overthrow or assassination. He survived an aborted coup attempt in 2002. U.S. involvement? Well, over the years, tens of millions of dollars in U.S. government money has been given to Venezuelan opposition groups through the National Endowment for Democracy. Last August, President Chavez survived a referendum to remove him from power through a recall election. Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporting country and a major supplier to the United States.
We are joined today by Chris Hedges, a journalist and author, foreign correspondent for The New York Times for 15 years, currently a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He’s author of a number of books, his latest is Losing Moses on the Freeway. He has a Masters degree in theology from Harvard University and is currently writing a book on the Christian right. Welcome to Democracy Now!
CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, can you talk about who Pat Robertson is, and is this statement unusual for him?
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, this fits a pattern of essentially seditious statements that have been made by Pat Robertson since the early 1980s, when he embraced this new doctrine within the Christian right known as Christian reconstructionism or dominionism — that’s not a term that he would use to describe it, but that’s how shorthand for those of us who look at it from the outside — where he calls for the creation of a Christian America, a Christian state. And there has been an assault against the democratic system, largely unseen, I think, by the majority of the American people, ever since the early 1980s.
The empire that Robertson and the other radical Christian right evangelicals have amassed, the media empire, is now huge. What began as a relatively small operation, basically a radio operation, now sees just Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network alone employing over a thousand people, to have facilities in three U.S. cities, as well as the Ukraine, Philippines, India and Israel, and this is part of a large empire where radical Christians now control six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes and virtually all of the nation’s 2,000 religious radio stations. Christian radio now outnumbers every other format, except country music and news talk. And the latest venture is putting up direct broadcast satellite networks, such as Sky Angels, that carries — Sky Angel carries 36 channels of Christian radio and TV and nothing else.
So when Pat Robertson makes this kind of a statement, it’s being pumped into the homes on an alternative information network to tens of millions of Americans who rely on these radical religious right figures for their news, for their entertainment, for their commentary, and for what is purportedly their version of the Bible, which for those of us who come out of the Church and come out of seminary, in my case, is deeply distorted and perverted.
You know, I have not memorized Pat Robertson quotes, but I went and collected a few. But let me just read one that goes back to 1981, where he said the Constitution of the United States, for instance, is a marvelous document for self-government by the Christian people, but the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christian people and atheistic people, they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society. This sets the tone for essentially a politically charged movement that seeks to dismantle our open society.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, former New York Times correspondent, author of the book, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America. And we’ll come back with him. We’ll also be joined by Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and look at the implications of this call for the assassination of a foreign leader.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our discussion of the comments of Pat Robertson, calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, who has just gone to Cuba and has met with the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. Our guests are Chris Hedges, he’s a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author of a number of books, among them, What Every Person Should Know About War and Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America. We’re also joined by Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Before we go to Michael, Chris, some other quotes of Pat Robertson’s.
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I think it’s important to understand the ideology that comes into play with these kinds of statements. Robertson, along with most of the radical Christian right, endorses violence as a kind of curative for the satanic movement, secular humanism, liberalism, Islam, whatever it is that they see outside the gate. So the final aesthetic of their movement, in many ways, is violence. This is what the whole “End Time” series is about. So if you go back and look at his statements, he repeatedly sees incredibly destructive and violent acts as the hand of God.
His most famous statement coming, along with Jerry Falwell, right after 9/11, when he said that the attacks of 9/11 were caused by pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way.
He often makes predictions. He, of course, claims that God speaks to him for the new year, and he has in the past claimed to have, through God’s power, harnessed the destructive might of hurricanes, such as Hurricane Gloria in 1985, where he claimed that through his relationship with God, he steered the hurricane away from his company’s Virginia Beach headquarters. This hurricane, of course, caused millions of dollars of destruction in states along the East Coast. He made a similar claim about Hurricane Felix in 1995.
But what we’re seeing is not a kook. What we are seeing is somebody who has this messianic belief that violence and destruction is being carried out against non-believers, against those who do not endorse his radical ideology and that he is a kind of player, along with God, in that destructive force.
AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t he also called for the destruction of the State Department?
