Our First Amendment or Our Empire, But Not Both

“A community will evolve only when a people control their own communication”

– Frantz Fanon

At long last we (i.e., Americans) are forced to make a clear choice—either preserve the freedoms established by the First Amendment in 1791, or toss them aside and obstinately plod on with our exceptionalism. Julian Assange’s extradition hearing will begin on the 24th of February in London, but it is also a trial for Americans. We are being interrogated about how much we value our freedom, if we think we have a “right to know” anymore, and whether we will respect the rights of foreign journalists and international law.

A thoughtful, ethical approach would discuss the needs of others first, before considering our own needs, but since this is an emergency, and as we need Americans above all to take action (by the first day of his extradition hearing if possible), let us consider the selfish reasons now—what is best for U.S. citizens, who are entitled to participate in politics and choose their government.

In the year 2000, many months before the horrible violence of 11 September 2001, a book entitled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) came out. The American political scientist Chalmers Johnson presciently considered the important question “why we are hated around the world,” why the U.S. is the “world’s most prominent target for blowback.” He noted the following important facts:

1. The U.S. is the only imperial power

2. It is the “primary source” of “operations that shore up repressive regimes”

3. It is the “largest seller of weapons”

Indeed, it has been demonstrated in numerous CounterPunch articles that Our Government engages in imperialist actions, thwarts democracy, and begets violence through weapons sales.

The term “blowback” in general can mean “negative reactions or results that were not intended, such as criticism, protest, or anger,” but Johnson used the term in the sense of the “unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” He wrote that “what the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”

This is no secret. The Department of Defense received advice from a committee of civilian experts in 1997 that concluded, “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors.” Johnson explained that by “actors” they meant “terrorists from one country attacking in another.”

When the U.S. invades other countries, or supplies, trains, and funds the militaries of other invading states, the situation becomes one of “asymmetric warfare.” Countries that are bullied by the U.S., e.g., Iran, prepare for war with the U.S. by investing in “asymmetric attack capabilities”. That term “asymmetric,” often used in analyzing military conflicts between the U.S. and other states, underscores the huge, unfair advantage that Washington has in such conflicts. That advantage should not put a smile on our faces because it also makes us targets of violence, criticism, and ostracism.

Johnson pointed out that “one man’s terrorist” is “another man’s freedom fighter.” One could call Julian Assange a “freedom-fighter journalist.” The 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrikes that WikiLeaks called “Collateral Murder” revealed to us all a level of brutality that only generals, military affairs specialists, and soldiers were familiar with. The illegality, the cowardliness, and the injustice captured by those epoch-making clips must have spurred on Chelsea Manning, Assange, and others to publish them, regardless of the consequences. In that sense, the leaked documents and various publications from WikiLeaks are a kind of “blowback” caused by the violence of Our Government.

The chain of cause-and-effect goes something like this: Western, state violence over the course of hundreds of years (recently led by Washington) against peoples of the Middle East causes the terrorist backlash called “9/11.” The shock of 9/11 for Americans opens the door to new, extreme, lawless measures, including the creation of heretofore unseen legal exceptions (and exceptionalism) such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the “Collateral Murder.” Such uncontrolled state violence leads whistleblowers and journalists like Assange to work extra hard and take on great personal risk in order to expose U.S. crimes. While the U.S. government normally spies on the people, Assange and other committed journalists found a way to “spy” back, i.e., to force some transparency and accountability on the Gangster State, and as a result, the “gloves” of the Gangster State come off.

In order to re-assert control, Washington’s lawlessness requires a veneer of legitimacy. This is why our stupid and outdated Espionage Act of 1917 is now being re-fitted. If Washington succeeds in building this new authoritarian tool, it will be able to thoroughly eradicate the revolutionary and democracy-promoting journalism of WikiLeaks, which actually bypasses the mass media and makes information about foreign affairs available to anyone in the world with an Internet-connected computer. And the government will also be able to stop any journalist in their tracks who produces writings, films, recordings, etc. that can be portrayed as benefiting from “stolen” information (i.e., information made available to government officials through U.S. tax dollars, supposedly for the benefit of Americans).

