Dr. Noam Chomsky on Imperialism, Drones & Propaganda

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Abby Martin

Media Roots, June 04, 2013

Martin talks to professor, political critic, and author of over 100 books, about the Boston bombings, US terror inflicted abroad, drones, Obama’s re-branding of Bush administration policies, the National Defense Authorization Act & Holder v. Humanitarian Law, conventional wisdom, the evolution of media propaganda, and education as a form of elite indoctrination.

RT: As someone who was living in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, the chaos, what did you think of the police and media response to them?

Noam Chomsky: I hate to second guess police tactics, but my impression was that it was kind of overdone. There didn’t have to be that degree of militarization of the area. Maybe there did, maybe not. It is kind of striking that the suspect they were looking for was found by a civilian after they lifted the curfew. They just noticed some blood on the street. But I have nothing to say about police tactics. As far as media was concerned, there was 24 hour coverage on television on all the channels.

RT: Also zeroing in on one tragedy while ignoring others, across the Muslim world, for example…

NC: Two days after the Boston bombing there was a drone strike in Yemen, one of many, but this one we happen to know about because the young man from the village that was hit testified before the Senate a couple of days later and described it. It was right at the same time. And what he said is interesting and relevant. He said that they were trying to kill someone in his village, he said that the man was perfectly well known and they could have apprehended him if they wanted.

A drone strike was a terror weapon, we don’t talk about it that way. It is, just imagine you are walking down the street and you don’t know whether in 5 minutes there is going to be an explosion across the street from some place up in the sky that you can’t see. Somebody will be killed, and whoever is around will be killed, maybe you’ll be injured if you’re there. That is a terror weapon. It terrorizes villages, regions, huge areas. In fact it’s the most massive terror campaign going on by a longshot.

What happened in the village according to the Senate testimony, he said that the jihadists had been trying to turn over the villagers against the Americans and had not succeeded. He said in one drone strike they’ve turned the entire village against the Americans. That is a couple of hundred new people who will be called terrorists if they take revenge. It’s a terrorist operation and a terrorist generating machine. It goes on and on, it’s not just the drone strikes, also the Special Forces and so on. It was right at the time of the Boston marathon and it was one of innumerable cases.
It is more than that. The man who was targeted, for whatever reason they had to target him, that’s just murder. There are principles going back 800 years to Magna Carta holding that people cannot be punished by the state without being sentenced by a trial of peers. That’s only 800 years old. There are various excuses, but I don’t think they apply.
But beyond that there are other cases which come to mind right away, where a person is murdered, who could easily be apprehended, with severe consequences. And the most famous one is Bin Laden. There were eight years of special forces highly trained, navy seals, they invaded Pakistan , broke into his compound, killed a couple people. When they captured him he was defenseless, I think his wife was with him. Under instructions they murdered him and threw his body into the ocean without autopsy. That’s only the beginning.

RT: The apprehension of bin Laden and the assassination and dumping his body into the ocean, of course the narrative completely fell apart. You’ve said that in the aftermath of 9-11 the Taliban said that we will give you Bin Laden if you present us with evidence, which we didn’t do…

NC: Their proposal was a little vague.

RT: But why are people so easy to accept conventional wisdom of government narratives, there is virtually no questioning…
NC: That’s all they hear. They hear a drumbeat of conventional propaganda, in my view. And it takes a research project to find other things.

RT: And of course at the same time of the Boston bombings, Iraq saw almost the deadliest week in 5 years, it was the deadliest month in a long time. Atrocities going on every day, suicide bombings. At the same time our foreign policy is causing these effects in Iraq…

NC: I did mention the Magna Carta, which is 800 years old, but there is also something else which is about 70 years. It’s called the Nurnberg tribunal, which is part of foundation of modern international law. It defines aggression as the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes, and it encompasses all of the evil it follows. The US and British invasion of Iraq was a textbook example of aggression, no questions about it. Which means that we were responsible for all the evil that follows like the bombings. Serious conflict arose, it spread all over the region. In fact the region is being torn to shreds by this conflict. That’s part of the evil that follows.

Every great power that I can think of… Britain was the same, France was the same, unless the country is defeated. Like when Germany was defeated after the WWII, it was compelled to pay attention to the atrocities that it carried out. But others don’t. In fact there was an interesting case this morning, which I was glad to see. There are trials going on in Guatemala for Efrain Rios Montt who is basically responsible for the virtual genocide of the Mayans. The US was involved in it every step of the way. Finally this morning there was an article about it saying that there was something missing from the trials, the US’s role. I was glad to see the article.