CHRIS HEDGES: Yes, he indicated that, you know, that an explosion of a nuclear weapon at the State Department could be good for the country. The direct quote is, I think the best country — that’s not the nuclear — this is when he was asked a question about it, and he said that a small nuclear device would be good for the country, if we exploded it in the State Department.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, this latest comment of Pat Robertson, talking about the assassination of Hugo Chavez, calling for it, what are the legal implications of this?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, first of all, I think we have to understand that this comment came out of a context, a context in which in 2002, many people believed the U.S. — and there’s evidence of it — was very involved in the coup to overthrow Chavez, and a recent trip of Rumsfeld to the region, in which he basically said the real dangers here are Chavez and Fidel Castro and their implementing work in Bolivia against the government, etc. So all of a sudden, then you get Robertson saying this, and you question, well, is this all working together? Is Robertson really sewing the seeds in this country, making fertile ground among the millions that Chris has referred to, to make them ready and able to accept an overthrow or an assassination of Chavez.
Now, legally, legally there’s two ways to look at it. It is prohibited for the United States or U.S. officials to assassinate the head of state or really any official overseas. That’s been in place since the 1970s, since the U.S. tried to assassinate as many people, as listeners know, everybody from — did assassinate Diem in Vietnam, tried to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba, attempted assassinations in Chile in the early 1970s, etc. So, that prohibition was put in place. It doesn’t mean that the U.S. has ever adhered to that, and we have had recent examples where President Bush called for Osama bin Laden — bin Laden dead or alive, or when they actually purposely targeted Saddam Hussein’s various places where they thought he was living in an attempt to essentially assassinate him. So, from a U.S. perspective, it’s supposed to be outlawed, but let me tell you, you can’t believe a word that Rumsfeld is saying when you see him on TV there, saying this is against the law in the United States. Yes, it’s against the law, but you can’t believe that these guys don’t have that in their brain as to what they’re thinking.
Now, in the U.S., of course, we have very broad protections for First Amendment, right to advocate, all kinds of things. You get in trouble when you advocate something that is likely to happen imminently or soon. So I can’t go in front of a mob and say, “There’s that guy over there, let’s go lynch him,” and everybody is carrying these sticks, and everybody goes over there. Then I can be guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, whatever various laws you can.
Robertson’s quote arguably falls within the line that says, you know, you can advocate this, and therefore it wouldn’t be illegal, but I can tell you, if there were other people in this country doing similar kinds of things, if someone advocated an Islamic cleric, for example, in the same level as Robertson, the murder or assassination of Tony Blair in the United Kingdom because of the Iraq war, I can tell you that cleric would be in jail in this country, and they would figure out a way to make the law say that, well, his followers were imminently going to do something about it, and advocating it helped him. Or if someone during the anti-apartheid period said, “Let’s kill the President of South Africa, who is supporting anti-apartheid,” I can tell you that —
AMY GOODMAN: Who’s supporting apartheid.
MICHAEL RATNER: Right, supporting apartheid. I can tell you those people would likely be in jail. If they were non-citizens, they would be jailed and deported very quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: Sami Al-Arian, the Florida professor who they say advocated violence, is currently in jail. Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the government has continually said he called for the overthrow or assassination of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.
MICHAEL RATNER: Right, particularly with non-citizens, the line that I gave you is very different. Non-citizens advocating assassinations, violence, can be jailed under various terrorist laws, they can be deported, etc. And, of course, as we know now, Britain is now conceiving of a certain — a wide set of laws particularly aimed at non-citizens for advocating any kind of violence. Those laws under Britain would have put Robertson in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Robertson should be in jail?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, do I think he should be in jail? I mean, I think people should be tried for crimes and jailed if it’s found to be the case. What I think is happening here, though, is Robertson really in a broad way, if not a literal conspiracy with officials of this government and other people in the United States, to essentially sew the ground for the eventual overthrow of Chavez.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, among Robertson’s comments, “If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him,” talking about Hugo Chavez, “I think we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop,” he said. Chris Hedges, let’s look back at the history of Pat Robertson. You have been a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for many years. You’re now a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. You worked in Central America in the early 1980s. Can you talk about that period?
