Six Q&A From Noam Chomsky
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From: Michael Albert <sysop@...>
Today's commentary is an interview with Noam Chomsky. I sent him six
questions, and he answered them. There is of course also more new
material online on ZNet. I particularly recommend the Arundhati Roy
essay that Chomsky mentions below, which we received, perhaps in a
longer version -- I am not entirely sure -- and put online yesterday.
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And so, here is today's commentary...
Albert Interviews Chomsky...
I sent six questions to Noam Chomsky. His answers, by email, are below.
(1) There has been an immense movement of troops and extreme use of
military rhetoric, up to comments about terminating governments, etc.
Yet, to many people there appears to be considerable restraint...what
>From the first days after the attack, the Bush administration has beenwarned by NATO leaders, specialists on the region, and presumably its
own intelligence agencies (not to speak of many people like you and me)
that if they react with a massive assault that kills many innocent
people, that will be answering bin Laden's most fervent prayers. They
will be falling into a "diabolical trap," as the French foreign minister
put it. That would be true -- perhaps even more so -- if they happen to
kill bin Laden, still without having provided credible evidence of his
involvement in the crimes of Sept. 11. He would then be perceived as a
martyr even among the enormous majority of Muslims who deplore those
crimes, as bin Laden himself has done, for what it is worth, denying any
involvement in the crimes or even knowledge of them, and condemning "the
killing of innocent women, children, and other humans" as an act that
"Islam strictly forbids...even in the course of a battle" (BBC, Sept.
29). His voice will continue to resound on tens of thousands of
cassettes already circulating throughout the Muslim world, and in many
interviews, including the last few days. An assault that kills innocent
Afghans -- not Taliban, but their terrorized victims -- would be
virtually a call for new recruits to the horrendous cause of the bin
Laden network and other graduates of the terrorist networks set up by
the CIA and its associates 20 years ago to fight a Holy War against the
Russians, meanwhile following their own agenda, from the time they
assassinated President Sadat of Egypt in 1981, murdering one of the most
enthusiastic of the creators of the "Afghanis" -- mostly recruits from
extremist radical Islamist elements around the world who were recruited
to fight in Afghanistan.
After a little while, the message apparently got through to the Bush
administration, which has -- wisely from their point of view -- chosen
to follow a different course.
However, "restraint" seems to me a questionable word. On Sept. 16, the
New York Times reported that "Washington has also demanded [from
Pakistan] a cutoff of fuel supplies,...and the elimination of truck
convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to
Afghanistan's civilian population." Astonishingly, that report elicited
no detectable reaction in the West, a grim reminder of the nature of the
Western civilization that leaders and elite commentators claim to
uphold, yet another lesson that is not lost among those who have been at
the wrong end of the guns and whips for centuries. In the following
days, those demands were implemented. On Sept. 27, the same NYT
correspondent reported that officials in Pakistan "said today that they
would not relent in their decision to seal off the country's 1,400- mile
border with Afghanistan, a move requested by the Bush administration
because, the officials said, they wanted to be sure that none of Mr. bin
Laden's men were hiding among the huge tide of refugees" (John Burns,
Islamabad). According to the world's leading newspaper, then, Washington
demanded that Pakistan slaughter massive numbers of Afghans, millions of
them already on the brink of starvation, by cutting off the limited
sustenance that was keeping them alive. Almost all aid missions withdrew
or were expelled under the threat of bombing. Huge numbers of miserable
people have been fleeing to the borders in terror, after Washington's
threat to bomb the shreds of existence remaining in Afghanistan, and to
convert the Northern Alliance into a heavily armed military force that
will, perhaps, be unleashed to renew the atrocities that tore the
country apart and led much of the population to welcome the Taliban when
they drove out the murderous warring factions that Washington and Moscow
now hope to exploit for their own purposes. When they reach the sealed
borders, refugees are trapped to die in silence. Only a trickle can
escape through remote mountain passes. How many have already succumbed
we cannot guess, and few seem to care. Apart from the relief agencies, I
have seen no attempt even to guess. Within a few weeks the harsh winter
will arrive. There are some reporters and aid workers in the refugee
camps across the borders. What they describe is horrifying enough, but
they know, and we know, that they are seeing the lucky ones, the few who
were able to escape -- and who express their hopes that ''even the cruel
Americans must feel some pity for our ruined country,'' and relent in
this savage silent genocide (Boston Globe, Sept. 27, p. 1).
