In the hours immediately following the September 11 mass murders in New York, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania, Noam Chomsky issued a statement which was widely circulated over the Internet, from the web pages of magazines like Counterpunch and in e-mails on various listservs. It began thus:
The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton's bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it).
On different listservs and in different print publications, there were immediate objections to this statement. To many, the moral equivalency between the September 11 mass murders and the bombing of the Sudanese al-Shifa factory, between acts designed to kill the maximum number of innocent people and taking more than 6000 lives at last count, and an act designed to minimize the loss of human life, taking only one, was itself profoundly repugnant.
Some were also incensed by what they saw as the indecency of not even taking a moment to offer condolences to the dead, survivors and their families before launching into the obligatory broadside against the U.S. government. For still others, it was Chomsky's rhetorical form of address, the "it is true, but..."; device, with its message that what follows the "but"; is what is truly important, that seemed so outrageous on a day when so many innocents died.
And some where also disturbed by the misstatement of what had taken place in the Sudan. One of those critics was Christopher Hitchens, who condemned the moral equivalency in a column he wrote for The Nation, in a couple of lines in an article published there.
The Origin and Nature of This Exchange
Although Chomsky and his close associates have apparently had enough second thoughts about this formulation to leave it out of the collection of his interviews and writings on September 11 which are posted on the Z-Net web page, Hitchen's criticisms were stinging enough that Chomsky mounted a response, which is now available at The Nation website [also here on the RHS -- Ed]. Chomsky dedicated the greater portion of that response to a defense of his statement of moral equivalency between the September 11 mass murders and the bombing of the Sudan factory.
My commentary on the Hitchens-Chomsky exchange, The Unbearable Whiteness of Chomsky's Arguments: Psychological Projection and The Erasure of African Victims in Chomsky's 'Reply' to Hitchens, took up the arguments Chomsky offered in his defense. For those who want to read my commentary and Chomsky's response to it, both have been posted on the Z-Net Bulletin Board [also here, see RHS -- Ed.]
For purposes of clarity, I am taking up Chomsky's arguments in point form here, focusing on, in turn, (1) the origin and nature of the exchange; (2) substantive issues regarding the effects of the bombing of the al-Shifa factory; and (3) the current situation in the Sudan and the African victims Chomsky does not recognize. I conclude with a section on (4) the significance of these issues.
A. In his "Reply" Chomsky ignores the pertinent statement cited above. He claims that I am paraphrasing and garbling another, throw away comment, buried in some "composite response to inquiries from journalists." The suggestion is, of course, that I (and other critics) are taking him out of context and misrepresenting what he says when we speak of his moral equivalency argument; he describes this as "the initial debris that Casey scatters in his effort to obscure the central issues."
But the Internet does provide a contemporaneous historical record, and there are still numerous places around the web albeit not on Z-Net, where one will find the original statement. It is time for Chomsky to take responsibility for what he said, and the way in which he said it. He should either repudiate it as a mistake and apologize for it, or defend it, but in any case, stop pretending that the many objections he now faces were to something else he said or wrote, to some minor point that has been selectively highlighted by his critics.
B. Chomsky vehemently denies that, in his response to Hitchens, he accused him of "racist contempt" for African victims of terrorism. "Anyone with minimal literacy," he avers, "can instantly determine that I unambiguously and explicitly said the precise opposite." One might forgive a reader who picked up the argument at this point if he thought that someone else had accused Hitchens of "racist contempt," and Chomsky had rushed to his defense. To the contrary, it is Chomsky who introduced the accusatory term in his response to Hitchens, and who applied it to what Hitchens wrote.
In a truculent imitation of Shakespeare's account of Brutus' funeral oration for Caesar, he tells the reader that Hitchens is an honorable man who is not a racist, so he can not have really "meant" his words of "racist contempt." He repeats this line that Hitchens can not mean what he says, just as Shakespeare's Brutus repeats his reference to "honorable men" again and again throughout his response.
Chomsky has dragged this skunk into the tent right before our eyes, and now is protesting at the top of his lungs that he is completely opposed to the resultant noxious stench that permeates the place. This is dishonest argumentation, and it is more reminiscent of the old Laugh-In skit in which Richard Nixon says, "We could burgle the Watergate, but it would be wrong [wink, wink]," than of the Shakespearean passage after which it is fashioned. Moreover, it is an insult to the intelligence of his readers, as if we did not understand Chomsky's rhetorical purpose when he tells us, again and again, that Hitchens could not have meant the words he wrote.
