Noam Chomsky – annotations on his 2004-05-19 speech at Royal Institute of Philosophy in London


From Noam Chomsky‘s “Simple Truths, Hard Problems: Some thoughts on terror, justice, and selfdefence“, a lecture at Royal Institute of Philosophy, London, May 19, 2004, I’ve underlined a few bits and bobs that I found interesting.

It’s part of Noam Chomsky’s “Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013“, an excellent collection:

But apart from the phenomenon, there is the problem of definition of “terror.” That too is taken to be a hard problem, the subject of scholarly literature and international conferences. At first glance, it might seem odd that it is regarded as a hard problem. There are what seem to be satisfactory definitions—not perfect, but at least as good as others regarded as unproblematic: for example, the official definitions in the US Code and Army Manuals in the early 1980s when the “war on terror” was launched, or the quite similar official formulation of the British government, which defines “terrorism” as “the use, or threat, of action which is violent, damaging or disrupting, and is intended to influence the government or intimidate the public and is for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause.” These are the definitions that I have been using in writing about terrorism for the past twenty years, ever since the Reagan administration declared that the war on terror would be a prime focus of its foreign policy, replacing human rights, the proclaimed “soul of our foreign policy” before. On closer look, however, the problem becomes clear, and it is indeed hard. The official definitions are unusable, because of their immediate consequences. One difficulty is that the definition of terrorism is virtually the same as the definition of the official policy of the US, and other states, called “counterterrorism” or “low-intensity warfare” or some other euphemism. That again is close to a historical universal, to my knowledge. Japanese imperialists in Manchuria and North China, for example, were not aggressors or terrorists, but were protecting the population and the legitimate governments from the terrorism of “Chinese bandits.” To undertake this noble task, they were compelled, reluctantly, to resort to “counterterror,” with the goal of establishing an “earthly paradise” in which the people of Asia could live in peace and harmony under the enlightened guidance of Japan. The same is true of just about every other case I have investigated. But now we do face a hard problem: it will not do to say that the enlightened states are officially committed to terrorism. And it takes little effort to demonstrate that the US engages in large-scale international terrorism according to its own definition of the term, quite uncontroversially in a number of crucial cases.

There is, then, a hard problem of defining “terrorism,” rather like the problem of defining “war crime.” How can we define it in such a way as to violate the principle of universality, exempting ourselves but applying to selected enemies?

And these have to be selected with some precision. The US has had an official list of states sponsoring terrorism ever since the Reagan years. In all these years, only one state has been removed from the list: Iraq, in order to permit the US to join the UK and others in providing badly needed aid for Saddam Hussein, continuing without concern after he carried out his most horrifying crimes. There has also been one near-example. Clinton offered to remove Syria from the list if it agreed to peace terms offered by the US and Israel. When Syria insisted on recovering the territory that Israel conquered in 1967, it remained on the list of states sponsoring terrorism, and continues to be on the list despite the acknowledgment by Washington that Syria has not been implicated in sponsoring terror for many years and has been highly cooperative in providing important intelligence to the US on al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups. As a reward for Syria’s cooperation in the “war on terror,” last December Congress passed legislation calling for even stricter sanctions against Syria, near unanimously (the Syria Accountability Act). The legislation was recently implemented by the president, thus depriving the US of a major source of information about radical Islamist terrorism in order to achieve the higher goal of establishing in Syria a regime that will accept US-Israeli demands—not an unusual pattern, though commentators continually find it surprising no matter how strong the evidence and regular the pattern, and no matter how rational the choices in terms of clear and understandable planning priorities.

The Syria Accountability Act offers another striking illustration of the rejection of the principle of universality. Its core demand refers to UN Security Council Resolution 520, calling for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon, violated by Syria because it still retains in Lebanon forces that were welcomed there by the US and Israel in 1976 when their task was to carry out massacres of Palestinians. The congressional legislation, and news reporting and commentary, overlook the fact that Resolution 520, passed in 1982, was explicitly directed against Israel, not Syria, and also the fact that while Israel violated this and other Security Council resolutions regarding Lebanon for twenty-two years, there was no call for any sanctions against Israel, or even any call for reduction in the huge unconditional military and economic aid to Israel. The silence for twenty-two years includes many of those who now signed the Act condemning Syria for its violation of the Security Council resolution ordering Israel to leave Lebanon. The principle is accurately formulated by a rare scholarly commentator, Steven Zunes: it is that “Lebanese sovereignty must be defended only if the occupying army is from a country the United States opposes, but is dispensable if the country is a US ally.” The principle, and the news reporting and commentary on all of these events, again make good sense, given the overriding need to reject elementary moral truisms, a fundamental doctrine of the intellectual and moral culture.

By the late 1970s, Washington was officially condemning the terrorist acts while harboring and protecting the terrorist cells on US soil in violation of US law. The leading terrorist, Orlando Bosch, regarded as the author of the Cubana airline bombing and dozens of other terrorist acts according to the FBI, was given a presidential pardon by George Bush #1, over the strong objections of the Justice Department. Others like him continue to operate with impunity on US soil, including terrorists responsible for major crimes elsewhere as well for whom the US refuses requests for extradition (from Haiti, for example).

