The New War Against Terror

Noam Chomsky interviewed by various talk participants

MIT, October 18, 2001

QUESTIONER 1: Professor Chomsky, a few days ago our President, in a news conference, announced a new program to help provide food to the children of Afghanistan — even [anchorman] Peter Jennings of ABC News sort of hinted that that was a touch of propaganda spurred on bi-partisan complaints that bin Laden was winning the propaganda war world-wide. Are you aware of any organizations that we would do best funneling money that we would like to donate to help increase the food supply in that country?

CHOMSKY: Oh, yeah, plenty. I mean, this is obviously just [propaganda] … it couldn’t even pass ABC News. [scattered audience laughter] Actually, it was extremely poor timing. You may have noticed that Bush went to the Red Cross office with, you know, a box or something with, I don’t know, ninety thousand dollar bills from the children of America to give to the Red Cross and he arrived just at the time of the news that bombers had destroyed a Red Cross compound that was storing food in Afghanistan — not the greatest timing. But, yeah, that’s a joke. Plenty of organizations. I mean, the World Food Program, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children — there are lots of bona fide organizations. I mean, Oxfam’s right here in Boston — you don’t have to go very far. And they do very serious, honest work. They can’t do it now because the way to get food in is to truck it in. Dropping food by air is almost meaningless. Every aid organization has pointed this out. The World Food Program, which is, the main one, and the most serious one, they’ve pointed out — I don’t think it’s been reported here but it’s all over the British press, the Financial Times and others — they said they might consider air drops but if you do, you have to prepare it. You have to prepare an area and it has to be a safe area — you don’t want to draw people to places where there’s mines all over the place or something like that. So you prepare a safe area. You have people there who are gonna pick up the food and distribute it to the people who need it — to the sick, to children, to women — you know, the people who aren’t going to get it if you drop food all over. You have to have people there who will give it to the people who need it. It has to be organized. There has to be information saying “it’s safe to come here.” The worst way to do it — probably causes more harm than

good — is just to drop packages around. Who knows what the effects are? Even if anyone gets it. But trucking is the right way. … And that has been pretty much stopped or cut back because of the threat of bombing. That’s why the U.N. and the aid agencies are pleading with the United States to stop the bombing while there’s still some people alive there. And, yes, there are organizations right here in Boston and elsewhere that you certainly can give to. And should. This is a major catastrophe.

QUESTIONER 2: Professor Chomsky, thank you for coming tonight and I know we’re all honored to have you here. I want to go back to

something you said at the beginning of your speech. You mention this “silent genocide” that you blame America for, or will blame America in the coming weeks. I know that you don’t believe that America put these Afghan people on the brink of starvation in the first place. You may ascribe that to the world economy — there are many reasons why these people were on the brink of starvation in the first place. So, certainly, you don’t blame America for putting them in the position. Second of all, I thought it was conspicuously absent from your discussion any mention of blaming the Taliban which could end this genocide that you mentioned by simply turning over Osama bin Laden to an international court. They could end it immediately. And that was conspicuously absent from your discussion. Also, you mentioned … [scattered applause] You also mentioned, by analogy, you said that if there were a madman who were down the street, it would be wrong for us to turn assault rifles on our neighbors and to shoot everyone without knowing where he is. I suggest that your analogy is perhaps flawed and I’d like to pose another one, if you’d humor me. Instead of a madman, a killer, being down the street who knows where, we know exactly where he is. Let’s say he’s taken over a large mansion. We don’t know which room he’s in but the family that lives there has said that they will take up arms and oppose law enforcement from entering the home to obtain this known criminal. Now, how would the government react to a home in this situation? They might cut the power. They might cut the gas. They would probably cut the water. Perhaps they would threaten that if these persons were to aid and abet the criminals and prevent law enforcement from entering the home to take them into incarceration — perhaps, in fact, violent means would be threatened against these

people. How do you respond to this hypothetical? And also, my own hypothetical, it’s dealing with a house. It’s not a country, it’s not a sovereign nation. All hypotheticals and analogies are flawed in this way. And so we’re dealing here with a serious problem. Six thousand people are dead. If we turn to economic retaliation, if we turn to economic sanctions, certainly the poor Afghan people will be hurt first and foremost by economic sanctions — so I know you’re opposed to that. You’re obviously opposed to military sanctions. So having ruled out economic and military sanctions, I don’t suppose spitballs would be in order. [scattered applause]

