Home »  Website »  International »  Interviews »  Western Civilization?

Western Civilization?

It miight be a good idea as Gandhi is said to have said. Chomsky Interview 5: continuing conversations...

Znet INTERVIEWS | 25 September 2001
Western Civilization?

Do you condemn terrorism? How can we decide which act is terrorism and which one is an act of resistance of a desperate nation against a tyrant or an occupying force? In which of the previous categories do you "classify" the recent strike against USA?

I understand the term "terrorism" exactly in the sense defined in official US documents: "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear."

In accord with this -- entirely appropriate -- definition, the recent attack on the US is certainly an act of terrorism, in fact, a horrifying terrorist crime. There is scarcely any disagreement about this throughout the world, nor should there be.

But alongside the literal meaning of the term, as just quoted from US official documents, there is also a propagandistic usage, which unfortunately is the standard one: the term "terrorism" is used to refer to terrorist acts committed by enemies against us or our allies. Political scientist Michael Stohl is quite correct when he writes that "we must recognize that by convention -- and it must be emphasized only by convention -- great power use and the threat of the use of force is normally described as coercive diplomacy and not as a form of terrorism," though it commonly involves "the threat and often the use of violence for what would be described as terroristic purposes were it not great powers who were pursuing the very same tactic."

This propagandistic use is virtually universal. Everyone "condemns terrorism," in this sense of the term. The Nazis harshly condemned terrorism, and carried out counter-terrorism against the terrorist partisans -- in Greece, for example. The US basically agreed. It organized and conducted similar "counter-terrorism" in Greece and elsewhere in the postwar years. Furthermore, US counterinsurgency programs drew quite explicitly from the Nazi model, which was treated with respect: Wehrmacht officers were consulted and their manuals were used in designing postwar counterinsurgency programs worldwide, typically called "counter-terrorism." 

Given these conventions, even the very same people and actions can quickly shift from "terrorists" to "freedom fighters" and back again. That's been happening right next door to Greece in recent years. The kla-uck were officially condemned by the US as "terrorists" in 1998, because of their attacks on Serb police and civilians in an effort to elicit a disproportionate and brutal Serbian response, as they openly declared. As late as January 1999, the British -- the most hawkish element in NATO on this matter -- believed that the kla-uck was responsible for more deaths than Serbia, which is hard to believe, but at least tells us something about perceptions at high levels in NATO. If one can trust the voluminous documentation provided by the state department, NATO, the OSCE, and other western sources, nothing materially changed on the ground until the withdrawal of the KVM monitors and the bombing in late march 1999. But policies did change: the US and UK decided to launch an attack on Serbia, and the "terrorists" instantly became "freedom fighters." After the war, they became "terrorists," "thugs," and "murderers" as they carried out similar actions in Macedonia, a US ally.

Everyone condemns terrorism, but we have to ask what they mean. You can find the answer to your question about my views in many books and articles that I have written about terrorism in the past several decades, though I use the term in the literal sense, and hence condemn all terrorist actions, not only those that are called "terrorist" for propagandistic reasons.

It should be unnecessary to point out that massive terrorism is a standard device of powerful states, just as Stohl observes. Some cases are not even controversial. Take the US war against Nicaragua, leaving tens of thousands dead and the country in ruins. Nicaragua appealed to the world court, which condemned the US for international terrorism ("the unlawful use of force"), ordering it to desist and pay substantial reparations. The US responded to the court ruling by sharply escalating the war, and vetoing a security council resolution calling on all states to observe international law. The escalation included official orders to attack "soft targets" -- undefended civilian targets, like agricultural collectives and health clinics -- and to avoid the Nicaraguan army. The terrorists were able to carry out these instructions, thanks to the completely control of Nicaraguan air space by the US and the advanced communications equipment provided to them by their supervisors.

It should also be recognized that these terrorist actions were widely approved. One prominent commentator, Michael Kinsley, at the liberal extreme of the mainstream, argued that we should not simply dismiss state department justifications for terrorist attacks on "soft targets": a "sensible policy" must "meet the test of cost-benefit analysis," an analysis of "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end" -- "democracy" as the US understands the term, an interpretation illustrated quite clearly in the region. It is taken for granted that US elites have the right to conduct the analysis and pursue the project if it passes their tests. When the terrorist project succeeded, and Nicaragua succumbed, Americans were "united in joy," the New York Times proclaimed, knowing full well how the goal was achieved. As Time magazine put it joyfully, the methods were 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 US candidate with "a winning issue": ending the "impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua." euphoria over the achievement was unconstrained among elites.

