As Puerto Rico was destroyed by a hurricane, Donald Trump obsessively tweeted attacks on black athletes protesting racism and police shootings and brought the world closer to the prospect of war against North Korea. This week on Intercepted, physicist David Wright from the Union of Concerned Scientists discusses Donald Trump and the nuclear football and explains how easy it would be for Trump to launch a nuclear strike. We look back at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, nearly 3,000 Americans — many of them immigrants, workers, dissidents — who tried to stop fascism in the 1930s before it spread in Europe. Professor James Fernandez of NYU explains why these volunteers didn’t just write their members of Congress or campaign for politicians. We speak with the directors of Death in the Terminal, a haunting new film about a terror attack in an Israeli bus station that leads to the brutal mob killing of an innocent Eritrean immigrant wrongly identified as a terrorist. And Donald Trump gets a visit from the two Bobs in his Office Space.
Bob Slydell: Oh, there you are. Uh huh. Terrific. I’m Bob Slydell; this is my associate, Bob Porter.
Anthony Ataminauk as Donald J. Trump: Hi, Bob, Bob.
BS: Why don’t you go ahead and grab a seat and join us for a minute or two? You see, what we’re actually trying to do here, is we’re just, we’re trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work. So, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day for you?
AA as DJT: Yeah.
AA as DJT: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late after watching TV and toilet tweeting. I use the side door, that way General Kelly can’t see me. And after that I just sort of space out for about an hour.
BS: Uh! Space out?
AA: Yeah, I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I’m working. Sometimes I press my red button for a Diet Coke just to make sure it’s still there. And I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too.
And then I say, I don’t know, in a given week I probably do about fifteen minutes of real actual work.
BS: Would you be a good sport and indulge us and just tell us a little more?
AA: Oh yeah. Sure. Let me tell you something about this Twitter account, @fuctupmind. But it is not what you think. It is f-u-c-t…but we don’t sell a hat that big. You have to see it for yourself. Believe me. It’s just the best, it’s a MAGA hat on an actual train. But it doesn’t talk…
The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that I don’t care.
BS: Don’t, don’t care?
AA: It’s a problem of motivation, alright? Now if I work my ass off and read the Constitution and the presidential daily briefings — those are the worst, terrible, terrible ratings — I don’t see a golf course for days. So, where’s the motivation?
And here’s another thing Bob: I have eight different personalities, right now!
BS: Beg your pardon?
AA: Eight of me.
AA: Eight, Bob. So that means, when I make a mistake, I have eight different me’s coming to tell me whose fault it should be. That’s my real motivation. Is not to be hassled! That, and the fear of losing my hair, but you know Bob? It will only make someone work hard enough not to get fired. Believe me.
BS: Would you bear with me for just a second, please?
BS: What if, and believe me, this is a hypothetical, but what if you were offered some kind of a stock option, equity-sharing program. Would that do anything for you?
AA: I don’t know. I guess. Listen I’m shorting America, creating subprime government. Listen I’m going to go golf, maybe put up a tweet about how unbelievable it would be to have another hurricane. Wasn’t that great? It broke all the records. Anyway, I hope you had a good time like the people in Texas, especially the blacks. Blacks love Trump, but the lying media won’t show you that. OK. Enjoy! It’s been really nice talking to you guys.
BS: Absolutely. The pleasure’s all on this side of the table. Trust me.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City, and this is episode 29 of Intercepted.
DJT: And it’s the most difficult job because it’s on the island, it’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean. You can’t just drive you trucks there from other states.
JS: Well, Donald Trump has seemed to be totally unaware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Unlike, say, the people of Texas and Florida. When Trump finally got around to acknowledging the horrible destruction that Hurricane Maria has wrought on the people of Puerto Rico, it was five days after the hurricane began its rampage.
And when Trump did make a statement, it was, of course, on Twitter and he sounded like a heinous Wall Street asshole chastising a poor person for losing their home. This is what Trump tweeted: “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble…”
Trump couldn’t be bothered to talk about the destruction of Puerto Rico or the wellbeing of its 3.5 million people who are American citizens for five whole days. That’s because Trump was too busy obsessively using his presidential platform to attack other Americans — black athletes — and trying to get them fired because they’ve chosen to nonviolently protest the killing of black and brown people by police.
DJT: Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!”
JS: Now, Trump’s attack, of course, was specifically aimed at Kaepernick and other black football players. Kaepernick’s mom responded to Trump by tweeting, “I guess that makes me a proud bitch.”
Trump also had time to lie about NBA star Steph Curry of the NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Trump claimed that he was going to disinvite Steph Curry to the White House, you know, the championship teams get invited to the White House, but the thing is, Steph Curry had already said he wasn’t going to go to the White House.
NBA superstar LeBron James then tweeted at Trump saying: “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore, ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
LeBron James: You bum! Me and my friends call each other that all the time. I’m not his friend, though. I don’t want to see that on the note. He’s not my friend. He doesn’t understand the power that he has for being a leader of this beautiful country. He doesn’t understand how many kids, no matter the race, look up to the president of the United States for guidance, for leadership, for words of encouragement. He doesn’t understand that.
JS: On Tuesday, at a brief press conference outside the White House, Donald Trump defended his obsession with black NFL players.
DJT: Well, I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL, I was ashamed of what was taking place. Because to me that was a very important moment. I don’t think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem. To me the NFL situation is a very important situation, I’ve heard that before, about, “Was I preoccupied?” Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work. And, to be honest with you, that’s an important function of working. It’s called respect for our country.
JS: Now, let’s contrast Donald Trump’s words — and calling black athletes “sons of bitches” — and how Trump speaks about race and free expression with the words and the sentiments of the coach of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team Gregg Popovich.
Gregg Popovich: You know whether it’s LGBT movement, or, you know, woman’s suffrage, race, it doesn’t matter, people have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people. Because we’re comfortable. We still have no clue of what being born white means.
JS: Donald Trump is using this moment as part of his culture war strategy. That this isn’t about respect for the flag. This is about race. This is about police killings of black people. This is about Trump wanting black people, particularly high-profile black people, to shut up, and just entertain us. And this is about a White House that has made clear that it’s fine with neo-Nazi marches and police killings, but wants protesting those very things outlawed sort of by proxy.
Trump believes it should be mandatory for players in professional sports to stand for the flag or the national anthem. That’s the shit of dictators and despots. Trump doesn’t really believe in free speech. I honestly don’t even think Trump is capable of correctly paraphrasing or characterizing what the First Amendment says.
But let’s be clear—this isn’t really about free speech. This is about racism. This is about police killings. This is about a White House that has set a tone on race that is being openly celebrated by vile fascists and racists. We all need to be vigilant in not falling into the Trump trap of changing the narrative or making this about supporting the troops. Because it’s not.
