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Not Since the War of 1812

The horrifying atrocities of September 11 are new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target.

An aerial view of ground zero taken on September 17, 2001.

Q: The fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t claim any victims, but it did profoundly change the geopolitical scene. Do you think that the attacks of 9-11 could have a similar effect?

Noam Chomsky: The fall of the Berlin Wall was an event of great importance and did change the geopolitical scene, but not in the ways usually assumed, in my opinion. I’ve tried to explain my reasons elsewhere and won’t go into it now.

The horrifying atrocities of September 11 are something quite new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target. For the United States, this is the first time since the War of 1812 that the national territory has been under attack, or even threatened. Many commentators have brought up a Pearl Harbor analogy, but that is misleading. On December 7, 1941, military bases in two U.S. colonies were attacked—not the national territory, which was never threatened. The U.S. preferred to call Hawaii a “territory,” but it was in effect a colony. During the past several hundred years the U.S. annihilated the indigenous population (millions of people), conquered half of Mexico (in fact, the territories of indigenous peoples, but that is another matter), intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and, in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way. That is a dramatic change.

The same is true, even more dramatically, of Europe. Europe has suffered murderous destruction, but from internal wars. Meanwhile European powers conquered much of the world with extreme brutality. With the rarest of exceptions, they were not under attack by their foreign victims. England was not attacked by India, nor Belgium by the Congo, nor Italy by Ethiopia, nor France by Algeria (also not regarded by France as “a colony”). It is not surprising, therefore, that Europe should be utterly shocked by the terrorist crimes of September 11. Again, not because of the scale, regrettably.

Exactly what this portends, no one can guess. But that it is something strikingly new is quite clear.

My impression is that these attacks won’t offer us new political scenery, but that they rather confirm the existence of a problem inside the “Empire.” The problem concerns political authority and power. What do you think?

The likely perpetrators are a category of their own, but uncontroversially, they draw support from a reservoir of bitterness and anger over U.S. policies in the region, extending those of earlier European masters. There certainly is an issue of “political authority and power.” In the wake of the attacks, the Wall Street Journal surveyed opinions of “moneyed Muslims” in the region: bankers, professionals, businessmen with ties to the United States. They expressed dismay and anger about U.S. support for harsh authoritarian states and the barriers that Washing- ton places against independent development and political democracy by its policies of “propping up oppressive regimes.” Their primary concern, however, was different: Washington’s policies towards Iraq and towards Israel’s military occupation. Among the great mass of poor and suffering people, similar sentiments are much more bitter, and they are also hardly pleased to see the wealth of the region flow to the West and to small Western-oriented elites and corrupt and brutal rulers backed by Western power. So there definitely are problems of authority and power. The immediately announced U.S. reaction was to deal with these problems by intensifying them. That is, of course, not inevitable. A good deal depends on the outcome of such considerations.

Is America having trouble governing the process of globalization – and I don’t mean just in terms of national security or intelligence systems?

The U.S. doesn’t govern the corporate globalization proj- ect, though it of course has a primary role. These programs have been arousing enormous opposition, primarily in the South, where mass protests could often be suppressed or ignored. In the past few years, the protests reached the rich countries as well, and hence became the focus of great concern to the powerful, who now feel themselves on the defensive, not without reason. There are very substantial reasons for the worldwide opposition to the particular form of investor-rights “globalization” that is being imposed, but this is not the place to go into that.

“Intelligent bombs” in Iraq, “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo. The U.S.A. never used the word “war” to describe that. Now they are talking about war against a nameless enemy. Why?

At first the U.S. used the word “crusade,” but it was quickly pointed out that if they hope to enlist their allies in the Islamic world, it would be a serious mistake, for obvious reasons. The rhetoric therefore shifted to “war.” The Gulf War of 1991 was called a “war.” The bombing of Serbia was called a “humanitarian intervention,” by no means a novel usage. That was a standard description of European imperialist ventures in the 19th century. To cite some more recent examples, the major recent scholarly work on “humanitarian intervention” cites three examples of “humanitarian intervention” in the immediate pre-World War II period: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and Hitler’s takeover of the Sudetenland. The author of course is not suggesting that the term is apt; rather, that the crimes were masked as “humanitarian.”

