Thursday, Sep 23, 2021

'It Is Neither "New," Nor A "War Against Terrorism"'

Chomsky Compendium Interview, from Greek, Spanish and French Press, on the unfolding events and US policies in a historical perspective

'It Is Neither
'It Is Neither "New," Nor A "War Against Terrorism"'

After the attack in the USA, Colin Powel said that the government will revise the laws for terrorism, including the law of 1976 that does not enable the American personnel to kill or plan the murder of terrorists. European Union is about to apply a new law on terrorism. Up to which point will this attack constrict our freedom? For instance, does terrorist's action give the right to any government to put us under surveillance, in order to trace suspects and prevent future attacks?

A response that is too abstract may be misleading, so let us consider a current and quite typical illustration of what such plans mean in practice. This morning (Sept. 21), the New York Times ran an opinion piece by a respected intellectual who is considered a moral leader (Michael Walzer). He called for an "ideological campaign to engage all the arguments and excuses for terrorism and reject them"; since as he knows, there are no such arguments and excuses for terrorism of the kind he has in mind, at least on the part of anyone amenable to reason, this translates as a call to reject efforts to explore the reasons that lie behind terrorist acts that are directed against states he supports. He then proceeds, in conventional fashion, to enlist himself among those who provide "arguments and excuses for terrorism," tacitly endorsing political assassination, namely, Israeli assassinations of Palestinians who it claims support terrorism; no evidence is offered or considered necessary, and in many cases even the suspicions appear groundless.

US-supplied attack helicopters have been used for such assassinations for 10 months. Walzer puts the word "assassination" in quotes, indicating that in his view, the term is part of the "fervid and highly distorted accounts of the blockade of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." He is referring to criticism of US-backed Israeli atrocities in the territories that have been under harsh and brutal military occupation for almost 35 years, and of US policies that have devastated the civilian society of Iraq (while strengthening Saddam Hussein). Such criticisms are marginal in the US, but too much for him, apparently. By "distorted accounts," perhaps Walzer has in mind occasional references to the statement of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright over national TV when she was asked about the estimates of 1/2 million deaths of Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions regime. She recognized that such consequences were a "hard choice" for her administration, but "we think the price is worth it."

I mention this single example, easily multiplied, to illustrate the substantive meaning of the relaxation of constraints on state action. We may recall that violent and murderous states quite commonly justify their actions as "counter-terrorism": for example, the Nazis fighting partisan resistance. And such actions are commonly justified by respected intellectuals. 

To be sure, there are many factors to be considered in thinking about your question. But the historical record is of overwhelming importance. At a very general level, the question cannot be answered. It depends on specific circumstances and specific proposals. 

Bundestag in Germany already decided that German soldiers will join American forces, although 80% of the German people do not agree with this, according to a survey of the Forsa Institute. How do you comment on this?

For the moment, European powers are hesitant about joining Washington's crusade, fearing that by a massive assault against innocent civilians the US will be falling into a "diabolical trap" set by bin Laden (in the words of the French foreign minister), helping him to mobilize desperate and angry people to his cause, with consequences that could be even more horrifying. 

What do you think about the nations acting as a global community at war time? It is not the first time that every country should be allied with USA, otherwise it is considered an enemy, but now Afghanistan is declaring the same thing.

The Bush administration at once gave the nations of the world "a stark choice": join us "or face the certain prospect of death and destruction" (NY Times, Sept.14). It might be interesting to seek historical precedents. 

The "global community" strongly opposes terror, including the massive terror of the powerful states, and also the terrible crimes of Sept. 11. But the "global community" does not act. When Western powers use the term "international community," they are referring to themselves. For example, NATO bombing of Serbia was undertaken by the "international community" according to consistent Western rhetoric, although those who did not have their heads buried in the sand knew that it was strongly opposed by most of the world, often quite vocally. Those who do not support the actions of wealth and power are not part of "the global community," just as "terrorism" conventionally means "terrorism directed against us and our friends."

It is hardly surprising that Afghanistan is attempting to mimic the US, calling on Muslims to support it. The scale, of course, is vastly smaller. Even as remote as they are from the world outside, Taliban leaders presumably know full well that the Islamic states are not their friends. These states are prime targets of the radical Islamic forces organized and trained by the CIA, Egypt, Pakistan and others to fight a Holy War against Russia. These states have, in fact, been subjected to terrorist attack by the radical Islamicist forces they helped to create ever since the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt -- one of the most enthusiastic of the creators -- 20 years ago.