DJT: We are totally prepared for the second option, not a preferred option, but if we take that option it will be devastating — I can tell you that — devastating for North Korea. That’s called the military option. If we have to take it, we will. He’s acting very badly. He’s saying things that should never ever be said. And we’re replying to those things, but it’s a reply. It’s not an original statement, it’s a reply.
JS: Now, while Trump continues to attack black athletes he is simultaneously pulling the United States and the world closer and closer to the terrifying possibility of a war involving nuclear weapons. A war involving North Korea.
Trump has said he would consider “totally destroying North Korea,” a nation of 25 million people. Kim Jong-un’s government says it has interpreted Trump’s recent statements about North Korea as a declaration of war. North Korea has threatened to detonate a hydrogen bomb in response to the threats from Trump and to shoot down U.S. warplanes. Trump called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and Kim called Trump a dotard. None of the North Korean reaction or counter threats are surprising, but it is hard not to view Trump as erratic, manic, and, frankly, dangerous, particularly when you consider the vast nuclear arsenal at Trump’s fingertips. Now, during the election, a lot of people talked about, “Oh, my God, what would happen if Trump had his, you know, finger on the nuclear button.” But what does it really mean?
Well, all of this got me to looking into how easy would it actually be for Trump to use a nuclear weapon. And the answer is that it would be unthinkably easy. Frighteningly easy.
I’m joined now by physicist David Wright. He is co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. David, welcome to Intercepted.
David Wright: Nice to be here.
JS: What is the current system for initiating a nuclear strike within the United States government? How does it work, who holds that authority, what oversight is there?
DW: Surprisingly there’s less oversight and, it’s more streamlined than I think most people realize. Ultimate authority lies with the president of the United States. There are various pieces of the procedure that are put in place to make sure that it’s the person the President communicates to knows that it’s the president. And that kind of thing. But if you, if you strip out those sort of authentication steps, it basically comes down to the president talking to advisers, which he or she may or may or may not do, deciding to launch, choosing an option either from a prepared list of options that the military has put together, or developing a new one. And then calling what’s called the “War Room” or the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, telling them what option he’s chosen. Telling them when he wants the launch to take place, and that’s basically it. the War Room then prepares a short message that’s sent out to bomber bases, missile bases and submarines. And, as long as they get the right authentication codes, their job is to launch the attack they’ve been told to launch.
Gen. Ripper (Dr. Strangelove): A decision is being made by the president and the Joint Chiefs in the War Room at the Pentagon. And when they realize there is no possibility of recalling the Wing, there will be only one course of action open. Total commitment.
JS: You know you mentioned that he may or may not talk to advisers, but when you boil it down to it, authority to use a nuclear weapon is solely held by the president of the United States.
DW: That’s right. And, in fact, there are no legal grounds for somebody else stopping an order that was made legally.
JS: And is the president required to communicate with anyone in Congress before launching a nuclear weapon?
JS: Is the president required to confer with the secretary of defense about this?
DW: No. I mean it’s assumed that the president would, but there’s no requirement.
JS: It sounds like what you’re saying is that if the president of the United States, if Donald Trump, decided that he wanted to use a nuclear weapon, that the only thing that could potentially stop it would be if individuals violated that order, and said, “I’m not gonna do this.”
DW: That’s right.
JS: And they would be breaking the law in doing that.
DW: Yeah. And some people have argued that people would have to decide, do they think this was made by the proper processes and things like that but if they had no reason to believe that there was something wrong with the process, they would have no legal authority to do that.
JS: There’s kind of this lore around what’s called the nuclear football. Maybe you can explain what the nuclear football is and what its current iteration looks like.
DW: The procedure I just described assumed that the president was able to communicate with the people that he needed to through secure channels. If he’s in the White House or the Pentagon, he can do that. If he’s out on the road, you need to find another way to do that, and so the football is basically a bag that weighs about forty-five pounds. It has secure communications equipment in it. It has a black book of options. And it has a card which is called the biscuit which has codes on it that allows the President to convince the person at the Pentagon he’s talking to that he is in fact the president who is sending this message.
So, basically the idea behind the football is to allow the president to order a launch no matter where he is, and for that reason there has to be a military officer with him, essentially at all times, carrying this football.
JS: So as Trump travels around when he’s at his golf courses or you know when he’s at a political rally calling NFL players “sons of bitches,” the nuclear football is somewhere not far away.
DW: That’s right. Not too long ago he was at Mar-a-Lago, at a dinner with some supporters, and people were taking selfies with the military officer who had the football. This really is always near him.
JS: Because of the hostile rhetoric emanating from Trump’s Twitter feed, as well as from Pyongyang, you know, we now have North Korea saying that they view Trump statements of late as a declaration of war and they’re asserting the right to shoot down U.S. war aircraft, you know, for the first time in the lives of young people, they have to face this notion that we live in a nuclear world in a much more real way than we did, say, you know, four or five years ago. What does it mean when nuclear weapons are on hair-trigger alert.
DW: There are basically two ways that people talk about a nuclear war starting. One is if the president decided to launch a first strike, first use of nuclear weapons. The other case is where there is warning of an attack coming in from another country and the United States through its early warning sensors, its radars and its satellites, detects what they see as an incoming attack, and then the idea is to be able to get a retaliatory attack off the ground in a very short amount of time.
This was really set up at a time when the U.S. and Russia were facing off, back in the early days of the Cold War. There was a concern that what the United States relied on for deterrence at that point was its land-based missiles, and that its land-based missiles were potentially vulnerable to a Soviet attack because the Soviets knew where they were. And so, the idea was that if you saw an attack coming in you didn’t want to sit and wait until those warheads landed because it could knock out your missiles, and therefore they set up a very streamlined process of launching a retaliatory attack to get the missiles off the ground before the incoming missiles could land.
That is still the situation that about 900 U.S. warheads are on. U.S. has currently about 1,800 nuclear warheads, so about half of them are on hair-trigger alert. And what that means is that within the sort of half an hour that it would take for a Russian launch, for example, to reach the United States, that a U.S. attack could be launched and sent back on its way.
And, so, the problem with that is that you’re relying on warning of an attack from sensors from radars and satellites and there have over the years been any number of times, when those systems have given false warning or there’s been a problem in some cases with the people in the loop, when people have thought that there was a launch and started to prepare for retaliation and when it turned out there wasn’t.
JS: There was that film with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, Crimson Tide, and the plot of it basically is that the commander and the XO on this submarine are on hair-trigger alert and there’s instability in Russia and communications get blocked and they don’t know whether or not they’re in a drill or they actually have been given the authority to use a nuclear weapon.
Gene Hackman as Ramsey (Crimson Tide): Cob, arrest this man and get him out of here!
Denzel Washington as Hunter (Crimson Tide): … the operating procedures governing the release of nuclear weapons, we cannot launch our missiles unless both you and I agree.
GH: Cob, what are you waiting for?
