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United States of Insecurity (Chomsky Interview)

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo http://tinyurl.com/445suh United States of Insecurity Perils and Alternatives in
    Message 1 of 1 , May 26 5:22 PM
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      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      United States of Insecurity
      Perils and Alternatives in the Post 9-11 World
      May 24, 2008 By Noam Chomsky
      and Gabriel Matthew Schivone
      Source: Monthly Review

      Based on an interview with Noam Chomsky conducted by Gabriel Matthew
      Schivone via telephone and e-mail at the Massachusetts Institute of
      Technology, November 27, 2007 through February 11, 2008. Parts of the
      text have been expanded by the author.

      A State of Insecurity in the Post-9/11 World

      GMS: In a recent interview, Abdel Bari Atwan, author and editor of the
      London-based Arabic daily newspaper Al-Quds Al Arabi, said that
      President Bush is not ending terrorism nor is he weakening it, as is one
      of his strongest assertions in his so-called "War on Terror", but that
      now Al-Qa'ida has powerfully developed into more of an ideology than an
      organization, as Atwan describes, expanding like Kentucky Fried Chicken,
      opening franchises all over the world. "That's the problem," he says.
      "The Americans are no safer. Their country is a fortress now, the
      United States of Security." Is this accurate?

      CHOMSKY: Except for the last sentence, it's accurate. There's good
      reason to think that the United States is very vulnerable to terrorist
      attacks. That's not my opinion, that's the opinion of US intelligence,
      of specialists of nuclear terror like Harvard professor Graham Allison,
      and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others, who have warned
      that the probability of even a nuclear attack in the United States is
      not trivial. So, it's not a fortress.

      One of the things that Bush hasn't been doing is improving security. So,
      for example, if you look at the government commission after 9-11, one of
      its recommendations -- which is a natural one -- is to improve security
      of the US-Canadian border. I mean, if you look at that border, it's very
      porous. You or I could walk across it somewhere with a suitcase holding
      components of a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration did not follow
      that recommendation. What it did instead was fortify the Mexican border,
      which was not regarded as a serious source of potential terrorism. They
      in fact slowed the rate of growth of border guards on the Canadian Border.

      But quite apart from that, the major part of Atwan's comment is quite
      correct. Bush Administration programs have not been designed to reduce
      terror. In fact, they've been designed in a way -- as was anticipated by
      intelligence analysts and others -- to increase terror.

      So take, say, the invasion of Iraq. It was expected that that would
      probably have the effect of increasing terror -- and it did, though far
      more than was anticipated. There was a recent study by two leading
      terrorism experts (using RAND Corporation government data) which
      concluded that what they called the "Iraq effect" -- meaning, the effect
      of the Iraq invasion on incidents of terror in the world -- was huge. In
      fact, they found that terror increased about seven-fold after the
      invasion of Iraq. That's quite an increase -- a lot more than was

      Also, the invasion increased the threat of nuclear proliferation—for
      very good reason. One of Israel's leading historians, Martin van
      Creveld, discussing the possibility of Iran developing a bomb, pointed
      out the obvious. He said that, after the invasion of Iraq, if Iran isn't
      developing a nuclear deterrent, "they're crazy" (that's his word,
      "crazy"). Why? Because the United States made it explicit that it is
      willing to invade any country it likes, as long as that country can't
      defend itself. -- It was known that Iraq was basically defenseless.
      Well, that sends a message to the world. It says, "If you don't obey
      what the US demands, they can invade you, so you better develop a

      Nobody's going to compete with the United States in a military capacity.
      I mean, the US spends as much on the military as the rest of the world
      combined, and it's far more sophisticated and advanced. So, what they'll
      do is turn to weapons of the weak. And weapons of the weak are basically
      two: terror and nuclear weapons.

      So, sure, the invasion of Iraq predictably increased the threat of
      terror and of proliferation, and the same is true of other actions. And
      we can continue. One of the major parts of the so-called "war on terror"
      is an effort to carry out surveillance and control of financial
      interactions which enter into terrorist activities. Well, yeah, that's
      been going on. But according to the Treasury Bureau [Office of Foreign
      Assets Control] that's been responsible for it, they're spending far
      more time and energy on possible violations on the US embargo on Cuba
      than they are on Al Qa'ida transactions.

      Why would elites be making the United States, as you say, more
      vulnerable to attacks in the future? It doesn't seem reasonable,
      logically speaking, as educated, sensible, intelligent people, that
      they'd endanger themselves personally and endanger their families, in
      the short- or long-term, with raising the threat of terror to manifold
      levels now. Terror would surely threaten them personally, especially
      with regard to more attacks being committed inside the U.S. and
      throughout the world. I mean, isn't there something peculiar in this
      sort of behavior?

