Chris Hedges: Assange & the Collapse of the Rule of Law

Chris Hedges gave this talk at a rally Thursday night in New York City in support of Julian Assange. John and Gabriel Shipton, Julian’s father and brother, also spoke at the event, which was held at The People’s Forum.

By Chris Hedges
Scheer Post

A society that prohibits the capacity to speak in truth extinguishes the capacity to live in justice.

This why we are here tonight. Yes, all of us who know and admire Julian decry his prolonged suffering and the suffering of his family. Yes, we demand that the many wrongs and injustices that have been visited upon him be ended. Yes, we honor him up for his courage and his integrity. But the battle for Julian’s liberty has always been much more than the persecution of a publisher. It is the most important battle for press freedom of our era. And if we lose this battle, it will be devastating, not only for Julian and his family, but for us.

Tyrannies invert the rule of law. They turn the law into an instrument of injustice. They cloak their crimes in a faux legality. They use the decorum of the courts and trials, to mask their criminality. Those, such as Julian, who expose that criminality to the public are dangerous, for without the pretext of legitimacy the tyranny loses credibility and has nothing left in its arsenal but fear, coercion and violence.

The long campaign against Julian and WikiLeaks is a window into the collapse of the rule of law, the rise of what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of inverted totalitarianism, a form of totalitarianism that maintains the fictions of the old capitalist democracy, including its institutions, iconography, patriotic symbols and rhetoric, but internally has surrendered total control to the dictates of global corporations.

I was in the London courtroom when Julian was being tried by Judge Vanessa Baraitser, an updated version of the Queen of Hearts in Alice-in Wonderland demanding the sentence before pronouncing the verdict. It was judicial farce. There was no legal basis to hold Julian in prison. There was no legal basis to try him, an Australian citizen, under the U.S. Espionage Act. The CIA spied on Julian in the embassy through a Spanish company, UC Global, contracted to provide embassy security. This spying included recording the privileged conversations between Julian and his lawyers as they discussed his defense. This fact alone invalidated the trial. Julian is being held in a high security prison so the state can, as Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has testified, continue the degrading abuse and torture it hopes will lead to his psychological if not physical disintegration.

The U.S. government directed, as Craig Murray so eloquently documented, the London prosecutor James Lewis. Lewis presented these directives to Baraitser. Baraitser adopted them as her legal decision. It was judicial pantomime. Lewis and the judge insisted they were not attempting to criminalize journalists and muzzle the press while they busily set up the legal framework to criminalize journalists and muzzle the press. And that is why the court worked so hard to mask the proceedings from the public, limiting access to the courtroom to a handful of observers and making it hard and at times impossible to access the trial online. It was a tawdry show trial, not an example of the best of English jurisprudence but the Lubyanka.

Story continues after video. Watch Hedges’ speech:

Now, I know many of us here tonight would like to think of ourselves as radicals, maybe even revolutionaries. But what we are demanding on the political spectrum is in fact conservative, it is the restoration of the rule of law. It is simple and basic. It should not, in a functioning democracy, be incendiary. But living in truth in a despotic system is the supreme act of defiance. This truth terrifies those in power.

The architects of imperialism, the masters of war, the corporate-controlled legislative, judicial and executive branches of government and their obsequious courtiers in the media, are illegitimate. Say this simple truth and you are banished, as many of us have been, to the margins of the media landscape. Prove this truth, as Julian, Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and Edward Snowden have by allowing us to peer into the inner workings of power, and you are hunted down and persecuted.

Shortly after WikiLeaks released the Iraq War Logs in October 2010, which documented numerous US war crimes—including video images of the gunning down of two Reuters journalists and 10 other unarmed civilians in the Collateral Murder video, the routine torture of Iraqi prisoners, the covering up of thousands of civilian deaths and the killing of nearly 700 civilians that had approached too closely to U.S. checkpoints—the towering civil rights attorneys Len Weinglass and my good friend Michael Ratner, who I would later accompany to meet Julian in the Ecuadoran Embassy, met with Julian in a studio apartment in Central London. Julian’s personal bank cards had been blocked. Three encrypted laptops with documents detailing US war crimes had disappeared from his luggage in route to London. Swedish police were fabricating a case against him in a move, Ratner warned, that was about extraditing Julian to the United States.