RT: Do you think that we will ever see white war criminals from imperial nations stand trial the way that Rios Montt did?

NC: It’s almost impossible. Take a look at the International criminal court (ICC) – black Africans or other people the West doesn’t like. Bush and Blair ought to be up there. There is no recent crime worse than the invasion of Iraq. Obama’s got to be there for the terror war. But that is just inconceivable. In fact there is a legislation in the US which in Europe is called the ‘Netherlands invasion act’, Congressional legislation signed by the president, which authorizes the president to use force to rescue an American brought to the Hague for trial.

RT: Speaking of the drone wars I can’t help but think of John Bellinger, the chief architect of the drone policy, speaking to a think-tank recently saying that Obama has ramped up the drone killings as something to avoid bad press of Gitmo, capturing the suspects alive and trying them at Gitmo. When you hear things like this what is your response to people saying that ‘his hands are tied, he wants to do well’?

NC: That was pointed out some time ago by a Wall Street journal military correspondent. What he pointed out is that Bush’s technique was to capture people and torture them, Obama has improved – you just kill them and anybody else who is around. It’s not that his hands are tied. It’s bad enough to capture them and torture them. But it’s just murder on executive whim, and as I say it’s not just murdering the suspects, it’s a terror weapon, it terrorizes everyone else. It’s not that his hands are tied, it’s what he wants to do.

RT: I would rather be detained then blown up and my family with me…

NC: And that terrorizes everyone else. There are recent polls which show the Arab public opinion. The results are kind of interesting. Arabs don’t particularly like Iran, but they don’t regard it as a threat. Its rank is rather low. They do see threats in Egypt and Iraq and Yemen, the US is a major threat, Yemen is slightly above the US, but basically they regard the US as a major threat. Why is that? Why would Egyptians, Iraqi and Yemeni regard the US as the greatest threat they face? It’s worth knowing.

RT: The controversial Obama policy, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which you are plaintiff on the case, you’ve also said that the humanitarian laws are actually worse, providing material support for terrorism. Do you think that all these policies are quantifying what has been in place for decades?

NC: The NDAA is pretty much quantifying practices that have been employed, it went a little bit beyond , and the court case is narrow, it’s about the part that went beyond – authorization to imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial. That is a radical violation of principles that go back as I said 800 years ago. I don’t frankly see much difference between imprisoning American citizens and imprisoning anyone else. They are all persons.

But we make a distinction. And that distinction was extended by the NDAA. The humanitarian law project broke no ground. There was a concept of material support for terrorism, already sort of a dubious concept, because of how to decide what is terrorism?

Well that’s an executive whim again. There is a terrorist list created by the executive branch without review, without having any right to test it. And if you look at that terrorist list it really tells you something.
So for example Nelson Mandela was on the terrorist list until three or four years ago. The reason was that in 1988 when the Regan administration was strongly supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa, in fact ruling congressional legislation in order to aid it, they declared that the African national Congress was one the most notorious terrorist groups of the world – that’s Mandela, that’s 1988, barely before apartheid collapsed. He was on the terrorist list.
We can take another case: 1982 when Iraq invaded Iran, the US was supporting Iraq and wanted to aid the Iraqi invasion, so Saddam Hussein was taken off the terrorist list…Its executive whim to begin with, we shouldn’t take it seriously. Putting that aside, material assistance meant you give him a gun or something like that. Under the Obama administration it’s you give them advice.

RT: Let’s talk about the linguistics and language of the war on terror. What did Obama’s re-branding of Bush’s policies to do consciousness?

NC: The policy of murdering people instead of capturing them and torturing them can be presented to the public in a way that makes it look clean. It is presented and I think many people see it like that as a kind of surgical strike which goes after the people who are planning to do us harm. And this is a very frightened country, terrified country, has been for a long time. So if anybody is going to do us harm it is fine for us to kill them.

How this is interpreted is quite interesting.

For example there was a case a year or two ago, when a drone attack in Yemen killed a couple little girls. There was a discussion with a well-known liberal columnist Joe Klein, he writes for the Time, he was asked what he thought about this and he said something like – it’s better that four of them are killed than four little girls here.

