Longtime MIT professor Noam Chomsky has spent much of his political life peeling away the layers of lies and exposing the hypocrisies of the powerful.
“The premises are accepted, and within that framework you can have criticism,” he told me. He advises citizens to break down the embedded assumptions. Few have been doing that for so long and with such consistency as Chomsky.
I talked with him in his office at MIT in mid-February.
It was a typical day for the seemingly tireless seventy-five-year-old Philadelphia native. He had just come from a BBC interview. But before we sat down to do ours, he had an office matter to tend to. He took me down to a basement filled with file cabinets. He was tossing out old files and doing a running commentary on practically each one of them. As they were mostly about linguistics, almost all the references went right by me. Chomsky is a pioneer in linguistics. His Syntactic Structures, published in the 1950s, revolutionized the field. I recall years ago someone said that in Europe some people thought there were two Noam Chomskys, one who did linguistics and the other the political activist. His book 9-11 was hugely successful. His latest, Hegemony or Survival, is on many national and international bestseller lists. It even got on The New York Times business bestseller list.
The “newspaper of record” has an odd history with Chomsky. It doesn’t publish his letters. His name is used disparagingly as a synonym for anti-Americanism. Yet in the past few months he has been the subject of a profile in the Sunday magazine, and the paper has published one of his op-eds. That Chomsky has a legitimate point of view may finally be dawning on the editors on West 43rd Street.
Chomsky views the Bush Administration as a group of “radical nationalists” dedicated to “imperial violence.” He is worried about what four more years might bring. Ever the scientist, he is acutely aware of threats to the environment and the militarization of space. So concerned is Chomsky that, in a move that surprised some, he just gave his tepid endorsement to John Kerry, calling him “a fraction” better than Bush. But that fraction “can translate into large outcomes.” He said the Bush Administration is so “savage and cruel” it was important to replace it.
Chomsky maintains a punishing speaking schedule in the U.S. and abroad. I was with him at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, last year. After speaking to 20,000 at a stadium, we marched in the streets. People were calling out his name and saying, “Thank you, thank you for coming.” The level of appreciation and affection was moving. But that kind of adulation doesn’t affect his steady demeanor. As I’ve heard him say many times, he considers it a privilege to do what he is doing.
I’ve been working with him for more than twenty years, and people are always asking me, “What’s Chomsky like?” Under that relentlessly logical and rational brain is a man of great compassion, warmth, and humor.
After I finished this interview with Chomsky, I passed two journalists from Greece outside his office waiting to interview him. That’s how it is for him almost every day.
Question: Bush’s attack on Iraq was based on lies and violated international law. Why has there not been any discussion about war crimes, and why aren’t people talking about impeachment?
Noam Chomsky: They are. In fact, various lawyers’ groups–to some extent in the U.S. but mostly in England and Canada and elsewhere–are bringing demands for a war crimes trial for the crime of aggression. However, though the invasion of Iraq was plainly an act of aggression, it doesn’t break any records.
What was the invasion of South Vietnam, for example, in 1962, when Kennedy sent the Air Force to bomb South Vietnam and start chemical warfare? That’s aggression.
Or what was the Indonesian invasion of East Timor?
What was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which ended up killing 20,000 people?
These last two were carried out thanks to decisive U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic support. And the list goes on.
The invasion of Panama, what was that? The U.S. killed, according to the Panamanians, 3,000 civilians. Maybe they’re right. We don’t investigate our own crimes, so nobody knows. But it certainly killed plenty of people–on the scale of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, roughly the same casualties. The U.S. used its veto power on the Security Council and voted against the condemnation in the General Assembly. Manuel Noriega was illegally brought back to Florida, tried in a ridiculous trial in which he was convicted of crimes which he had indeed committed, almost all of them when he was on the CIA payroll. It was just like the trial of Saddam Hussein will be, if he ever comes to trial: He will be convicted of crimes that the U.S. supported, but that part won’t be mentioned.
The case of Iraq was a bit unusual, for a lot of reasons–for one, because it was over such overwhelming international opposition. I don’t think there has ever been a case where global opinion was so overwhelmingly against an action.
How does the international law community deal with this? That’s quite interesting. In fact, if you have the time, I would suggest reading professional journals like The American Journal of International Law. When something like this takes place, the international law professionals have a complicated task. There is a fringe that just tells the truth: Look, it’s a violation of international law. But most have to construct complex arguments to justify it as defense counsel. That’s basically their job, defense counsel for state power.
They say that the Security Council doesn’t have the military force to carry out the will of the community of nations, so therefore it implicitly delegates this to states that do have the force, meaning the United States. And therefore, the U.S., by invading Iraq, under a communitarian interpretation of the Charter, was in actuality fulfilling the will of the international community. It’s irrelevant that 90 percent of the world’s population and almost all states bitterly condemned it.