But the US terrorist war was not "terrorism," it was "counter-terrorism" by doctrinal standards. And US standards prevail in much of the world, as a result of US power and the cost of defying it.

This is by no means the most extreme example; I mention it because it is uncontroversial, given the world court decision, and because the failed efforts of Nicaragua to pursue lawful means, instead of setting off bombs in washington, provide a model for today, not the only one.

There are (in the light of the recent terrorist attack) a lot of debate and controversy here in Greece (and I suppose in other countries) that in the wholeness of human history, there had not been a single superpower with ethics. Many analysts, historians, politicians and intellectuals claim that superpowers, nations, states and all the other human institutes are interested only in becoming bigger, stronger. In other words, power and authority have nothing to do with values, ethics and ideas. They have only to do with more power, more money, much greater force, and much greater authority. Do you believe that? Do we have an historic example of an empire, a state, a superpower that dealt with the rest of the world and the citizens having in mind human values?

I am frankly surprised that there is even a debate. States are not moral agents. They are systems of power, which respond to the internal distribution of power. Human beings, however, are moral agents, and can impose significant constraints on the violence of their own states, particularly in societies that are more free. They may fail to do so; the international behavior of classical Athens was hardly delightful, to mention one case, and we need not speak of the examples of modern history. But they can do so, and often do. Of course, virtually every system of power describes itself as deeply humane and pursuing the highest values, and a primary task of elite intellectuals is to lead the chorus of self-acclaim, as they commonly do. That is another story, which should be just as familiar, right up to the present moment. I have two recent books reviewing how "the herd of independent minds" (Harold Rosenberg's apt description of intellectual elites) fulfilled their function in the past few years, perhaps establishing new records in disgracing the intellectual vocation.

It is obvious that American politicians and intelligence officers know many things that we don't about this tragedy. In many cases we will hear half-true facts and straightforward lies. I've read in many articles and book of yours that when a politician tells a lie, in a short time he comes to believe it! (forgive me for not quoting you exactly). a) How can we explain this attitude? b) Which do you think that are the biggest lies and half true facts we heard until now for this tragedy? 

I have to disagree. I doubt that US intelligence knows much that others cannot discover. That is quite commonly the case, as we learn from a rich record of declassified documents, and the record of history as well. But public officials, and the obedient chorus, are not expected to tell the truth about what they know. Rather, they are supposed to proclaim that we were targeted because of our magnificence: "they hate us because we champion a `new world order' of capitalism, individualism, secularism and democracy that should be the norm everywhere" (respected liberal intellectual Ronald Steel, NY Times, Sept. 14).

Anyone who pays minimal attention to the facts knows that the reasons are quite different, not only among the terrorist networks that the CIA helped to organize, arm, train and nurture for a holy war against the Russians, but even among wealthy, privileged, and pro-American sectors of the population.The same day, the wall street journal published a review of opinions of "moneyed Muslims" in the region: bankers, professionals, businessmen. They expressed dismay and anger about US support for harsh authoritarian states and the barriers that Washington places against independent development and political democracy by its policies of "propping up oppressive regimes." their primary concern, however, was Washington's twin policies of support for Israel's harsh and brutal military occupation and devastation of the civilian society of iraq, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, while strengthening Saddam Hussein -- who they know very well received strong support from Washington and London through the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds and beyond. Among the great mass of poor and suffering people, similar sentiments are much more bitter, and they are also hardly pleased to see the wealth of the region flow to the west and to small western-oriented elites and corrupt and brutal rulers backed by western power.

Bin Laden has issued the same charges -- just a few days ago once again, in a long interview on the only independent Arab radio channel, rebroadcast by BBC. He and his associates, however, have other goals: in their words, driving "foreign invaders" out of Muslim lands, replacing the corrupt and repressive regimes by true "Islamic" ones, and defending Muslims fighting for their rights in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, western china, the Philippines, and elsewhere. All of this they see as a continuation of the holy war against the Russians that they fought with the support of the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and others who they regard as enemies of Islam.

We see that, nowadays, the value of human life is getting... Depreciated rapidly. Do you think that this phenomenon will continue to scale? The US government (and the western word in general) does consider human life as a valuable "asset"?

Again, I do not agree. What was the value of human life throughout the whole history of European imperialism? For example, when the US was expanding to its national borders, overcoming "that hapless race of Native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty," to quote president John Quincy Adams, long after his own substantial contributions to the enterprise he came to regret, but before further inglorious exploits. What was the value of human life when king Leopold of Belgium killed 10 million Congolese? Or when 1/3 of the population of Germany was killed in one 17th century war, not to speak of more recent examples? In fact we can go back as far as we like. Everyone is, or should be, familiar with the exaltation of genocide in the holiest books of western civilization.

Now, as far as this strike against Manhattan and the pentagon is concerned. How do you judge the coverage of the tragedy by the US media? How do you comment on the explanation given by many US media that "the terrorists struck USA because they hate western values (civil liberties, tolerance, welfare, etc).

The second question we can simply dismiss. It is self-serving nonsense, and its purveyors surely know that, at least if they have any familiarity the current history, including the middle east. Naturally, these are convenient pretenses, which serve to deflect attention from the actual grievances expressed even by the most pro-western elements in the middle east, as is "well-known" (in the words of the Wall Street Journal article I quoted).

As for the media, we have to ask how they dealt with the basic questions that arise in the case of crimes, small or horrendous: who was responsible? What should the response be? Why did it happen? There has been virtually no discussion of any of these questions. The request of the Arab league, China, even NATO that the US present credible evidence is dismissed as an absurdity, and in the case of the Taliban, further evidence of their criminality. The US will produce a white paper, which perhaps will be accepted by its allies, though the evidence is hardly likely to be more persuasive than it was after earlier terrorist bombings attributed to these terrorist networks -- probably correctly, but judgments are not evidence. As for what should be done, there is virtually no discussion of the lawful course that was pursued by Nicaragua, among others: when our leaders call for violence, we must applaud their courage and integrity. As for why, apart from a few exceptions like the Wall Street Journal, several times, there is very little in the mainstream.

What do you think is: a) best case scenario b) worst case scenario c) the most probable scenario?

The proper reaction is to pursue the lawful course: Nicaragua is hardly the only precedent -- and bear in mind that the terrorist attack it suffered was far more destructive even than the September 11 crimes. To take another case, 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, where I live. 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. 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 been done if even a remote hint of a link had been found. When the perpetrator was found to be someone with links to the ultra-right militias, there was no call to obliterate Texas, Montana, Idaho and other places where the militias are located. Rather, the perpetrator 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. Specifically, they hold in this case.

The worst case scenario would be to carry out a massive assault that would kill many innocent people -- in Afghanistan, not Taliban but their victims. Apart from the crime itself, that would answer bin Laden's prayers, as foreign leaders, specialists on the region, and probably US intelligence agencies are advising Washington: it would serve to rally many angry and desperate people to his horrendous cause, and to escalate the cycle of violence, with outcomes that could be catastrophic. Even if bin laden is killed, such an assault would be likely to have that effect: he would become a martyr, and his voice would resound all over the Arabic-speaking world, on the thousands of cassettes that are already circulating.

What do you believe that was the most hideous terrorist act in history? 

It is impossible to answer. It depends which crimes we decide to call "terrorism," and what time scale we select.

What do you think motivated the terrorists to commit such a crime? The "enemy" was in the twin towers in Manhattan, in the pentagon or somewhere else? Where was the real enemy? 

As I've said, we have every reason to take them at their word. And their word is very clear, as their deeds have been, for 20 years, when the radical Islamic forces that were organized by the CIA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others, carried out their first attack against their creators, assassinating president Sadat of Egypt, one of the most enthusiastic of these.

Subscribe to Outlook’s Newsletter

Next Story : Is Musharraf Walking Into A US Trap?
Download the Outlook ​Magazines App. Six magazines, wherever you go! Play Store and App Store
Online Casino Betway Banner