Doing the Sensible Thing

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Peter Clarke

Late Night Live, October 16, 2001

QUESTION: … Are you upset or shocked by [right-wing author David] Horowitz’s extraordinary attack on you [a column entitled “The Sick Mind of Noam Chomsky” in which he describes Chomsky as a “pathological” “ayatollah of anti-American hate”]?

CHOMSKY: I haven’t read Horowitz. I didn’t used to read him when he was a Stalinist and I don’t read him today. Haven’t seen it.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I’ll spare you what he had to say. What about [left-wing author Christopher] Hitchens’ attack? I know you were gob-smacked by it, but surprised?

CHOMSKY: Not particularly. He’s been pretty erratic for about ten years. I [didn’t] even pay much attention to it either, I’m afraid. He’s trying very hard to have a debate but nobody wants to play the game, certainly not me.

QUESTION: He attacked you, he attacks [left-wing journalist John] Pilger, he attacks our regular [guest] Robert Fisk, with the allegation that all of us have been exonerating Osama bin Laden and laying the blame at the feet of the U.S. but that isn’t really the position that the Left has been taking.

CHOMSKY: It’s nonsense. I mean, Fisk has condemned the perpetrators of this, probably the bin Laden network, more harshly than anyone I’ve seen: their “wickedness and awesome cruelty” and so on, and I’ve done exactly the same. And Hitchens knows it perfectly well.

QUESTION: Many of our listeners had trouble following his arguments. I know you did as well. You wrote that they were not only wrong but unintelligible.

CHOMSKY: Well, he can’t believe what he’s saying. His major claim is that I and presumably others are declaring that the [attack on] the World Trade Center is morally equivalent to actions taken by the United States which have led to huge casualties. Nobody’s saying that. In fact, just take a look at the data. Nobody says it. I mean, what he’s objecting to is factual statements which he knows are correct. Furthermore, it’s kind of interesting that he should pick out Fisk and me and others. He could have just as well picked out the Wall Street Journal which are saying the same things. In fact, I’ve been mostly quoting them. They’ve done some quite good coverage. Since September 11th, the Journal, to its credit, has done some serious and responsible coverage of attitudes in the Middle East, generally, towards U.S. policies. And they’re restricting their coverage, as you’d expect, to what they call “moneyed Muslims” — the wealthier sectors: bankers, professionals, lawyers, businessmen who have close connections with the United States, international lawyers for multinationals — and these are people who are very much inside the U.S.-run global system and supportive of it.

QUESTION: So, we’re seeing what? A deepening of analysis in mainstream media as a consequence of September 11th?

CHOMSKY: To an extent, that’s true. I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate but the mainstream media, most of them, I think — less the New York Times and others — have been open to the kinds of discussion, the discussion of topics that were simply not on the agenda before. I mean, that’s even true of the mass popular media, USA Today, for example — the journal that you pick up in airports, a national journal. They actually had an article on life in the Gaza strip which would have been inconceivable a month, two months ago. There is concern, and rightly, about the backgrounds.

Now, here we have to be a little cautious. Anyone who’s careful — let’s put aside Hitchens and I don’t know what Horowitz says — but analysts who are careful about this, like Fisk, point out correctly that there is a very significant difference between the terrorist networks — the bin Laden network and there are probably others like them — and the general population [in the region] which often sympathizes with a lot of what they say, in fact, has been saying the same things. So there’s the terrorist networks and there’s a kind of a reservoir of sympathy: people who may hate bin Laden but nevertheless regard him, as they put it, as “the conscience of Islam” — quoting an international lawyer a couple of days ago. There’s a difference. So most of the population has nothing to do with it, doesn’t want anything to do with terrorist actions and does not accept their demand for an ultra-Islamic state to replace the corrupt states of the region. For the people of the region, Saudi Arabia’s way too much already, for most of them.

