Noam Chomsky: How the US “Politically Vulgarizes” Genocide and War Crimes

Noam Chomsky has revolutionized multiple fields of study, from psychology to linguistics to political science. With books such as Manufacturing Consent (with Edward S. Herman), The Fateful Triangle, Hegemony or Survival, and others, he has enlightened people all over the world. For these reasons and more, Chomsky is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of our time.

Shortly after the 2016 US elections, Truthout had the privilege of being able to sit down with Professor Chomsky in his office for a chat on an array of different topics, from ethnic conflicts to anarchism.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Pitasanna Shanmugathas: Until not so long ago, liberal, socialist and Marxist theoreticians assumed that conflicts involving ethnicity were a phenomenon of pre-modern society and that such conflicts would progressively fade away. Why haven’t we as a society been able to overcome the futility of engaging in ethnic conflict?

Noam Chomsky: To some extent, we have. Not totally. There has been progress. Take Europe; for centuries, Europe was the most [brutal] place in the world. The Europeans were just slaughtering one another. [During] the Thirty Years War of the 17th century, maybe a third of the population in Germany was wiped out. There was another 30 years war in the 20th century — from 1914 to 1945 — a total horror story. I don’t have to tell you what happened in Europe, the rest of the world. Since 1945, there have not been any major wars in Europe. Is that because we are more civilized? No. It is because it was understood that the next time you have a war, you are finished. Humans have created the capacity to destroy themselves and everything else, and we have come very close to blowing everything up. There have been many cases where terminal nuclear war was extremely close, and the threat is, in fact, increasing now.

What role do you believe federalism can play in resolving these conflicts?

Well, take, say, Europe again. One of the greatest achievements of post-war Europe — now under threat incidentally — is a slow move toward a kind of federalism. The Schengen Agreement, which permits free passage among the countries of Europe, is a step toward a more tolerant … society; it is a kind of federalism. It has positive and negative aspects because of the way it is implemented. Because of the way it was integrated into the Eurozone — which is something separate from the [European Union] — it has led to a situation where sovereignty has passed from populations to the bureaucracy in Brussels, with the German banks hanging over their shoulders. That is where basic decisions are made. It does not matter who people elect for their own government — the major decisions are out of their hands. That has led to extreme resentment — justified resentment — taking self-destructive paths, but the resentment is understandable. That is part of the background for the rise of the ultra-right parties that appeal to the population on the grounds that they no longer control their own destiny…. Now we are back to [a] Europe of competing nationalities, which [has] a pretty ugly past.

How has the concept of genocide become, as you state, “politically vulgarized,” and why is it dangerous to politicize the concept of genocide?

Well, genocide had a meaning in the early stages. I mean, it is not a matter of the definition, but the way it was understood. Genocide meant what the Nazis did to the Jews, for example. That was genocide. By now the term is used so broadly that people even talk about committing genocide against five people, or a massacre somewhere with a couple hundred people is called genocide. And in fact, it is used in a very restrictive way. We use the term genocide to refer to the atrocities committed by someone else, not our own.

Let us take a real case — the Clinton and Blair sanctions on Iraq — that actually was called genocide by the distinguished international diplomats who administered the oil-for-food program, the so-called “humanitarian” aspect of the sanctions. Denis Halliday, who resigned in protest, because he said they are genocidal, and Hans[-Christof] von Sponeck, who followed him, resigned on the grounds that the [sanctions] amounted to genocide. Hans von Sponeck, in fact, published a detailed book about it called A Different Kind of War. They did condemn the sanctions as genocidal.

What was the result? Try to find a copy of von Sponeck’s book. Try to find a reference to it. Try to find a review. Try to find anything. This is wiped out of Western commentary. The last time I looked, there was not a single review in the United States. The only review in England, I think, was in the Communist Party newspaper.

So what needs to be done to reverse the political vulgarization of the concept of the genocide? Can it still be used?

It can be used if we are willing to … recognize that crimes are crimes whether they commit them or we commit them. We could, for example, listen to Justice Robert Jackson — the chief prosecutor of Nuremberg — his injunction to the tribunal. He spoke to the tribunal and said: We have to recognize that crimes are crimes whether they commit them or we commit them. We are handing these defendants, he said, a poisoned chalice, and if we sip from it, we must be subject to the same conditions. If not, the whole trial is a farce.

