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This lecture by MIT linguistics prof and left-wing eminence grise Noam Chomsky begins with a fairly startling statement: “I’m going to assume two conditions for this talk. The first one is just what I assume to be a recognition of fact. That is that the events of Sept. 11 were a horrendous atrocity, probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history outside of war. The second has to do with the goal. I’m assuming that our goal is that we’re interested in reducing the likelihood of such crimes, whether they’re against us or against someone else.”
The New War on Terrorism: Fact and Fiction
US: 19 Nov 2002
UK: 9 Dec 2002
Shocking, right? Well, only if you put them in context—the context being that since the Sept. 11 attacks, Chomsky has been routinely excoriated, lambasted, and bitch-slapped by both the American right and (especially) the left. Along with Susan Sontag and a few other liberal intellectuals, he’s been reviled as a paragon of heartless anti-Americanism, a knee-jerk apologist for any and all enemies of Uncle Sam. If you only read what was written about Chomsky (by Christopher Hitchens, Andrei Codrescu, and other leftists eager to prove they hate bin Laden as much as any Fox News blowhard), as opposed to anything he’s written himself, you’d think he was celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center and the slaughter of innocents. Or at the very least that he saw Sept. 11 as a case of evil, imperial America finally getting what it had coming.
But Chomsky has said no such thing. As this recording of an 18 October 2001 speech at MIT makes clear, Chomsky’s post-9/11 views are exactly consistent with his pre-9/11 views. That is to say, he sees international politics as a complex realm of actions and reactions, one in which everything has a context and a history, a place where things happen for logical (if cold and brutal) reasons. And in that realm, he sees the United States as an often malevolent actor, one prone to selfish short-term thinking that has dreadful long-term consequences.
Little in the speech will be news to the kind of people most likely to listen to it (i.e., informed left-wingers). Chomsky traces the roots of terrorism both in broad terms and in the specific case of Islamic fundamentalism. It’s true that, in case after case, he finds the same culprits lurking behind the curtain: the United States, the CIA, and their designates. But almost all of this is undisputed fact. The United States really did fund and train a terrorist force to overthrow the Nicaraguan government (and the CIA really did mine the Managua harbor, leading to a blistering World Court rebuke that the Reagan administration blithely ignored). And the U.S. really did help organize and sponsor the Islamist mujahadeen, bringing Muslim radicals from across the Arab world together to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan (the whole time overlooking the Islamists’ vicious anti-Westernism). And the U.S. (along with Israel) really did vote against a U.N. anti-terrorism resolution. And so on and so forth.
None of this is offered by way of excusing or justifying the Sept. 11 attacks. Chomsky is no ideological kin to bin Laden; his point is the reverse, that bin Laden is in good part a product of the very American foreign policy establishment that now declares war on him. The same, of course, is true of Saddam Hussein, and that’s where this particular recording comes up a little short. Although you can certainly apply most of Chomsky’s broad points to the current rhetoric about Iraq, the lecture seems inevitably dated by its focus on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. It’s also true that Chomsky’s tone can border on hectoring. There is a self-assurance here that would sound a bit smug to anyone not already enamored of Chomsky’s worldview. I think it is that tone, more than anything he actually says, that infuriates his critics. It may be effective when preaching to the choir, but it’s not going to win him any converts.
Still, tone schmone. Most of what Chomsky says is so straightforward, so well-documented, and so clearly relevant to the issues at hand that it’s little wonder his nemeses revert to dishonest characterizations of his views; it would be very hard to rebut him on the merits of his arguments.