Whether the Kosovo intervention indeed was “humanitarian,” possibly the first such case in history, is a matter of fact: passionate declaration does not suffice, if only because virtually every use of force is justified in these terms. It is quite extraordinary how weak the arguments are to justify the claim of humanitarian intent in the Kosovo case; more accurately, they scarcely exist, and the official government reasons are quite different. But that’s a separate matter, which I’ve written about in some detail elsewhere.

But even the pretext of “humanitarian intervention” cannot be used in the normal way in the present case. So we are left with “war.”

The proper term would be “crime”—perhaps “crime against humanity,” as Robert Fisk has stressed. But there are laws for punishing crimes: identify the perpetrators, and hold them accountable, the course that is widely recommended in the Middle East, by the Vatican, and many others. But that requires solid evidence, and it opens doors to dangerous questions: to mention only the most obvious one, who were the perpetrators of the crime of international terrorism condemned by the World Court 15 years ago?

For such reasons, it is better to use a vague term, like “war.” To call it a “war against terrorism,” however, is simply more propaganda, unless the “war” really does target terrorism. But that is plainly not contemplated because Western powers could never abide by their own official definitions of the term, as in the U.S. Code* or Army manuals. To do so would at once reveal that the U.S. is a leading terrorist state, as are its clients.

Perhaps I may quote political scientist Michael Stohl: “We must recognize that by convention—and it must be emphasized only by convention—great power use and the threat of the use of force is normally described as coercive diplomacy and not as a form of terrorism,” though it commonly involves “the threat and often the use of violence for what would be described as terroristic purposes were it not great powers who were pursuing the very same tactic,” in accord with the literal meaning of the term. Under the (admittedly unimaginable) circumstances that Western intellectual culture were willing to adopt the literal meaning, the war against terrorism would take quite a different form, along lines spelled out in extensive detail in literature that does not enter the respectable canon.

The quote I just gave is cited in a survey volume called Western State Terrorism, edited by Alex George and published by a major publisher 10 years ago, but unmentionable in the United States. Stohl’s point is then illustrated in detail throughout the book. And there are many others, extensively documented from the most reli- able sources—for example, official government documents—but also unmentionable in the U.S., though the taboo is not so strict in other English-speaking coun- tries, or elsewhere.

NATO is keeping quiet until they find out whether the attack was internal or external. How do you interpret this?

I do not think that that is the reason for NATO’s hesitation. There is no serious doubt that the attack was “external.” I presume that NATO’s reasons for hesitation are those that European leaders are expressing quite publicly.

They recognize, as does everyone with close knowledge of the region, that a massive assault on a Muslim population would be the answer to the prayers of bin Laden and his associates, and would lead the U.S. and its allies into a “diabolical trap,” as the French foreign minister put it.

Could you say something about connivance and the role of American secret service?

I don’t quite understand the question. This attack was surely an enormous shock and surprise to the intelligence services of the West, including those of the United States. The CIA did have a role, a major one in fact, but that was in the 1980s, when it joined Pakistani intelligence and others (Saudi Arabia, Britain, etc.) in recruiting, training, and arming the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists it could find to fight a “Holy War” against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan.

The best source on this topic is the book Unholy Wars, written by longtime Middle East correspondent and author John Cooley. There is now, predictably, an effort under way to clean up the record and pretend that the U.S. was an innocent bystander, and a bit surprisingly, even respectable journals (not to speak of others) are soberly quoting CIA officials to “demonstrate” that required conclusion—in gross violation of the most elementary journalistic standards.

After that war was over, the “Afghanis” (many, like bin Laden, not Afghans), turned their attention elsewhere: for example, to Chechnya and Bosnia, where they may have received at least tacit U.S. support. Not surprisingly, they were welcomed by the governments; in Bosnia, many Islamic volunteers were granted citizenship in gratitude for their military services (Carlotta Gall, New York Times, October 2, 2001).