But there’s no doubt that bin Laden strikes a sympathetic chord with a good deal of what he says because a good deal of what he says is simply articulating feelings that are very widespread in the region, feelings of resentment, anger, frustration, fear, over U.S. policies. Now, it’s not, as commentators here sometimes say, that they hate us because of our love of democracy and freedom. It’s exactly the opposite. The bankers and lawyers who the Wall Street Journal is interviewing, like others, condemn the United States for its strong opposition to democracy, for what they call, I’m quoting now, “propping up oppressive regimes,” blocking democratic initiatives in the region, supporting states which are corrupt, brutal, repressive, cut back economic development and are often, as in the case of Saudi Arabia particularly, fanatic Islamic states. These are among the objections to the United States but the strongest ones — and those [objections] are much more bitter in the streets — are the joint policies of devastating Iraqi civilian society while strengthening Saddam Hussein — and they know very well and continually say, though the West prefers to forget, that the U.S. and Britain and France and others supported Saddam right through his worst atrocities — gassing the Kurds, for example — continued to support him strongly, provide him with dual-use technology, and continued until he disobeyed orders finally [by invading Kuwait]. They know it. At the same time, the U.S. is the prime support — in fact, virtually the only major support and has been for twenty-five years — for Israel’s military occupation which is now in its thirty-fifth year. It’s been harsh and brutal, has destroyed the Palestinian economy, subjected people to endless humiliation, abuse, torture, meanwhile taking over the land and resources and they know, and it is true, that that’s based upon U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic support. If Israel settles in the territory, the U.S. is indirectly paying for it. When attack helicopters target civilian complexes or carry out assassinations, here they may call them Israeli helicopters but they know perfectly well they’re U.S. helicopters. You can’t conceal that from the people of the region. In fact, one of the reasons why [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell has been joining the Arab states in trying to rein in the one free and open news channel in the region, Al-Jazeera, is because they don’t want these views expressed.

QUESTION: Hitchens moves and Horowitz seconds the proposition that the liberal Left are trying too hard to understand the perpetrators thus obscuring the fact that they are, quote, “fascists with an Islamic face” and that the September 11th attacks were murder, pure and simple, motivated by fundamentalism. [Hitchens] singles out a particular argument of yours, accuses you of seeking moral equivalence in the 1998 bombing of the Sudan when the U.S. destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, mistaking it for a chemical weapons plant. You’ve been dragged through the fire on that one. Would you be kind enough to give us your point-of-view? Was it morally equivalent?

CHOMSKY: Well, you can just look at what I said. Actually, he’s talking about a response to journalists on the first few days, a brief response — there were tons of inquiries, I couldn’t respond individually in detail as I did later — so I wrote a very brief response to journalists in which I have one sentence mentioning the Sudan. The sentence says just what you did: the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant destroying half the pharmaceutical supplies of the Sudan and leading to, causing the deaths of probably more people than were killed at the World Trade Center. In contrast, I described the [attack on] the World Trade Center in the same short statement as horrendous atrocities carried out with “wicked and awesome cruelty” — happens to be a quote from Fisk, and so on. Is that moral equivalence? I mean, if it’s morally equivalent, that means that the bombing of the Sudan, according to Hitchens, was a horrendous atrocity carried out with wicked and awesome cruelty. Well, of course, he doesn’t mean that, so therefore he knows it’s not morally equivalent. That’s one of the respects in which he doesn’t mean what he’s saying. Now, that leaves us with a factual question: what were the consequences of the bombing of the pharmaceutical factory? And here, when I was asked — I’ve discussed it in the past but in this connection I didn’t, as I say, I just mentioned it — but if you look into it, that turns out to be correct. That’s a factually accurate remark. We don’t have any detailed information, as I pointed out, the numbers are unknown — it’s unknown because nobody in the West was much interested in finding out — but there have been some [reports]. So, for example, the regional director of the Near East Foundation — that’s an old, venerable, highly respectable foundation with connections to the State Department and charities and so on — their regional director, who has field experience in the Sudan, wrote a report which was published in the Boston Globe, it’s not obscure, prominently published. He wrote a report on the first anniversary of the bombing in which he estimated, from field experience, that tens of thousands of people had suffered and died as a result, by that time. And there are other reports indicating the same thing. We don’t know for sure because there hasn’t been a careful examination …

QUESTION: Well, more than that, there was an attempt by the U.N. to hold an inquiry into the incident which I understand was blocked by the U.S.

CHOMSKY: Well, yes. … The Sudan did request an inquiry right away but that was not [an inquiry] into the consequences ’cause it was too early for there to be any consequences. It was an inquiry into how the target was chosen. But the U.S. did block that. And there was no effort to carry out a further investigation. So what we have is — to go back to your question — a very harsh condemnation of the attack on the World Trade Center, a factual description with no adjectives or other condemnation of the bombing of the Sudan, which is ridiculous to call that moral equivalence, and then, in response to queries — charges, I should say — simply citing a fair amount of background evidence to support the accuracy of the factual statement. I think that’s exactly the right thing to do. In fact, I have a short book coming out on this, based on dozens of interviews around the world, and, in it, I review more of the evidence. I mean, I think we should be correct about factual statements. To say that to try to understand the backgrounds of the feelings in the region, to say that that’s supporting the terrorists, is just moral idiocy. And it’s striking that the people you mention do not attack the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the Boston Globe or other mainstream sources which are trying, to an extent — I’d like to see them do it more, but to an extent — they’re doing the sensible thing, distinguishing between the terrorist groups themselves and the general population and asking why the general population has sympathy for a good deal of what the terrorist groups are saying. If you hope to reduce the likelihood of further atrocities, that’s exactly what you do.