Perhaps the most apt description was given by the wonderful and
courageous Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, referring to
Operation Infinite Justice proclaimed by the Bush Administration:
"Witness the infinite justice of the new century. Civilians starving to
death while they're waiting to be killed" (Guardian, Sept. 29).
(2) The UN has indicated that the threat of starvation in Afghanistan is
enormous. International criticism on this score has grown and now the
U.S. and Britain are talking about providing food aid to ward off
hunger. Are they caving in to dissent in fact, or only in appearance?
What is their motivation? What will be the scale and impact of their
The UN estimates that some 7-8 million are at risk of imminent
starvation. The NY Times reports in a small item (Sept. 25) that nearly
six million Afghans depend on food aid from the UN, as well as 3.5
million in refugee camps outside, many of whom fled just before the
borders were sealed. The item reported that some food is being sent, to
the camps across the border. If people in Washington and the editorial
offices have even a single gray cell functioning, they realize that they
must present themselves as humanitarians seeking to avert the awesome
tragedy that followed at once from the threat of bombing and military
attack and the sealing of the borders they demanded. "Experts also urge
the United States to improve its image by increasing aid to Afghan
refugees, as well as by helping to rebuild the economy" (Christian
Science Monitor, Sept. 28). Even without PR specialists to instruct
them, administration officials must comprehend that they should send
some food to the refugees who made it across the border, and at least
talk about air drop of food to starving people within: in order "to save
lives" but also to "help the effort to find terror groups inside
Afghanistan" (Boston Globe, Sept. 27, quoting a Pentagon official, who
describes this as "winning the hearts and minds of the people"). The New
York Times editors picked up the same theme the following day, 12 days
after the journal reported that the murderous operation is being put
On the scale of aid, one can only hope that it is enormous, or the human
tragedy may be immense in a few weeks. But we should also bear in mind
that there has been nothing to stop massive food drops from the
beginning, and we cannot even guess how many have already died, or soon
will. If the government is sensible, there will be at least a show of
the "massive air drops" that officials mention.
(3) International legal institutions would likely ratify efforts to
arrest and try bin Laden and others, supposing guilt could be shown,
including the use of force. Why does the U.S. avoid this recourse? Is it
only a matter of not wishing to legitimate an approach that could be
used, as well, against our acts of terrorism, or are other factors at
Much of the world has been asking the US to provide some evidence to
link bin Laden to the crime, and if such evidence could be provided, it
would not be difficult to rally enormous support for an international
effort, under the rubric of the UN, to apprehend and try him and his
collaborators. However, that is no simple matter. Even if bin Laden and
his network are involved in the crimes of Sept. 11, it may be quite hard
to produce credible evidence. As the CIA surely knows very well, having
nurtured these organizations and monitored them very closely for 20
years, they are diffuse, decentralized, non-hierarchic structures,
probably with little communication or direct guidance. And for all we
know, most of the perpetrators may have killed themselves in their awful
There are further problems in the background. To quote Roy again, "The
Taliban's response to US demands for the extradition of Bin Laden has
been uncharacteristically reasonable: produce the evidence, then we'll
hand him over. President Bush's response is that the demand is
non-negotiable'." She also adds one of the many reasons why this
framework is unacceptable to Washington: "While talks are on for the
extradition of CEOs can India put in a side request for the extradition
of Warren Anderson of the US? He was the chairman of Union Carbide,
responsible for the Bhopal gas leak that killed 16,000 people in 1984.