      I think there's something pathological about it but it's not peculiar. I
      mean, if you look at it within the framework of elite perceptions, it
      has a kind of rationality. Short-term considerations of profit and power
      quite often tend to overwhelm longer term considerations of security and
      welfare, even for your own children.

      I mean, take environmental concerns. Take, say, lead. It was known in
      the early 1920s by the huge corporations that were producing lead-based
      products that lead was poisonous. They knew it. We now know -- there's
      been extensive discussion and revelations -- and they knew it right
      away. But they concealed it. And they paid huge amounts of money and
      effort and legal maneuvers and lobbying and so on to prevent any
      constraints on it. Well, you know, those windowsills poisoned with lead
      paint are going to harm their own children, but the interests of profit
      overwhelmed it. And that's standard.

      And take, say, tobacco. It's been known for decades, from the very
      beginning, that it's a very poisonous product. That didn't stop the
      tobacco producers from trying to get everyone possible to smoke. Make
      women smoke, children and others -- even their own. These are
      conflicting demands of profit and power on the one hand, and care about
      even your own family on the other hand. And very commonly profit and
      power win out. I think it's pathological. But it's not a pathology of
      individuals, it's a pathology of social institutions.

      When you say the common loyalty to power and profit among elites
      superseding any care of other human beings is a "pathology of social
      institutions" and not individuals, are you referring to certain values
      of American society?

      It is not specific to American society. These are institutional
      properties of semi-competitive state capitalist societies.

      Suppose, for example, that there are three US-based conglomerates that
      produce automobiles: GM, Ford, Chrysler (no longer). They were able to
      gain their status through substantial reliance on a powerful state, and
      they were able to survive the 1980s only because the president, Ronald
      Reagan, was the most protectionist in post-war history, virtually
      doubling protective barriers to save these and other corporations from
      being taken over by more advanced Japanese industry. But they (more or
      less) survive.

      Suppose that GM invests in technology that will produce better, safer,
      more efficient cars in 20 years, but Ford and Chrysler invest in cars
      that will sell tomorrow. Then GM will not be here in 20 years to profit
      from its investment. The logic is not inexorable, but it yields very
      significant anti-social tendencies.

      The Predatory Reach of Private Power

      Since the so-called "reconstruction" throughout the wake of Hurricane
      Katrina in 2004, one of the policy-initiatives championed by the Bush
      Administration right up to the present was the dismantling of the New
      Orleans public school system. The New York Times reported that, of those
      who could return, children and families were coming back to a "much
      different" New Orleans with "a smaller [educational] system dominated by
      new charter schools", along with the termination of nearly 7000 public
      school employees. What are the implications of private control of public
      resources, such as education, in this instance, or healthcare,
      telecommunications, social security, etc.?

      Well, there are actually two components to that, both of them leading
      themes of the Bush Administration's domestic policies, and of
      reactionary policies generally. One of them is, to put it simply, to put
      as many dollars as you can in the pockets of your rich friends: that is,
      to increase profits for the wealthy -- to increase the wealth and
      power of concentrated, private capital. That's one driving force in the
      administration's policy. The other is to break down the social bonds
      that lead to people having sympathy and supportive feelings about one
      another. That contributes to transferring profit and decision-making
      into the hands of concentrated private power. A component of that is to
      undermine the normal relations -- sympathy and solidarity -- that people

      Take social security. Social security is based on a bond among people.
      If you earn a salary today -- somebody your age -- [young people of
      twenty or so] you're paying for the welfare and survival of your
      parents' generation. Well, okay, that's a natural feeling. If you want
      to increase the control of concentrated private power you have to drive
      that out of people's heads. You have to create the kind of people that
      Ayn Rand is talking about, where you're after your own welfare and you
      don't care what happens to anyone else. You have to think, "Why do I
      have to care about that disabled woman across town who doesn't have
      enough food to eat? I didn't do it to her. That's her problem. She and
      her husband didn't invest properly; she didn't work hard enough, so what
      do I care if she starves to death?" Well, you have to turn people into
      pathological monsters who think that way, if you want to ensure that
      unaccountable, concentrated, private power will dominate the world and
      enrich itself. So, these things go together.

      I don't happen to have children in the local school -- I did, but my
      kids are all grown up. So, if I were to follow this line of reasoning, I
      would say, "Well, why should I pay taxes? My kids don't go to school;
      I'm not getting anything out of it. What do I care if the kid across the
      street doesn't go to school?" You can turn people into pathological
      monsters who think like that. And eliminating the public school system
      is one part of it.

