[Extract of a talk Noam Chomsky gave at MIT]
Terrorism, weapon of the powerful, United States, Global Bully (Noam Chomsky, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2001)
The leaders of the United States do not realise that their desire to win at everything always has consequences, and that their present exploits are likely to have high future costs. Osama bin Laden was the price of the US victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. What will be next?
Two things have to be assumed: first, that the events of 11 September caused probably the most devastating instant death toll of any crime in history outside a war. Second, that our goal is to reduce the likelihood of such crimes, whether they are directed against the United States, or someone else. If you do not accept those assumptions, I am not addressing you. If you do, questions arise.
Let us start with Afghanistan, where seven or eight million people are on the verge of starvation, and surviving on international aid since way before 11 September. On 16 September the US demanded that Pakistan stop the truck convoys providing much of the food and supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population. As far as I can determine, there was no reaction to this in the US or Europe. Removing international aid workers further crippled assistance programmes. After the first week of US bombing, when the aid delivery rate was down to half of what was needed, the United Nations warned that the harsh winter would make deliveries to many areas impossible.
The major agencies, Oxfam and Christian Aid, and the Special Rapporteur of the UN in charge of food pleaded with the US to stop the bombing; this was not even mentioned in the New York Times. There was a line in the BostonGlobe, hidden in a story about Kashmir. By October Western civilisation was resigned to the idea of the death of hundreds of thousands of Afghans. At the same time, the "leader of Western civilisation" [President George Bush] dismissed with contempt offers to negotiate for the delivery of Osama bin Laden and a request for evidence to substantiate the US demand for total capitulation.
But let us return to 11 September. There have been terrorist crimes with more extreme, if more prolonged, effects. But the events of that day were historic, because there was a radical and new change in the direction in which the guns were pointed. Pearl Harbor is the usual analogy, but it is not a good one, as in 1941 the Japanese bombed military bases in two US colonies (colonies disgracefully taken from their inhabitants). On 11 September US national territory was attacked on a large scale for the first time.
For nearly 200 years the US expelled or mostly exterminated indigenous populations, many millions of people, conquered half of Mexico, depredated the Caribbean and Central America, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing 100,000 Filipinos in the process). Since the second world war, the US has extended its reach around the world. But the fighting was always somewhere else and it was always others who were being slaughtered.
The difference is immediately apparent if you look at the IRA and terrorism. There are very different reactions on either side of the Irish Sea, in Ireland and Britain. The world looks very different, depending on whether you are holding the lash or whether you have been whipped for centuries. Perhaps that is why the rest of the world, although horrified by the September attacks, nevertheless sees them from a different perspective.
To understand the origins of 11 September, we have to distinguish between the agents of the crime and the reservoir of sympathy, sometimes support, from which they draw, a reservoir that exists even among people who oppose both the criminals and their actions. Let us assume the crimes' perpetrators come from Bin Laden's network. Nobody knows about their origins better than the CIA, because it helped organise and nurture them. President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, says proudly that the US drew the Russians into an Afghan trap in 1978 by supporting the mujahedin, getting the Russians to invade in 1979. In 1990 the US established permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia, home of the holiest sites of Islam; that is when Islamist activities were first directed against the US.
What about the support Bin Laden's networks enjoy even among the governing classes of the South? These people are angry at the US because it supports authoritarian and brutal regimes (and is in its 35th year of supporting Israel's harsh military occupation), and because its policies devastate the civilian society of Iraq while strengthening Saddam Hussein. The New York Times asked "Why do they hate us?"; on the same day, the Wall Street Journal published a survey of bankers, professionals and international lawyers, who said they hate us because we are blocking democracy, preventing economic development, and supporting terrorist regimes.
The war against terrorism has been described in high places in the West as a struggle against a plague spread by barbarians, by "depraved opponents of civilisation". That is a feeling I share, but the words I quote are 20 years old, and were said by President Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. The Reagan administration came into office with a declaration that war against international terrorism would be the core of US foreign policy, and it responded to the plague by creating its own extraordinary international terrorist network, unprecedented in scale, which carried out massive atrocities all over the world, primarily in Latin America.
One case is Nicaragua and it is an incontrovertible case, because of the judgments of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the UN Security Council. But how often has this precedent for a lawabiding state's response to terrorism been mentioned since September? The ReaganUS war against Nicaragua was more extreme than I I September: it left tens of thousands of people dead, and the country ruined, perhaps beyond recovery (see articles by Raphaëlle Bail and François Houtart on pages 12 and 13).
Nicaragua responded not by bombing Washington but by taking Washington to the ICJ. The ICJ accepted Nicaragua's case, ruled in its favour, condemned what it called the "unlawful use of force" by the US (which had mined Nicaragua's ports), ordered the US to end the crime and pay massive reparations. The US dismissed the judgment with contempt and announced it would not accept the jurisdiction of the court.
Nicaragua then went to the UN Security Council, which considered a resolution calling on all states to observe international law. No state was mentioned but everyone understood which one was meant. The US vetoed the resolution. The US now stands as the only state on record which has been condemned by both the ICJ for international terrorism and has vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on states to observe international law. Nicaragua then went to the UN general assembly, where there is technically no veto, but where a negative US vote amounts to a veto. It passed a similar resolution, which only the US, Israel, and El Salvador opposed. The year after, the US could only rally Israel, so just two votes opposed observing law. Nicaragua could do no more that was lawful. It had tried all measures. They did not work in a world ruled by force. Nicaragua's case is incontrovertible, but how often is it front page news or taught in schools?