How will people in the Middle East evaluate the work of Julian Assange ten years from now, in the context of the current U.S. lawlessness? Although I have never asked anyone from that region of the world this question, perhaps they will thank Assange for standing up to the cowardly bullies who killed the dozen or more non-combatants in the “Collateral Murder” video recording. Unlike most Americans today, surely well-informed intellectuals of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq are already painfully aware that the U.S. 1) backed a coup in Iran (1953), 2) backed Israel’s violence in Palestine (from 1967), 3) smashed secular nationalism and defended Islamic fundamentalism, 4) ignored Israel’s possession of nukes even after the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), 5) bombed Libya (1986) and attacked that country later with the U.K. and France (2011), 6) started the Gulf “War” (1990), the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, 7) supplied Saddam Hussein with chemicals for the poison gas that he used on the Kurds, and helped him kill Iranians, 8) cooperated with the “revenge killing” of Saddam in the words of the second George Bush, 9) committed high-profile extrajudicial killings, such as those of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (his son), Muammar Gaddafi (2011), and Qasem Soleimani last month, 10) assassinated hundreds of people with drones in several countries of the region—mostly foot soldiers (at least between 2008 and 2010, according to Reuters), 11) caused psychological trauma and anxiety among millions of people from the drones, 12) undermined democratic movements, such as the Arab Spring (2010), 13) directly aided terrorists (such as in August 2012 and ’14) did not apologize or compensate for U.S. soldiers’ sexual violence, such as when a 14-year-old Iraqi girl named Abeer Qassim al-Janabi was gang-raped and murdered (2006). No wonder the vast majority of Egyptians viewed the U.S. and Israel as the number one threat, and only 10% viewed Iran as a threat (in 2010).

If it were not for that kind of violence, maybe WikiLeaks would never have published the “Collateral Murder” video. Maybe Assange would never have exposed the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s wrongdoing, causing five of the members to resign in disgrace for cheating Sen. Bernie Sanders and blocking the will of Democratic Party voters. Instead of trusting Hillary Clinton even after the last months before the election, when her duplicity was repeatedly revealed, the DNC leadership could have been purged. A new Democratic Party establishment could have chosen Sanders, and he would have become president.

But no, the DNC felt that reforming their organization was less important than attacking the one who told the truth. Only Assange and WikiLeaks were sued by the DNC, when in fact, “no factual basis has been supplied for the accusation that Assange knew the DNC emails derived from a Russian source, and especially not the Russian government. Assange himself has repeatedly stated that the leaks came from an individual, not from a state actor” (Introduction to Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler, eds., In Defense of Julian Assange, OR Books, 2020, p. xxiv).

As the Croatian philosopher and political activist Srećko Horvat has written, “It was the Democrats, by choosing the wrong candidate in the first place (Hillary instead of Bernie), who brought Trump to power—not WikiLeaks” (Horvat, “What’s the Point of Swimming in the Sea, If You Don’t Believe in Anything?” In Defense of Julian Assange, p. 145). And one thing the DNC must worry about now is that a few people might remember that it was they, not the Republicans, who first welcomed foreign intelligence assets into our elections when they paid for “former MI6 asset Christopher Steele to produce opposition research to discredit Trump” (Margaret Kimberley, “The Naïveté of Julian Assange,” In Defense of Julian Assange, p. 43).


Assange’s naïveté is a forgivable sin, if a sin at all. Perhaps he was completely focused on the injustice of U.S. foreign policy, so he was unaware of, or possibly even ignored, the injustice of U.S. domestic discrimination (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) and did not understand that the Republican Party is the party of white male supremacy, a party that rides Humvee military vehicles over our civil rights and women’s rights even more than the Democratic Party.

But Assange is not the only one who will be tried in the coming weeks. So will we. And the question for us is not how much we like Assange but how much we love our liberty and that of others. Will we recall those words “Sweet land of liberty”? Or instead, will we turn our eyes away as the U.K. persecutes this Australian citizen on behalf of Washington for the “crime” (!) of exposing the injustice of our endless wars, to serve as a lesson to us all—that it is not for journalists to stop wars? And will we let the Bully President and our Gangster Government become the new Global Thought Police?

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.