This is a large part of the academic profession: to make up complex, subtle arguments that are childishly ridiculous but are enveloped in sufficient profundity that they take on a kind of plausibility. The basic principle is that the losers have to confess, not the victors. When they do it, it’s a crime. When we do it, it’s not. And more generally, it’s the defeated who are tried, not the victors. Every one of these trials, almost without exception, is victors’ justice. Sometimes they’re legitimate, but that’s kind of incidental.
Q: What is the Bush imperial strategy?
Chomsky: It has two components. One is that we declare that we have the right to carry out offensive military actions against countries we regard as a security threat because they have weapons of mass destruction. Many criticized it, not so much because they disagreed but because they thought the brazenness was ultimately a threat to the United States and therefore shouldn’t be done that way. Even Madeleine Albright, in an article in Foreign Affairs, pointed out, quite accurately, that this is not the kind of thing you do. Of course, every President has that doctrine, but you don’t advertise it. You keep it in your pocket, and you use it when you want to. So this is just kind of stupid and dangerous.
The most interesting comment, perhaps, was Kissinger’s. He described it as a revolutionary new doctrine in international affairs which, of course, tears up the whole Westphalian system from the early seventeenth century. It’s a good doctrine, he said, but added that we have to understand that it is not in the national interest for this doctrine to be universalized. That’s a nice way of saying the doctrine is for us, not for anyone else. We will use force whenever we like against anyone we regard as a potential threat, and maybe we will delegate that right to clients, but it’s not for others.
Q: And the other part?
Chomsky: It says states that harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves and will be treated as such.
How does that one work? What are the states that harbor terrorists? Let’s put aside harboring leaders of states who are terrorists. If we count that, it reduces to absurdity in no time. So let’s talk about the kind of terrorists whom they regard as terrorists, what I call subnational terrorists, like those in Al Qaeda and Hamas. What states harbor them?
Just to give a little background, the U.S. launched a terrorist war against Cuba in 1959. It picked up rapidly under Kennedy, with Operation Mongoose–a major escalation that actually came close to leading to nuclear war. And all through the 1970s, terrorist actions against Cuba were being carried out from U.S. territory, in violation of U.S. law and, of course, international law. The U.S. was harboring the terrorists, and quite serious ones.
There is Orlando Bosch, for example, whom the FBI accuses of thirty serious terrorist acts, including participation in the destruction of the Cubana airliner in which seventy-three people were killed back in 1976. The Justice Department wanted him deported. It said he’s a threat to the security of the United States. George Bush I, at the request of his son Jeb, gave Bosch a Presidential pardon. He’s sitting happily in Miami, and we’re harboring a person whom the Justice Department regards as a dangerous terrorist, a threat to the security of the U.S.
Here’s another example: The Venezuelan government is now asking for extradition of two military officers who were accused of participation in bombing attacks in Caracas and then just fled the country. These military officers participated in a coup, which, for a couple of days, overthrew the government. The U.S. openly supported the coup, and, according to British journalists, was involved in instigating it. The officers are now pleading for political asylum in the U.S.
Or take, say, Emmanuel Constant, whose death squads killed maybe 4,000 or 5,000 Haitians [during the early 1990s while he was on the payroll of the CIA]. Today, he is living happily in Queens because the U.S. refused to even respond to requests from Aristide for extradition.
So who is harboring terrorists? If the most important revolutionary part of the Bush Doctrine is that states that harbor terrorists are terrorist states, what do we conclude from that? We conclude exactly what Kissinger was kind enough to say: These doctrines are unilateral. They are not intended as doctrines of international law or doctrines of international affairs. They are doctrines that grant the U.S. the right to use force and violence and to harbor terrorists, but not anyone else.
Q: Do you think the reverence toward Bush is showing signs of withering?
Chomsky: No. The withering does not question what he’s trying to do, only that he’s doing it badly. If you want to find weapons of destruction, you can find them all over the place. Take, say, Israel. There is a very great concern right now about proliferation of nuclear weapons, as there should be. Israel has a couple of hundred nuclear weapons and also chemical and biological weapons. This stockpile is not only a threat in itself but encourages others to proliferate in reaction and in self-defense. Is anybody saying anything about this?
Q: Why do elite decisionmakers–who have children and grandchildren–pursue policies that are potentially so destructive?