DW: This is expressly why your command must be repeated. It requires my assent. I do not give it. And furthermore, you continue upon this course, and insist upon this launch without confirming this message first, I will be forced, backed by the rules of precedence.
GH: As Captain, commander of the USS Alabama, I order you to place the XO on your —
DW: Major regulations —
GH: I order you to place the XO under arrest under charge of mutiny.
JS: That’s the kind of scenario you’re talking about where maybe it is, maybe it isn’t and you have to make a decision on it very quickly.
DW: Well that’s right. I mean one of the classic scenarios was the Pentagon has a room where they monitor all the early warning systems. And back in 1979, all of a sudden it lit up basically saying that a full-scale Soviet Attack, just like the ones they had practiced against, was underway. People checked and rechecked and all the data that was coming into the computers, you know, was perfect.
At that point they got a hold of various people at the Pentagon, tried to make sure they knew what they were doing, and they were just about to what wake up the president, to, you know, tell the president that there was incoming, large-scale Soviet attack, when somebody realized that there was a training tape, the command centers that was being run, and somehow the data from that training tape had gotten into the operational computers.
And so, in fact, it looked like just the kind of attack that people had had trained against because in fact it was, it was a training tape.
As I understand it, to this day, nobody really understands how that information got from the training tape computer to the actual operational computers, but that was a case where if you think about the very short amount of time that you’ve got — I mean again, you’re talking about less than a half an hour that’s trying to make sense of the data that’s coming in, getting the people together to talk about what it means, get ahold of the president, get the president briefed and all that kind of thing — there’s very little time to make a decision. And that’s a case where, you know, you could have imagined, based on that, that the United States would have launched a very large retaliatory strike.
JS: What would be the case if senior people at the White House or in Congress questioned the mental stability of the commander-in-chief — maybe he’s acting very erratic, he is watching a lot of TV, he’s arguing with strangers on the internet, he doesn’t seem to be weighing in on important issues of the day, doesn’t seem interested in reading his intelligence reports, you know, generally acting kind of nuts while in the White House — has that ever happened before, where there’s been a discussion about “hmm maybe the president’s not of sound mind?”
DW: Well, in fact, it did happen, late in the Nixon administration Nixon was depressed from the Watergate hearings, he was apparently drinking heavily. And people in the White House, in particular, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger, was concerned about his mental state.
Richard Nixon (in the Nixon Tapes): The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry.
DW: And told people at the Pentagon, “If you get a launch order or something like that from the President, I want you to check with me before you carry it out.” That was extra-legal, that was not something that he was actually allowed to do, but I think there was a sense that this was an extraordinary time and that it was probably justified
But, you know, it’s a question of personalities then. How do you decide when that is justified, and how do you decide whether, if you are a launch officer who is well down on the chain of command, what command will you follow? The one from the president or somebody trying to contravene that order?
JS: What do you make of the way that Trump and Kim Jong-un are sort of duking it out on social media and, you know, with this sort of name calling rhetoric. It’s like, insane, right?
DW: I would say insane is pretty good word for that. I have to say, it’s just incredibly disturbing that when you’re talking about having tens of thousands of lives, especially in South Korea, at risk if something happens. I mean as I think people have probably heard in the press, that if there is something that happens on the Korean Peninsula, for example, if the United States decides to try and launch an attack, say a conventional attack to take out bunkers or things like, that North Korea has a very large number of artillery tubes that are aimed at Seoul, which is, as you know, unfortunately quite close to the border between North and South Korea. And then in a very short amount of time, that could cause huge amounts of damage to South Korea.
And so, from my point of view, having watched North Korea for a long time, I’m concerned that as, as people let their personality get into this, and start to see these things as personal affronts, and start making, you know, drawing red lines and backing themselves into corners, what they really start to do is reduce the number of options they have for moving forward. And I think that that’s what I see is the real tragedy of the current situation, is I think both President Trump and Kim Jong Un have made some very strong statements that it’s going to take a lot to get them to walk away from.
And yet the consequences of sort of taking, you know, step by step going forward in the direction it’s going is incredibly dangerous. When Kim Jong Un came out a couple days ago and basically made some very strong statements, one of the concerns is that what that essentially did, I think, is undercut any sort of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Because when Kim Jong Un comes out and says, you know, “We can’t talk with this country that’s essentially declared war on us,” any kind of officials under Kim Jong Un who are trying to carry out some sort of, you know, behind-the-scenes dialogue, puts them in a position of having to sort of cut those off if they’re going to follow official position.
And once that happens, I don’t see what means you have to try and walk yourself back from the situation. I’ve watched North Korea for 25 years and I’ve never been as worried as I am now about what may happen.
JS: David Wright, thank you very much for joining us.
DW: Very nice to be here.
JS: David Wright is the co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.
JS: Now. before we go on with the show, I just want to give people a quick update on the alleged whistleblower Reality Winner. She, of course, is in jail right now facing charges under the Espionage Act. The government claims that she was the source of a report that was published by The Intercept, NSA top secret document that dealt with Russian cyber-espionage efforts in the 2016 presidential election. Winner is being held without bond, and part of the reason that the judge agreed to hold her without bond is that the U.S. Attorney claimed in court that the government had recorded Reality Winner while she was in jail saying that she had “documents,” plural, and that the concern was that she may have other documents and if she’s free she might be able to share those as well or leak those as well. And they also claim that they overheard her directing the transfer of $30,000 from her savings account to her mom’s account, because she wanted to have free legal counsel.
Well, now, the U.S. Attorney is saying that she has listened to the tapes before she was just going off of the FBI’s characterization of them, and says that Winner doesn’t say anything about documents, but that it’s “document” singular. And, as for the $30,000 wire transfer, the U.S. Attorney is now saying, well, Reality Winner was concerned that her bank account was going to be frozen, and that she wouldn’t be able to pay for a lawyer.
So, it seems very clear here that the FBI misled the U.S. Attorney in that case to keep Reality Winner in jail without bond. This deserves more investigation and more attention.
[“A Toast to Those Who Are Gone Lyrics” by Phil Ochs]
JS: That was the late folk singer Phil Ochs singing “A Toast to Those Who Are Gone,” specifically a verse about what is now an almost never discussed episode in American history and that is the story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
In 1936, young Americans began heading over to Spain to confront the rise of fascism in Europe. At the time, Spain was viewed in the world as an early front line in the battle against fascism in Europe. And those Americans who operated under the banner of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade joined volunteers from across the globe who also came to Spain to fight against fascist forces, led by General Francisco Franco.
Franco was a murderous thug and an ally of Mussolini and Hitler. And eventually, Franco would become a great ally of the United States government.
Now, while the story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is not often told or recalled in the modern era, it should be. It’s the story of young Americans, many of them immigrants, laborers, workers, who saw the dangers of fascism years before the United States government got militarily involved in war against Hitler and his allies, and well before the point where the mythical history of the fight against fascism in Europe is taught in many American schools.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump held a joint press conference with the Spanish prime minister. The timing of that is interesting given that the Spanish government is, at this very moment, forcefully seeking to stop a referendum on independence in Catalonia. Donald Trump made clear where he stands on this issue:
DJT: I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to, because you’re talking about staying with a truly great, beautiful, and very historic country.