CHRIS HEDGES: Robertson, you know, has latched onto very despotic movements. You know, he was chose to Charles Taylor, for instance. He had invested —
AMY GOODMAN: Liberia.
CHRIS HEDGES: In Liberia. He invested $8 million in a Liberian gold mine. He has — you know, we don’t know exactly how much he is worth. Estimates range anywhere from $200 million to $1 billion, certainly an extremely wealthy figure. And he has set up alliances with some of the most despotic regimes around the globe, including a very deep involvement in the forces extremism in Central America. He was an avid supporter of the Contras in the war against — set up by the Reagan administration against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, a strong supporter of Rios Montt, who carried out wholesale massacres in Guatemala in the early 1980s, and the regime in El Salvador during the war at a time when the death squads in El Salvador were killing between 800 and a thousand people a month. And this was not limited to statements of support from the United States, but visits, and I actually covered visits by Robertson and Falwell to embrace these movements.
I think that what makes this particularly dangerous is that it’s not just a very radical rightwing agenda, but a kind of sanctification of violence, a belief that violence — and this is the language that they use — can be used to defeat the forces of Satan. And believe me, people like Pat Robertson don’t see boundaries. Satan’s influence for people like Robertson or Falwell is as pervasive, in some ways more so, within American society, just as it is without, so that when I hear them call for the assassination of a head of state in Latin America, when I see him embrace people like Charles Taylor, those running the death squads in El Salvador, the Contras, Rios Montt, I think we have to understand that this ideology is one that is also going to come into play within our own country. And the notion that somehow it’s going to be limited, this kind of call for violence is going to be limited to simply those who he perceives as a raid against that’s outside our own borders as naive. What we are talking about is a movement, a very, very increasingly powerful movement that endorses violence as a way to create what they term the Christian society or the Christian nation. And that endorsement of violence, while they’re certainly very clever and careful, is one that is not going to be limited to non-Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. His latest book is, Losing Moses on the Freeway. Do you think, I’ll ask both of you this question, Michael Ratner and Chris Hedges, that the fact that Chavez was going to Cuba was significant here, with the U.S. trying to up the ante against Fidel Castro, as well, talking about his overthrow or destabilizing the government?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, I think this is Chavez’s fourth trip to Cuba. The U.S. is obviously credibly concerned about Chavez’s relationship to Cuba. He sells oil to Cuba. He’s trying to form sort of a Bolivarian group in Latin America that will oppose U.S. hegemony in the region. He’s not about to turn his oil resources over to the United States. So I think this is all part of it. That it happened while he was in Cuba, I think, is significant and makes you wonder to what extent was there some kind of connection with some kind of U.S. officials over this statement, whether at the highest level or at the middle level.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does Cuba represent to Pat Robertson, Chris Hedges?
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, you heard it in the rhetoric. I mean, you know, remember that these people, they always need to set up a dark satanic force that they’re battling against. That used to be Marxism and communism, you know, although the, you know, the insurgencies I covered in Central America had nothing to do with Marxism, in essence, and now that’s been replaced by terrorism and Islam. So, you know, we have this absolutely convoluted statement that we have to fight the president of Venezuela because we’re fighting Muslim extremists, and I think that what it has to do with is that bifurcation of the world into the forces of darkness and the forces of light and all of the forces of darkness are lumped together, even if there’s a tremendous incongruity between the head of a state of a Latin American country and a follower of Osama bin Laden.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, you have written books on the U.S. and Cuba, and you talk about, of course, the attempted assassination of Castro, but when you say, “of course,” a lot of young people, particularly don’t understand the level. You have the latest head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana actually, basically promising Castro would be taken out. What is this history?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, it’s been 40 years. I mean, since 1959 or shortly thereafter, the U.S. has embargoed Cuba, attempted to overthrow Castro, sent in terrorists to maim and kill people in Cuba. As we know —
AMY GOODMAN: How many assassination attempts against Castro himself?