And to western China, where they are fighting for liberation from Chinese domination; these are Chinese Muslims, some apparently sent by China to Afghanistan as early as 1978 to join a guerrilla rebellion against the government, later joining the CIA-organized forces after the Russian invasion in 1979 in support of the government Russia backed—and installed, much as the U.S. installed a government in South Vietnam and then invaded to “defend” the country it was attacking, to cite a fairly close analog. And in the southern Philippines, North Africa, and elsewhere, fighting for the same causes, as they see it. They also turned their attention to their prime enemies Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab states, and by the 1990’s, also to the U.S. (which bin Laden regards as having invaded Saudi Arabia much as Russia invaded Afghanistan).

What consequences do you foresee for the Seattle movement? Do you think it will suffer as a result, or is it possible that it will gain momentum?

It is certainly a setback for the worldwide protests against corporate globalization, which—again—did not begin inSeattle. Such terrorist atrocities are a gift to the harshest and most repressive elements on all sides, and are sure to be exploited—already have been in fact—to accelerate the agenda of militarization, regimentation, reversal of social democratic programs, transfer of wealth to narrow sectors, and undermining democracy in any meaningful form. But that will not happen without resistance, and I doubt that it will succeed, except in the short term.

What are the consequences for the Middle East? In particular for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The atrocities of September 11 were a devastating blow for the Palestinians, as they instantly recognized. Israel is openly exulting in the “window of opportunity” it now has to crush Palestinians with impunity. In the first few days after the 9-11 attack, Israeli tanks entered Palestinian cities ( Jenin, Ramallah, Jericho for the first time), several dozen Palestinians were killed, and Israel’s iron grip on the population tightened, exactly as would be expected. Again, these are the common dynamics of a cycle of escalating violence, familiar throughout the world: Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, the Balkans, and elsewhere.

How do you judge the reaction of Americans? They seemed pretty cool-headed, but as Saskia Sassen recently said in an interview, “We already feel as though we are at war.”

The immediate reaction was shock, horror, anger, fear, a desire for revenge. But public opinion is mixed, and coun-tercurrents did not take long to develop. They are now even being recognized in mainstream commentary. Today’s newspapers, for example.

In an interview you gave to the Mexican daily La Jornada, you said that we are faced with a new type of war. What exactly did you mean?

It is a new type of war for the reasons mentioned in response to your first question: the guns are now aimed in a different direction, something quite new in the history of Europe and its offshoots.

Are Arabs, by definition, necessarily fundamentalist, the West’s new enemy?

Certainly not. First of all, no one with even a shred of rationality defines Arabs as “fundamentalist.” Secondly, the U.S. and the West generally have no objection to religious fundamentalism as such. The U.S., in fact, is one of the most extreme religious fundamentalist cultures in the world; not the state, but the popular culture. In the Islamic world, the most extreme fundamentalist state, apart from the Taliban, is Saudi Arabia, a U.S. client state since its origins; the Taliban are in fact an offshoot of the Saudi version of Islam.

Radical Islamist extremists, often called “fundamentalists,” were U.S. favorites in the 1980’s, because they were the best killers who could be found. In those years, a prime enemy of the U.S. was the Catholic Church, which had sinned grievously in Latin America by adopting “the preferential option for the poor,” and suffered bitterly for that crime. The West is quite ecumenical in its choice of enemies. The criteria are subordination and service to power, not religion. There are many other illustrations.

VIDEO: Noam Chomsky: Looking Back on 9/11 a Decade Later
Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!
: “As we continue to mark the decade since the September 11th attacks in the United States, today we spend the hour with MIT professor, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, Noam Chomsky.”

* “[An] act of terrorism‚ means any activity that (A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and (B) appears to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.” (United States Code Congressional and Administrative News, 98th Congress, Second Session, 1984 , Oct. 19, volume 2; par. 3077, 98 STAT. 2707 [ West Publishing Co., 1984]).

Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2011 by Noam Chomsky

“Was There an Alternative?” © 2011 by Noam Chomsky

Reflections on 9-11” © 2002 by Noam Chomsky. First published by Aftonbladet in Sweden, August 2002, and in 11 September—ett år efteråt (September 11—One Year After) (Stockholm: Aftonbladet, 2002).

The Open Media Series is edited by Greg Ruggiero and archived by the Tamiment Collection at New York University.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechanical, electric, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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