“WikiLeaks and you personally are facing a battle that is both legal and political,” Weinglass told Assange. “As we learned in the Pentagon Papers case, the US government doesn’t like the truth coming out. And it doesn’t like to be humiliated. No matter if it’s Nixon or Bush or Obama, Republican or Democrat in the White House. The US government will try to stop you from publishing its ugly secrets. And if they have to destroy you and the First Amendment and the rights of publishers with you, they are willing to do it. We believe they are going to come after WikiLeaks and you, Julian, as the publisher.”

“Come after me for what?” asked Julian.

“Espionage,” Weinglass continued. “They’re going to charge Bradley Manning with treason under the Espionage Act of 1917. We don’t think it applies to him because he’s a whistleblower, not a spy. And we don’t think it applies to you either because you are a publisher. But they are going to try to force Manning into implicating you as his collaborator.”

“Come after me for what?

That is the question.

They came after Julian not for his vices, but his virtues.

They came after Julian because he exposed the more than 15,000 unreported deaths of Iraqi civilians; because he exposed the torture and abuse of some 800 men and boys, aged between 14 and 89, at Guantánamo; because he exposed that Hillary Clinton in 2009 ordered US diplomats to spy on UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and other UN representatives from China, France, Russia, and the UK, spying that included obtaining DNA, iris scans, fingerprints, and personal passwords, part of the long pattern of illegal surveillance that included the eavesdropping on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; because he exposed that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the CIA orchestrated the June 2009 military coup in Honduras that overthrew the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, replacing it with a murderous and corrupt military regime; because he exposed that George W. Bush, Barack Obama and General David Petraeus prosecuted a war in Iraq that under post-Nuremberg laws is defined as a criminal war of aggression, a war crime, that they authorized hundreds of targeted assassinations, including those of U.S. citizens in Yemen, and that they secretly launched missile, bomb, and drone attacks on Yemen, killing scores of civilians; because he exposed that Goldman Sachs paid Hillary Clinton $657,000 to give talks, a sum so large it can only be considered a bribe, and that she privately assured corporate leaders she would do their bidding while promising the public financial regulation and reform; because he exposed the internal campaign to discredit and destroy British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by members of his own party; because he exposed how the hacking tools used by the CIA and the National Security Agency permits the wholesale government surveillance of our televisions, computers, smartphones and anti-virus software, allowing the government to record and store our conversations, images and private text messages, even from encrypted apps.

Julian exposed the truth. He exposed it over and over and over until there was no question of the endemic illegality, corruption and mendacity that defines the global ruling elite. And for these truths they came after Julian, as they have come after all who dared rip back the veil on power. “Red Rosa now has vanished too. …” Bertolt Brecht wrote after the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg was murdered. “She told the poor what life is about, And so the rich have rubbed her out.”

We have undergone a corporate coup, where the poor and working men and women are reduced to joblessness and hunger, where war, financial speculation and internal surveillance are the only real business of the state, where even habeas corpus no longer exists, where we, as citizens, are nothing more than commodities to corporate systems of power, ones to be used, fleeced and discarded. To refuse to fight back, to reach out and help the weak, the oppressed and the suffering, to save the planet from ecocide, to decry the domestic and international crimes of the ruling class, to demand justice, to live in truth, is to bear the mark of Cain. Those in power must feel our wrath, and this means constant acts of mass civil disobedience, it means constant acts of social and political disruption, for this organized power from below is the only power that will save us and the only power that will free Julian. Politics is a game of fear. It is our moral and civic duty to make those in power very, very afraid.

The criminal ruling class has all of us locked in its death grip. It cannot be reformed. It has abolished the rule of law. It obscures and falsifies the truth. It seeks the consolidation of its obscene wealth and power. And so, to quote the Queen of Hearts, metaphorically of course, I say, “Off with their heads.”

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular column twice a month. Click here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


19 comments for “Chris Hedges: Assange & the Collapse of the Rule of Law

  1. June 13, 2021 at 16:46

    I have no idea whether teaching Rhetorical Theory and therewith much of the history of American oratory for twenty-six years at the University of Pittsburgh establishes any particular “bona fides” in such matters, but certainly, in my opinion, this speech by Chris Hedges should be considered one of the most telling examples of truly exceptional oratory produced in our sorry time. Indeed, it stands directly in the august series of vehement, heartfelt, dissident eloquence that leads, in the U.S., from Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” and Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” through Martin Luther King’s “I have A dream,” and “Beyond Vietnam,” and Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet,” to the passionate excoriation of the American system of imperialist war, injustice and the crackdown on free expression, “Put Your Bodies Upon the Gears and Upon the Wheels,” given largely extemporaneously by Mario Savio on the steps of Sproul Hall as part of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, to many somewhat less emphatic and aesthetically consummated oral performances delivered in our own largely oratory indifferent age where emphatic public speaking on serious political agendas has been largely supplanted by endless social media. [Can others of you come up with more recent American speeches which flout the general tendency to depreciate ardent political oratory and which deserve to be mentioned along with the exceptionally powerful and well-crafted past works just mentioned?]