JS: Now it’s interesting that while Trump uses his generic filler for countries he doesn’t know much about— “oh it’s great, historic, beautiful” — the U.S. relationship with Spain for many decades was one of normalizing the dictatorship of General Franco.
I doubt Trump knows much of anything about Franco, but I’m certain that Trump would have loved the dictator who ruled Spain until his death in 1975. You see, Franco’s whole agenda was framed around making Spain great again: shielding Spain from foreign influence, preserving its conservative brand of religion, fascism masquerading as proud nationalism.
There’s a lot of debate and discussion today over the tactics of the groups and people that are generically referred to as Antifa, and it’s become a regular talking point including of Democrats and some liberal pundits to kind of equate Antifa, with the so-called alt-right, or with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists being more and more empowered by the Trump Administration.
This both sides are wrong mentality has been used throughout history to forgive the crimes of right-wing fascist movements. The veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were celebrated initially as heroes and visionaries who saw the threat of fascism early on and tried to stop it.
And today, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is seldom mentioned at all. This history is actually vital for all of us to study, particularly in this moment that we currently find ourselves in.
We’re joined now by James Fernandez. He’s a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University and he is on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. Jim, welcome to Intercepted.
Jim Fernandez: Thank you.
JS: So, let’s start at the beginning. Give the political context of what was happening in Europe in the mid-1930s that ultimately spurred so many young people to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
JF: In the case of Spain, 1931, Spain tries this experiment in democracy, which is really its first real experiment in modern democracy.
1936 Newsreel: But in Europe, monarchy fell. Turbulent Spain, ended the rule of the Bourbons and exiled her popular king, Alfonso, the unlucky 13th, becoming a Republic under President Zamora.
JF: And the country chooses the worst possible moment, because democracy and capitalism are being called into question all over the world. So, we’re in the throes of the Great Depression, it looks like liberal democracy has maybe reached the end of its course, these alternative ideologies are getting strength all across the ideological spectrum, and, in the context, fascism rises in Italy and Germany, and eventually with the coup that Franco and his generals unleashed on July 18, 1936 it raises its head in Spain.
1936 Newsreel: From our cameramen, in the vital Northeast sector of the Spanish warfront, comes news that is no less important than the attack on the Capital. But with the world’s spotlights on the fight around Madrid, they’re apt to forget that Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, are by no means conquered. Day after day, along a 100-mile front, these men hold the lines against fierce attacks by the forces of Moors, used by General Franco’s main spearhead. But the line holds and here in the Northeast is the government’s main center of hope. Day after day, our cameraman face grim scenes. Day after day, they live to the tune of pinging bullets, of the throb of gunfire, of the roar of warplanes.
JF: So, in the States, there were thousands and thousands of folks that were following very closely what was happening in Europe and in Spain. The horrors of World War II have totally eclipsed our memory of Spain. But in 1936, ’37, ’38, Spain was Syria, Spain was the place on the map where it looked like the future of the planet was being played out. And all thinking people were talking and thinking and worrying about Spain, in their literature and newsreels and radio broadcasts.
And there were vast communities of intensely mobilized folks that started mainly as pacifists they were, they were, “Against War and Fascism” was the organization and slogan of a lot of these folks up until ’36, let’s say, but once things evolved some more, they realized that the only way to put down fascism was to, in this case, they kind of put brackets around being against war, and actually taking the war to the fascists in Spain.
The volunteers that went is almost 3,000, we think 2,800 is our best guess now. And like I said, they came mostly from intensely mobilized communities all over the United States. A lot of them were immigrants or children of immigrants, most of them were from large cities, they were trade unionists, a lot of them were members of the Communist Party, the socialists, anarchists, but generally leftist folk who saw the menace of fascism and took the incredible step of trying to do something about it.
JS: Now, what was the posture of the United States government at the time toward these fascist elements that were starting to quite rapidly rise in Europe, with Spain being the first major front?
JF: Right, I mean the stance was pretty much wait and see. The story that we tell ourselves about the history of the United States is that we are this anti-fascist force, this force that put down fascism in the world, World War II.
Well, we have guys who in December of ’36, December 26, 1936, a bunch of guys walked to Chelsea Piers and got on a ship to France and eventually crossed into Spain to put down fascism, a full five years before Pearl Harbor. In the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives we have the letters that they were writing back to their families. The clarity is unbelievable. Their clairvoyance of why they were going and what was there, and what it was that they were fighting is really amazing.
And they knew exactly what they were going to fight against.
JS: Why would young Americans decide to actually leave the United States and go to Spain? Like, what was so important to them about what was happening in Spain that they would risk their lives to go and fight and potentially die there?
JF: Their reasons are diverse. And it’s interesting to see how a lot of them project on to Spain their own anxieties. So, for a lot of the Jewish volunteers, Spain was a shot at Hitler, directly. They might not have known anything about Spain, they supported the republic because it was the thing to do. But really Spain was a place for certain Jewish volunteers to defend their people and their lives.
African-Americans, it’s an amazing story, about 90 African-Americans volunteered to fight in Spain, and they, for the most part, saw fascism as an extension of Jim Crow, as an extension of institutional racism and white supremacy. And they say this very clearly in their letters
JS: And in fact, Langston Hughes, who, at the time, was writing for The Baltimore Afro-American, one of the great black newspapers from American history, he wrote, “Give Franco a hood and he’d be a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
JF: That’s awesome. I hadn’t heard that.
JS: I mean obviously, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was a largely white population, as you point out. And it was the first actually integrated militarized unit in United States history. Why did they choose the name Abraham Lincoln Brigade?
JF: We don’t know. There’s a standard explanation, which doesn’t satisfy me, which is basically that he was the president who presided over a nation that was in the midst of a Civil War. Other people say that along the lines of the Popular Front Strategy, the tendency was to try to name after national heroes. There was this attempt to claim that there’s nothing incompatible between, say, communism and Americanism.
Some people on the right say that it was a ruse, they were trying to trick people that these were dirty communists who just used this name to pass as something else. But that’s definitely not true. The reason I have doubts about it is because we recently found a photograph with volunteers with a banner with the name on it, which is earlier than any of the accounts that we know about, and it’s being held by a bunch of Cuban volunteers who had been in New York. So, we’re trying to figure that out.
JS: Explain who Franco was and the ideas that he was advocating when he essentially attempted to just put a complete halt to any kind of a democratic process in Spain.
