by Noam Chomsky
The following exchange took place in the ZNet Sustainer system, where Noam hosts a forum…
ZNet Sustainer: Noam, Would you be willing to comment on Samantha Power’s review essay in the 29 July NYT Book Review? The Times presents her as the very model of the liberal academic — a columnist for Time, adviser to Democratic presidential candidates, etc. The article is a good deal more than a book review.
Noam Chomsky: It was an interesting article, and her work, and its popularity, gives some insight into the reigning intellectual culture.
There are many interesting aspects to the article. One is that “terrorism” is implicitly defined as what THEY do to US, excluding what WE do to THEM. But that’s so deeply engrained in the state religion that it’s hardly worth mentioning.
A little more interesting is Power’s tacit endorsement of the Bush doctrine that states that harbor terrorists are no different from terrorist states, and should be treated accordingly: bombed and invaded, and subjected to regime change. There is, of course, not the slightest doubt that the US harbors terrorists, even under the narrowest interpretation of that term: e.g., by the judgment of the Justice Department and the FBI, which accused Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch of dozens of terrorist acts and urged that he be deported as a threat to US security. He was pardoned by Bush I, and lives happily in Florida, where he has now been joined by his associate Luis Posada, thanks to Bush II’s lack of concern about harboring terrorists. There are plenty of others, even putting aside those who have offices in Washington. Like John Negroponte, surely one of the leading terrorists of the late 20th century, not very controversially, so naturally appointed to the position of counter-terrorism Czar by Bush II, with no particular notice.
Even keeping to the completely uncontroversial cases, like Bosch, it follows that Power and the NY Times are calling for the bombing of Washington. But — oddly — the Justice Department is not about to indict them, though people are rotting in Guantanamo on far lesser charges. What is interesting and enlightening is that no matter how many times trivialities like this are pointed out — and it’s been many times — it is entirely incomprehensible within the intellectual culture. That reveals a very impressive level of subordination to authority and indoctrination, well beyond what one would expect in totalitarian states.
A little more subtle, perhaps, is her observation that “if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find “On Suicide Bombing” disturbing, if not always in the way he intends.” Let’s accept her judgment and proceed.
Evidently, a crucial case is omitted, which is far more depraved than massacring civilians intentionally. Namely, knowing that you are massacring them but not doing so intentionally because you don’t regard them as worthy of concern. That is, you don’t even care enough about them to intend to kill them. Thus when I walk down the street, if I stop to think about it I know I’ll probably kill lots of ants, but I don’t intend to kill them, because in my mind they do not even rise to the level where it matters. There are many such examples. To take one of the very minor ones, when Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility in Sudan, he and the other perpetrators surely knew that the bombing would kill civilians (tens of thousands, apparently). But Clinton and associates did not intend to kill them, because by the standards of Western liberal humanitarian racism, they are no more significant than ants. Same in the case of tens of millions of others.
I’ve written about this repeatedly, for example, in 9/11. And I’ve been intrigued to see how reviewers and commentators (Sam Harris, to pick one egregious example) simply cannot even see the comments, let alone comprehend them. Since it’s all pretty obvious, it reveals, again, the remarkable successes of indoctrination under freedom, and the moral depravity and corruption of the dominant intellectual culture.
It should be unnecessary to comment on how Western humanists would react if Iranian-backed terrorists destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies in Israel, or the US, or any other place inhabited by human beings. And it is only fair to add that Sudanese too sometimes do rise to the level of human beings. For example in Darfur, where their murder can be attributed to Arabs, the official enemy (apart, that is, from “good Arabs,” like the tyrants who rule Saudi Arabia, “moderates” as Rice and others explain).
There’s a lot more like this. It’s of some interest that Power is regarded — and apparently regards herself — as a harsh critic of US foreign policy. The reason is that she excoriates Washington for not paying enough attention to the crimes of others. It’s informative to look through her best-seller Problem from Hell to see what is said about US crimes. There are a few scant mentions: e.g., that the US looked away from the genocidal Indonesian aggression in East Timor. In fact, as has long been indisputable, the US looked right there and acted decisively to expedite the slaughters, and continued to do so for 25 years, even after the Indonesian army had virtually destroyed what remained of the country, when Clinton, under great international and domestic pressure, finally told the Indonesian generals that the game was over and they instantly withdrew — revealing, as if we needed the evidence, that the immense slaughter could have been easily terminated at any point, if anyone cared. The implications cannot be perceived.
But in general US participation in horrendous crimes is simply ignored in Problem from Hell. Few seem to able to perceive that a similar book, excoriating Stalin for not paying enough attention to US crimes, would very likely have been very highly praised in the old Soviet Union. What better service could one provide to the cause of massacre, torture, and destruction — by the Holy State and its clients, of course, whose only fault is that they do not attend sufficiently to the crimes of others.
I don’t think, incidentally, that it would be fair to criticize Power for her extraordinary services to state violence and terror. I am sure she is a decent and honorable person, and sincerely believes that she really is condemning the US leadership and political culture. From a desk at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School at Harvard, that’s doubtless how it looks. Insufficient attention has been paid to Orwell’s observations on how in free England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. One factor, he proposed, is a good education. When you have been through the best schools, finally Oxford and Cambridge, you simply have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things “it wouldn’t do to say” — and we may add, even to think.
His insight is quite real, and important. These cases are a good illustration, hardly unique.