    In any case, Hedges’ remarkable speech here in defense of Julian Assange, free speech and, first and foremost, “the rule of law” within the Western so-called “democracies,” has within it all the hallmarks of great vituperative rhetoric. It is a shame, actually, that it wasn’t given a much larger audience, as it could so nicely serve as a paragon of the form that many others who feel the same intensity of outrage at the institutionalized madness of financial/rentier capitalism and its still regnant neoliberal mythologies might learn a great deal from studying, just as, say, Frederick Douglass attributed much of his own oratorical excellence to his long and serious perusal and emulation of the many speeches contained in “The Columbian Orator.” I cannot, of course, provide here a full treatment of how all the various parts of Hedges’ oration come together to create a whole that is much more than the summation of those parts. I will thus mention only the very nice way in which the speech cuts much deeper than most other “free Assange” speeches that I have heard.

    This is obvious from the very start; “A society that prohibits the capacity to speak in truth extinguishes the capacity to live in justice.” What a wonderful way to set up his thesis by prompting the listener to consider just why this claim is both true and important! Hedges then quickly follow up by reminding us of the enormous urgency and historical importance of the struggle to liberate Assange; “But the battle for Julian’s liberty has always been much more than the persecution of a publisher. It is THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLE FOR PRESS FREEDOM OF OUR ERA. And if we lose this battle, it will be devastating, not only for Julian and his family, but for us.” We are then whisked into a more specific and deeper thesis statement and an epitome of the argument to follow:

    “Tyrannies invert the rule of law. They turn the law into an instrument of injustice. They cloak their crimes in a faux legality. They use the decorum of the courts and trials, to mask their criminality. Those, such as Julian, who expose that criminality to the public are dangerous, for without the pretext of legitimacy the tyranny loses credibility and has nothing left in its arsenal but fear, coercion and violence.”

    What clearer or more emphatic statement of just what is now happening, namely the wholesale perversion of the most fundamental procedures of Western jurisprudence in order to indulge the insatiable power-lust of those who already control the state, the economy, public opinion, the media, all government institutions, political, social and cultural possibilities etc. at the expense of the vast majority of the people, the 99%, for whom these mega-oligarchs [indeed, multi-billionaires, with all the power that such confers!] and their minions of managers and armies of political lackeys have only the deepest contempt. After this comes the body of the speech itself, which does just what any persuasive speech body is supposed to do, viz. provide arguments and evidence to support the speech thesis while also adding further materials which explain and elaborate the key points.

    But enough. My main intention here is merely to make those who might not yet be aware of how Hedges’ superlative use of the traditional categories of rhetorical invention, arrangement, style, and delivery allow him to craft a speech fully worthy of his better appreciated forerunners. Should I but live long enough, I would not be at all surprised to find this speech reprinted in one of those “Great American Speeches” [in this case of the 21st Century] anthologies of the type that publishers occasionally send professors in my old field promotion copies. Certainly, it would fully deserve to be included.

  2. Dfnslblty
    June 13, 2021 at 15:33


    You’ve been stating it loudly and clearly for a long time – usa is a fascist nation.


  3. rick
    June 13, 2021 at 11:03

    The panoply of repression is emerging maggot like from under the rubric and characteristic misrule of a ruling class clone (Boris Johnson) imbued with verbal diarrhoea and panache for lying. As for the niceties of democracy, freedom of expression and right to protest the UK ruling class is slyly undermining this house of cards. Their prerogative to rule is evident in their unlimited and tawdry contempt for any opposition particularly dissenters like Julian Assange who shattered their liberal humanitarian ideology and Jeremy Corbyn who naively threatened to challenge the encumbrance of a single party state.

  4. Bob Van Noy
    June 13, 2021 at 09:44

    Many Thanks Chris Hedges, you have been uniquely gifted to both detect injustice and to communicate your concerns distinctly. Thanks too for mentioning Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Craig Murray, each have paid a massive price for being Warriors of Truth.

