Jerry Paloma never paid attention to politics — until the 2009 Honduran coup d’etat.
“I just didn’t understand why things like that happened. Ever since then I’ve been looking into everything.”
For this reason, Paloma drove 200 miles from Connecticut to listen to political commentator Glenn Greenwald speak on the “Endless War and the Erosion of Civil Liberties in the Age of Terrorism” on Thursday night.
Over 200 gathered in the Hall of Flags to hear Greenwald at the Department of Religious Studies’ annual Boardman Lecture. Greenwald, who is widely regarded as one of the country’s most influential political commentators, critically assessed past and current United States presidential administrations’ attempts to expand executive authority.
Greenwald compared United States’ war policy to a scenario involving robbing a neighbor’s home.
“Imagine if you were to go to someone in your family and you were to say to them, ‘I’m thinking about going down the street and breaking into the neighbors’ home and stealing all of their possessions … You would expect that if you were speaking to any person with any minimal degree of moral sanity, they would say, ‘do you really have the right to invade your neighbor’s home?’”
Greenwald believes this question is one that is “systematically excluded from our [mainstream] discussions about war policy.”
He went on to predict that historians will characterize the United States as a war-fighting state that utilized war not as a tool for foreign policy but rather as a “foreign policy goal unto itself.”
According to Greenwald, the country engages itself in perpetual warfare regardless of economic prosperity or hardship, political parties or an identifiable enemy. This, warned Greenwald, is “changing the character of our country.”
Greenwald described the “insatiable beast” as the permanent national security state that governs policy decisions independent of elections and that needs war to function.
It is difficult to redirect this cycle because political elites are restrained in Washington. Greenwald stressed a comment made by Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, to illustrate the cycle.
“My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.”
According to Greenwald, the current administration has perpetuated the cycle and has played a role in the “severely” increased institutionalization of executive powers.
“Although [Obama] ran based on multiple promises to restore civil liberties, in fact, President Obama has — in almost every instance — continued those policies known as ‘shredding the constitution’ or ‘Democratic party orthodoxy,’” he said.
Greenwald said no attempts have been made by the president to diverge from the party orthodoxy but suggested that if he did, “Nobody would have blamed him if he tried and failed.”
Greenwald ended the lecture on a critical note saying that these cycles, if perpetuated, could become irreversible. He also encouraged critical dialogue with attendees who immediately lined up following the speech.
When asked about how to move forward, Greenwald recognized embedded assumptions made by critics that talking about these issues is separate from doing something about them.
“The opposite is true,” he said. “The way you do something about a problem is getting people to recognize the urgency of a problem, the need to do things to fix it.”
He said fixing this systemic problem requires teamwork.
“Some people contribute organizational skills, motivational skills, ideas and other people making people aware. I think they’re all critical components of the process of ‘doing something about it.’”
Former Penn student Matthew Graber, who attended the lecture, is contributing to this process in his own way, by hosting WPEV 88.1’s “Radio Against Apartheid.”
“I am very interested in counter-viewpoints, people who are willing to challenge institutions in America,” Graber explained, adding that while these views are voiced on campus, they are “far too isolated.”
For Monika Nagpal, a Penn State University graduate who attended the lecture, Greenwald’s lecture did not raise any ideas she had not already considered.
“He surprised with me new facts, but nothing that I didn’t already know,” Nagpal said.
Nonetheless, she added, “I’m glad that he came. I’m glad that Penn brought him.”
This article has been updated to reflect that the Greenwald spoke at the Department of Religious Studies’ annual Boardman Lecture and to clarify Greenwald’s quote regarding President Obama’s actions. Greenwald said, “Nobody would have blamed him if he tried and failed.”