JF: Franco was astute and shape changing and he was around for a long time and he rewrote himself many times. And so, he was a general who had been seasoned in Spain’s colonial wars in North Africa, putting down the Moroccan plea for independence from Spain. That accounts, in part, for his incredible brutality. And a lot of historians talk about how his army inflicted on Spaniards the kinds of torture and warfare that in the past had never been used in Europe, only on colonial peoples quote-unquote. And he basically carried out a campaign of annihilation.
1936 Newsreel: After a bullet-studded journey across the North of war-torn Spain, our cameraman reached the fight headquarters at Burgos. There, they succeed in getting a camera interview with General Franco, smiling, maybe, at the news of his victory in San Sebastian. With his troops seemingly moving forward on all fronts, there’s special significance in their leader’s statement that if they win the war, he’ll establish a military dictatorship, to last as long as is necessary to restore order.
JF: He wasn’t interested really at any point in truce and negotiation. He realized, especially once he had Hitler and Mussolini’s support, he realized that he could go for the whole enchilada and try to basically annihilate the people that were in Spain that were contaminated with this anti-Spanish zeal for democracy, is basically the way that he saw it.
So the Republic was trying to take measures to bring Spain into modernity. Before the Republic education was in the hands of the Church, the land was largely in the hands of a small number of families, the Republic had the incredible task of not only trying to institute democratic institutions in the hostile climate of 1931-36, it also basically had to create Spanish citizens. Because there were no modern citizens in Spain in the 1930s, there were subjects of a monarchy; there were people who didn’t see themselves as stakeholders in any kind of common Republican process.
And so, the Republic is trying to build schools, do land reform, eventually put down a coup that later gets help from Hitler and Mussolini, and create a sense of belonging and stake holding among the Spanish citizens. That’s a tall order.
JS: And the U.S. posture toward Franco at the time?
JF: The official posture was one of nonintervention, and, in fact, an embargo on the sale of arms to either side in Spain was approved by Congress, which, of course, only favored the fascist side.
I’ve heard it said that is the first and only time in American history where the United States has refused to sell arms to a legally elected democratic government with which it had diplomatic relations. But, no they decided, Roosevelt decided in Congress to declare neutrality and nonintervention, and, on top of that, to impose an embargo.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull: The American government expressed the complete impartiality of its attitude, and that it’s public that they did that in conformity with the well-established policy of noninterference with internal affairs in other countries, either in times of peace, or in the event of civil strife, it will, of course, refrain from any interference whatsoever in the unfortunate Spanish situation.
JS: When the volunteers from the United States started to go to Spain, talk about that. Like, how did they get there, who were the first groups of people to go, and how many went initially?
JF: So the war starts in July of ’36. Franco and his generals really thought that in a couple of weeks they could impose martial law, kind of reset the government, roll back some of the reforms, and just, they thought they were going to hit the reset button. But it didn’t turn out that way. There was incredible popular resistance, especially in the major cities, to the fascist uprising, so the thought that this might escalate into an international conflagration, I don’t think was on anybody’s mind.
1936 Newsreel: Madrid takes to the barricades, as this fortnight of frantic combat drives Spain’s death tool well into the third 100,000, the capital’s stubborn defenders fortify all positions for the final climactic struggle. Everywhere is the evidence of the grim resolve never to surrender. Street banners proclaim they shall not pass. Men, women, and children, flaunting the determination to fight to a finish. Today they parade, tomorrow they may die.
JF: But by October of ’36, the battle for Madrid is, they’re there, it looks like it’s going to be a longer war than anyone thought, Hitler and Mussolini were already helping Franco. The first Americans boarded a ship right after Christmas, December 26, ’36, and got there about a week later. And the typical route from here was to take a ship to Paris, a train to southern France, and then, because the border was closed for most of the duration of the Spanish Civil War, most of the guys hiked across the Pyrenees at night, led by smugglers. Catalan or Basque smugglers who knew their way around the Pyrenees, lead into Spain.
JS: Did any of them have military experience or fighting experience?
JF: Very few. Some did but most of them, no, there’s very little military experience. These guys were workers, factory workers, you know, union organizers, things like that that. Not much military training.
JS: At the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archive, there’s a growing collection of letters that these individuals that joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade wrote during their time, or as they were going, or while they were there. Share some of the kinds of reasons that these people joined the Brigade and went to Spain.
JF: What for me is one of the richest documents in all of the archive, which is a letter that James Lardner wrote to his mother. James Lardner was Harvard-educated correspondent for the International Tribune in Paris, and this guy had a good job in Paris and went to write a story about Spain, and fell in love with the cause. And against everyone’s advice, including his friends —Hemingway, and everybody else — very well-connected family, he enlisted.
And we have the letter that he wrote to his mom, as she received this letter from her son that she thinks is in an office in Paris typing out stories, and he says, “Mom I’ve decided to go to Spain, and for my own edification I’ve made a list, in no particular order.”
And then the list is like 22 or 24 items. And it’s a gem because he’ll say things like, “Well my French is pretty good, but I need to improve my Spanish.” Or he says, “There’s a girl in Paris who needs to realize that she can live without me.” But then he says, “Because I feel that in modern times, war is one of the things, unfortunately that all of us need to prepare for. And I intend to do that. And that fascism needs to be put down.” And he says, “I don’t know what’s going to replace it, maybe it’s communism, I’m not sure.” And then he says, “I’m tired of wearing a tie.” It’s a beautiful text because it shows the complex motivations of a single person.
But he was a blue blood, and there were some like him, but the vast majority, like I said before, were working class ethnics who were going to put down what they saw as a planetary menace.
JS: When they arrived, who did they report to? Like how does one just go to a place where there’s a rise of fascism and even know where to go?
JF: The Communist Party took care of the logistics. Here, they helped to get the passports and book the tickets. Because they were travelling illegally right? Their passports were stamped, “Not Valid for Travel in Spain.” That’s how important Spain was, it was an actual rubber stamp on your passport.
They were OK, because they were taking a ship to Paris, right, and then they would figure out how to get into Spain with the help of the, of the Communist Party of France.
JS: And when they finally make it through France and enter Spain, how does the involvement of the Brigade begin in terms of actual fighting or assisting others in the rebellion against Franco?
JF: Well they’re quickly organized into a battalion, eventually a few battalions, so technically the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is a, is a misnomer, there was never such a thing. There was an Abraham Lincoln Battalion and a George Washington battalion and then a third battalion that was Mackenzie–Papineau, that was mixed Canadian and American. But we use the brigade term to refer to all of them. They were organized into battalions, and with very little training, they were thrown into the first battle, was the battle of Jarama, which is on the outskirts of Madrid and it was a struggle to keep open the road between Madrid and Valencia, which was going to be the supply line for the Republic for most of the war, for the Mediterranean.
[“Jarama Valley” by Woodie Guthrie plays]
JS: What was the fate of some of the people that ended up going to Spain? Like maybe you could just give some examples of kind of the experience.