    “It is the most important battle for press freedom of our era.” Again, True, and it is now our obligation as Citizens to demand that justice be restored, the truly guilty be brought to justice, and that Patriots like those mentioned above be duly recognized and rewarded…

  5. Robert R
    June 13, 2021 at 08:52

    Are we surprised?

    Here’s an interesting précis of US history, from Truman to Trump.


  6. Tom partridge
    June 13, 2021 at 05:51

    Seldom you read or hear an expression of the truth with such eloquence.

  7. June 13, 2021 at 00:57


  8. Diane
    June 12, 2021 at 22:40

    Wonderful to read such TRUTH it’s been a while

  9. Zhu
    June 12, 2021 at 20:39

    As always, Mr Hedges is very perceptive, very honest. If you ask ordinary voters, either party, online, about the Kill List or about the legalization of “disappearing” people into secret prisons, like in “dirty war” Argentina, they’ll make excuses, saying Bad People are killed by death squads or disappear into secret prisons, not Nice People like themselves. Or I’m told that Obama (or whomever) is trustworthy because he’s on their team and won’t do anything *really* wrong. GTMO is excused in similar ways. Homeless people are damned with similar rhetoric. “It can’t happen to ME! I’m not like THEM! They’re crazy! They use drugs! etc.” One irreligiuous sort recently tried to persuade me that homelessness is a spiritual problem. No mention of low wages, high rents.

    I have no solutions to offer. Global warming will finish us off while we tell ourselves “it isn’t happending! It’s a hoax!” :-(

  10. Jdd
    June 12, 2021 at 18:23

    Trumps love affair with Putin? Is that how you characterize a rational policy toward a great power. Weren’t four years of lying from the intell agencies enough?

  11. Dr. William Fusfield
    June 12, 2021 at 17:12

    The words “have only the deepest contempt” should follow “political lackeys” at the end of the penultimate sentence in paragraph five in my post.

  12. robert e williamson jr
    June 12, 2021 at 14:36

    “Hey Joe, let him go!”

  13. Carolyn L Zaremba
    June 12, 2021 at 13:37

    Right on, Chris! Brilliant and eloquent speech which I will share widely. I think you covered the crimes of capitalism, the courts, the military and most of all the domination of corporatism perfectly and with passion. We must all continue to work to bring down the monstrous entity of world capitalism if we intend to make the planet a safe place to live for everyone. Well done, indeed!

    • June 12, 2021 at 17:17

      Thank you for bringing these truths to the American public. THE US Press is ignoring this situation of Julian Assange’s incarceration.
      Tell President Biden to PARDON JULIAN ASSANGE NOW!

  14. Suzanne LeMay
    June 12, 2021 at 13:30

    Truth must triomphe, truth must never be silenced!!

    • Rubicon
      June 12, 2021 at 20:16

      Reality check. “Truth” is rarely enforced, especially under the dictates and whims of the US Hegemony.

  15. Jeff Harrison
    June 12, 2021 at 12:31

    Indeed, Chris. That’s what exactly what Fidel did in Cuba.

  16. robert e williamson jr
    June 11, 2021 at 23:48

    Finally! The problem is highlighted, the failure of the rule of law in the U.S. is killing the country!

    After the last fifty-eight years of continued cover-ups and scandals that find cover behind the governments over classification of records, documents, witness testimony possibly in conflict with prohibitions based on possible violation of security concerns and other relevant legal actions this should come as no surprise.

    We are living through what is result a tattered, filthy, compromised justice system, no justice for the little guy. A system that under Trump revealed it.s true character, one that under Trump abdicated it’s congressional duty to the public to pursue the agenda of a mad man.

    The supreme court has become a tool of the right wing and the U.S. Attorney General the lawyer for the government. The right wing of the democrats, the majority, seem quite pleased about this. Proof that little difference exists between either party.

    Biden could do himself an ther country big favor by freeing Assange. But he don’t have the gut to do the right thing.

    He must remember that the possibility of tons of positive blow-back might just save the country.

    For instance allowing the revelation of the truth about the Clinton E-mails and Trumps love affair with Putin.

    And at the same time putting the intelligence community on notice to clean up their acts.

    Don’t hold your breath.

    Thanks CN

    • Mannion
      June 13, 2021 at 00:23

      You can’t seriously be equating Clinton’s sleazy emails with Trump as President legitimately talking to Putin. Think Kennedy-Kruschev, saved us from nuclear war; Reagan-Gorbachev, led to nuclear arms reduction.

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