Peering into the Abyss of the Future

Noam Chomsky

Delivered at Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, November 3, 2001

I had intended to discuss some rather general issues that have unpleasant, possibly ominous implications for a decent future: issues of democracy, human rights, social and economic development, the role of force in world affairs, and others. The problems that arise are particularly severe because the policies pursued have a certain rationality within the framework of existing socio-economic and ideological institutions. I will do so, though only in a much more limited way than I had hoped. The reason is clear to everyone. These topics, while of utmost importance, have been displaced since Sept. 11 by another concern: the threat of international terrorism, which compels us to “peer into the abyss of the future,” in the words of the New York Times headline I borrowed as a title.

That threat is surely severe. The horrendous events of September 11 had perhaps the most devastating instant human toll on record, outside of war. The word “instant” should not be overlooked; regrettably, the crime is far from unusual in the annals of violence that falls short of war. The death toll may easily have doubled or more within a few weeks, as miserable Afghans fled – to nowhere – under the threat of bombing, and desperately-needed for supplies were suspended when the bombing began; and there may be far worse to come.

The September 11 atrocities are commonly described as an event of historic significance. That is true, though not in scale; rather, in the direction the guns are pointing. For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots are the targets, not the perpetrators, of horrifying crimes. Europeans have spent centuries slaughtering each other, but have not been attacked by their traditional victims.

For the future, we must face the fact that small nuclear weapons can be smuggled into any country with relative ease. These dangers – not just to the US – are enhanced by the most immediate threat identified by a high-level US Department Energy Task Force: the great many nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and stored. One of the first acts of the Bush administration was to cut back a small program to assist Russia to safeguard and dismantle these weapons. That decision increased the risks of accidental launch and leakage of “loose nukes.” The threat of biological and chemical weapons also may not be too remote.

US and other world leaders have emphasised that confronting the terrorist threat is not a short-term task. We should therefore consider carefully the measures that can be taken to mitigate what has been called, in high places, “the evil scourge of terrorism,” a plague spread by “depraved opponents of civilisation itself” in “a return to barbarism in the modern age”; and also the actions that might spread the plague.

We should begin, surely, by identifying the plague and the depraved elements that have been returning the world to barbarism. The curse is not new. The phrases I just quoted are from President Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of State George Shultz. The Reagan administration came to office 20 years ago proclaiming that the struggle against international terrorism will be the core of US foreign policy. They responded by organising campaigns of international terrorism of unprecedented scale and violence, even leading to a World Court condemnation of the U.S. for “unlawful use of force” and a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law (vetoed by the US). The World Court order to terminate the crime of international terrorism and pay substantial reparations was dismissed with contempt. The instant reaction was to escalate the terrorist war, including official orders to the mercenary army to avoid combat and attack undefended civilian targets.

I mention this case only because it is uncontroversial, given the judgments of the highest international authorities. But it is far from the most extreme example. In the Reagan years alone, US sponsored state terrorists in Central America left hundreds of thousands of tortured and mutilated corpses, millions of maimed and orphaned, and four countries in ruins. In the same years, Western-backed South African depredations killed 1.5 million people. I need not speak of West Asia, or much else.

All of this, however, is barred from the annals of terrorism, by a simple device: the term “terrorism,” like most terms of political discourse, has two meanings, a literal one and a propagandistic one.

The literal meaning can be found in official U.S. documents, which instruct us that terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature [carried out] through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” But the literal definition cannot be sued, for one reason, because it is a close paraphrase of official government policy, called “low-intensity” war or “counter-terrorism.” Another reason is that the definition quickly yields conclusions that are wholly unacceptable, such as those I mentioned, a tiny sample.

Accordingly, the propagandistic version is preferred: terrorism is terrorism that is directed against the U.S. and its friends and allies. Reviews of the literature, including scholarship, reveal, not surprisingly, that this usage is close to universal, and of course not restricted to the US. It would, I suspect, be difficult to find a historical exception, even among the most extreme mass murderers. The Nazis, for example, bitterly condemned terrorism and conducted what they called “counter-terrorism” against terrorist partisans. The US basically agreed. It organised and conducted similar “counter-terrorism” in the postwar years. And it drew from the Nazi model, which was treated with respect: Wehrmacht officers were consulted and their manuals used in designing postwar counter-insurgency programs worldwide, typically called “counter-terrorism.”

There is a great deal more to say about terrorism, in both the literal and propagandistic sense. But the threat of terrorism is not the only abyss into which we peer. An even greater threat is posed by expansion of the arms race into space; the term “race” is inappropriate, because the U.S. is, for now, competing alone. Its goal is to achieve “fully spectrum dominance”: a monopoly of the use of space for military purposes. These plans have been available in government documents for some years, and the projects outlined have been under development. They were expanded in the first months of the Bush administration and again since September 11, in a crude exploitation of the fear and horror engendered by these crimes.

It is conventional everywhere for attack to be called “defense, and this case is no exception: the plans for militarisation of space are disguised as “ballistic missile defence” (BMD), only a small component of what is planned. That is understood by other countries, including close allies, and has been clearly articulated and sometimes warmly applauded by strategic analysts, who point out that “missile defense isn’t really meant to protect America [but] is a tool for global dominance,” for “hegemony.”

