The New War Against Terror

Here the 73-year-old polymath addresses five "closely related" critical questions raised by the current international crisis focussed on the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST



Noam Chomsky , Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is in India in November 2001 to give a series of public lectures. Renowned scholar, founder of the modern science of linguistics, social theorist, political analyst, media critic, author of many books, winner of many awards and prizes, he has been described by an intellectual biographer as having "a position in the history of ideas on a par with that of Darwin or Descartes". The New York Times once described Chomsky as "arguably the most important intellectual alive" and on another occasion as "perhaps the clearest voice of dissent in American history". He is also the rarest of intellectuals - one who has a fan following across the globe. Here the 73-year-old polymath addresses five "closely related" critical questions raised by the current international crisis focussed on the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.

If you don't accept those two assumptions, then what I say will not be addressed to you. If we do accept them, then a number of questions arise.

One question, and by far the most important one, is: what is happening right now? Implicit in that is: what can we do about it? The second has to do with the very common assumption that what happened on September 11 is a historic event, one which will change history. I think it's true. It was a historic event and the question we should be asking is: exactly why? The third question has to do with the title, "The War Against Terrorism". Exactly what is it? And there is a related question, namely, what is terrorism? The fourth question, which is narrower but important, has to do with the origins of the crimes of September 11. And the fifth question that I want to talk a little about is what policy options there are in fighting this war against terrorism and dealing with the situations that led to it.

1. What's Happening Right Now?

Starvation of three to four million people. I'll talk about the situation in Afghanistan. According to The New York Times, there are seven to eight million people in Afghanistan on the verge of starvation. That was true before September 11. They were surviving on international aid. On September 16, The Times reported that the United States demanded from Pakistan the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population. As far as I could determine, there was no reaction in the United States or for that matter in Europe to the demand to impose massive starvation on millions of people. The threat of military strikes around that time forced the removal of international aid workers that crippled the assistance programmes.

The World Food Programme, the U.N. programme, which is the main one by far, was able to resume after three weeks, in early October. They began to resume, at a lower level, food shipments. They don't have international aid workers within, so the distribution system is hampered.

After the first week of bombing, The New York Times reported on a back page, inside a column on something else, that by the arithmetic of the United Nations, there will soon be 7.5 million Afghans in acute need of even a loaf of bread and there are only a few weeks left before the harsh winter will make deliveries to many areas totally impossible. But with bombs falling, the delivery rate is down to half of what is needed. Casual comment. Which tells us that Western civilisation is anticipating the slaughter of three-four million people or something like that. On the same day, the leader of Western civilisation dismissed with contempt, once again, offers of negotiation for delivery of the alleged target, Osama bin Laden, and a request for some evidence to substantiate the demand for total capitulation. On the same day, the Special Rapporteur of the U.N. in charge of food pleaded with the United States to stop the bombing to try to save millions of victims. As far as I'm aware, that was unreported.

Looks like what's happening is some sort of silent genocide. It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the culture that we are part of. It indicates that plans are being made and programmes implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next few months.

What's happening now is very much under our control. We can do a lot to affect what's happening.

2. Why was it a Historic Event?

Let's turn to the question of the historic event that took place on September 11. It was a historic event because there was a change. The change was the direction in which the guns were pointed. That's new, radically new.

The last time that the national territory of the United States was under attack, or for that matter, even threatened was when the British burned down Washington in 1814. During these close to 200 years, we, the United States, expelled or mostly exterminated the indigenous population, that's many millions of people, conquered half of Mexico, carried out depredations all over the region, Caribbean and Central America, sometimes beyond, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines, killing several 100,000 Filipinos in the process. Since the Second World War, it has extended its reach around the world in ways I don't have to describe. But it was always killing someone else, the fighting was somewhere else, it was others who were getting slaughtered.

In the case of Europe, the change is even more dramatic because its history is even more horrendous than ours. We are an offshoot of Europe, basically. For hundreds of years, Europe has been casually slaughtering people all over the world. That's how they conquered the world, not by handing out candy to babies. The main sport of Europe for hundreds of years was slaughtering one another. The only reason that it came to an end in 1945 was that everyone understood that the next time they play the game, it was going to be the end for the world.

But during this whole bloody, murderous period, it was Europeans slaughtering each other, and Europeans slaughtering people elsewhere. The Congo didn't attack Belgium, India didn't attack England, Algeria didn't attack France. It's uniform.

This is the first change. The first time that the guns have been pointed the other way. The world looks very different depending on whether you are holding the lash or whether you are being whipped by it for hundreds of years. So I think the shock and surprise in Europe and its offshoots, like here, is very understandable.

3. What is the War Against Terrorism?

'What is the war against terrorism?' and a side question, 'What's terrorism?' The war against terrorism has been described in high places as a struggle against a plague, a cancer, which is spread by barbarians, by "depraved opponents of civilisation itself". That's a feeling that I share. The words I'm quoting, however, happen to be from 20 years ago, [from] President Reagan and his Secretary of State. The Reagan administration came into office 20 years ago declaring that the war against international terrorism would be the core of our foreign policy. And it was the core of our foreign policy. The Reagan administration responded to this plague spread by "depraved opponents of civilisation" itself by creating an extraordinary international terrorist network, totally unprecedented in scale, which carried out massive atrocities all over the world.

I'll just mention the Reagan-U.S. war against Nicaragua, which left tens of thousands of people dead, the country ruined, perhaps beyond recovery. Nicaragua did respond. They didn't respond by setting off bombs in Washington. They responded by taking it to the World Court... the U.N. Security Council... the [U.N.] General Assembly. Nicaragua tried all the [international legal] measures. They don't work in a world that is ruled by force.

This case is uncontroversial but it's by no means the most extreme. We gain a lot of insight into our own culture and society and what's happening now by asking 'How much do we know about all this? How much do we talk about it? How much do you learn about it in school? How much is it all over the front pages?'

For the first time there were official orders given to the terrorist army to attack what are called "soft targets", meaning undefended civilian targets, and to keep away from the Nicaraguan army. They were able to do that because the United States had total control of the air over Nicaragua and the mercenary army was supplied with advanced communication equipment - it wasn't a guerrilla army in the normal sense - and could get instructions about the disposition of the Nicaraguan army forces so they could attack agricultural collectives, health clinics, and so on.

What was the reaction here? It worked. When Nicaragua finally succumbed to superpower assault, commentators openly and cheerfully lauded the success of the methods that were adopted and described them accurately.

That is the culture in which we live and it reveals several facts. One is the fact that terrorism works. It doesn't fail. Violence usually works. That's world history. Secondly, it's a very serious analytic error to say, as is commonly done, that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Like other means of violence, it's primarily a weapon of the strong, overwhelmingly, in fact.

It is held to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control the doctrinal systems and their terror doesn't count as terror. Now, that's close to universal. Terrorism is not the weapon of the weak. It is the weapon of those who are against 'us', whoever 'us' happens to be. And if you can find a historical exception to that, I'd be interested in seeing it.

It was happening elsewhere in the world too, take say Africa. During the Reagan years alone, U.S./U.K.-backed South African attacks against the neighbouring countries killed about a million-and-a-half people and left $60 billion in damage and countries destroyed. And if we go around the world, we can add more examples.

What is terrorism? There is an official definition. A brief statement of it taken from a U.S. army manual is that terror is the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political or religious ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear. That's terrorism. That's a fair enough definition. The problem is that it can't be accepted because if you accept that, all the wrong consequences follow.

If you take a look at the definition of Low Intensity Warfare, which is official U.S. policy, you find that it is a very close paraphrase of what I just read. In fact, Low Intensity Conflict is just another name for terrorism. That's why all countries, as far as I know, call whatever horrendous acts they are carrying out, counter-terrorism. We happen to call it Counter-Insurgency or Low Intensity Conflict.

There are some other problems. Some of them came up in December 1987, at the peak of the first war on terrorism, that's when the furore over the plague was peaking. The United Nations General Assembly passed a very strong resolution against terrorism, condemning the plague in the strongest terms, calling on every state to fight against it in every possible way. One country, Honduras, abstained. Two votes against - the usual two, United States and Israel.

[Consider] the Israeli-occupied territories, now going into its 35th year. Supported primarily by the United States in blocking a diplomatic settlement for 30 years now. And we can't allow anyone to struggle against a military occupation when it is one that we support.

None of this was ever reported and none of it appeared in the annals of terrorism. The reason is that it has got the wrong people holding the guns. You have to carefully hone the definitions and the scholarship so that you come out with the right conclusions. Otherwise it is not respectable scholarship and honourable journalism.

Well, these are some of problems that are hampering the effort to develop a comprehensive treaty against terrorism. Maybe we should have an academic conference or something to try to see if we can figure out a way of defining terrorism so that it comes out with just the right answers, not the wrong answers. That won't be easy.