JF: On the whole, it was pretty terrible, because they were used as shock troops and because they were not as well equipped as they should have been and they certainly didn’t have the experience and training that they should have had. So, the actual combat experience was pretty harsh and awful. Especially the first battles: they were they were decimated in Jarama, and they had morale problems because of that.
But they stuck it out and we think that of the 2,800, probably a third are in Spanish soil, died there. And then another third came back and go off the radar. We don’t really have much of a beat on them. The other third are people who kind of made their experience in Spain a centerpiece of their life in one way or another. And we know an awful lot about those guys. But there’s two-thirds that kind of escaped us.
JS: By no means was it just people from the United States coming to join. I mean, you had people from all over the world. Maybe you can describe how Spain then became this, it was like flypaper for people who were gravitating to the anti-fascist struggle that was emerging in the world.
JF: That’s right. Yeah. The International Brigades we think was made up of about 45,000 volunteers, so the Americans were a drop in the bucket. The most amazing statistic I’ve heard is that a thousand Cubans were there. I think 3,000 Americans, and 1,000 Cubans —a tiny country, I don’t know what the population of Cuba was in ’36, but it’s a small country. France probably contributed the most volunteers, Germany — there were a lot of people who were already political exiles, kind of stateless people, that went to Spain because they wanted to fight against fascism and they couldn’t live in Italy, or Germany.
JS: And you also had people that would become very serious literary figures. I’m thinking of “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell, and, of course, Hemingway was on the scene. What was the experience of some of those people that ended up becoming very famous or already had something of a reputation versus the working class, rank-and-file labor guys who went over from the United States?
JF: I know that Hemingway is a fascinating case, right? Because he comes back and writes what is billed as the great American novel about the Spanish Civil War. And it is a great novel. But it drove the veterans crazy.
The volunteers emerged out of immigrant, working class communities that were deeply mobilized. Hardly any of them was a loner. Hardly any of them was a professor of Spanish, hardly any of them had a name like Robert Jordan. These guys were Fishman, and Pekowski, and Fernandez and things like that.
And so, he writes this great American novel about the Spanish Civil War and his hero is this loner WASP who’s there for unknown reasons, and who speaks Spanish, and who’s just — I think eventually the veterans came to think, well, maybe his heart was in the right place, but he kind of did us a disservice by portraying, you know, the American volunteer in world literature is this guy Robert Jordan who doesn’t really look like most of the volunteers.
Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls): You have to understand Maria, I’m in this war to the finish. I can’t have anything serious in my life. A man doing what I’m doing never knows what’s going to happen.
Ingrid Bergman as Maria (For Whom The Bell Tolls): Whatever happens to you, will happen to me.
JS: How were the battalions covered in the media in the United States at the time?
JF: Until the Cold War heats up, they were seen as anti-fascist heroes. A lot of people don’t remember, but the scene in Casablanca where they try to convince Rick to do the right thing:
Claude Rains as Captain Renault (Casablanca): Because my dear, Ricky, I suspect that under that cynical shell, you’re at a heart, a sentimentalist. Oh, laugh if you will, but I happen to be familiar with your record. Let me point out just two items. In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain on the Loyalist side.
Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine (Casablanca): And got well paid for it on both occasions.
CR: The winning side would’ve paid you much better.
JF: So, here’s a Hollywood film from, I guess it’s 1942, where having been in Spain is credentials for knowing how to do the right thing.
JS: That then starts to change, though, as World War II comes to an end and you had volunteers that were targeted by the government, particularly through the lens of the House on American Activities Committee and anti-communist, kind of, fever that was sparked in the country.
JF: Yeah that’s what’s really amazing. And again, the Archive is so valuable because we can see that happen in time. Right, these people go from being seen as anti-fascists, being on the on the right side of history, for that moment, to being subversive communists that need to be surveilled and persecuted. And it happens in the span of years. And it happens right before your eyes, you know, if you follow the papers.
JS: I want to ask your thoughts on the debate over what is generically being called right now Antifa in the United States. And, you know, part of it centers around the clashes with neo-Nazi fascist elements that are trying to defend Confederate monuments. And, of course, we have incidents like the murder of Heather Heyer where, you know, this guy runs her over in a car. Or the beating of Deandre Harris by these, you know, neo-Nazis.
But there is this trend of you know responsible progressives, Democrats, that sort of view Antifa as just this uncouth group of troublemakers that are going to ruin it for the rest of us that are trying to responsibly confront the realities of a Trump-governed United States. What are your thoughts, though, about this discussion, and the punching of Nazis that’s become a meme, and the way that Antifa is sort of equated with neo-Nazis, including by self-identified Democrats.
JS: In a lot of ways, it’s funny to see this happening in the, States because that’s precisely the image that Franco and his regime eventually promoted of the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil War was the result of these two brutal and excessive forces going at it, and it’s best to just do everything we can to make sure that never happens again on both sides. Right?
So, Spain has pretty much done this already this kind of cleansing of history so that it looks like it was this moment of collective craziness that led to this bloodletting that we’ve happily now overcome. And that’s what I see at the bottom of the rhetoric here, of equating these two sides and saying, “Oh no, you know, they’re both, they’re equally, they’re good guys on both sides.” Or whatever, however you want to put it. It’s a way of disarming history.
JS: Given your scholarship on Spain, I’m wondering if you sense whiffs of Franco in Donald Trump.
JF: I recently showed a different class that I teach, a photograph that was taken at a right-wing rally in Spain. I think was right after Trump was elected and there was a guy, a Spanish guy in this big rally, holding up a sign in English that says, “Make Spain Great Again.”
JF: Kind of sums it up. Where is the Spain that he wants to go back to, right? And the first answer is this, the Spain of a dictatorship, and the second answer, a longer take, is Imperial Spain, when, you know, Spain ruled the world.
JS: What was sort of Franco’s argument with the people about why what he was doing was right? Like what was his sort of promise to Spain as he sought to stop any kind of a democratic movement in Spain and take power himself? Like, what was the core argument he was making to average Spaniards?
JF: The core argument was that Spain had been infected with this foreign ideology — part of Spain, the part that sided with the Republic — that there was an anti-Spain living within Spain. That people had been infected with the virus of disorder and communism and all of that, and he promised to return to law and order and to return to this Spanish essence.
JS: Which means what?
JF: Oh, inequality, Catholicism, pride in a kind of invented imperial past. Law and order.
JS: It sounds so familiar, and so, now I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it sounds so familiar to me.
JF: That’s right.
JS: For this generation of young people in the United States, what do you think is the historical lesson to take away from the history of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades?
JF: It can’t be a lesson in what to do when, because people really have to reach that decision on their own. But here’s a historical example — a shining historical example — right, of a world kind of a drift, and some people who realize that some lines have been crossed and actually, OK, it’s time now to abandon pacifism and to do something else. When do you cross that line? That’s the thing. Nobody can be sure it’s time. And that’s the scary thing, that’s the terrifying thing really of living in times like these. You know? There’s a t-shirt you see once in a while that says, “Is it fascism yet?” It’s not like fascism is going to arrive on a steed. We’re going to drift into it.
