A Plague by Depraved Opponents of Civilization Itself

by Mike Ward

28 March 2003


I believe there is still something inherent in the fiber of America worth saving, and that the fortunes of the entire world may well ride on the ability of young Americans to face the responsibilities of an old America gone mad.
—Phil Ochs

Distorted Rationality: America’s War on Terror? is liable to disappoint those hoping for a reprise of Manufacturing Consent, the seminal biographical documentary on Noam Chomsky. Named after one of the books that established Chomsky as a principal domestic critic of U.S. foreign policy, Manufacturing Consent is broad-ranging and visually arresting. It dubs Chomsky’s various speeches over quotidian shots of the media palaces on Times Square (the CBS, NBC, and New York Times buildings), dips generously into archival footage, and uses split-screens, matrices of televisions, even bulleted lists. All this, paradoxically, gives image to Chomsky’s scathing indictments of America’s media, mainly their role in creating the tragic blind spots that impair our culture’s vision.

Distorted Rationality lacks Manufacturing Consent‘s cinematic vocabulary, being as it is a fixed-camera, real-time coverage of a one-hour speech Chomsky gave at Harvard University in 2002, while U.S. bombs were raining down on Afghanistan. But Chomsky’s central point, so effectively illustrated in Manufacturing Consent, is revisited and updated for our current, utterly strange times. Distorted Rationality is of value for this reason.

Chomsky reminds us that international law is founded on a single, abstract principle and therefore, were it being enforced today, it would apply to the U.S. government just as it may to any regime, in any time. The principle founding international law is essentially this: a crime against humanity is not a matter of who does what to whom. It is simply a matter of what is done.

Distorted Rationality begins with an elaboration of the term “hypocrite,” as defined in the Bible, this being a text with which George W. Bush is presumably familiar. A hypocrite, Chomsky explains, is “the person who applies standards to others that he refuses to apply to himself.” The definition of “terrorism” that follows, being taken from a 1984 Army manual, should suffice to determine whether the Western powers subscribe to the same principles they enforce on the rest of the world. “Terrorism,” according to the Army, is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain political, religious, or ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” In other words: shock and awe.

A bombing outside a mosque in Lebanon in 1985, which took place with the aid and authority of the CIA, British intelligence, and the Saudi government, killed 80 people and wounded 250 more, mostly women and children. The following year, a proxy war in Nicaragua led the International Court of Justice to accuse the United States of violating international law and engaging in acts of terrorism. In response, the U.S. escalated the war and sanctioned attacks on “soft targets”—that is, undefended civilians. This claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the devastation of the country’s economy is part of the reason why Nicaragua’s inflation rate is measured in the tens of thousands of percent, even today.

The examples go on and on. Why this astonishing bloodshed, the records of which are lost in the files of the U.N. after majority votes in the General Assembly coaxes vetoes from the U.S.? It is largely due to President Ronald Reagan, who, soon after he took office in 1981, declared a “war against terror.” Secretary of State George Shultz decried the vague but ubiquitous menace of terrorism as “a plague created by depraved opponents of civilization itself.” Once the Reagan Administration had described Central America and the Middle East in these stark terms, what stood for civilization in these already-troubled regions began to crumble—in a series of escalating, covert acts of violence not only in Nicaragua and Lebanon but also in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Gaza, the West Bank, Iran, Iraq.

Victory in the first war against terror never came. Instead, it culminated in the 1991 Persian Gulf massacre, which in turn sparked an explosion of terrorism in the United States: the 1993 World Trade Center attacks to the Oklahoma City bombing, and finally, September 11. After this last atrocity, a feckless George W. Bush announced another “war on terror,” presumably not knowing how unnecessary this was. In fact, the “war on terror” is now in its 22nd agonizing year. Each time it is declared anew, it escalates.

The “war on terror”‘s architects and practitioners—Osama bin Laden, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols, Ramsi Yousef, Saddam Hussein, yes, but also Ronald Reagan, the Bushes greater and lesser, Bill Clinton, British PMs from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, and their various think tanks, NGOs, and cabinet members—share much more in common with each other than they do with most of the rest of us. Time and again, those who perpetuate the “war on terror” appear willing to take human life on the flimsiest of pretexts, to exchange friends for enemies more often than Eurasia was swapped for Eastasia in Orwell’s 1984, and, throughout, to regard international law with utter contempt.

Among the flimsy pretexts for the war in Central America was the theory that massive air attacks on Texas might somehow be staged from Nicaragua’s dusty airfields. In the Mid-East, Reagan demonstrated the ease with which the American executive branch exchanges friends for enemies when he stood in a room with mujahadin “freedom-fighters” and likened them to America’s founding fathers—while for their part, they allowed the infidel President of the Great Satan to shower them with these accolades.

Once the mujahadin morphed into al-Qaeda and the battle lines were redrawn a few years later, both sides demonstrated that international law was thoroughly beneath their concern. Al-Qaeda targeted embassies and office towers in 1993, 1996, and 2001. The U.S., not to be outdone in treachery, fell to deliberately bombing Red Cross warehouses in Afghanistan, and dropping cluster bombs that resembled food rations.

The U.N. was created to prevent such acts of flagrant disregard for human life. Its system of laws governed the world’s nations, and were intended to restrain the imperial reach of those who have demonstrated themselves, time and again, to be far too childish to guide the ships of state alone.

According to the entire world, the Geneva conventions apply to the occupied territories in Palestine, as they apply everywhere else. When a vote is held in the U.N. to affirm this, the U.S. doesn’t vote against it, but abstains. “I presume the reason is the United States does not want to take such an open, blatant stand in violation of fundamental principles of international law,” Chomsky says to the students at Harvard, “particularly because of the circumstances under which they were enacted. Recall that the Geneva conventions were established right after the Second World War in order to criminalize the actions of the Nazis. So saying they don’t apply is a pretty strong statement.”

This fact of history seems mostly forgotten today: that the Allies fought World War II not only to stop the Nazi regime, but to establish a governing body and an international system to ensure that regimes like the National Socialists would never rise again. For this cause, Americans died in Europe, in staggering numbers. But now the principles and institutions forged from their sacrifice—the Geneva conventions, the United Nations, and the World Court—are being systematically dismantled, inconvenient as they are to the current Administration’s appetite for the naked exercise of power.

Still, these Americans’ sacrifice is not entirely forgotten, and now as then, American lives are being lost in foreign lands in the name of peace and international law. The latest, at the time of this writing, is that of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old woman ground under the blade of an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza as she attempted a nonviolent intervention to save a Palestinian home. Our various governments have become expert in making excuses for the murder of innocent bystanders; she was virtually alone in trying to protect them.

By trampling on international law and returning the overt war of aggression to the global lexicon, the old Americans in the White House and Congress are doing all they can to squander the sacrifice of those young Americans sixty years ago in Europe. But meanwhile, Rachel Corrie and a handful of others have furthered the cause immortalized in the American graves at Normandy and thus given their own lives great significance, even as the rest of us, by permitting this war, have brought shame upon ourselves. “We are too few,” Ms. Corrie wrote with humility and desperation, in her final letter home.

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