It is well-understood that BMD, even is technically feasible, must rely on satellite communication, and destroying satellites is far easier than shooting down missiles. That is one reason why the US must seek “full spectrum dominance,” such overwhelming control of space that even the poor man’s weapons will not be available to an adversary. And that requires offensive space-based capacities, including enormously destructive weapons that can be launched with instant computer-controlled reaction, greatly increasing the risk of vas slaughter and devastation if only because of what are called in the trade “normal accidents” – the unpredictable accidents to which all complex systems are subject.

The goals of militarisation of space extend far beyond, however. The US Space Command is very explicit about this. Its Clinton-era publications announce the primary goal prominently: “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment.” This is presented as the next phase of the historic task of military forces. Armies were needed “during the westward expansion of the continental United States” – of course in self defense, against the indigenous population. Nations also build navies, the Space Command continues, “to protect and enhance their commercial interests.” The next logical step is space forces to protect “U.S. national interests [military and commercial] and investments.” But US space forces will be unlike “navies protecting sea commerce” because there will be a sole hegemon. The British Navy could be countered by Germany, with consequences we need not discuss. But the US, somehow, will remain immune -except, of course, to the narrowly circumscribed category of “terrorism” that is permitted to enter the canon.

The need for total dominance will increase as a result of the “globalisation of the economy,” the Space Command explains. The reason is that “globalisation” is expected to bring about “a widening between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’,” an assessment shared by US intelligence. Planners are concerned that the widening divide may lead to unrest among the have-nots, which the US must be ready to control by “using space systems and planning for precision strike from space” as a “counter to the worldwide proliferation of BMD” but unruly elements – a predictable consequence of the recommended programs, just as the “widening divide” is an anticipated consequence of the preferred from of “globalisation.”

The Space Command could have extended its analogy to armies and navies is earlier years. These have played a prominent role in technological and industrial development, dramatically so since World War II, but in fact throughout the modern era. There was a qualitative leap forward after World War II, primarily in the US, as the military provided a cover for creation of the core of the modern high tech economy. The same is anticipated for space militarisation projects. One primary reason why “national security exemptions” are build into the mislabelled “free trade treated” is to ensure that the leading industrial societies, primarily the US, can maintain the vast state sector on which the economy relies to socialise cost and risk while privatising profit.

Throughout history it has been recognised that such steps are dangerous. But now the danger has reached the level of a threat to human survival. But is rational to proceed nonetheless, on the assumptions of the prevailing value system, which are deeply rooted in existing institutions. The basic principle is that hegemony is more important than survival. That has been a striking feature of the arms race for half a century, with a most revealing record.

To move to another domain, the Bush administration has been widely criticised for undermining the Kyoto Treaty on grounds that to conform would harm the US economy. The criticisms are surprising, because their decision is entirely rational within the framework of existing ideology. We are instructed daily to have faith in neoclassical markets, in which isolated individuals are rational wealth-maximisers. The market responds perfectly to their “votes,” expressed in currency inputs. The value of their interests is measured the same way. In particular, the interests of those with no “votes” are valued at zero: future generations, for example. It is therefore entirely rational to destroy the possibility for decent survival for our grandchildren, if by doing so we can maximise the particular form of self-interest that is hailed as the highest value, consciously constructed in considerable measure. The threats to survival are currently being enhanced by dedicated efforts to weaken the institutional structures that have been developed to mitigate the consequences of market fundamentalism, and even more important, to undermine the culture of sympathy and solidarity that sustains these institutions.

All of this is another prescription for disaster, perhaps in the not very distant future. But again, it is rational within a lunatic system of doctrines and institutions.

I would certainly not want to suggest that the prospects are uniformly bleak. Far from it. One very promising development is the slow evolution of a human rights culture among the general population, a tendency that accelerated from the 1960s, when the popular ferment had a notable civilising effect in many domains. One significant feature has been a greatly heightened concern for civil and human rights, including rights of minorities, women and future generations – the driving force of the environmental movement that became a significant forces in the following years. Among the most important manifestations I the Human Development Movement to which these memorial lectures are dedicated. There are many other illustrations.

Over the course of modern history, there have been important gains in human and democratic control of some sectors of life. They have rarely been the gift of enlightened leaders. They have generally been imposed on states and to her power centers by popular struggle. An optimist might hold, perhaps realistically, that history reveals a deepening of appreciation for human rights, as well as broadening of their range; not without sharp reversals, but the general tendency seems real. The issues are very much alive today. The harmful effects of the cooperate globalisation project have led to mass popular protest and activism in the South, joined by major sectors of the rich industrial societies as well in the past few years, with alliances taking shape at grass-roots level, an impressive development, rich in opportunity and promise. These too have had effects, in rhetorical and sometimes policy changes in the international financial institutions, the corporate world, and commentary generally. There has been at least a restraining influence on state violence, though nothing like the “human rights revolution” in state practice proclaimed by intellectual opinion in the West.

These developments could prove very important if momentum can be sustained in ways that deepen the bonds of sympathy and solidarity that have been developing in encouraging ways. It is fair to say. I think, that the future of our endangered species may be determined in no small measure by how these popular forces evolve.