According to you, an attack against Afganistan, is "a war against terrorism"?

 An attack against Afghanistan will probably kill a great many innocent civilians, not Taliban but their victims, possibly enormous numbers in a country where millions are already on the verge of death from starvation. It will also answer bin Laden's most fervent prayers, as Washington is hearing from foreign leaders, specialists on the region, and presumably its own intelligence agencies. Such an attack will be a massive crime in itself, and will very likely escalate the cycle of violence, including new acts of terror directed against the West, possibly with consequences even more horrifying than those of September 11. The dynamics are, after all, very familiar.

Could you imagine how the situation would be if the terrorist's attack in the USA had happened during the night, when very few people would be in the WTC? In other words, if there were very few victims, would the American government react in the same way? Up to what point is it influenced by the symbolism of this disaster, the fact that the Pentagon and the Twin Towers were hit?

I doubt that it would have made any difference. It would have been a terrible crime even if the toll had been much smaller. The Pentagon is more than a "symbol," for reasons that need no comment. As for the World Trade Center, we scarcely know what the terrorists had in mind when they bombed it in 1993 and destroyed it last week, but we can be quite confident that it had little to do with such matters as "globalization," or "economic imperialism," or "cultural values," matters that are utterly unfamiliar to bin Laden and his associates and of no concern to them, just as they are, evidently, not concerned by the fact that their atrocities over the years have caused great harm to poor and oppressed people in the Muslim world and elsewhere, again on September 11. Among the immediate victims are Palestinians under military occupation, as they surely must have known. Their concerns are different, and bin Laden, at least, has been eloquent enough in expressing them in many interviews: to overthrow the corrupt and repressive regimes of the Arab world and replace them with properly "Islamic" regimes, to support Muslims in their struggles against "infidels" in Saudi Arabia (which he regards as under US occupation), Chechnya, Bosnia, western China, North Africa, and Southeast Asia; maybe elsewhere.

It is convenient for Western intellectuals to speak of "deeper causes" such as hatred of Western values and progress. That is a useful way to avoid questions about the origin of the bin Laden network itself, and about the practices that lead to anger, fear and desperation throughout the region, and provide a reservoir from which radical Islamicist terrorist cells can sometimes draw. Since the answers to these questions are rather clear, and are inconsistent with preferred doctrine, it is better to dismiss the questions as "superficial" and "insignificant," and to turn to "deeper causes" that are in fact more superficial even insofar as they are relevant.

Are we assisting a war? Should we call it a war?

There is no precise definition of "war." People speak of the "war on poverty," the "drug war," etc. What is taking shape is not a conflict among states, though it could become one: the US has warned, loud and clear, that the nations of the world face a "stark choice": join us in our crusade or "face the certain prospect of death and destruction" (RW Apple, NYTimes, Sept. 14). If the US literally follows through on that threat, or anything like it, there will be war on an extraordinary scale. I think that is highly unlikely, but not excluded.

Is it a conventional war? A new one, a crusade, as Mr. Bush said, or simply an act of terror?

It is neither "new," nor a "war against terrorism." We should not forget that the Reagan administration came into office 20 years ago announcing that a primary focus of foreign policy would be the threat of "international terrorism," and it reacted to this threat with programs of international terrorism on a remarkable scale, even leading to a World Court condemnation of the US for "unlawful use of force" (i. e., international terrorism). 

What happened on Sept 11 was, unquestionably, a horrifying crime. There are proper ways to respond to crimes, great or small, in accord with US domestic and international law, and there are precedents; for example the one I just mentioned. Nicaragua presumably could have reacted to Washington's terrorist war by setting off bombs in Washington. Instead, it approached the World Court, which issued the judgment that I just cited. The US of course dismissed the Court with contempt. Its response was to escalate the terrorist attack, and to veto a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law, then voting against a similar General Assembly resolution (alone with Israel and El Salvador; the following year Israel alone). The US could choose to adhere to its obligations under international law as well, and of course would face no barriers. That is by no means the only example.