      The public school system is a sign of solidarity, sympathy and concern
      of people in general -- even if it doesn't benefit me, myself. There's a
      pathological brand of what's called Libertarianism which wants to
      eliminate that and turn you into a monster who cares only about
      yourself. And that's one aspect of undermining democracy, and
      undermining the attitudes that underlie democracy, namely, that there
      should be a concern for others and a communal way of reacting to
      community concerns.

      Well, let's consider the elimination of the public school system
      altogether. Would that imply something like what we see in countries in
      the Third World, where those who can afford to send their children to
      school, do, and much of the remaining population simply does not have an
      education? Is this a direction private power might be moving toward in
      this country?

      There are significant forces driving the country in that direction,
      quite apart from Bush-style reactionaries seeking to enrich the powerful
      and let the rest fend somehow for themselves.

      Take the reliance for school funding on property taxes. In earlier
      years, when communities were not so sharply separated between rich and
      poor, that may have been more or less acceptable. Today it means that
      the wealthy suburbs have better schools than impoverished urban or rural
      areas. That's only the bare beginning. Suburban elites who work downtown
      do not have to pay the taxes to keep the city viable for them; that
      burden falls disproportionately on the poor. Studies of public
      transportation have shown that the poorer subsidize the richer and more
      privileged. And these measures proliferate in numerous ways.

      The Iraq War: Responsibility and Resistance

      Everywhere from high school and college campuses to bus stops and dinner
      tables, we hear a lot about what a "quagmire" and "costly mess" Iraq has
      become for the United States, now being blamed as a Republican war, for
      how the Bush Administration handled the occupation -- that ‘it should've
      been done this or that way' -- and ‘now that we're there we can't leave,
      it's our ‘responsibility' to fix the problem we made because it'll only
      get worse if we leave -- those people will kill each other', and so on.
      What do you say to these arguments that seem to interweave with each
      other? And what would you suggest in terms of what some might call an
      ‘honorable solution'? International measures, immediate withdrawal -- both?

      The position of the liberal doves during the Vietnam War was articulated
      lucidly by historian and Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger, when the
      war was becoming too costly for the US and they began their shift from
      hawk to dove. He wrote that "we all pray" that the hawks will be right
      in believing that the surge of the day will work, and if they are, we
      "may be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American
      government" in gaining victory in a land that they have left in "wreck
      and ruin." But it probably won't work, so strategy should be rethought.
      The principles, and the reasoning, carry over with little change to
      the Iraq invasion.

      There is no "honorable solution" to a war of aggression -- the "supreme
      international crime" that differs from other war crimes in that it
      encompasses all the evil that follows, in the wording of the Nuremberg
      Tribunal, which condemned Nazi war criminals to death for such crimes as
      "pre-emptive war." We can only seek the least awful solution. In doing
      so, we should bear in mind some fundamental principles, among them, that
      aggressors have no rights, only responsibilities.

      The responsibilities are to pay enormous reparations for the harm they
      have caused, to hold the criminals responsible accountable, and to pay
      close attention to the wishes of the victims. In this case, we know
      their wishes quite well. Poll after poll has yielded results similar to
      those reported by the military in December, after a study of focus
      groups around the country. They report that Iraqis from all over the
      country and all walks of life have "shared beliefs," which they
      enumerated: The American invasion is to blame for the sectarian violence
      and other horrors, and the invaders should withdraw, leaving Iraq -- or
      what's left of it -- to Iraqis.

      It tells us a lot about our own moral and intellectual culture that the
      voice of Iraqis, though known, is not even considered in the thoughtful
      and comprehensive articles in the media reviewing the options available
      to Washington. And that there is no comment on this rather striking
      fact, considered quite natural.

      Is there anyone saying the war was fundamentally wrong?

      In the case of Vietnam, years after Kennedy's invasion, liberal doves
      began to say that the war began with "blundering efforts to do good" but
      by 1969 it was clear that it was a mistake that was too costly to us
      (Anthony Lewis, at the critical extreme, in the New York Times). In the
      same year, 70% of the public regarded the war as not "a mistake" but
      "fundamentally wrong and immoral." That gap between public and elite
      educated opinion persists until the most recent polls, a few years ago.

      In the media and journals, it is very hard to find any voice that
      criticizes the invasion or Iraq on principled grounds, though there are
      some. Arthur Schlesinger, for example, took a very different position
      than he did on Vietnam. When the bombs started falling on Baghdad he
      quoted President Roosevelt's condemnation of the Japanese attack on
      Pearl Harbor as "a date which will live in infamy." Now, Schlesinger
      wrote, it is Americans who live in infamy as their government follows
      the path of fascist Japan. But that was a lone voice among elites.

      Dissidents, of course, describe "the supreme international crime" as
      fundamentally wrong. I haven't seen polls about public attitudes on this

      What about when it is that people know to undertake more serious or
      severe resistance efforts after the point at which "the limits of
      possible protest" are reached? In a letter to George Steiner in the NYR,
      in 1967, you gave the example of what this might look like, now 60 years
      ago during the Spanish Civil War, when people found it quite necessary
      to join international brigades to fight against the army of their own
      country; or, applied to Vietnam, the possible action one might undertake
      in such circumstances of travelling to Hanoi as a hostage against
      further bombing. -- That's pretty far-reaching, relatively speaking, to
      what we see in current resistance efforts today against the war. What's
      your feeling about the possibilities for such methods today in relation
      to the Iraq war, border action, or other criminal policy in the Middle
      East and elsewhere? Do situations have to get worse before people or
      individuals might deem this sort of action necessary?

      In the case of Vietnam, serious resistance began several years after
      Kennedy's invasion of South Vietnam. I was one of a few people trying to
      organize national tax resistance in early 1965, at a time when South
      Vietnam, always the main target, was being crushed by intensive bombing
      and other crimes. By 1966-67, refusal to serve in the invading army was
      beginning to become a significant phenomenon, along with support for
      resistance by organized groups, primarily RESIST, formed in 1967 (and
      still functioning). By then the war had passed far beyond the invasion
      of Iraq in destructiveness and violence. In fact, at any comparable
      stage, protest against the Iraq invasion considerably exceeds anything
      during the Indochina wars.

      As for living with the victims to help them or provide them some measure
      of protection, that is a phenomenon of the 1980s, for the first time in
      imperial history, to my knowledge, in reaction to Reagan's terrorist
      wars that devastated Central America, one of his many horrendous crimes.
      The solidarity movements that took shape then have now extended
      worldwide, though only in limited ways to Iraq, because the catastrophe
      created by Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz and the rest is so extraordinary
      that it is almost impossible to survive in the wreckage -- the main
      reason why reporting is so skimpy; it is simply too dangerous, unlike
      earlier wars of imperial aggression.

      A Question of Neutrality in the Schools

      Let's talk about the role of intellectuals in all of this. Here's a
      question that might be relevant for students to hear especially: You've
      suggested that the major inducements to becoming absorbed into the
      ideology of the overall scholarship in this country, largely subservient
      to power interests, are the significant rewards in prestige and
      affluence, as well as access to power and authority. So, what are some
      of the things you've observed in your own time in the academy as a kind
      of source of this process in American education?

      Educational institutions like universities don't exist in a social
      vacuum;they rely for their existence on the external resources of the
      society.They rely on the state and contributions from, basically, the
      wealthy.And the state and the wealthy sectors are very closely linked.
      So, the universities are in a certain social system in which they
      reflect a certain distribution of power. They're embedded in it. And
      that means the struggle for university independence -- or independence
      of thought,and willingness to challenge -- that's a hard struggle.
      You're struggling against social conditions that militate against it.

      And it's true, what you said is correct, there are rewards and
      privileges that come along with conformity, but there's more to say.
      There are also punishments and abuse, loss of jobs, and so on, that come
      from challenging systems of power. Both factors operate. So, yes,
      there's a constant struggle to try and maintain university independence,
      and it's a hard one.

      Sometimes it's argued that the universities should just be neutral, that
      they shouldn't take positions on anything. Well, there's merit in that,
      I would like to see that in some abstract universe, but in this universe
      what that position entails is conformity to the distribution of external

      So let me take a concrete case, aspects of which are still very much
      alive on my own campus. Let's take some distance so we can see things
      more clearly. Back in the 1960s, in my university, MIT, the political
      science department was carrying out studies with students and faculty on
      counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Okay, that reflected the distribution of
      power in the outside society. The US is involved in counterinsurgency in
      Vietnam: it's our patriotic duty to help. A free and independent
      university would have been carrying out studies on how poor peasants can
      resist the attack of a predatory superpower. Can you imagine how much
      support that would have gotten on campus? Well, okay, that's what
      neutrality turns into when it's carried out -- when the ideal, which is
      a good ideal, is pursued unthinkingly. It ends up being conformity to power.