We may recall one of the leading components of the “Bush doctrine”—now Bush #2: “Those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves,” and must be treated accordingly, the president’s words when announcing the bombing of Afghanistan because of its refusal to turn over suspected terrorists to the US, without evidence or even credible pretext as later quietly conceded. Harvard International Relations specialist Graham Allison describes this as the most important component of the Bush Doctrine. It “unilaterally revoked the sovereignty of states that provide sanctuary to terrorists,” he wrote approvingly in Foreign Affairs, adding that the doctrine has “already become a de facto rule of international relations.” That is correct, in the technical sense of “rule of international relations.”

Unreconstructed literalists might conclude that Bush and Allison are calling for the bombing of the United States, but that is because they do not comprehend that the most elementary moral truisms must be forcefully rejected: there is a crucial exemption to the principle of universality, so deeply entrenched in the reigning intellectual culture that it is not even perceived, hence not mentioned. Again, we find illustrations daily. The Negroponte appointment is one example. To take another, a few weeks ago the Palestinian leader Abu Abbas died in a US prison in Iraq. His capture was one of the most heralded achievements of the invasion. A few years earlier he had been living in Gaza, participating in the Oslo “peace process” with US-Israeli approval, but after the second Intifada began, he fled to Baghdad, where he was arrested by the US army and imprisoned because of his role in the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985. The year 1985 is regarded by scholarship as the peak year of terrorism in the 1980s; Mideast terrorism was the top story of the year, in a poll of editors. Scholarship identifies two major crimes in that year: the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, in which one person, a disabled American, was brutally murdered; and an airplane hijacking with one death, also an American. There were, to be sure, some other terrorist crimes in the region in 1985, but they do not pass through the filters. One was a car bombing outside a mosque in Beirut that killed eighty people and wounded 250 others, timed to explode as people were leaving, killing mostly women and girls; but this is excluded from the record because it was traced back to the CIA and British intelligence.

The harshest criticism of the Serbia bombing anywhere near the mainstream is that it was “illegal but legitimate,” the conclusion of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Richard Goldstone. “It was illegal because it did not receive approval from the UN Security Council,” the Commission determined, “but it was legitimate because all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted and there was no other way to stop the killings and atrocities in Kosovo.” Justice Goldstone observed that the Charter may need revision in the light of the report and the judgments on which it is based. The NATO intervention, he explains, “is too important a precedent” for it to be regarded “an aberration.” Rather, “state sovereignty is being redefined in the fact of globalization and the resolve by the majority of the peoples of the world that human rights have become the business of the international community.” He also stressed the need for “objective analysis of human rights abuses.

The last comment is good advice. One question that an objective analysis might address is whether the majority of the peoples of the world accept the judgment of the enlightened states. In the case of the bombing of Serbia, review of the world press and official statements reveals little support for that conclusion, to put it rather mildly. In fact, the bombing was bitterly condemned outside the NATO countries, facts consistently ignored. Furthermore, it is hardly likely that the principled self-exemption of the enlightened states from the “universalization” that traces back to Nuremberg would gain the approval of much of the world’s population. The new norm, it appears, fits the standard pattern.

Another question that objective analysis might address is whether indeed “all diplomatic options had been exhausted.” That conclusion is not easy to maintain in the light of the fact that there were two options on the table when NATO decided to bomb—a NATO proposal and a Serbian proposal—and that after seventy-eight days of bombing, a compromise was reached between them.

A third question is whether it is true that “there was no other way to stop the killings and atrocities in Kosovo,” clearly a crucial matter. In this case, objective analysis happens to be unusually easy. There is vast documentation available from impeccable Western sources: several compilations of the State Department released in justification of the war, detailed records of the OSCE, NATO, the UN, a British Parliamentary Inquiry, and other similar sources.

There are several remarkable features of the unusually rich documentation. One is that the record is almost entirely ignored in the vast literature on the Kosovo war, including the scholarly literature. The second is that the substantive contents of the documentation are not only ignored, but consistently denied. I have reviewed the record elsewhere, and will not do so here, but what we discover, characteristically, is that the clear and explicit chronology is reversed. The Serbian atrocities are portrayed as the cause of the bombing, whereas it is uncontroversial that they followed it, virtually without exception, and were furthermore its anticipated consequence, as is also well documented from the highest NATO sources.

Next come the questions of just war. At once, the issue of universality arises. If the US is unquestionably authorized to bomb another country to compel its leaders to turn over someone it suspects of involvement in a terrorist act, then, a fortiori, Cuba, Nicaragua, and a host of others are entitled to bomb the US because there is no doubt of its involvement in very serious terrorist attacks against them: in the case of Cuba going back forty-five years, extensively documented in impeccable sources, and not questioned; in the case of Nicaragua, even condemned by the World Court and the Security Council (in vetoed resolutions), after which the US escalated the attack. This conclusion surely follows if we accept the principle of universality. The conclusion of course is utterly outrageous, and advocated by no one. We therefore conclude, once again, that the principle of universality has a crucial exception, and that rejection of elementary moral truisms is so deeply entrenched that even raising the question is considered an unspeakable abomination. That is yet another instructive comment on the reigning intellectual and moral culture, with its principled rejection of unacceptable platitudes.

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