Unfortunately, this sets a pattern throughout the piece, as Chomsky plants insinuation next to innuendo -- such as the suggestion that the U.S. government bombed the Sudanese factory not out of a combination of poor intelligence, political opportunism and a desperate attempt to do something in response to the African embassy bombings, but out of a calculated intention to kill thousands -- without ever taking responsibility for them, much less providing proof on their behalf. It is time for Chomsky to either openly take these positions and openly defend these claims, or to stop making them. To do otherwise is to engage in a disingenuousness that ill-serves public discourse on such important matters.
2. Substantive Issues Regarding The Effects of the Bombing Of The Sudan Factory
In my original commentary on Chomsky's arguments, I noted that the issue before us was not whether the bombing was an appropriate or even defensible response to the Al Qaeda bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence clearly suggests that it was based on rather poor and faulty intelligence and that it did nothing to undermine the organizational capacity for terror from Al Qaeda -- but whether that act had led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Sudanese, as Chomsky has asserted. Chomsky, I noted, has made two types of arguments for the latter claim -- a deductive argument and an argument from authority. In his reply, he endeavors to rehabilitate those two arguments, without adding new ones, so let's return to each.
A. The deductive argument rests on two central premises:  that the bombing of the Sudanese factory destroyed so much of the stocks of and the capability to produce essential medicines (anti-malarial, antibiotics, anti-tuberculosis) that the country faced an unforeseen and calamitous shortage, and  that there was no way for the Sudanese government to remedy that shortage.
In combination, the argument goes, this led to some untold number of thousands of deaths of innocent Sudanese. In my original critique, I pointed out that there was a contradiction between two of the three authorities Chomsky cites on how much of the stocks of medicine and productive capacity to make more medicine was lost in the al-Shifa bombing: one source says that it destroyed 50% of the medicines, while another cites 90%.
Chomsky responds with a parsing of terminology that would make a Bill Clinton envious: the 50% figure referred to drugs in general, while the 90% figure referred to "major" pharmaceutical products. Chomsky goes on to provide a small vita for the author of the 90% figure, Jonathan Belke, asserting that since he is works for an economic development foundation in Cairo and has traveled in Sudan, he has firsthand knowledge of the situation and must be right. (Chomsky also suggests, contrary to the record, that Belke cited both the 50% and 90% figures, making the semantic distinction Chomsky now proposes; a simple search of the Internet shows that Belke used only the 90% figure.)
The closer one looks at this question, the clearer it becomes that the 90% figure has been fabricated out of whole cloth. The Sudanese Minister for External Relations, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly shortly after the bombing on 29 September 1998, maintained that the al-Shifa factory produced over 50% of "Sudan's requirements for essential and life-saving medicines." [UN General Assembly Press Release 9547, 29 September 1998]
Might we not reasonably assume that the government of the Sudan has the best access to the most accurate information, and that it, if anything, has every reason to inflate these numbers? Might we also not wonder what qualifies as a "major" pharmaceutical product, if not an "essential and life-saving medicine?" Since the Sudanese government knew that al-Shifa was only one of six pharmaceutical factories in its capital city of Khartoum, a fact often missing from these discussions, it undoubtedly thought that a more substantial claim would not be greeted with great credulity. It clearly underestimated the capacity of what one might call the "fundamentalist" left in the West to believe almost anything, so long as it casts discredit on the U.S. government.
All one has to do is surf Internet sites of such ideological bent to see a wide range of statistics on the subject of how much of the Sudan's medicine stocks and medicine producing capacity was lost, neatly arranged in regular ten point intervals -- 50%, 60%, 70%, 80% and 90%. Not once does one find a single citation, a solitary reference, a simple calculation, for how the particular figure was chosen. After a while, one gets the feeling of sitting in on a bizarre game of poker: "What, Hitchens claimed 60% in his book on Clinton? ( No One Left To Lie To?) If he said that, it has to be more. I'll see his 60%, and raise it ten percentage points."