      Let's take a current case. Right now there's a lot of concern about
      nuclear weapons in Iran. Well, again, take my own campus, MIT. In the
      1970s Iran was under the rule of a brutal tyrant who the United States
      and Britain had imposed by force in a military coup overthrowing the
      democratic government. So Iran was therefore an ally. Well, in the
      government, people like Henry Kissenger, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld,
      Paul Wolfowitz and others, were calling for Iran to develop nuclear
      capacities and nuclear power and so on, which means a step short of
      nuclear weapons. And my own university, MIT, made an arrangement with
      the Shah of Iran, the dictator, to train Iranian nuclear engineers. It
      was the 1970s. There was enormous student protest about that. But very
      little faculty protest, in fact, the faculty approved it. And it was
      instituted. In fact, some of the people now running the Iranian nuclear
      programs are graduates of MIT. Well, is the university neutral in those
      respects? No, not really; it's conforming to power interests. In this
      case, to go back to an earlier part of our conversation, they did
      conform to short-term commitments to power and profit but with long-term
      consequences that were quite harmful to the very same people who
      instituted them.

      Henry Kissinger, who at least has the virtue of honesty, was asked by
      the Washington Post why he is now objecting to same Iranian programs
      that he was instrumental in instituting when he was in office back in
      the 70s. And he said, frankly, Well, they were an ally then. They needed
      nuclear power. And now they are an enemy so they don't need nuclear power.

      Okay, he's a complete cynic, but he's an honest one, fortunately. But
      should universities take that position?

      By Steady Drips of Water: Activism and Social Change

      For the last question I'd like to talk a little about providing
      alternatives, for people trying to figure out things, searching for
      answers, seeing through propaganda, developing solidarity, initiating
      movements. Here's a good quote I came across that might be a good
      starting point, from the notable novelist E.M Forester, writing at the
      beginning stages of the Second World War, in 1939, in his essay "What I

      "I do not believe in Belief. But this is an age of faith, and there are
      so many militant creeds that, in self-defense, one has to formulate a
      creed of one's own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy . . . in a world
      rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world where ignorance
      rules, and science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient
      pimp." He repeats: "Tolerance, good temper and sympathy -- they are what
      matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come
      to the front before long."

      What are some of the things he's getting at here that we can discuss in
      terms of alternatives for the future, and social organization?

      I'm often asked questions like that, in maybe a dozen emails a night or
      in talks and so on, and I'm always at a loss to answer. Not because I
      can't think of an answer, but because I think we all know the answer.
      There aren't any magic keys here; there are no mysterious ways of
      approaching things. What it takes is just what has led to progress and
      success in the past. We live in a much more civilized world than we did
      even when Forester was writing, in many respects.

      Say, women's rights, or opposition to torture -- or even opposition to
      aggression -- environmental concerns, recognition of some of the crimes
      of our own history, like what happened to the indigenous population. We
      can go on and on. There's been much improvement in those areas. How?
      Well, because people like those working in alternative media, or those
      we never hear about who are doing social organizing, community building,
      political action, etc., engage themselves in trying to do something
      about it.

      And the modes of engagement are not mysterious. You have to try and
      develop a critical, open mind, and you have to be willing to evaluate
      and challenge conventional beliefs -- accept them if they turn out to be
      valid, but reject them if -- as is so often the case -- they turn out to
      just reflect power structures. And then proceed with educational and
      organizing activities, actions as appropriate to circumstances. There is
      no simple formula; rather, lots of options. And gradually over time,
      things improve. I mean, even the hardest rock will be eroded by steady
      drips of water. That's what social change comes to and there are no
      mysterious modes of proceeding. They're hard ones, demanding ones,
      challenging, often costly. But that's what it takes to get a better world.

      Noam Chomsky is an Institute Professor of Linguistics at the
      Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Perhaps one of the most revered
      thinkers of the twentieth century and tireless advocate for honorable
      peace and social justice, he lectures and writes widely on American
      foreign policy and world affairs. His latest books are Interventions
      (City Lights) and Failed States (Metropolitan Books).

      Gabriel Matthew Schivone is an editor of Days Beyond Recall Alternative
      Media and Literary Journal. His articles, having been translated into
      multiple languages, have appeared in numerous journals such as Z
      Magazine, Counterpunch and the Monthly Review, as well as Contre Info
      (France), and Caminos (Cuba). He is most recently the recipient of the
      2007 Frederica Hearst Prize for Lyrical Poetry. He is also an active
      member of the UA Chapter of Amnesty International, Voices of Opposition
      (to War, Racism and Oppression), Dry River Radical Resource Center, and
      Students Organized for Animal Rights.

      Dan Clore

      My collected fiction: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
      in charge on this island?
      Professor: Why, no one.
      Skipper: No one?
      Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
      -- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"
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