August 04, 2021
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'We Should Not Underestimate The Capacity Of Well-run Propaganda Systems'

(Composite Interview with Noam Chomsky offering a historical perspective on the unfolding events after 9/11)

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'We Should Not Underestimate The Capacity Of Well-run Propaganda Systems'

Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that bin Laden was behind the events. If so, what reason might he have had? It certainly can't help poor and disempowered people anywhere, much less Palestinians, so what is his aim, if he planned the action? 

One has to be cautious about this. According to Robert Fisk, who has interviewed him repeatedly and at length, bin Laden shares the anger felt throughout the region at US support for atrocities against Palestinians, side by side with US devastation of Iraqi civilian society. That ranges from rich to poor, across the political and other spectrums, and it would be surprising if he didn't share the feelings.

Many who know the conditions well are also dubious about bin Laden's capacity to plan that incredibly sophisticated operation from a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. But that his network was involved is highly plausible, and that he is an inspiration for them, also. These are decentralized, non-hierarchic structures, probably with quite limited communication links among them. It's entirely possible that bin Laden's telling the truth when he says he didn't know about the operation, though he is outspoken in approving of it.

All that aside, bin Laden has been quite clear about what he wants, not only to any Westerners who want to interview him, like Fisk, but more importantly to an Arab audience: on cassettes in Arabic that are circulating everywhere, and that are much like what he tells Westerners, according to those who have heard them. Adopting his framework for the sake of discussion, the prime target is Saudi Arabia and other corrupt and repressive regimes of the region, none of them truly "Islamic." And he and his network are intent on supporting Muslims defending themselves against "infidels" wherever it may be: Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Western China, Southeast Asia, North Africa, maybe elsewhere.

They fought and won a holy war to drive the Russians (Europeans, in their view) out of Muslim Afghanistan, and they are even more intent on driving the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, a far more important country to them, as the site of the holiest places. His call for the overthrow of corrupt and brutal regimes of gangsters and torturers resonates quite widely, as does his indignation against the atrocities that he and others attribute to the US, hardly without reason. It's entirely true that his crimes are extremely harmful to the poorest and most oppressed people of the region. The latest attacks, for example, were a crushing blow against Palestinians.

But what looks like sharp inconsistency from outside may be perceived rather differently from within. By courageously fighting oppressors, who are quite real, he may appear to be a hero, however harmful his actions are to the poor majority. And if the US succeeds in killing him, he may become even more powerful as a martyr whose voice will continue to be heard on the cassettes that are circulating and through other means. He is, after all, as much of a symbol as an objective force, both for the US and probably much of the population. 

There's every reason, I think, to take him at his word. And his crimes can hardly come as a surprise to the CIA. "Blowback" from the radical Islamic forces organized, armed, and trained by the US-Egypt-France-Pakistan and others began almost at once, with the 1981 assassination of President Sadat of Egypt, one of the most enthusiastic of the creators of the forces assembled to fight a Holy War against the Russians. And has been continuing since without let-up.

Again, if bin Laden planned these actions, and especially if popular fears of more such actions are credible, what is the proper approach to reducing or eliminating the danger? What steps should be taken by the U.S. or others, domestically or internationally? What would be the results of those steps?

Every case is different, but let's take a few analogies. What was the right way for Britain to deal with IRA bombs in London? One choice would have been to send the RAF to bomb the source of their finances, places like Boston. Putting aside feasibility, that would have been criminal idiocy. Another possibility was to consider realistically the background concerns and grievances, and to try to remedy them, while at the same time following the rule of law to punish criminals. Makes a lot more sense, one would think. Or take the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City. There were immediate calls for bombing the Middle East, and it probably would have happened if even a remote hint of a link had been found. When it was found to be a militia-based bombing, there was no call to obliterate Montana and Idaho. Rather, there was a search for the perpetrator, who was found, brought to court and sentenced, and to the extent that the reaction was sensible, 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. At least, that is the course we follow if we have any concern for right and justice, and hope to reduce the likelihood of further atrocities rather than increase it. The same principles hold quite generally, with due attention to variation of circumstances. Specifically, they hold in this case.

