Noam Chomsky Interview
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
May 2004 Issue
Longtime MIT professor Noam Chomsky has spent much of his
political life peeling away the layers of lies and exposing
the hypocrisies of the powerful.
"The premises are accepted, and within that framework you
can have criticism," he told me. He advises citizens to
break down the embedded assumptions. Few have been doing
that for so long and with such consistency as Chomsky.
I talked with him in his office at MIT in mid-February.
It was a typical day for the seemingly tireless
seventy-five-year-old Philadelphia native. He had just come
from a BBC interview. But before we sat down to do ours, he
had an office matter to tend to. He took me down to a
basement filled with file cabinets. He was tossing out old
files and doing a running commentary on practically each one
of them. As they were mostly about linguistics, almost all
the references went right by me. Chomsky is a pioneer in
linguistics. His Syntactic Structures, published in the
1950s, revolutionized the field. I recall years ago someone
said that in Europe some people thought there were two Noam
Chomskys, one who did linguistics and the other the
political activist. His book 9-11 was hugely successful. His
latest, Hegemony or Survival, is on many national and
international bestseller lists. It even got on The New York
Times business bestseller list.
The "newspaper of record" has an odd history with Chomsky.
It doesn't publish his letters. His name is used
disparagingly as a synonym for anti-Americanism. Yet in the
past few months he has been the subject of a profile in the
Sunday magazine, and the paper has published one of his
op-eds. That Chomsky has a legitimate point of view may
finally be dawning on the editors on West 43rd Street.
Chomsky views the Bush Administration as a group of "radical
nationalists" dedicated to "imperial violence." He is
worried about what four more years might bring. Ever the
scientist, he is acutely aware of threats to the environment
and the militarization of space. So concerned is Chomsky
that, in a move that surprised some, he just gave his tepid
endorsement to John Kerry, calling him "a fraction" better
than Bush. But that fraction "can translate into large
outcomes." He said the Bush Administration is so "savage and
cruel" it was important to replace it.
Chomsky maintains a punishing speaking schedule in the U.S.
and abroad. I was with him at the World Social Forum in
Porto Alegre, Brazil, last year. After speaking to 20,000 at
a stadium, we marched in the streets. People were calling
out his name and saying, "Thank you, thank you for coming."
The level of appreciation and affection was moving. But that
kind of adulation doesn't affect his steady demeanor. As
I've heard him say many times, he considers it a privilege
to do what he is doing.
I've been working with him for more than twenty years, and
people are always asking me, "What's Chomsky like?" Under
that relentlessly logical and rational brain is a man of
great compassion, warmth, and humor.
After I finished this interview with Chomsky, I passed two
journalists from Greece outside his office waiting to
interview him. That's how it is for him almost every day.
Question: Bush's attack on Iraq was based on lies and
violated international law. Why has there not been any
discussion about war crimes, and why aren't people talking
Noam Chomsky: They are. In fact, various lawyers' groups--to
some extent in the U.S. but mostly in England and Canada and
elsewhere--are bringing demands for a war crimes trial for
the crime of aggression. However, though the invasion of
Iraq was plainly an act of aggression, it doesn't break any
What was the invasion of South Vietnam, for example, in
1962, when Kennedy sent the Air Force to bomb South Vietnam
and start chemical warfare? That's aggression.
Or what was the Indonesian invasion of East Timor?
What was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which ended up
killing 20,000 people?
These last two were carried out thanks to decisive U.S.
diplomatic, military, and economic support. And the list
The invasion of Panama, what was that? The U.S. killed,
according to the Panamanians, 3,000 civilians. Maybe they're
right. We don't investigate our own crimes, so nobody knows.
But it certainly killed plenty of people--on the scale of
the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, roughly the same casualties.
The U.S. used its veto power on the Security Council and
voted against the condemnation in the General Assembly.
Manuel Noriega was illegally brought back to Florida, tried
in a ridiculous trial in which he was convicted of crimes
which he had indeed committed, almost all of them when he
was on the CIA payroll. It was just like the trial of Saddam
Hussein will be, if he ever comes to trial: He will be
convicted of crimes that the U.S. supported, but that part
won't be mentioned.
The case of Iraq was a bit unusual, for a lot of
reasons--for one, because it was over such overwhelming
international opposition. I don't think there has ever been
a case where global opinion was so overwhelmingly against an
How does the international law community deal with this?
That's quite interesting. In fact, if you have the time, I
would suggest reading professional journals like The
American Journal of International Law. When something like
this takes place, the international law professionals have a
complicated task. There is a fringe that just tells the
truth: Look, it's a violation of international law. But most
have to construct complex arguments to justify it as defense
counsel. That's basically their job, defense counsel for
They say that the Security Council doesn't have the military
force to carry out the will of the community of nations, so
therefore it implicitly delegates this to states that do
have the force, meaning the United States. And therefore,
the U.S., by invading Iraq, under a communitarian
interpretation of the Charter, was in actuality fulfilling
the will of the international community. It's irrelevant
that 90 percent of the world's population and almost all
states bitterly condemned it.
