On the War Against Terrorism and Related Issues

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Dimitriadis Epaminondas

July 3, 2002

1. How far do you belive will the US sacrifice its basic civil liberties for a greater sense of security?

It is doubtful that the current attack on civil liberties has much to do with security. In general, one can expect the state to use any pretext to extend its power and to impose obedience on the population; rights are won, not granted, and power will seek any opportunity to reduce them.

The current incumbents in Washington are at an extreme of reactionary jingoism and contempt for democracy. The question we should ask, I think, is how far citizens will allow them to pursue their agendas.So far, they have been careful to target vulnerable populations, like immigrants, though the laws they have passed have much broader implications. My feeling is that popular commitment to the rights that have been won in hard struggle is too deep to allow the attack to proceed very far.

2. How can we keep the balance between protecting safety,protecting civil liberties and protecting privacy?

It is impossible to answer in the abstract.It is necessary to consider proposals case by case. As I mentioned, the measures proposed and sometimes implemented generally have only a limited relation to “protecting safety.” Many of them probably harm safety. Take the bombing of Aghanistan, for example. Whatever one thinks about it, did it increase security? US intelligence doesn’t think so. They recently reported that by scattering al-Qaeda and spawning new terrorist networks the bombing may have increased the threat of terror. Does that matter? Not really, as far as state planners are concerned. When Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia came to the US recently to urge the administration to pay more attention to the effect of his policies in the Arab world, he was told by high officials: “if he thought we were strong in Desert Storm, we’re 10 times as strong today. This was to give him some idea what Afghanistan demonstrated about our capabilities.” In brief: “follow orders, or you’ll be pulverized.” That’s what the bombing of Afghanistan was about.

3. The war against terrorism will have a lot more casualities, a lot more innocent casualities. Can this be justified?

Again, the question cannot be answered in the abstract. But there are some criteria for answering it. One simple criterion is that if some action is legitimate for us, then it is legitimate for others. To take an example, if it is legitimate for the US to bomb Afghanistan because Washington suspects that the plot to carry out the 9-11 atrocities was hatched there (the FBI has recently conceded they still have only suspicions, no firm evidence), then a fortiori, it would have been legitimate for Nicaraguans (Cubans, Lebanese, and a long list of others) to bomb Washington because they know, not suspect, that it is the source of terrorist actrocities that far exceed even 9-11. Those who do not accept the latter conclusion — that is, every sane person — cannot accept the former one, unless they reject the most elementary moral principles, and thereby abandon any claim to speak of right and wrong, good and evil.

The same criterion applies universally. It does not answer all questions, but does answer a great many of them. It is true that elementary moral principles such as this cannot be considered by the rich and powerful, because of the consequences that follow very quickly. Nevertheless, honest people should be willing to entertain them.

4. Which is the impact of terrorism on the world and especially in the US?

The impact of terrorism is enormous. To take just some recent examples, Central America was devastated by state-directed international terrorism in the 1980s, as was Haiti in the early 1990s. I’ve just returned from Colombia, the scene of the worst terrorist atrocities in the Western hemisphere in the past 10 years, now getting even worse. Even the State Department concedes that the overwhelming majority are attributable to the military and paramilitaries, which are so closely linked that Human Rights Watch, which has done some of the most detailed studies, calls the paramilitaries the “sixth division” of the Colombian army, in addition to the five official divisions. Political murders are running now at maybe 20 a day, more than 300,000 people are added every year to those displaced (mostly by terror), Colombia holds the world record for murder of trade unionists and journalists, though of course the victims as usual are mostly peasants. And so on. Shortly before, I visited Turkey, where some of the worst state terrorist atrocities of the 1990s took place in the Kurdish southeast, and the population now lives in a virtual dungeon. All of this is international terrorism, because of its crucial reliance throughout on massive US support, not only military but also ideological support: silence and apologetics. Because of the agent, it is not counted in the annals of terrorism. It is easy to continue.

The term “terrorism” is used, standardly, to refer to the terrorism that THEY carry out against US, whoever “we” happen to be. Even the worst mass murderers — the Nazis for example — adopted this practice. I imagine the fascist Generals in Greece must have done the same.

Since the rich and powerful set the terms for discussion, the term “terrorism” is restricted, in practice, to the terror that affects the US and its clients and allies. Keeping to that very narrow category of terrorism, the atrocities of 9-11 had an enormous impact on the West. Not because of the scale — regrettably, that was not unusual — but because of the choice of innocent victims. For hundreds of years, it has been the prerogative of Europe and its offshoots to carry out such acts against others, with virtual impunity. It had been understood for some time that with new technology, the industrial societies were likely to lose their virtual monopoly of violence, maintaining only an enormous preponderance. On 9-11, that expectation was realized, though in a way that was completely unanticipated. Of course it is a great shock.