4. What are the Origins of the September 11 Crimes?

Here we have to make a distinction between two categories, which shouldn't be run together. One is the actual agents of the crime, the other is kind of a reservoir of at least sympathy, sometimes support that they appeal to even among people who very much oppose the criminals and the actions. And those are two different things.

Category 1: The Likely Perpetrators

With regard to the perpetrators, in a certain sense we are not really clear. The United States either is unable or unwilling to provide any meaningful evidence. There was a sort of a play [some weeks ago] when Tony Blair was set up to try to present it. Whatever the PR reasons were, he gave a presentation, which was in serious circles considered so absurd that it was barely even mentioned.

So why bother with the evidence? It is astonishing to me how weak the evidence was. Remember this was after weeks of the most intensive investigation in history of all the intelligence services of the western world working overtime trying to put something together. It ended up about where it started, with a prima facie case.

Let's assume that it is true. Let's assume that - it looked obvious the first day, still does - that the actual perpetrators come from the radical Islamic, here called, fundamentalist, networks of which the bin Laden network is undoubtedly a significant part. Whether they were involved or not, nobody knows.

That's the background, those networks. Well, where do they come from? We know all about that. Nobody knows about that better than the CIA because it helped organise them and it nurtured them for a long time. They were brought together in the 1980s actually by the CIA and its associates elsewhere: Pakistan, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt... The idea was to try to harass the Russians, the common enemy.

We could develop this terrific mercenary army. Not a small one, maybe 100,000 men or so, bringing together the best killers they could find, who were radical Islamist fanatics from around North Africa, Saudi Arabia... anywhere they could find them. They were often called the Afghanis but many of them, like bin Laden, were not Afghans. They were brought by the CIA and its friends from elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the terrorist forces that the CIA was organising, arming, and training were pursuing their own agenda, right away. It was no secret. One of the first acts was in 1981 when they assassinated the President of Egypt, who was one of the most enthusiastic of their creators. In 1983, one suicide bomber drove the U.S. military out of Lebanon. And it continued.

After 1989, when the Russians had withdrawn, they simply turned elsewhere. Since then they have been fighting in Chechnya, Western China, Bosnia, Kashmir, South-East Asia, North Africa, all over the place.

They are telling us just what they think. The United States wants to silence the one free television channel in the Arab world because it's broadcasting a whole range of things from Powell over to Osama bin Laden. So the U.S. is now joining the repressive regimes of the Arab world that try to shut it up. But if you listen to it, if you listen to what bin Laden says, it's worth it.

Their prime enemy is what they call the corrupt and oppressive authoritarian brutal regimes of the Arab world and when they say that they get quite a resonance in the region. They also want to defend and they want to replace them by properly Islamist governments. That's when they lose the people of the region. But up till then, they are with them. From their point of view, even Saudi Arabia, the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world, I suppose, short of the Taliban, which is an offshoot, even that's not Islamist enough for them.

Also, they want to defend Muslims elsewhere. From their point of view, they are defending the Muslims against the infidels.

Now why did they turn against the United States? Well, that had to do with what they call the U.S. invasion of Saudi Arabia. In 1990, the U.S. established permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia, which from their point of view is comparable to a Russian invasion of Afghanistan except that Saudi Arabia is way more important. That's the home of the holiest sites of Islam. And that is when their activities turned against the Unites States. If you recall, in 1993, they tried to blow up the World Trade Centre. Got part of the way, but not the whole way and that was only part of it. The plans were to blow up the U.N. building, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, the FBI building. I think there were others on the list.

One person who is jailed for that, finally, among the people who were jailed, was an Egyptian cleric who had been brought into the United States over the objections of the Immigration Service, thanks to the intervention of the CIA, which wanted to help out their friend. A couple of years later he was blowing up the World Trade Centre. And this has been going on all over.

Category 2: What about the reservoir of support?

What about the reservoir of support? Well, it's not hard to find out what that is. One of the good things that has happened since September 11 is that some of the press and some of the discussion has begun to open up to some of these things. The best one to my knowledge is The Wall Street Journal, which right away began to run, within a couple of days, searching serious reports, on the reasons why the people of the region, even though they hate bin Laden and despise everything he is doing, nevertheless support him in many ways and even regard him as the "conscience of Islam", as one said. Now The Wall Street Journal and others are surveying the opinion of their friends: bankers, professionals, international lawyers, businessmen tied to the United States, people who they interview in MacDonald's restaurant... wearing fancy American clothes.