The most carefully and fully documented study of the question, Michael Barletta's essay "Chemical Weapons in the Sudan: Allegations and Evidence" (in the Fall 1998 issue of The Nonproliferation Review) accepts an estimate of 50% to 60% as closest to the mark, based on a number of different journalistic reports from South African and the British news media. The 50% figure seems to me the most reasonable point of departure for this discussion, since it is the maximum figure a reasonable person might accept: it is impossible to imagine the Sudanese government understating the dimensions of the problem, which would be necessary to justify a larger figure. The figure may well be lower than 50%, but let us use the highest estimate which is in any way plausible.
B. A 50% loss would be a significant loss, and that is why it is essential to continue to press the U.S. government, as Human Rights Watch and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has done, among others, to provide compensation, should it be unable to provide supporting evidence for its claim that the factory was producing chemical weapons. But it is not a loss of such a magnitude that it was beyond the means of the Sudan to replace the lost medicine. A lot of the al-Shifa production involved medicine which is relatively easy to manufacture (chloroquine, aspirin), and thus could be shifted to one of the other five pharmaceutical factories in the capital city of the Sudan. And the "essential and life-saving medicines" produced at al-Shifa, such as chloroquine, are inexpensive and widely produced in Europe, the Americas and throughout the tropics, and could be imported into the Sudan.
In his "Reply" Chomsky insisted that substitute importation was not an option, as a combination of sanctions and Sudan's poverty prevented it. But again, investigation finds these claims to be groundless. The UN sanctions against the Sudan, adopted in 1996 after Sudanese participation in an attempted assassination of Egypt's Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia, calls for the diplomatic and political isolation of the Sudanese government, and for denying Sudanese airplanes access to foreign airports. [Security Council Resolutions 1044, 1054, and 1070]. The 1997 economic sanctions against Sudan undertaken by the U.S. government specifically exempt from their purview materials and articles "intended to relieve human suffering, such as food, clothing and medicine," and specifically allow the export of "agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices" from the U.S. to the Sudan.
Moreover, the Sudanese government has had no difficulty in circumventing the sanctions that have been in effect. Using greatly increased revenues from oil fields in the southern part of the country, and despite a European Union arms embargo in addition to the UN and US sanctions, the Sudanese government has been able to double its military expenditures, engaging in all manner of purchases on the international arms market, a U.S. Committee of Refugees report on the Sudan published this last week notes.
When one considers that the Sudanese government's genocidal civil war against its African populations has been underway for nearly two decades, and when one examines the extent of the war economy in 1998, following a decade of dramatic increases in military expenditures [see the Human Rights Watch's report on Global Trade, Local Impact: Arms Transfers to all Sides in the Civil War in Sudan], the ability of the Sudanese government to further double military expenditures in the last two years is absolutely phenomenal.
Note also that those last two years account for two of the three years since the al-Shifa bombing. Facing this evidence directly, what fair minded person could claim that the Sudanese government did not have the financial capacity to purchase replacement medicine? Or, for that matter, to rebuild a factory that had been recently purchased for $32 million? Whether the government chose to import the medicine is an open question, awaiting evidence not yet in the public realm, and even if it had, such action would not absolve the U.S. government of responsibility for compensation, should it be unable to prove its case that the factory was being used for the production of chemical weapons. But the fact that the Sudanese government could easily have done so is unquestionable. The premises of Chomsky's deductive argument simply do not stand, in the face of the available evidence. Consequently, there is no basis for his conclusion.
C. Chomsky claims that his argument from authority was not simply that, but a citation of the available evidence on the question. Here, "available evidence" is nothing more than the 50% to 90% figures, and even more general claims of devastation, offered by these authorities in the same way Chomsky offers them -- as assertions without any demonstration. (It is touching to see Chomsky's new found confidence in the accuracy and truthfulness of institutions of the mainstream media. Or is it just those institutions which print an article and commentary with quotes mirroring his assertions?)
We could not expect anything more in the way of hard evidence, Chomsky tells us, because the data on public health in the Sudan is hopelessly imprecise, such that even thousands of deaths would not show up in the figures of a WHO [World Health Organization]. What Chomsky does not say is that there are public health studies of the Sudan which cast some light, if not definitive conclusions, upon these issues. Take, for example, a 1989 assessment of the health of Sudanese affected by flood conditions that struck in early August of 1988 and a 1993 study of nutrition and mortality in the Southern Sudan (the former undertaken collaboratively by the Sudanese Ministry of Health, the WHO, the USAID and the US Center for Disease Control, and published in the January 06, 1989 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the CDC and the latter undertaken by the USAID and the CDC, and published in the April 30, 1993 Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine