Heart of darkness

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Hundreds of air-borne soldiers being parachuted into an area in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, on May 19, 2003, in what was considered Indonesia's biggest military operation since its invasion of East Timor in 1975. Photo: AP

A remarkable work on history and world politics not just re-examining the past but shedding light on contemporary realities of terrorism, racism, propaganda, media, imperialism and exploitation.

They were conquerors and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.

--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

NOAM CHOMSKY writes in his essay “Humanity Imperilled: The Path to Disaster”: “For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves. That’s been true since 1945. It’s now being finally recognised that there are more long-term processes like environmental destruction leading in the same direction, maybe not to total destruction, but at least to the destruction of the capacity for a decent existence. And there are other dangers like pandemics, which have to do with globalisation and interaction. So there are processes under way and institutions right in place, like nuclear weapons systems, which could lead to a serious blow to, or maybe the termination of, an organised existence.”

Clearly, there is a crisis of legitimacy in the world; lawful governments must fight terrorism and stand up for human rights. However, riddled with greed for money and power, these regimes alienate the world. There are no rules of the game but exploitation and grabbing of power by prioritising an agenda that is self-promoting.

Chomsky remains un-intimidated in the face of high-powered Western hegemony, which ostensibly fights terrorism but, as recent case studies in different parts of the Third World indicate, promotes militant terrorism. People long for peace in Syria, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Asia but Western terrorism remains unabated and unarguably the central issue in world politics with increasing antagonism for the United States.

On Western Terrorism, a collection of previously unpublished discussions between Noam Chomsky and the film-maker and journalist Andre Vltchek, takes up the question of terrorism from the days of Columbus to the current dehumanised drone warfare, which absolutely overlooks the traditional ethics of war that opposed the ideas of cold murder or assault from the rear without warning the enemy. The book is a remarkable work on history and world politics not just re-examining the past but shedding light on the contemporary realities of terrorism, racism, propaganda, media, imperial domination and exploitation.

In a world full of cold-blooded economics, antagonistic sectarianism and, most of all, terrorism and violence, our survival depends on the degree to which we accept responsibility for ourselves and the world, and face the seen and unseen threats that lie therein. Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek, aware of this intellectual responsibility, have painstakingly taken on the task of interrogating Western terrorism along with its world-wide fallout. Through a scrupulously detailed analysis of war and violence, these discussions provoke a passionate concern for the moral and human consequences of intellectual intervention that either spurs mass atrocity or helps discourage man’s inhumanity to man.

When I asked Chomsky in an interview about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons programme, and whether he thought that similar standards ought to be applied to all West Asian nations, not just to Iran, his reply was in the affirmative: “Certainly. Recall that the major U.N. [United Nations] resolution on Iraq to which the U.S. and the U.K. [United Kingdom] appeal, Resolution 687 of April 1991, calls for ‘establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery’. The U.S. has repeatedly made similar commitments, but of course does not abide by them, and has now also violated them in the case of India. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that the Non-Proliferation Treaty commits all nuclear states to undertake ‘good faith’ efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. That was a core part of the initial bargain. That is a binding legal commitment, as the World Court ruled a decade ago. None of the nuclear states have abided by that commitment, but the U.S. is far in the lead in rejecting it, and has even declared, under [George W.] Bush, that it is not bound by it.”

But then why not have nuclear disarmament in West Asia? Is that possible? Chomsky’s answer was: “Because the U.S. will not permit it. That holds more generally. It is widely recognised among strategic analysts that unless the production of weapons-grade fissile materials is controlled, the fate of the species is very much in doubt. There are sensible proposals as to how to deal with this problem: the proposal of Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to place production of fissile materials in the hands of an international agency, to which states could apply for legitimate uses; and the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty [FISSBAN] call in a U.N. resolution of 1993. The U.S. would never accept ElBaradei's proposal. In fact, the only state to have accepted it, to my knowledge, is Iran, in February 2006 (unreported in the Western press, to my knowledge). As for FISSBAN, despite strong U.S. objections it did come to a vote at the U.N. in November 2004. It passed 174-1, with two abstentions: Israel, which is reflexive, and Britain, which is more interesting.”

U.S. hypocrisy

The tragedy of Hiroshima, therefore, has been no deterrent. The clandestine workings of Western foreign policy are an eye-opener. For instance, the Gulf War is reported by the CNN by covering the “fireworks” that leave a million Iraqis dead with almost negligible casualties suffered by the U.S. Attention is diverted to this war, while the genocide in East Timor is carried out callously for control of oil. Under the camouflage of this military intervention that indicated to the international community that here was a nation sacrificing its soldiers for the upkeep of human rights, the U.S., in collaboration with Britain, was busy supplying weapons to Indonesia, leading to a blatant massacre of the natives. What was “present” in the media was a war waged against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny; what was “absent” in the Western discourse was the simultaneous atrocities in East Timor. Such hypocrisy gives the U.S. the highest rank of a “rogue state”.

The U.S.’ post-Cold War domination of the world is the reason for its arrogance towards the U.N. or the Organisation of American States (OAS). The U.S. reserves for itself the right to determine how to act. Unlawful use of force in Nicaragua is lawful as long as it falls within its “domestic jurisdiction”; the World Court can cry itself hoarse. Security Council vetoes by the U.S. and its allies, Britain and France, in the case of assaults on Cuba are an evidence of the general principle that “if an international organisation does not serve the interests that govern U.S. policy, there is little reason to allow it to survive”.

Saddam Hussein is supported one day through his worst atrocities and punished when he disobeys orders. This was obvious in the cases of Ferdinand Marcos, Manuel Noriega, Mobutu Sese Seko and many more. As Chomsky points out, “Crimes are not of great consequence; disobedience is.” You can bombard Angola, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Granada, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan in a short period in the name of a New World Order.

Can you say that one type of terrorism is not another type of martyrdom? Is slavery or apartheid not white terrorism? The air attack by the Allies during the First World War on Dresden killed thousands sleeping in their beds. The hooliganism of Israel in West Asia is an example of U.S.-backed unleashing of the blood-dimmed tide. If 5,500 innocents are dead in America, there are 50,000 infants dead in Iraq who perished because of the embargo on the sale of life-saving drugs. The Crusades in the Middle Ages were not very different from the present-day genocide.

Ironically, when one American enemy disappears, a search for another begins. With the demise of the Soviet Union, it is now the turn of international terrorism, Hispanic narco-traffickers, Islamic fundamentalism, or instability in Africa. Very few would be aware of the contribution of the U.S. and its clients to international terrorism or the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the post-Second World War drug trafficking. Respectable scholarship refuses to show its concern and remains subservient to the standard doctrinal mask of America’s real motives.

The hard fact that the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members have to face is that acts of terrorism, atrocities, and a generalised culture of violence arise from, and are shaped by, their imperial motives. Jorge Luis Borges is not far from the truth when he writes, “I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings; soon there will be no one but soldiers and bandits.”

Linking contemporary terrorism and global violence with Western imperial history, Chomsky offers a sharp critique of the legacy of colonialism, arguing that after the destruction of the indigenous populations of the Western hemisphere and almost the complete subjugation of Africa, “the fundamental themes of conquest retain their vitality and resilience, and continue to do savage injustice”. The great task of subjugation and conquest has changed little over the years.

Analysing Haiti, Cuba, Guatemala, and different pockets of the Third World, Chomsky and Vltchek draw parallels between the genocide of colonial times and the exploitation associated with modern-day imperialism, in which there is a correlation between aid sent by a great power such as the U.S. and the human rights climate. A leading academic scholar, Lars Schultz, discovered that the U.S. aid “has tended to flow disproportionately to those Latin American governments which torture their citizens”.

Though the concept of universal human rights is inherent in modern-day democracies, “fierce savages” have not been spared throughout the history of encounters. Appropriation of colonial texts, which continuously react to such hegemonic control, brings about a crisis of European authority, and its epistemology and ontology operate through such labelling to relegate the non-white world into subjugated position. There is need to dismantle and unmask such systems of knowledge and labels that underpin the imperial enterprise and brutal wars fought to gain monopoly over trade and power. To cite an example, the U.S. backed the Indonesian army in 1965 by supplying the names of thousands of Communist Party leaders, who were promptly executed. Apart from this inside information, Indonesia was given critical military and diplomatic support for its monstrous crimes.

While intellectuals in the British universities lecture on the value of their traditional culture and the new world order in the post-Cold War era, British aerospace and Rolls-Royce entered into a trade agreement with Indonesia and became one of the largest suppliers of arms to any country in Asia. Interestingly, under the cover of the Gulf crisis, the world was kept in the dark about the U.S.-supported atrocities and large-scale massacre of the aborigines of Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Western idealism and its counterfeit discourse on international law and justice proceeded unhindered by such events. No notice is given to the fact that Indonesia is supported by Australia, Britain, Japan and the U.S. in its exploitation of the oil wells in Timor Gap.

U.S. President Barack Obama would have entered into yet another armed conflict, with Syria, without the support of the U.N. Security Council if it had not been for the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But such deterrence is rare in the history of Western military adventurism. If humanity fears a nuclear disaster, it will have to take steps to check the U.S. more than the Islamist terrorist.

Andre Vltchek maintains: “The West has always behaved as if it had an inherited, but undefined, right to profit from the misery of the rest of the world. In many cases, the conquered nations had to give up their own culture, their religions, even their languages, and convert to our set of beliefs and values that we define as ‘civilised’.”

Vltchek is in full agreement with Chomsky, always believing that appalling conflicts and invasions have been the result of Western geopolitical and economic interests. His views are based on his innumerable visits to Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Indonesia, Timor Leste and many other locations so as to “illustrate independently, what Chomsky was saying and describing” all these years.

Along with Chomsky, Vltchek is responsible for the revelation in many cases of Western ideological manipulation of the mass media. Writing about the motivation that he received from Chomsky, Vltchek says: “His dedication, his courage to stand tall and proud ‘facing the tanks’ of the Empire was both encouraging and inspiring.” The discussions in the book are indeed the outcome of his urge “to join hands” with Chomsky to talk about the “unsettling state of our world”.