I mean, take any other case. Take, say, IRA [Irish Republican Army] bombs in London. One reaction would be to say, okay, let’s kill the Catholic fascists and bomb West Belfast — and bomb Boston, where I live, because that’s the source of a lot of the financing, openly. That’s one reaction. Well, you know, that would be imbecility. Another reaction is to [do] what was done: find the perpetrators, punish them through the criminal justice system, and consider the grievances and try to deal with them. No matter what the crime is, whether it’s a robbery in the streets or some colossal atrocity — and, incidentally, the World Trade Center is by no means the worst, unfortunately — behind almost any crime you do find grievances and sometimes those grievances have legitimate elements, in fact, that’s not uncommon. If you want to deal humanely with the problem, and also to reduce the likelihood of further atrocities and crimes, you pay attention to the problems. I mean, that’s just elementary.

QUESTION: What about the pathological dimension that exists in much terrorism, whether it’s internal or external? That can’t really be dealt with through the political process, can it?

CHOMSKY: I don’t agree with that. For one thing, remember we have to be a little careful about the notion “terrorism.” There is a literal definition of “terrorism” — you can find it in the U.S. Code or U.S. Army manuals, for example. “Terrorism” is defined as the calculated use of violence, primarily against civilians, to coerce and intimidate civilian populations or governments through instilling fear, and so on. That’s roughly the general definition. Well, if you apply that definition, you find terrorist actions [originating] in Washington. Terrible ones, in fact. And, furthermore, it’s not even controversial. I mean, after all, the United States was condemned by the World Court for international terrorism, what [the Court] called “unlawful use of force” in its war against Nicaragua. And it was ordered to terminate the terrorism and to pay substantial damages. That was not slight. That led to tens of thousands of deaths, a country destroyed — it may never recover. And remember what happened. The U.S. rejected with contempt the World Court judgment, immediately escalated the attack, including official orders to attack what were called “soft targets,” — meaning undefended civilian targets — and to avoid combat with the Nicaraguan army. And Nicaragua then went to the [United Nations] Security Council which debated a resolution calling on all states to observe international law, meaning the United States, though it wasn’t mentioned. The U.S. vetoed the resolution. It then went to the General Assembly which passed a similar resolution, almost unanimously, U.S. and Israel opposed (and El Salvador, one year). Well, that’s not a controversial case of international terrorism — at least among people who have a minimal commitment to international law and moral principles. And it’s by no means the worst case. And that case alone is much worse than the World Trade Center. So, yes, there are terrorists all over the place. In fact, if you want to find terrorists, simply look at the coalition that’s being formed for the “war against terror”: who’s in it? Russia is happily joining the coalition because it wants Western support for its murderous operations in Chechnya. Well, what do you call those? China’s delighted to join because they want U.S. support for their brutal operations in Western China against the secessionists, they claim, secessionist Muslim groups. Indonesia will join because they want U.S. support for their atrocities.

QUESTION: Although, they’re backing off as we speak, aren’t they?

CHOMSKY: They’re backing off because they’re worried about the domestic reaction. But they’d love to have U.S. support. Or take Turkey. Turkey is the most enthusiastic supporter. The prime minister, [B├╝lent] Ecevit, said that Turkey would even send troops because of what he called their “debt of gratitude” to the United States. What’s the “debt of gratitude”? Well, he explains it. The “debt of gratitude” is that the United States was the only country that was willing to provide support — and, in fact, it was massive support, 80 per cent of the arms — for some of the worst ethnic cleansing and atrocities in the 1990s, namely, their attack against their own Kurdish population which was devastating, much worse than anything attributed to Milosevic before the NATO bombing [of Yugoslavia]. So, sure, they’re happy to join. Well, we can go on and find quite a list of terrorist states. I mean, take Algeria. They’re happy to join, too — and are joining. That’s one of the most vicious terrorist states in the world. So, yes, there are terrorists everywhere, much worse ones than these, unfortunately. They’re no Osama bin Laden but at least in the consequences of what they do, far worse. And to say that, “Look, these are just pathological elements, we can’t deal with Washington — and Turkey — and China and Russia, and so on, because they’re pathological” — that doesn’t make any sense. That’s practically every major government in the world.