This is a large part of the academic profession: to make up
complex, subtle arguments that are childishly ridiculous but
are enveloped in sufficient profundity that they take on a
kind of plausibility. The basic principle is that the losers
have to confess, not the victors. When they do it, it's a
crime. When we do it, it's not. And more generally, it's the
defeated who are tried, not the victors. Every one of these
trials, almost without exception, is victors' justice.
Sometimes they're legitimate, but that's kind of incidental.
Q: What is the Bush imperial strategy?
Chomsky: It has two components. One is that we declare that
we have the right to carry out offensive military actions
against countries we regard as a security threat because
they have weapons of mass destruction. Many criticized it,
not so much because they disagreed but because they thought
the brazenness was ultimately a threat to the United States
and therefore shouldn't be done that way. Even Madeleine
Albright, in an article in Foreign Affairs, pointed out,
quite accurately, that this is not the kind of thing you do.
Of course, every President has that doctrine, but you don't
advertise it. You keep it in your pocket, and you use it
when you want to. So this is just kind of stupid and dangerous.
The most interesting comment, perhaps, was Kissinger's. He
described it as a revolutionary new doctrine in
international affairs which, of course, tears up the whole
Westphalian system from the early seventeenth century. It's
a good doctrine, he said, but added that we have to
understand that it is not in the national interest for this
doctrine to be universalized. That's a nice way of saying
the doctrine is for us, not for anyone else. We will use
force whenever we like against anyone we regard as a
potential threat, and maybe we will delegate that right to
clients, but it's not for others.
Q: And the other part?
Chomsky: It says states that harbor terrorists are as guilty
as the terrorists themselves and will be treated as such.
How does that one work? What are the states that harbor
terrorists? Let's put aside harboring leaders of states who
are terrorists. If we count that, it reduces to absurdity in
no time. So let's talk about the kind of terrorists whom
they regard as terrorists, what I call subnational
terrorists, like those in Al Qaeda and Hamas. What states
Just to give a little background, the U.S. launched a
terrorist war against Cuba in 1959. It picked up rapidly
under Kennedy, with Operation Mongoose--a major escalation
that actually came close to leading to nuclear war. And all
through the 1970s, terrorist actions against Cuba were being
carried out from U.S. territory, in violation of U.S. law
and, of course, international law. The U.S. was harboring
the terrorists, and quite serious ones.
There is Orlando Bosch, for example, whom the FBI accuses of
thirty serious terrorist acts, including participation in
the destruction of the Cubana airliner in which
seventy-three people were killed back in 1976. The Justice
Department wanted him deported. It said he's a threat to the
security of the United States. George Bush I, at the request
of his son Jeb, gave Bosch a Presidential pardon. He's
sitting happily in Miami, and we're harboring a person whom
the Justice Department regards as a dangerous terrorist, a
threat to the security of the U.S.
Here's another example: The Venezuelan government is now
asking for extradition of two military officers who were
accused of participation in bombing attacks in Caracas and
then just fled the country. These military officers
participated in a coup, which, for a couple of days,
overthrew the government. The U.S. openly supported the
coup, and, according to British journalists, was involved in
instigating it. The officers are now pleading for political
asylum in the U.S.
Or take, say, Emmanuel Constant, whose death squads killed
maybe 4,000 or 5,000 Haitians [during the early 1990s while
he was on the payroll of the CIA]. Today, he is living
happily in Queens because the U.S. refused to even respond
to requests from Aristide for extradition.
So who is harboring terrorists? If the most important
revolutionary part of the Bush Doctrine is that states that
harbor terrorists are terrorist states, what do we conclude
from that? We conclude exactly what Kissinger was kind
enough to say: These doctrines are unilateral. They are not
intended as doctrines of international law or doctrines of
international affairs. They are doctrines that grant the
U.S. the right to use force and violence and to harbor
terrorists, but not anyone else.
Q: Do you think the reverence toward Bush is showing signs
Chomsky: No. The withering does not question what he's
trying to do, only that he's doing it badly. If you want to
find weapons of destruction, you can find them all over the
place. Take, say, Israel. There is a very great concern
right now about proliferation of nuclear weapons, as there
should be. Israel has a couple of hundred nuclear weapons
and also chemical and biological weapons. This stockpile is
not only a threat in itself but encourages others to
proliferate in reaction and in self-defense. Is anybody
saying anything about this?
Q: Why do elite decisionmakers--who have children and
grandchildren--pursue policies that are potentially so
Chomsky: Around 1950, the U.S. had a position of security
that's unparalleled in human history. It controlled the
hemisphere, controlled both oceans, controlled the opposite
sides of both oceans. There wasn't a threat within shouting
distance--except for one. The potential threat was
intercontinental ballistic missiles with thermonuclear
warheads. They weren't yet available, but they were
beginning to be developed. And that would be a threat to the
U.S. heartland. It could destroy it, in fact. If you cared
about your children and your grandchildren, you would do
something to prevent that threat from developing.