When the US attacked Sudan in 1998, destroying the facilities that produce half its pharmaceutical supplies (which it could not replenish), causing the death of unknown numbers of people, Sudan approached the Security Council, but the US refused to permit even an inquiry. When IRA bombs were set off in London, there was no call to bomb the US, the source of most of the financial support for the IRA. Rather, efforts were made to deal with what lay behind the resort to terror. When a federal building was blown up in Oklahoma City, there were calls for bombing the Middle East, and it probably would have happened if the source turned out to be there. When it was found to be a militia-based bombing, there was no call to obliterate Montana and Idaho, where most of the ultra-right militias are based. Rather, there was a search for the perpetrator, who was found, brought to court and sentenced, and there were efforts to understand the grievances that lie behind such crimes and to address the problems. Just about every crime -- whether a robbery in the streets or colossal atrocities -- has reasons, and commonly we find that some of them are serious and should be addressed.

These are the proper ways to respond to criminal acts, whether by individuals or by states.

Can we talk of the clash between two civilizations?

This is fashionable talk, but it makes little sense. Suppose we briefly review some familiar history.

The most populous Islamic state is Indonesia, a favorite of the US ever since Suharto took power in 1965, as army-led massacres slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, with the assistance of the US and with an outburst of euphoria from the West that was unconstrained, and is so embarrassing in retrospect that it has been effectively wiped out of memory. Suharto remained "our kind of guy," as the Clinton administration called him, as he compiled one of the most horrendous records of slaughter, torture, and other abuses of the late 20th century. The most extreme Islamic fundamentalist state, apart from the Taliban, is Saudi Arabia, a US client since its founding.

In the 1980s, the US along with Pakistani intelligence (helped by Saudi Arabia, Britain, and others), recruited, armed, and trained the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists they could find to cause maximal harm to the Russians in Afghanistan. As Simon Jenkins observes in the _London Times_, those efforts "destroyed a moderate regime and created a fanatical one, from groups recklessly financed by the Americans." One of the beneficiaries was Osama Bin Laden. Also in the 1980s, the US and UK gave strong support to their friend and ally Saddam Hussein -- more secular, to be sure, but on the Islamic side of the "clash" -- right through the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds, and beyond. 

Also in the 1980s the US fought a major war in Central America, leaving some 200,000 tortured and mutilated corpses, millions of orphans and refugees, and four countries devastated. A prime target of the US attack was the Catholic Church, which had offended the self-described "civilized world" by adopting "the preferential option for the poor." 

In the early 90s, primarily for cynical great power reasons, the US selected Bosnian Muslims as their Balkan clients, to their enormous harm. 

Without continuing, exactly where do we find the divide between "civilizations." Are we to conclude that there is a "clash of civilizations" with the Catholic Church on one side, and the US and the most murderous and fanatic religious fundamentalists of the Islamic world on the other side? I do not of course suggest any such absurdity. But exactly what are we to conclude, on rational grounds?

Do you think we are using the word civilization properly? Would a really civilized world lead us to a global war like this?

It is said that Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization, and answered that he felt it might be a good idea. No civilized society would tolerate anything I have just mentioned, which is of course only a tiny sample even of US history, and European history is even worse. And surely no "civilized world" would plunge the world into a major war instead of following the means prescribed by international law, following ample precedents. 

How do you see the imminent future? What do you expect to happen now?

The US might follow the course it has proclaimed, attacking Afghanistan and probably killing a great many innocent civilians, not Taliban but their victims, possibly enormous numbers in a country where millions are already on the verge of death from starvation. By doing so, it will also answer bin Laden's most fervent prayers, as Washington is hearing from foreign leaders, specialists on the region, and presumably its own intelligence agencies. Such an attack will be a massive crime in itself, and will very likely escalate the cycle of violence, including new acts of terror directed against the West, possibly with consequences even more horrifying than those of September 11. The dynamics are, after all, very familiar. 

Or, the US might heed the warnings that it is receiving, for example, from the French foreign minister, who warned that the US would be falling into a "diabolical trap" set by bin Laden if it massacred innocents in Afghanistan. 

I would not venture a prediction. But there clearly are choices within the spectrum just indicated.

Which political consequences do you believe this conflict will have in a long term? What kind of world will our sons and daughters heritage from us?

That depends on which course is chosen. The consequences of one or another choice are not certain, but we can make some rather plausible estimates.

What do you think the terrorists tried to do or say with the attacks?

I presume no one knows the answer better than the CIA, who helped establish and train the terrorist networks, and has been well acquainted with them since the first time that they turned against their creators, in 1981, when they assassinated President Sadat of Egypt.


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