We have collated the necessary evidence. It's all in the files. Could we
have him, please?"
Such comparisons elicit frenzied tantrums at the extremist fringes of
Western opinion, some of them called "the left." But for Westerners who
have retained their sanity and moral integrity, and for great numbers
among the usual victims, they are quite meaningful. Government leaders
presumably understand that.
And the single example that Roy mentions is only the beginning, of
course, and one of the lesser examples, not only because of the scale of
the atrocity, but because it was not explicitly a crime of state.
Suppose Iran were to request the extradition of high officials of the
Carter and Reagan administrations, refusing to present the ample
evidence of the crimes they were implementing -- and it surely exists.
Or suppose Nicaragua were to demand the extradition of the US ambassador
to the UN, newly appointed to lead the "war against terror," a man whose
record includes his service as "proconsul" (as he was often called) in
the virtual fiefdom of Honduras, where he surely was aware of the
atrocities of the state terrorists he was supporting, and was also
overseeing the terrorist war for which the US was condemned by the World
Court and the Security Council (in a resolution the US vetoed). Or many
others. Would the US even dream of responding to such demands presented
without evidence, or even if the ample evidence were presented?
Those doors are better left closed, just as it is best to maintain the
silence on the appointment of a leading figure in managing the
operations condemned as terrorism by the highest existing international
bodies -- to lead a "war on terrorism." Jonathan Swift would also be
That may be the reason why administration publicity experts preferred
the usefully ambiguous term "war" to the more explicit term "crime" --
"crime against humanity as Robert Fisk, Mary Robinson, and others have
accurately depicted it. There are established procedures for dealing
with crimes, however horrendous. They require evidence, and adherence to
the principle that "those who are guilty of these acts" be held
accountable once evidence is produced, but not others (Pope John Paul
II, NYT Sept. 24). Not, for example, the unknown numbers of miserable
people starving to death in terror at the sealed borders, though in this
case too we are speaking of crimes against humanity.
(4) The war on terror was first undertaken by Reagan, as a substitute
for the cold war -- that is, as a vehicle for scaring the public and
thus marshalling support for programs contrary to the public's interest
-- foreign campaigns, war spending in general, surveillance, and so on.
Now we are seeing a larger and more aggressive attempt to move in the
same direction. Does the problem that we are the world's foremost source
of attacks on civilians auger complications for carrying through this
effort? Can the effort be sustained without, in fact, a shooting war?
The Reagan administration came into office 20 years ago declaring that
its leading concern would be to eradicate the plague of international
terrorism, a cancer that is destroying civilization. They cured the
plague by establishing an international terrorist network of
extraordinary scale, with consequences that are -- or should be --
well-known in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia,
and elsewhere -- while using the pretexts, as you say, to carry out
programs that were of considerable harm to the domestic population, and
that even threaten human survival. Did they carry out a "shooting war"?
The number of corpses they left in their wake around the world is
impressive, but technically, they did not usually fire the guns, apart
from transparent PR exercises like the bombing of Libya, the first crime
of war in history that was timed precisely for prime time TV, no small
trick considering the complexity of the operation and the refusal of
continental European countries to collaborate. The torture, mutilation,
rape, and massacre were carried out through intermediaries.
Even if we exclude the huge but unmentionable component of terrorism
that traces back to terrorist states, our own surely included, the
terrorist plague is very real, very dangerous, and truly terrifying.
There are ways to react that are likely to escalate the threats to
ourselves and others; there are ample precedents for more sane and
honorable methods, which we've discussed before, and are not in the
least obscure, but are scarcely discussed. Those are the basic choices.
(5) If the Taliban falls and bin Laden or someone they claim is
responsible is captured or killed, what next? What happens to
Afghanistan? What happens more broadly in other regions?