Could it have been done? It wasn't tried, so we don't know.
But it would at least have been possible to explore treaties
that would have blocked the development of these weapons.
The Russians were so far behind, and legitimately frightened
and threatened, that they might well have agreed to not
develop these weapons. They also understood that the U.S.
was trying to spend them into economic destruction. It's
possible, in fact likely, that they would have accepted it.
What's the historical record? There is a standard
magisterial history on this by McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's and
Johnson's national security adviser. And he writes, more or
less in passing, that he was unable to find any mention of
even the possibility of pursuing this option. It's not that
it was suggested and rejected; he said it wasn't mentioned.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson, arms control negotiator
Paul Nitze, and the rest were not stupid people. But it
didn't occur to them, because it doesn't occur to you that
you might try to save a world in which your children and
grandchildren can survive when you have higher aims, like
maximizing short-term power and privilege.
Q: Why do so many people in the United States just go along
with U.S. policy?
Chomsky: What's striking is that this view is accepted
without coercion. If you're living in a dictatorship or
under kings and princes or in a place run by murderous
bishops, you'd better take that view or you're in deep
trouble. You get burned at the stake or thrown into the
gulag or something.
In the West, you don't get in any trouble if you tell the
truth, but you still can't do it. Not only can't you tell
the truth, you can't think the truth. It's just so deeply
embedded, deeply instilled, that without any meaningful
coercion it comes out the same way it does in a totalitarian
Orwell had some words about this in his unpublished
introduction to Animal Farm. He says straight, look, in
England what comes out in a free country is not very
different from this totalitarian monster that I'm describing
in the book. It's more or less the same. How come in a free
country? He has two sentences, which are pretty accurate.
One, he says, the press is owned by wealthy men who have
every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And
second--and I think this is much more important--a good
education instills in you the intuitive understanding that
there are certain things it just wouldn't do to say.
I don't think he goes far enough. I'd say there are certain
things it wouldn't do to think. A good education instills in
you the intuitive comprehension--it becomes unconscious and
reflexive--that you just don't think certain things, things
that are threatening to power interests.
Not everyone accepts this. But most of us, if we are honest
with ourselves, can look back at our own personal history.
For those of us who got into good colleges or the
professions, did we stand up to that high school history
teacher who told us some ridiculous lie about American
history and say, "That's a ridiculous lie. You're an idiot"?
No. We said, "All right, I'll keep quiet, and I'll write it
in the exam and I'll think, yes, he's an idiot." And it's
easy to say and believe things that improve your self-image
and your career and that are in other ways beneficial to
It's very hard to look in the mirror. We all know this. It's
much easier to have illusions about yourself. And in
particular, when you think, well, I'm going to believe what
I like, but I'll say what the powerful want, you do that
over time, and you believe what you say.
Q: Someone reading this interview may say, "Chomsky has all
this command of facts and history. But what do I do as an
individual?" How would you respond to that?
Chomsky: The first thing you ought to do is verify what I
present. Just because I say it doesn't make it true. So
check it out, see what looks correct, what looks wrong, look
at other material which wasn't discussed, figure out what
the truth really is. That's what you've got a brain for.
If you think that the general thrust of it is correct, there
should be no problem in doing something about it. We're not
going to be thrown into prison and face torture. We're not
going to get assassinated. We have enormous privilege. We
have tremendous freedom. That means endless opportunities.
I should tell you that every night I get many letters, and
after every talk I get many questions from people who say,
"I want to change things. What can I do?" I never hear these
questions from peasants in southern Colombia or Kurds in
southeastern Turkey under miserable repression or anybody
who is suffering. They don't ask what they can do; they tell
you what they're doing.
Somehow the fact of enormous privilege and freedom carries
with it a sense of impotence, which is a strange, but
striking, phenomenon. The fact is, we can do just about
anything. There is no difficulty, wherever you are, in
finding groups that are working hard on things that concern you.
But that's not the kind of answer that people want. The
answer that they want, I think, in the back of their minds
is, what can I do that will be quick and easy and bring
about an end to these problems? They remind me of Columbia
students whom I used to argue with back in 1968, who
literally thought, "Look, we're sitting in the president's
office for a couple of weeks. After that, it's all going to
be peace and love." Or people who say, "I went to a
demonstration, and it's the same as it was before. Fifteen
million people marched in the streets on February 15, and
the war went on. It's hopeless."
That's not the way things work. If you want to make changes
in the world, you're going to have to be there day after day
doing the boring, straightforward work of getting a couple
of people interested and building a slightly bigger
organization and carrying out the next move and suffering
frustration and finally getting somewhere. That's how the
David Barsamian, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder,
Colorado, is author most recently of "The Checkbook and the
Cruise Missile," a collection of interviews with Arundhati
Roy. His upcoming anthology of interviews from The
Progressive, "Louder Than Bombs," is coming off the presses.
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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