This is the culture in which we live. It offers certain revelations: that terrorism works, that violence usually works (that is world history). That it is a serious error to claim that terrorism is the weapon of the weak: like other means of violence, it is primarily, indeed overwhelmingly, a weapon of the strong. It is thought to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control the doctrinal systems, and because their terrorism does not count as terror. The nature of our culture is indicated by the way in which all this is approached. One approach is simply to suppress things, so that almost nobody has ever heard about them. The power of American propaganda is so strong that even the victims barely know. When you talk to people in Argentina, you have to remind them about these things and they will say: "Yes, that happened, we forgot about it."
Nicaragua, Haiti and Guatemala are the three poorest countries in Latin America. They were also victims of US military intervention. This was not necessarily coincidence. The intervention happened at the same time as Western intellectuals were enthusiastically congratulating themselves (another event that probably has no counterpart in history). Just a few years ago there was massive self-adulation: we were so magnificent; we were standing up for principles and values, dedicated to ending inhumanity everywhere in the new era of thisand-that. We could not tolerate atrocities near the borders of Nato only within the borders of Nato, where not only can we tolerate much worse atrocities but we contribute to them. But how often has this been mentioned? The silence is an impressive feat for a propaganda system in a free society. I do not think it could be done in a totalitarian state.
That brings us back to the question, what is terrorism? A brief definition, from a US 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". The problem with this is that it corresponds almost exactly with what the US calls low intensity warfare, which is official US policy. In December 1987, when the UN General Assembly passed a strong resolution against terrorism, one country, Honduras, abstained. Two countries voted against the resolution, the US and Israel. Why? Because the resolution had one paragraph that says that nothing in it infringes on the rights of people struggling against racist and colonialist regimes or foreign military occupation.
At the time South Africa was an ally of the US. Apart from attacks against neighbouring countries (Namibia, Angola) that killed about 1.5m people and did $60bn damage, the apartheid regime fought a socalled "terrorist" force, the African National Congress (ANC), inside the country. Israel has occupied the Palestinian territories since 1967 and others in Lebanon since 1978, opposed by what the US calls a "terrorist force", Hizbollah. None of that appears in the annals of terrorism, or in scholarly works on terrorism, because the wrong people held the guns. You have to hone the definitions and the scholarship carefully so that you come up with the right conclusions; otherwise it is not considered respectable scholarship or honourable journalism.
Colombia was the worst human rights violator in the 1990s, and by far the leading recipient of US military aid (excluding Israel and Egypt, both in a separate category). Turkey was also a prime beneficiary of US military aid until 1999. It is a strategically placed member of Nato, but the arms flow to it increased sharply in 1984. This had nothing to do with the cold war, as Russia was already collapsing: 1984 was the year that Turkey launched a major terrorist campaign against the Kurds. In 1997 US military aid to Turkey was more than for the entire 195083 cold war period an indication of how much the cold war affected policy. The results were awesome, with two or three million refugees, tens of thousands killed, 350 towns and villages destroyed. The US provided 80% of the arms, peaking in 1997. The supply declined in 1999 because Turkish terrorism (called, of course, counterterrorism) worked: it usually does when executed by the powerful.
Turkey was grateful. The US had supplied it with FI 6s to bomb its own people; in 1999 it used them to bomb the Serbs. Just after I I September the Turkish prime minister announced that Turkey would actively join the coalition against terror. It owed a debt of gratitude to the US, because the US had been the only country willing to contribute so massively to Turkey's own "counterterrorist" war.
Other countries helped Turkey a little against the Kurds, but the US contributed enthusiastically and decisively and was able to do so because of the silence even servility of the US educated classes, who could easily have found out about it. The US is a free country: we can read human rights reports, we can read anything. But we chose to contribute to the atrocities.
The present coalition against terror includes other choice recruits. The Christian Science Monitor, one of the best US newspapers with real coverage of the world, recently led with a story about the way that people and countries who used to dislike the US were beginning to respect it. A prime example was Algeria. The author of the article is an expert on Africa and must know that Algeria has had a war of terror against its own people for years. Another leading member of the coalition is Russia, delighted to have the US support its murderous terrorist war in Chechnya. China is joining enthusiastically, too, grateful for support for its atrocities in western China against what it calls "Muslim secessionists".
What are the policy options? The pope a farout radical suggested trying to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 11 September attacks. But the US does not want to use normal legal process. It would rather offer no proof and has rejected the jurisdiction of the ICJ. For the past few years, Haiti has been asking the US to extradite Emmanuel Constant, a leading figure in the slaughter of thousands after the coup that overthrew President JeanBertrand Aristide in 1991. The Haitians have plenty of evidence, but their request has made no impact on Washington and there has been no public debate of the issue.
To combat terrorism we must start by reducing the level of terror, rather than by escalating it. When the IRA detonates bombs in London, London does not destroy Boston, although it is the source of most of the IRA finance, nor does it wipe out West Belfast. The UK hunts the perpetrators, brings them to trial and looks for the reasons for the violence.
There is one easy way to reduce the level of terror: stop participating in it. We need to rethink the policies that are creating support, and benefiting the people behind the attacks. One of the few rays of light recently has been an increased openness. Many issues are now open for discussion, even in elite circles, and certainly among the public. These opportunities should be used, at least by those who accept the goal of trying to reduce the level of violence and terror.
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