There are hysterical cries that we dare not look at the reasons that lie behind criminal acts carried out by our enemies (it's fine in other cases) because that amounts to condoning them. Aside from the transparent absurdity, that stance is profoundly immoral, on the most elementary grounds: it increases the likelihood of serious harm. And like other immoral acts, we should ask what lies behind this disgraceful stance. The answers often are not pretty.

What steps, in contrast, is the U.S. government seeking to undertake? What will be the results, if they succeed in their plans?

What has been announced is a virtual declaration of war against all who do not join Washington in its resort to violence, however it chooses. 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). Bush's rhetoric of Sept. 20 forcefully reiterates that stance.

Taken literally, it's virtually a declaration of war against much of the world. But I am sure we should not take it literally. Government planners do not want to undermine their own interests so grievously. What their actual plans are, we do not know. But I suppose they will take to heart the warnings they are receiving from foreign leaders, specialists in the region, and presumably their own intelligence agencies that a massive military assault, which will kill many innocent civilians -- not Taliban, but their victims -- will be the answer to bin Laden's prayers. Even if he himself is killed -- maybe even more so if he is killed -- a slaughter of innocents will only intensify the feelings of anger, desperation and frustration that are rampant in the region, and mobilize others to his horrendous cause.

The US will fall into a "diabolical trap" that bin Laden is setting, as the French Foreign minister put it. He may well have used the words advisedly. He -- or at least his intelligence agencies -- surely know that they were instrumental in drawing the Russians into an "Afghan trap," as Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proudly informed the French press, congratulating himself on having sprung the trap months before the Russians actually invaded by arranging for US support for Mujahideen fighting the government. Brzezinski may have been bragging about his own brilliance in creating the monster that has been spreading death and destruction through much of the Middle East, Africa, and beyond, including New York City, but there's probably at least some truth to it.

What the Administration will do we don't know; it will depend in part at least on the mood at home, which we can hope to influence. What the consequences of their actions will be we also cannot say with much confidence, any more than they can. But there are plausible estimates, and unless the course of reason, law, and treaty obligations is pursued, the prospects could be quite grim.

Many people say that the citizens of Arab nations should have taken responsibility to remove terrorists from the planet, or governments that support terrorists. How do you react?

It makes sense to call upon citizens to eliminate terrorists instead of electing them to high office, lauding and rewarding them. But I would not suggest that we should have "removed our elected officials, their advisers, their intellectual claque, and their clients from the planet," or destroyed our own and other Western governments because of their terrorist crimes and their support for terrorists worldwide, including many who know fall into the category of "terrorists" because they disobeyed orders: Saddam Hussein, and many others before him. However, it is rather unfair to blame citizens of harsh and brutal regimes that we support for not undertaking this responsibility, when we do not do so under vastly more propitious circumstances.

Many people say that all through history when a nation is attacked, it attacks in kind. How do you react?

When countries are attacked they try to defend themselves, if they can. According to the doctrine proposed, Nicaragua, South Vietnam, and numerous others should have been sending suicide bombers to destroy the US from within, Palestinians should be applauded for suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, and on, and on. It is because this doctrine had brought Europe to virtual self-annihilation after hundreds of years of savagery that the nations of the world forged a different compact after World War II, establishing -- at least formally -- the principle that the resort to force is barred except in the case of self-defense against armed attack until the Security Council acts to protect international peace and security. Specifically, retaliation is barred. Since the US is not under armed attack, these considerations are irrelevant -- at least, if we agree that the fundamental principles of international law should apply to ourselves, not only to those we dislike. 

International law aside, we have centuries of experience that tell us exactly what this doctrine entails. And in a world with weapons of mass destruction, what it entails is an imminent termination of the human experiment -- which is, after all, why Europeans decided half a century ago that the game of mutual slaughter in which they had been indulging for centuries had better come to an end, or else.