Who are going to be the people who are going to say, “You know what? We’ve drifted too far. And normal tactics and normal institutions might not be able to get us out of this.” When does that happen? I mean that’s the question that people have to ask themselves.
JS: Professor James Fernandez, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
JF: Thank you. That’s awesome.
JS: James Fernandez is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at NYU. and he’s on the board of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. You can check out that archive by googling Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive.
JS: About two years ago, in October of 2015, and there was a terrorist attack at the main bus station in Be’er Sheva, in southern Israel. A gunman killed a soldier and injured ten civilians. Of course, violent incidents like this aren’t uncommon in Israel. In that year alone, there were a number of similar attacks. But there was one unusual thing about this one. In the midst of the chaos, a security guard shot a man that he believed was one of the attackers in the bus terminal. And after the man was shot and on the ground bleeding out, a crowd formed around him and started beating him repeatedly: shouting, cursing him, throwing a chair on his head.
Meanwhile, the actual gunman was at the other end of the station. It turned out that this man who was beaten for 20 minutes as he lay bleeding on the floor was innocent. He was an Eritrean immigrant by the name of Habtom Zarhum, and he died after being shot and gang beaten by security forces and Israeli civilians alike.
This is the subject of a haunting documentary called Death in the Terminal. It has just been released in the US, and you can stream the whole movie for free at Topic.com. That’s a new media platform just launched by First Look Media.
This film, Death in the Terminal, combines the raw surveillance footage and eyewitness interviews with people who you actually see also in the footage, in an effort to reconstruct what happened that day in the Be’er Sheva bus terminal. Death in the Terminal is directed by the Israeli filmmakers Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry. Tali and Asaf, welcome to Intercepted.
Asaf Sudry: Hi.
Tali Shemesh: Hi, thank you.
JS: Tali, let’s begin with you. Explain how you first heard about this incident that occurred in 2015.
TS: I heard about it, actually, like everyone else in Israel. We were at home, it was 7 o’clock in the evening, the children were off to, you know, bath and were watching TV and, you know, putting on the pajamas. And, then there were breaking news on the television and suddenly pictures started coming from Be’er Sheva bus terminal and the news were saying there was a terror attack. And we were at home with the children and said, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” And actually, it happened live, so and we saw the whole thing live. And we started seeing pictures of the terrorist, assumed terrorist, being held inside the bus terminal, and people started sending clips from their iPhones, from the cellular phones, that the crowd is beating one of the terrorists.
And they started broadcasting this footage, and I was at home with the children and I was shocked, I started taking out the children. And I called Asaf, I told him, “What’s going on here? Look!”
And we understood, like everyone else, you know, it was still going on, the terror attack. Inside there were shootings, but reporters were standing outside the terminal and broadcasting from outside. And saying there was two terrorists inside, maybe three, and we hear gunshots and here we get this footage from the inside and they catch one of the terrorists, and they started showing this terrible footage of the beating, you know, beating a man in the ground. 22 minutes, he’s lying there.
JS: For people who haven’t seen this film yet, explain to people what happens during those 22 minutes? Like basically, walk us through what happened that day.
AS: Well, the moment you hear the shots, it’s echoing in a really cruel way. And immediately you see a stream of people shouting and running all directions, and seconds after the first gunshots, you see the security guard coming into the frame and shooting a black guy. The black guy is coming, the Eritrean citizen is coming —
TS: He’s running away.
AS: He’s running away from outside, inside, because he doesn’t know where the shot’s coming from. He’s thinking it’s outside, so he’s running inside the bus terminal. And, like, a few feet away, right after, he’s inside the bus terminal, he’s being shot. He’s being shot by the security guard of the bus terminal and it’s taking second so you don’t actually digest what you’re seeing, so!
JS: Do we know why the security guard believed that Habtom Zarhum was the terrorist?
AS: Well, I think this is, you know, this is part of the experience we wanted their viewers to go through. At first, no orientation, really the information really coming fast. Your eyes are busy, you know, watching people running. And suddenly you see this action, you know, of someone taking out a gun and you don’t, and you’re sure. He is the terrorist? Did he do something? Did he pull out a gun? You’re not sure.
And then when you watching it again, you see there is nothing. He’s just running out, inside, and, he’s, the security guard, watching him, seeing him, and immediately taking out the gun and shooting him.
TS: It was in an instinct I think, he just, it was just two seconds, he just shot him.
AS: But there were a lot of people running.
TS: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
AS: And he shot him.
TS: And he shot him.
JS: And so, he’s shot by the security guard, he’s on the ground, and then —
AS: And then immediately, you see a few more guys with rifles coming again and pointing at him. From this second on, he is the terrorist and you have to remember there’s more shots being shot simultaneously, because the real terrorist is —
TS: He’s not there.
AS: He’s not there.
TS: A couple of feet —
AS: He’s near the restroom. The story is immediately in people’s head: there is two terrorists. We caught one, we neutralized one. And there is the second one.
JS: Now, you interviewed several people who were part of the incident that day and one interesting character in your film is this young man who actually intervenes to try to stop people from attacking someone that he also believes is a terrorist. So, he, it’s not that he was saying, “Hey, you have the wrong man here.”
Talk about who that young man is and what his perspective was that day and why he tried to stop other people from attacking this Eritrean man as he lay bleeding on the ground?
TS: Well, Moshe Kochavi. This guy served in Israeli Special Forces, is a really like a hard core military soldier. And he’s coming from a religious family. And special kind of family, really into contributing to community, really into a socialism and living in a commune, he had this education from really being from, young boy, as an idealist, actually.
You see, his action is also, one, as an instinct, one optional way to take action.
JS: Describe what he did when the beating of this Eritrean man begins?
AS: Well, actually trying to stop it. You know, he was trying to stop people. And people were furious. “You’re betraying us. You’re protecting the killer.” And you have to be really strong to stand against a crowd.
TS: He’s risking, he’s risking his life. He could be outside. He’s risking his life.
AS: Being hurt.
TS: By protecting Habtom.
AS: Could be hurt.
AS: Actually, takes beating, and people pushing him, and Moshe’s shouting back, “You’re savages. You’re killing your soul. You have to stop.” Surrealistic things.
JS: Yeah, I found that also kind of a startling reality of how someone would react in that situation where you have this guy telling all of the other people that by participating in this you’re killing a part of your own mortality, a part of your own soul.
You interviewed a number of people from different perspectives, including someone who was a participant in the attack against this Eritrean man. In fact, one of the people who actually threw the bench on top of him is one of the main characters of your film.
TS: Yeah. Yeah. We looked for all the eyewitnesses and we were, you know, at the beginning, very interested in the people who were active in the beating of Habtom Zarhum. And they were very hostile, you know, against media that time.