CHOMSKY: Well, I already gave you the answer to what I think we ought to do. But let’s go through your questions. First of all, you said I blame America and that is false. I blame you and I blame me and I blame the rest of us who are allowing this to happen right in front of our eyes. [applause] That’s not blaming America. Secondly, when you say that’ it’s the “world economy” that had to do with Afghanistan, that’s just not true. Afghanistan’s always been a very poor place and there are many reasons for its current straits but two primary ones are called Russia and the United States. Russia and the United States, in the 1980s, practically destroyed the place — not to help the Afghans. As soon as the place was destroyed, they pulled out and the forces that the United States had organized to harass the Russians then took over — they’re now called the Northern Alliance — and that led in the early ’90s to what Human Rights Watch calls the worst period in Afghan history as these various criminal forces, that the U.S. had organized with its allies, just tore the place apart. They probably killed 50,000 people. I mean, they were carrying out mass rapes and slaughters and destroyed Kabul. In fact, they were so horrendous that when the Taliban came in, in 1994-1995, they were actually welcomed because at least they were bringing some kind of order to the place, driving out these madmen who had been left behind from the U.S. war. Meanwhile, the U.S. didn’t do anything for them. So … first of all, it’s not “blame America” — it’s blaming people like you and me who can do something about it — there’s no abstract entity “America” that acts — and [secondly] we had a lot to do with this. Quite a lot to do with it. There are plenty of other forces, too.

You say the Taliban could solve the problem by just handing him over. The Taliban could solve a lot of problems by disappearing. You know? I’ve been strongly in favor of that for a long time. However, I have no way of making them disappear. See, like, suppose we were in Russia in the 1980s and some dissident was criticizing the Russian invasion. Well, a commissar could have stood up and said, “Look, why are you criticizing the Russian invasion? Why aren’t you criticizing what the Afghans are doing to each other?” Yeah, that’s a standard commissar line. We know what to think about it. You and I are responsible for what you and I can do — and what we do. We have no moral responsibility for what other people do that we can’t effect. We may hate it but we can’t do anything about it. Like, we could have a debate, a discussion right now about the crimes of Genghis Khan. And we might be correct about it. It would have no moral value whatsoever. Might have some historical value. Same with the crimes that are going on in Sri Lanka. Can’t think of anything to do about ’em, fine — then have an academic seminar but don’t think it has any moral value. When you tell me what the Taliban can do, it’s exactly the same. The moral value of that is zero. Yeah, they could do a lot of things. For example, one thing they could do is what you said: turn him over to a third party. The problem with that is, the U.S. has refused to allow it. Now, are they serious in that offer that’s been going on for a couple of weeks? Well, we don’t know — because every time the offer is made, George Bush stands up and says “We’re not gonna talk to you. We’re not gonna negotiate with you. We don’t want him turned over.” It has nothing to do with how rotten the Taliban are. Yeah, they’re rotten. Lot of rotten things in the world. We should be — if we’re serious — we should be concerned with what we do. And what we can do. If there’s an elementary moral truism, that’s it. If people don’t understand that, they’re just not in the moral universe. [huge applause]

What about your analogy? So, let’s say there’s a killer in a house. And, incidentally, nobody knows where he is. First of all, they don’t even know that he’s the person. Notice they don’t have any evidence against him. I mean, there’s evidence that his networks are in the background. That’s almost certainly true — although no evidence is presented — like I said, it’s prima facie plausible. But they don’t know that it’s him. He may be telling the truth when he says he wasn’t involved and there’s some reason to believe it. In fact, a good deal of the foreign press and

commentators believe it ’cause it just doesn’t seem credible that he could have carried it out or initiated it. So, they don’t know that he’s the

perpetrator and they don’t know where he is. They haven’t a clue where he is. So, let’s pick your house analogy if you like. You say there are

people there who are gonna defend him. Are those the seven to eight million Afghans who we’re trying to starve to death? Are they defending

him? No, they’re his victims. They’re not defending him. The people we’re killing are innocent Afghans — not people who are defending Osama bin Laden. They’re the victims of the Taliban. They’re the ones we’re attacking. The analogy you made is an interesting case and you could talk about it in some seminar. It’s got nothing to do with this. [applause] What’s going on here, when the New York Times tells us that food shipments have been cut back to the point where the number of people now at risk of starvation since September 11th has increased by fifty percent … as a result, as they point out correctly, of the threat of U.S. bombing and the terror its caused and so on, and the withdrawal of aid and international workers. Those people are not defending bin Laden. Those are perfectly innocent civilians who have nothing to do with it, except that they’re victims of the Taliban who we — meaning you and I, not some abstract entity — are consciously acting to murder. Okay? If we can’t face that, we have no right talking about this problem. …