MICHAEL RATNER: I don’t know. There’s scores of them, I’m sure. Everything from exploding cigars to, you know, all kinds of things that we make fun of, but were actually really, really serious. So it’s been a history of U.S. terrorism against Cuba, attempts against Castro’s life, and now he’s survived some 40 years. And now they’re saying it again. So, are they serious again about it? Well, these guys, you have to take them seriously when they make these kind of statements about wanting to take people out. It’s remarkable.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, while President Bush did talk to reporters yesterday, it seems like he has taken a break from his break now at Crawford and gone to Idaho, because of the protests. You have these reporters who are just sitting there baking in the hot sun with nothing to do, and — except to interview the people who are protesting, like Cindy Sheehan, outside, and so President Bush knows he’s got an obliging press. He goes to Idaho, the press follows, and he can take them away from interviewing these protesters. But he was talking to reporters, talking about Cindy Sheehan, but not talking about the comment of Pat Robertson. What about the relationship between Pat Robertson and President Bush, and also the way Pat Robertson is treated by the press? When he goes on different programs to comment on different issues, he is very much treated as a kind of elder statesman, and these quotes are not raised, at least in the past.
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I think that’s a really important point. I think, you know, as somebody who spent most of their career in the mainstream media, I think that the problem is that the mainstream media is mystified and doesn’t understand who these people are. They are willing to give them a kind of religious legitimacy that they should not have. That’s, I think, largely because the mainstream media itself is secular and uncomfortable with religiosity, and so they — I think that what we are seeing is essentially an attempt at appeasement, an attempt to include these radical figures within the mainstream in the hope that they will be domesticated. This, you know, having watched this process around the globe, including in places like Yugoslavia, it’s a disastrous mistake, because these people are very clear and quite upfront. You know, everyone should listen to their broadcasts. They’re very open about what they want to do to this country and what they want to create. And there is no place in their vision of America for people like you and me.
AMY GOODMAN: Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, said yesterday that he was offering to help needy Americans with cheap supplies of gasoline. He said, quote, “We want to sell gasoline and heating fuel directly to poor communities in the United States.” He didn’t say how Venezuela would go about providing gas to these poor communities, but the Venezuelan state oil company owns Citgo which operates 14,000 gas stations here. Chavez said Venezuela would supply gasoline to Americans at half the price they now pay if intermediaries who speculated and exploited consumers were cut out. What about the politics of oil and Chavez, former head of OPEC, extremely significant now with gas prices at their highest in many years?
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, it seems obvious, I mean, that the U.S. — you know, not only what we have been saying about Latin America and the shifts in Latin America going toward a more — many governments moving in a more progressive way, the tumult in Latin America, but — you know, Venezuela is the fourth biggest oil supplier to the United States. It controls huge amount of reserves. It’s dealing with Cuba right now, and the U.S. — I remember back in the Grenada days, when we went after Grenada, they talked about like the shipping lanes for oil, you know, in the Caribbean. And they went after Grenada on that. So I think you have to look at this as part of the Latin American movement toward a more progressive government, but part of it, obviously, about oil.
AMY GOODMAN: We are going to talk about hybrid cars and alternative energy and the use of gas in this country in a minute. But I just wanted to end by asking about this comment of the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States being concerned in if and when Hugo Chavez comes to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings in September, as so many heads of state do from around the world, what this means for him. Will Pat Robertson be detained during that time because he presents a danger to a foreign president?
MICHAEL RATNER: You know, this is — you know this is — we should not underestimate the seriousness of what Robertson did. I mean, what we have here is a man with millions of adherents around the world, in this country, possibly in Venezuela and other places. And when that person says it’s good to take somebody out, it’s good to assassinate him, what is he saying to his adherents except go for this guy? So, when Robertson — when Chavez is in Venezuela, there may be some guys there, when he comes to the U.S., obviously, this is the heart and core of Robertson’s support, and is that statement, are his strong statements about what this guy represents going to cause somebody to do something? So, they have cause — they have asked for real protection, if and when Chavez comes here.
CHRIS HEDGES: And I think we have to remember that the radical fringe of this movement is violent, that those who attack abortion clinics, those who embrace this creed and are members of militia movements are people who not only believe in the use of violence but practice the use of violence. So, what you have potentially is the incitement of these fringe groups within the movements who are happy and willing to use force.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Chris Hedges, former correspondent for The New York Times, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, has written a number of books, including War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning: What Every Person Should Know About War, and most recently, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America. He is currently writing a book on the Christian right.