And their attitudes are very explicit and very clear and in many ways consonant with the message of bin Laden and others. They are very angry at the United States because of its support of authoritarian and brutal regimes; its intervention to block any move towards democracy; its intervention to stop economic development; its policies of devastating the civilian societies of Iraq while strengthening Saddam Hussein. And they remember, even if we prefer not to, that the United States and Britain supported Saddam Hussein right through his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds - bin Laden brings that up constantly - and they know it even if we don't want to.

And, of course, their support for the Israeli military occupation, which is harsh and brutal. It is now in its 35th year. The U.S. has been providing the overwhelming economic, military, and diplomatic support for it, and still does. And they know that and they don't like it. Especially when that is paired with U.S. policy towards Iraq, towards the Iraqi civilian society, which is getting destroyed. When bin Laden gives those reasons, people recognise it and support it.

If you want to live with your head buried in the sand and pretend they hate us because they're opposed to globalisation, that's why they killed Sadat 20 years ago, and fought the Russians, tried to blow up the World Trade Centre in 1993, if you want to believe that, [it is] comforting. And it is a great way to make sure that violence escalates.

5. What are the Policy Options?

Well, there are a number. A narrow policy option from the beginning was to follow the advice of really far out radicals like the Pope. The Vatican immediately said, look, it's a horrible terrorist crime. In the case of crime, you try to find the perpetrators, you bring them to justice, you try them. You don't kill innocent civilians. If somebody robs my house and I think the guy who did it is probably in the neighbourhood across the street, I don't go out with an assault rifle and kill everyone in that neighbourhood. And there are plenty of precedents for that.

When the IRA [Irish Republican Army] set off bombs in London, which is pretty serious business, one possible response [from Britain] would have been to destroy Boston, which is the source of most of the financing. And of course to wipe out West Belfast. Well, you know, quite apart from the feasibility, it would have been criminal idiocy. The way to deal with it was pretty much what they did. You know, find the perpetrators; bring them to trial; and look for the reasons.

Because these things don't come out of nowhere. They come from something. Whether it is a crime in the streets or a monstrous terrorist crime or anything else. And usually if you look at the reasons, some of them are legitimate and ought to be addressed, independently of the crime. They ought to be addressed because they are legitimate. And that's the way to deal with it.

There are many such examples.

But there are problems with that. One problem is that the United States does not recognise the jurisdiction of international institutions. So it can't go to them. It has rejected the jurisdiction of the World Court. It has refused to ratify the International Criminal Court. The U.S. doesn't want to present evidence because it wants to be able to act without evidence. The U.S. probably could have [got U.N.] Security Council authorisation, but it didn't want it. And it didn't want it because it follows a long-standing principle and that is that we have the right to act unilaterally. We don't care about evidence. We don't care about negotiation. We don't care about treaties. We are the strongest guy around; the toughest thug on the block. We do what we want.

Well, what about the reactions in Afghanistan? The initial proposal, the initial rhetoric, was for a massive assault which would kill many people visibly and also an attack on other countries in the region. Well, the Bush administration wisely backed off from that. It would simply be like opening recruiting offices for bin Laden all over the region. That's exactly what he wants. And it would be extremely harmful to their own interests.

So they backed off that one. And they are turning to a kind of silent genocide. You can figure it out if you do the arithmetic.

A sensible proposal, which is on the verge of being considered, is a U.N. initiative. A U.N. initiative to bring together elements within Afghanistan that would try to construct something from the wreckage. It's conceivable that that could work, with plenty of support and no interference.

We certainly want to reduce the level of terror, certainly not escalate it. There is one easy way to do that and therefore it is never discussed. Namely, stop participating in it. That would automatically reduce the level of terror enormously. We ought to make it possible to discuss it.

Beyond that, we should rethink the kinds of policies - and Afghanistan is not the only one - in which we organise and train terrorist armies. That has effects. We're seeing some of these effects now. September 11 is one.

Rethink the policies that are creating a reservoir of support. Exactly what the bankers, lawyers and so on are saying in places like Saudi Arabia. On the streets it's much more bitter, as you can imagine. That's possible. You know, those policies aren't graven in stone.

And furthermore, there are opportunities. It's hard to find many rays of light in the last couple of weeks, but one of them is that there is an increased openness. Lots of issues are open for discussion, even in elite circles, certainly among the general public, that were not a couple of weeks ago. Among the general public, I think there is more openness and willingness to think about things that were under the rug. These are opportunities and they should be used - at least by people who accept the goal of trying to reduce the level of violence and terror, including potential threats that are extremely severe and could make even September 11 pale into insignificance.

This is excerpted from the transcript of Noam Chomsky's talk on October 18, 2001 at the Technology and Culture Forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Source: Znet, accessed at

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