So, it was very hard in the beginning to convince them, but we got to this person who is the main, now in the trial that is going on, is one of the main characters. He has three children, and he’s in a prison officer in the south.
And he was driving his car, with another, you know, another prison officer and he heard a shot, shooting outside, he was driving and he saw people screaming and coming out from the bus terminal. And he stopped his car outside on the on the road and he run inside, people running out, and he’s running inside, and he’s saying to himself: “There’s a terror attack, I’m going to help.”
And he gets there and it’s already after Habtom is shot, and Habtom is on the floor, and he gets near. And then there’s another shooting, and everybody’s running, and Haftom is alone on the floor and, Ronen, who is a prison officer, tells himself, “Oh, this is the terrorist, I must neutralize him.” He’s moving, nobody’s here. And he’s taking this bench and throwing it on him. And from there he’s starting being also very violent with this guy who he thinks is it is the terrorist.
And before we met Ronen Cohen, me and Asaf, too, we had this image of those guys, you know? And he looked to us like a monster, like who is this guy?
But the minute we met him, after like ten minutes, we understood that he’s the same just like us. He’s not a monster, he’s not a terrible man, he’s very nice. He’s the hero, even, I guess much better than me. Because he wouldn’t hide, he goes inside, you know, he wanted to save people.
And then we started listening to him, you know, this was the whole point for us to understand how Ronen Cohen can go inside as a hero and come out as this terrible man, who is lynching this poor guy. You know? How, where is this place that you become cruel? There’s a place. Everybody has this place, I believe.
AS: This is in a film about cruelty not about, you know, the hero that is taking the right step and everyone’s you know having the catharsis of the good prevail. No, this is about cruelty coming out of normal people, of good people, of something evil coming outside of us — of us — and this is, you know, what we emphasize here. There is no the bad guy. There is no the evil guy. It’s us, we are the evil, in one point or we could be, you know, hero in different points.
So, we saw like, regular people that could be our friends, that could be our relatives, and they were really acting as you saw it, in an animalistic you know.
JS: Like a mob, mob violence.
AS: Exactly. Exactly. And this is the complexity of the human, you know, the human soul that could go in extremes. And this is one of the extremes, you know, that we met.
JS: What was the reaction in Israel when it became clear that a mob attacked this man, an Eritrean migrant, and that he had nothing to do with the terror attack that day?
TS: It was the same day, actually, you know, it happened. It was two hours after the first shooting, and it was very interesting also to see it, amazing actually, because while everyone thought this is the terrorist, they react actually like the mob. Even the newscast, you know, they were saying, “This is the terrorist.” And they were showing footage you would never show, because they thought this is terrorist. OK? So they were acting the same way like the mob. This is what I felt.
The minute the mistake came out, they started saying, “Lynch, lynching, lynch.” Started blaming — the other day we saw Ronen Cohen like an animal, laughing in the television you know, a shot of him in the jail. And the minute it starts saying, “Lynching, animals!” exactly like the people inside, and people were talking about it for two days. And that’s it. Why? Because, at that time, we had here, every day, we had like three terrorist attacks a day, three terrorist attacks a day, so people forgot about it after two days. The next tragedy: stabbing here, running people over with the cars, you know it was every day. Every day.
And the government here told people, this is why it also happened, told people, you know, Bibi, I remember Bibi, you know, saying to us, “Listen, you have to protect yourself.” We have three times a day terror attacks. Take out your knives.
AS: Carry your guns with you.
TS: Carry your guns and knives and protect yourself. I remember this. So, this was the, you know —
AS: The atmosphere.
TS: The vibe here. Protect yourself.
JS: So, Bibi himself, I guess, bears some responsibility, it’s like legitimizing this kind of people taking matters into their own hands even if they don’t have any evidence.
TS: Yeah, they were encouraging the people to protect themselves, but, you know, but there was a reason for that. Because I just try to imagine what you see now in Europe, yeah?
AS: There was this terror attack —
TS: Every day. Every day, here. For a month.
JS: What happened to the people who ultimately participated in the murder of Habtom Zarhum?
AS: Well, it was determined, you know, at the hospital, that Habtom was killed by the gunshots. The gunshots really, destroyed the liver totally and this is the cause of death. So, they’re not being accused of murder, they’re being accused of this special —
TS: Like you want to hurt someone severely, to cause him, you know, even death. So, the punishment on this it’s up to 20 years. It’s very, and it’s, for the first time in Israel, there’s a trial going on —
AS: For a lynching.
TS: For lynching.
AS: Yes, first time. The trial is still going.
TS: Yes, the trial is going on for almost two years, now. And only in October, they’re starting hearing the witnesses. Only in October.
JS: As we close the interview, I want to as each of you for your final thoughts, and whether your personal views changed over the course of making this film, from the moment seeing this breaking news on TV, through interviewing everyone involved in getting the footage, did your personal views change of it, of this incident? We can begin with you, Tali.
TS: My views before we started making the film was completely different. I thought there was bad guys and good guys. I didn’t understand the chaos. I didn’t understand the lack of orientation, the panic, I saw the attackers as animals. I didn’t think, even, that I can be in their position. And after we started talking to people, seeing the footage, I understood that there is no me and Ronen Cohen. We are the same. It started with the question: Why? Why to be so cruel? Why? It was like, OK, it was like, these are bad people. And I ended up saying, I hope, if I would be in this place, in this terrorist attack someday, I hope I won’t, I will help people, I will be like Moshe Kochavi, but I think I would run and pray. Run for my life, and pray. But.
AS: That’s OK. (laughs)
TS: (laughs) I don’t think I will be a hero.
AS: We want to survive.
TS: In the beginning, I thought, “I would never do this, I would never be the person.” But it’s so complicated, and I wish I would be a hero like Moshe Kochavi, this is really what I want to be.
JS: And Asaf, same question to you?
AS: I think, I’m more shocked by violence, just the violent actions cut really deep inside my soul. And uh, really deep fear of violence right now that wasn’t there before. And, I hope it’s, I don’t know — it’s going to stay that way. I’m not going to join any tribal acts in the future.
JS: Well it’s an incredibly powerful film that you’ve made and I want to thank you guys for being with us. Asaf Sudry, and Tali Shemesh, thank you for joining us on Intercepted.
AS: Thank you.
TS: Thank you so much.
AS: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thanks.
JS: Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry are co-directors of Death in the Terminal. You can watch their film right now for free on Topic.com.
JS: And that does it for this week’s show.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro. And our executive producer is Leital Molad. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Elise Swain is our production assistant and graphic designer. Anthony Atamanuik is our Trump whisperer. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Don’t forget to check out our new Facebook group, just search for “Intercepted Listeners” and you can also follow us on Twitter @Intercepted.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
In the year since George Floyd’s murder, conservative news outlets have endlessly hyped distorted stories about violence at Black Lives Matter protests. Key videos they used come from a tight-knit group of eight young journalists.