Many people evince horrified anger at the expressions of anger at the U.S. emanating from many parts of the world, including but not confined to the MidEast. The images of people celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Center leave people wanting revenge. How do you react to that?

The US-backed army took control in Indonesia in 1965, organizing the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, in a massacre that the CIA compared to the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. That led to uncontrolled euphoria in the West, a display of exuberance that could not be contained, in the national media and elsewhere. Indonesian peasants had not harmed us in any way.

When Nicaragua finally succumbed to the US assault, the mainstream press lauded the success of the methods adopted to "wreck the economy and prosecute a long and deadly proxy war until the exhausted natives overthrow the unwanted government themselves," with a cost to us that is "minimal," leaving the victim "with wrecked bridges, sabotaged power stations, and ruined farms," and thus providing the U.S. candidate with "a winning issue": ending the "impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua." We are "united in joy" at this outcome, as the New York Times proclaimed. It's easy to continue. 

Very few people around the world celebrated the crimes in New York; overwhelmingly, they were deplored, even in places where people had been ground underfoot by Washington's boots for a long, long time. But there were undoubtedly feelings of anger at the US. However, I am aware of nothing as grotesque as the two examples I just mentioned, or many more like them in the West. Those who believe that reactions last week call for revenge should be dedicating themselves to a campaign of mass destruction against their own institutions, and themselves, if the reactions are based on any moral principle.

Getting beyond these public reactions, in your view what are the actual motivations operating in U.S. policy at this moment? What is the purpose of the "war on terror," as proposed by Bush? 

The "new war on terror" is neither "new" nor a "war on terror." We should recall that the Reagan administration came to office 20 years ago proclaiming that "international terrorism" would be a prime focus of our foreign policy, and we must undertake a war to eliminate this "cancer," this "plague" that was destroying civilization. It acted on that commitment by organizing campaigns of international terrorism that were extraordinary in scale and destruction, even leading to a World Court condemnation of the US, while lending their support to innumerable others, for example, in southern Africa, where Western-backed South African depredations killed a million and a half people and caused $60 billion of damage during the Reagan years.

Hysteria over international terrorism peaked in the mid-80s, while the US and its allies were well in the lead in spreading the cancer they were demanding must be extirpated. If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion. Or we can look at recent history, at the institutional structures that remain essentially unchanged, at the plans that are being announced -- and answer the questions accordingly. I know of no reason to suppose that there has been a sudden change in long-standing motivations or policy goals, apart from tactical adjustments to changing circumstances. 

We should also remember than one exalted task of intellectuals is to proclaim every few years that we have "changed course," the past is behind us and can be forgotten as we march on towards a glorious future. That is a highly convenient stance, though hardly an admirable or sensible one.

Do you believe that most Americans will, as conditions permit more detailed evaluation of options, accept that the solution to terror attacks on civilians is more terror attacks on civilians, and that that solution to fanaticism is surveillance and curtailed civil liberties. 

I hope not, but we should not underestimate the capacity of well-run propaganda systems to drive people to irrational, murderous, and suicidal behavior. Take an example that is remote enough so that we should be able to look at it with some dispassion: World War I. It can't have been that both sides were engaged in a noble war for the highest objectives. But on both sides, the soldiers marched off to mutual slaughter with enormous exuberance, fortified by the cheers of the intellectual classes and those who they helped mobilize, across the political spectrum, from left to right, including the most powerful left political force in the world, in Germany.

Exceptions are so few that we can practically list them, and some of the most prominent among them ended up in jail for questioning the nobility of the enterprise: among them Rosa Luxemburg, Bertrand Russell, and Eugene Debs. With the help of Wilson's propaganda agencies and the enthusiastic support of liberal intellectuals, a pacifist country was turned in a few months into raving anti-German hysterics, ready to take revenge on those who had perpetrated savage crimes, many of them invented by the British Ministry of Information. But that's by no means inevitable, and we should not underestimate the civilizing effects of the popular struggles of recent years. We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders.

(Published as Composite Interview #3, Sept 22, By arrangement with Zmag)

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