QUESTION: In order to shape, to configure, to conjure this international alliance, the U.S. has shifted positions with a number of countries, offering a variety of political, military, monetary packages, in exchanges for forms of support and, clearly, no one knows how these are going to play out. What are some of the most significant dangers of this rapidly ad-libbed strategy?

CHOMSKY: There are a number of dangers. One danger is that it is increasing, sharply increasing, terrorism throughout the world — namely, the terrorism of the states I’ve been talking about, which include Washington. So to increase, say, Russia’s massacres in Chechnya or Turkey’s atrocious behavior against its own Kurdish population, that’s not a healthy development. In fact, we should be trying to do the opposite. In the region itself — this includes as far as Indonesia and the Philippines but particularly in the Middle East region — the U.S. has to step very delicately. Initially, Washington’s rhetoric was pretty sharp: you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us, you face certain death and destruction. We’re gonna attack everyone who has anything to do with the narrow category of terrorists that we call “terrorists” — and it’s a narrow category. That, they had to back off from. They were told by every foreign leader, quite openly — NATO leaders, [?] specialists, I’m sure their own intelligence agencies — that this is madness. And that what they’ll do is cause an uproar in the region which will severely damage U.S. interests and might lead to major war. So they backed off from that. They’ve now backed off from the threat of spreading the attack against Afghanistan to other countries. And the problem is, as they know, maybe Chris Hitchens doesn’t want people to know, but as they know perfectly well, there is a reservoir of support coming as a result of U.S. policies which are deeply resented, such as those I mentioned, and therefore they have to be careful of the effects of that. I should say, I’ve so far — I blame myself — ignored the most important effect, by far. We’re killing lots and lots of Afghanis right at this moment. The World Trade Center bombing was a horrifying atrocity but the number of deaths has surely more than doubled, probably far more than that since. Uh, the …

QUESTION: On what do you base that assertion?

CHOMSKY: I base that on the statements that are blandly reported in the major press, like the New York Times, without comment, [quoting] the World Food Program and others. So here’s a comment from New York Times just yesterday. Inside, on an inside column, [if] you read far enough, the reporter quotes the U.N. World Food Program which is the main [source of] sustenance for, they estimate, seven to eight million Afghans — not a small number. They say that they’re going to need 50,000 tons of food a week to keep them alive and there isn’t much time because the winter’s approaching and distribution’s gonna cut back. But they’ve been forced to cut the shipments back by about half and for several weeks to stop them altogether because of the threat of bombing and then, later, the bombing. Well, just do the arithmetic. I mean, I don’t know if those figures are correct but, assuming that the best evidence available is correct, as the New York Times does, that means they’re condemning millions of Afghans to death by starvation. And that’s the basis for policy planning.

QUESTION: You observe a changing quality of analysis in papers like the Wall Street Journal. You now find that the sort of issues you’ve been trying to raise for years are being debated. Apart from foreign policy, does it involve a deepening self-awareness in the American elites? Is America seeing itself more clearly?

CHOMSKY: Well, you know, it’s very hard to generalize. We should remember that something else is happening too. There are a lot of other issues in the world besides what they call the “war against terrorism” and, let me stress, that’s a very narrow category of terrorism. What’s called “terrorism” is terrorism directed against the U.S. and its allies, not the terrorism carried out by the U.S. and its allies, which happens to be far greater. So there’s much more going on in the world. So, for example, there’s the questions of international economic agreements or domestic and social policies. Now, in any time of crisis — and this is a time of crisis — you can be sure that concentrated power centers, state and private, will exploit the opportunity, to try to ram through their own harsh and aggressive agendas, exploiting the fear and concern and so on — and that’s exactly what’s happening. So there has been an intensification of efforts to gain support for militarization of space (which goes under the euphemism “missile defense” — [missile defense is] a small part of it); to even try to cut back corporate taxes; to try to push through what’s called “fast track” legislation which is called “trade enhancement” but that’s not what it is. It’s authorization to the White House to carry out international economic agreements in secret without any knowledge of the population or input from Congress, and then after it’s finished to hand it to the Congress to rubber-stamp, [to] say “yes.” Well, that’s Stalinist-style executive laws. And, of course, they’re trying to push that. In fact, the U.S. Trade Representative, right after the [terrorist attacks], he said this is the way to fight terrorism, give the White House authorization to carry out this basically Stalinist-style mode of [?] agreements. At the same time, they’re telling others, the rest of the population, you have to keep away from all of these things because it’s unpatriotic to be concerned with these topics when we’re in a moment of crisis. And people do back off. They’re sensitive enough to recognize that maybe this isn’t the time to press their own agendas. On the other hand, those who are pushing these policies are pushing them very hard. They don’t relax. They’re exploiting the opportunity.