The reaction was complex. Among intellectuals, it was mostly jingoist hysteria, but that is quite normal. Among the general population, reactions varied. For many people, it was a “wake-up call,” which has led to considerable openness, concern, skepticism, and dissidence. These are healthy reactions, and though it is difficult to measure their scale, it is surely substantial.

5. What is your opinion about the US long awaited policy statement on how to end the Middle east conflict?

George Bush’s planners constructed a series of demands that they know the Palestinians cannot conceivably meet. They demanded that under harsh and brutal military occupation, Palestine should become Sweden, learning the ways of democracy from Saudi Arabia and Egypt (that is what the words the President spoke imply). They should have free elections, in which they choose a candidate the US selects for them. If they fail these conditions, the US will continue to provide massive support for the terror conducted by the official “man of peace,” Ariel Sharon, and the US will continue to bar the international consensus on a political settlement, as it has been doing for 25 years. If Palestinians were to meet US conditions, then they would be permitted to contemplate George Bush’s “vision” of an eventual Palestinian state, somewhere: maybe in the Arabian desert, as House Majority Speaker Dick Armey recently proposed. By staring soulfully into the future with this noble vision, Bush approaches (from below) the moral level of the more extreme partisans of Apartheid 40 years ago. They not only had a “vision” of Black-run states, but actually implemented their vision, even providing them with some economic support.

For Israel, Bush calls for a “freeze” on settlements — with a wink of the eye. Everyone familiar with the topic knows that settlements can be “frozen” but nevertheless expand without any disruption, by virtue of a device called “natural growth.”

In short, the US will continue to carry forward the goal of the Oslo process: to establish a “permanent neocolonial dependency” for Palestinians (in the words of Prime Minister Barak’s chief negotiator at Camp David two years ago, representing the position of the doves). The Middle East conflict is to be resolved by force, not diplomacy, in accord with this long-standing conception.

6. Which is the impact of globalization on the world?

The term “globalization” is used by power centers to refer to the specific form of international economic integration that has been instituted within the “neoliberal” framework of past several decades. The impact of this investor-rights version of globalization is reasonably clear. Virtually all macroeconomic indicators have declined worldwide: rate of growth of the economy, of productivity, of capital investment, even trade. There are exceptions: namely, the countries that did not follow the rules, like China. In general, the regions that followed the rules more religiously, like Latin America, had the worst records. In the US, contrary to many claims, the period was one of slow growth as compared to the preceding decades, furthermore highly skewed towards the most wealthy sectors of the population. The majority suffered stagnation or decline. Social indicators also declined fairly steadily in contrast to earlier years, when they tracked growth.

In general, the impact was about as presumably intended. The process has been highly successful for those who designed it, not surprisingly: for those sectors called “the masters of the world” by the international business press, with only a touch of irony. For others, the impact has been mixed, often gloomy. But what happens to them is incidental: policies are not designed for their benefit.

7. Do you have any advice on how to institute an effective anti-globalization programm without the assistance of violence?

“Anti-globalization” is a propaganda term devised by the advocates of a particular investor-rights version of international integration. No sane person is opposed to globalization, surely not the left or the workers movements, which were founded on the commitment to international solidarity — that is, a form of globalization that is concerned with the rights and needs of people, not private capital. As for the role of violence, official “globalization” relies very heavily on it: that should be obvious without comment. But I see no reason why people-oriented globalization movements (called “anti-globalization” in the propaganda system) should do so; on the contrary, such tactics lack justification and undermine the goals of the movements. The right ways to proceed are those that have been used for centuries in popular struggles for peace, justice, and human rights. We all know what they are. There are no magic keys. They require patient education, organization, when possible and appropriate direct action — as, for example, in the actions of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, one of the most important components of the international peoples-globalization movements. There are no general rules, only specific proposals depending on circumstances and goals. One highly promising expression of the mass popular movements supporting a human-oriented form of globalization is the World Social Forum that has met twice in Porto Alegre, Brazil, perhaps sowing the seeds of the first genuine International, one might hope.

8. What do you think the political impact of US corporate, accounting scandals will be? Are you concerned about it?

They will presumably lead to some retraction of the lunatic version of markets that have been imposed by extreme reactionaries in recent years. There is a serious impact for workers who have lost their jobs and pensions, and for many others, but wealth and power will mostly escape unscathed, even enriched, as has already happened for many of those in charge. I doubt that there will be a long-term impact beyond a return to some of the regulatory apparatus that has been dismantled, predictably leading to disaster, as in the past.

9. What do you think about the formation of the Euro-army?

Europe is under no serious military threat, so a Euro-army is unlikely to be involved in defense (though whatever the military does is called “defense,” typically). We should ask, then, what tasks will be assigned to it. In a world that is far less than perfect, one can think of some legitimate tasks. But those who have an eye on history will expect something different, and not very pleasant to contemplate. These consequences are, however, in the domain of choice, and given the at least partially democratic character of Western societies, the choices can lie in the hands of a concerned public, to no slight extent.