The sensible administration plan would be to pursue the ongoing program
of silent genocide, combined with humanitarian gestures to arouse the
applause of the usual chorus who are called upon to sing the praises of
the noble leaders committed to "principles and values" and leading the
world to a "new era" of "ending inhumanity." The administration might
also try to convert the Northern Alliance into a viable force, perhaps
to bring in other warlords hostile to it, like Gulbudin Hekmatyar, now
in Iran. Presumably they will use British and US commandoes for missions
within Afghanistan, and perhaps resort to selective bombing, but scaled
down so as not to answer bin Laden's prayers. A US assault should not be
compared to the failed Russian invasion of the 80s. The Russians were
facing a major army of perhaps 100,000 men or more, organized, trained
and heavily armed by the CIA and its associates. The US is facing a
ragtag force in a country that has already been virtually destroyed by
20 years of horror, for which we bear no slight share of responsibility.
The Taliban forces, such as they are, might quickly collapse except for
a small hard core. And one would expect that the surviving population
would welcome an invading force if it is not too visibly associated with
the murderous gangs that tore the country to shreds before the Taliban
takeover. At this point, most people would be likely to welcome Genghis
What next? Expatriate Afghans and, apparently, some internal elements
who are not part of the Taliban inner circle have been calling for a UN
effort to establish some kind of transition government, a process that
might succeed in reconstructing something viable from the wreckage, if
provided with very substantial reconstruction aid, channeled through
independent sources like the UN or credible NGOs. That much should be
the minimal responsibility of those who have turned this impoverished
country into a land of terror, desperation, corpses, and mutilated
victims. That could happen, but not without very substantial popular
efforts in the rich and powerful societies. For the present, any such
course has been ruled out by the Bush administration, which has
announced that it will not be engaged in "nation building" -- or, it
seems, an effort that would be more honorable and humane: substantial
support, without interference, for "nation building" by others who might
actually achieve some success in the enterprise. But current refusal to
consider this decent course is not graven in stone.
What happens in other regions depends on internal factors, on the
policies of foreign actors (the US dominant among them, for obvious
reasons), and the way matters proceed in Afghanistan. One can hardly be
confident, but for many of the possible courses reasonable assessments
can be made about the outcome -- and there are a great many
possibilities, too many to try to review in brief comments.
(6) What do you believe should be the role and priority of social
activists concerned about justice at this time? Should we curb our
criticisms, as some have claimed, or is this, instead, a time for
renewed and enlarged efforts, not only because it is a crisis regarding
which we can attempt to have a very important positive impact, but also
because large sectors of the public are actually far more receptive than
usual to discussion and exploration, even it other sectors are
It depends on what these social activists are trying to achieve. If
their goal is to escalate the cycle of violence and to increase the
likelihood of further atrocities like that of Sept. 11 -- and,
regrettably, even worse ones with which much of the world is all too
familiar -- then they should certainly curb their analysis and
criticisms, refuse to think, and cut back their involvement in the very
serious issues in which they have been engaged. The same advice is
warranted if they want to help the most reactionary and regressive
elements of the political-economic power system to implement plans that
will be of great harm to the general population here and in much of the
world, and may even threaten human survival.
If, on the contrary, the goal of social activists is to reduce the
likelihood of further atrocities, and to advance hopes for freedom,
human rights, and democracy, then they should follow the opposite
course. They should intensify their efforts to inquire into the
background factors that lie behind these and other crimes and devote
themselves with even more energy to the just causes to which they have
already been committed. The opportunities are surely there. The shock of
the horrendous crimes has already opened even elite sectors to
reflection of a kind that would have been hard to imagine not long ago,
and among the general public that is even more true. Of course, there
will be those who demand silent obedience. We expect that from the
ultra-right, and anyone with a little familiarity with history will
expect it from some left intellectuals as well, perhaps in an even more
virulent form. But it is important not to be intimidated by hysterical
ranting and lies and to keep as closely as one can to the course of
truth and honesty and concern for the human consequences of what one
does, or fails to do. All truisms, but worth bearing in mind.
Beyond the truisms, we turn to specific questions, for inquiry and for
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