Chomsky: Around 1950, the U.S. had a position of security that’s unparalleled in human history. It controlled the hemisphere, controlled both oceans, controlled the opposite sides of both oceans. There wasn’t a threat within shouting distance–except for one. The potential threat was intercontinental ballistic missiles with thermonuclear warheads. They weren’t yet available, but they were beginning to be developed. And that would be a threat to the U.S. heartland. It could destroy it, in fact. If you cared about your children and your grandchildren, you would do something to prevent that threat from developing.
Could it have been done? It wasn’t tried, so we don’t know. But it would at least have been possible to explore treaties that would have blocked the development of these weapons. The Russians were so far behind, and legitimately frightened and threatened, that they might well have agreed to not develop these weapons. They also understood that the U.S. was trying to spend them into economic destruction. It’s possible, in fact likely, that they would have accepted it.
What’s the historical record? There is a standard magisterial history on this by McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national security adviser. And he writes, more or less in passing, that he was unable to find any mention of even the possibility of pursuing this option. It’s not that it was suggested and rejected; he said it wasn’t mentioned.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson, arms control negotiator Paul Nitze, and the rest were not stupid people. But it didn’t occur to them, because it doesn’t occur to you that you might try to save a world in which your children and grandchildren can survive when you have higher aims, like maximizing short-term power and privilege.
Q: Why do so many people in the United States just go along with U.S. policy?
Chomsky: What’s striking is that this view is accepted without coercion. If you’re living in a dictatorship or under kings and princes or in a place run by murderous bishops, you’d better take that view or you’re in deep trouble. You get burned at the stake or thrown into the gulag or something.
In the West, you don’t get in any trouble if you tell the truth, but you still can’t do it. Not only can’t you tell the truth, you can’t think the truth. It’s just so deeply embedded, deeply instilled, that without any meaningful coercion it comes out the same way it does in a totalitarian state.
Orwell had some words about this in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm. He says straight, look, in England what comes out in a free country is not very different from this totalitarian monster that I’m describing in the book. It’s more or less the same. How come in a free country? He has two sentences, which are pretty accurate. One, he says, the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And second–and I think this is much more important–a good education instills in you the intuitive understanding that there are certain things it just wouldn’t do to say.
I don’t think he goes far enough. I’d say there are certain things it wouldn’t do to think. A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension–it becomes unconscious and reflexive–that you just don’t think certain things, things that are threatening to power interests.
Not everyone accepts this. But most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can look back at our own personal history. For those of us who got into good colleges or the professions, did we stand up to that high school history teacher who told us some ridiculous lie about American history and say, “That’s a ridiculous lie. You’re an idiot”? No. We said, “All right, I’ll keep quiet, and I’ll write it in the exam and I’ll think, yes, he’s an idiot.” And it’s easy to say and believe things that improve your self-image and your career and that are in other ways beneficial to yourselves.
It’s very hard to look in the mirror. We all know this. It’s much easier to have illusions about yourself. And in particular, when you think, well, I’m going to believe what I like, but I’ll say what the powerful want, you do that over time, and you believe what you say.
Q: Someone reading this interview may say, “Chomsky has all this command of facts and history. But what do I do as an individual?” How would you respond to that?
Chomsky: The first thing you ought to do is verify what I present. Just because I say it doesn’t make it true. So check it out, see what looks correct, what looks wrong, look at other material which wasn’t discussed, figure out what the truth really is. That’s what you’ve got a brain for.
If you think that the general thrust of it is correct, there should be no problem in doing something about it. We’re not going to be thrown into prison and face torture. We’re not going to get assassinated. We have enormous privilege. We have tremendous freedom. That means endless opportunities.
I should tell you that every night I get many letters, and after every talk I get many questions from people who say, “I want to change things. What can I do?” I never hear these questions from peasants in southern Colombia or Kurds in southeastern Turkey under miserable repression or anybody who is suffering. They don’t ask what they can do; they tell you what they’re doing.
Somehow the fact of enormous privilege and freedom carries with it a sense of impotence, which is a strange, but striking, phenomenon. The fact is, we can do just about anything. There is no difficulty, wherever you are, in finding groups that are working hard on things that concern you.
But that’s not the kind of answer that people want. The answer that they want, I think, in the back of their minds is, what can I do that will be quick and easy and bring about an end to these problems? They remind me of Columbia students whom I used to argue with back in 1968, who literally thought, “Look, we’re sitting in the president’s office for a couple of weeks. After that, it’s all going to be peace and love.” Or people who say, “I went to a demonstration, and it’s the same as it was before. Fifteen million people marched in the streets on February 15, and the war went on. It’s hopeless.”
That’s not the way things work. If you want to make changes in the world, you’re going to have to be there day after day doing the boring, straightforward work of getting a couple of people interested and building a slightly bigger organization and carrying out the next move and suffering frustration and finally getting somewhere. That’s how the world changes.