The logic is mind-boggling. But if we have to kill people elsewhere who might conceivably have aimed to harm us and it happens that a couple little girls get killed too, that’s fine. We are entitled to do that. Well, suppose that any country was doing it to us or to anyone we regard as human. It’s incredible! This is very common.

I remember once right after the invasion of Iraq, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times, Middle East specialist, columnist, was interviewed on the Charlie Rose show, a sort of intellectuals show. Rose asked him ‘what we ought to be doing in Iraq?’ You have to hear the actual words to grasp it, but basically what he said is something like this: ‘American troops have to smash into houses in Iraq and make those people understand that we are not going to allow terrorism. Suck on this, we are not going to allow terrorism in our society! You’d better understand that.

So those terrorized women and children in Baghdad have to be humiliated, degraded and frightened so that Osama Bin Laden won’t attack us.’ It’s mind-boggling. That is the peak of liberal intellectual culture supposedly.

RT: Famous atheists like Richard Dawkins saying that Islam is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, that is a whole another form of propaganda…

NC: Christianity right now is in much greater threat.

RT: The media is obviously instrumental in manufacturing consent for these policies. Your book ‘Media control’ was written a decade before 9-11 and it outlines exactly how sophisticated the media propaganda model is. When you wrote that book did you see how far it would come and where do you see it in 10 years?

NC: I’m afraid that it didn’t take any foresight because it has been going along a long time. Take the US invasion of South Vietnam. Did you ever see that phrase in the media? We invaded South Vietnam, when John F. Kennedy in 1962 authorized bombing of South Vietnam by the US air force, authorized napalm, authorized chemical warfare to destroy crops, started driving peasants into what we called strategic hamlets – it’s basically concentration camps where they were surrounded by barbwire to protect them from the guerrillas who the government knew very well they were supporting. What we would have called that if someone else did it.

But it’s now over 50 years. I doubt that the phrase ‘invasion of South Vietnam’ has ever appeared in the press. I think that a totalitarian state would barely be able or in fact wouldn’t be able to achieve such conformity. And this is at the critical end. I’m not talking about the ones who said there was a noble cause and we were stabbed in the back. Which generally Obama now says.

RT: It’s become so sophisticated, but I don’t know maybe beсause I am younger and I’ve seen it only in the last 10 years in the post 9-11 world. With the internet do you see the reversal of this trend when people are going to be making this form of media propaganda irrelevant? Or do you see a worsening?
NC: The internet gives options, which is good, but the print media gave plenty of options, you could read illicit journals if you wanted to. The internet gives you the opportunity to read them faster, that’s good. But if you think back over the shift from say of the invention of the printing press there was a much greater step then the invention of the internet.

That was a huge change, the internet is another change, a smaller one. It has multiple characteristics. So on the one hand it does give access to a broader range of commentary, information if you know what to look for. You have to know what to look for, however. On the other hand it provides a lot of material, well let’s put it politely, off the wall. And how a person without background, framework, understanding, isolated, alone supposed to decide?

RT: Another form of propaganda is education. You’ve said that the more educated you are the more indoctrinated you are and that propaganda is largely directed towards the educated. How dangerous is it to have an elite ruling class with the illusion of knowledge advancing their own world view on humanity?

NC: It’s old as the hills. Every form of society had some kind of privileged elite, who claimed to be the repositories of the understanding and knowledge and wanted control of what they called the rebel. To make sure that the people don’t have thoughts like ‘we want to be ruled by countrymen like ourselves, not by knights and gentlemen’.
So therefore there are major propaganda systems. It is quite striking that propaganda is most developed and sophisticated in the more free societies. The public relations industry, which is the advertising industry is mostly propaganda, a lot of it is commercial propaganda but also thought control.

That developed in Britain and the US – two of the freest societies. And for a good reason. It was understood roughly a century ago that people have won enough freedom so you just can’t control them by force.

Therefore you have to control beliefs and attitudes, it’s the next best thing. It has always been done, but it took a leap forward about a century ago with the development of these huge industries devoted to, as their leaders put it, to the engineering of content. If you read the founding documents of the PR industry, they say: ‘We have to make sure that the general public are incompetent, they are like children, if you let them run their own affairs they will get into all kind of trouble.

The world has to be run by the intelligent minority, and that’s us, therefore we have to regiment their minds, the way the army regiments its soldiers, for their own good. Because you don’t let a three-year-old run into the street, you can’t let people run their own affairs.’ And that’s a standard idea, it has taken one or another form over the centuries. And in the US it has institutionalized into major industries.