Is that applied when Britain and the United States invaded Iraq? It is a textbook example of aggression with absolutely no justification, [a] textbook example of what the Nuremberg tribunal called the “supreme international crime,” which differs from other war crimes in that it includes all of the evil that follows. For example, the rise of ISIS [also known as Daesh] and the death of millions of people, includes all of that. Can you find any commentary in the United States even calling [the US-UK invasion] a crime?

Obama is greatly admired on the left because he said it was a blunder. It is just like German generals after Stalingrad who said that the two-front war was a blunder, which it was. We should have knocked out England first. That is as far as you can go.

The head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, when this was specifically brought to his attention, can only go as far as saying that [Iraq] was a mistake. Was it a mistake when the Nazis committed aggression? Was it a mistake when Russians invaded Afghanistan? If you are a loyal communist, it was a mistake. We do not call it that…. At most, we made “mistakes.”

Go back to Justice Jackson. Anybody listen to his words? Then take Vietnam. The worst crime of the post-[World War II] era … millions of people killed, three countries destroyed, people still dying from the chemical warfare that was initiated by John F. Kennedy and expanded. Is it a mistake? Is it a crime? Is anybody guilty, responsible?

[In November 2016], the Obama administration [sponsored] a big memorial of the Vietnam War, and Obama made a passionate speech with his elevated rhetoric about what happened. He even did talk about crimes; he talked about the crimes that were committed against the American veterans who were not treated properly. What about the Vietnamese?

Let’s take Jimmy Carter, the “human rights president,” right after the war. [In] 1977, he was asked in a press conference, “Do we owe any debt to Vietnam?” He said we owe them no debt because the destruction was mutual…. Was there a comment? A few commented on it. I commented on it, and a couple of other people. Until we rise to a minimal level of civilization, we can’t use the term genocide.

In the aftermath of conflicts, to what extent are truth and reconciliation commissions a viable form of achieving justice and accountability?

I think they make sense in many situations. For example, take South Africa: There were horrible crimes committed under apartheid. But to try to punish people for those crimes would have torn the society to shreds and undermined any hope of progress and development, so a decision was made by the [African National Congress] — which I think is understandable — to avoid direct punishment and to settle for a truth and reconciliation commission to expose the nature of what happened, so at least it is kind of understood. Same was done in Central America, Brazil and East Timor.

Take East Timor, which was, if the term genocide has any meaning, what Indonesia did in East Timor, with the backing of the United States, Britain, other Western countries, even Sweden, that comes about as close to genocide as anything since the Second World War. East Timor finally won its independence. Should they carry out war crimes trials against Indonesia, Australia, United States and others? Or should they try to mend the fences with Indonesia and maybe settle for a truth and reconciliation commission? I think the latter, which is what they are doing. They have to live in the world, right?

Let us take where we happen to be sitting right now [in the US]. The Native population suffered a migrant crisis of an incredible kind … where the immigrants come in with the intention of exterminating and expelling the population. That is not what we call a crisis, but that is what happened here…. Should they institute war crimes trials against the people who live in their homes? It would not make a lot of sense. It would make a lot of sense to bring out understanding of what happened, to call for reparations and so on, but not war crimes trials. It just means nothing in these circumstances.

Is it genocide? … The Western hemisphere had about 80 million people when Columbus arrived, and pretty soon about 90 percent of them were gone.

Political scientists like John Mearsheimer, Kenneth Waltz and Joseph Nye have each defined what they consider to be “power” in international relations. You have criticized power structures and power systems. But I would like to know what you consider to be power in the field of international relations.

That is pretty straight forward. Power is the ability to issue orders which others have to follow; to the extent that you can do that, you have power. The orders do not have to be verbal. It can be actions: so, if you can invade Iraq, worst crime of the 21st century, and you get no censure or no reaction for it — that is power.

I think as an anarchist, in the long term, you believe that centralized political power ought to be eliminated and turned down to the local level, so what role (if any) would federalism play in your long-term vision of anarchism?

The general anarchist pictures — at least within the tradition I associate myself with — are highly federalist, but they assume that they are based on the notion of voluntary association. So there should be self-determination in all institutional structures of life. But voluntary associations could extend to regions and countries, internationally, that is a kind of federalism supported from below. I think it makes good sense in a complex world.