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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

An Evening With Noam Chomsky

The New War Against Terror

October 18, 2001
Transcribed from audio recorded at
The Technology & Culture Forum at MIT

[Talk Transcript]

Everyone knows it's the TV people who run the world [crowd laugher]. I 
just got orders that I'm supposed to be here, not there. Well the last 
talk I gave at this forum was on a light pleasant topic. It was about how 
humans are an endangered species and given the nature of their 
institutions they are likely to destroy themselves in a fairly short time.
So this time there is a little relief and we have a pleasant topic instead,
the new war on terror. Unfortunately, the world keeps coming up with things
that make it more and more horrible as we proceed.

Assume 2 Conditions for this Talk

I'm going to assume 2 conditions for this talk.

The first one is just what I assume to be recognition of fact. That is 
that the events of September 11 were a horrendous atrocity probably the 
most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of 
war. The second assumption has to do with the goals. I'm assuming that our
goal is that we are interested in reducing the likelihood of such crimes 
whether they are against us or against someone else. If you don't accept 
those two assumptions, then what I say will not be addressed to you. If we
do accept them, then a number of questions arise, closely related ones, 
which merit a good deal of thought.

The 5 Questions

One question, and by far the most important one is what is happening right
now? Implicit in that is what can we do about it? The 2nd has to do with 
the very common assumption that what happened on September 11 is a 
historic event, one which will change history. I tend to agree with that. 
I think it' s true. It was a historic event and the question we should be 
asking is exactly why? The 3rd question has to do with the title, The War 
Against Terrorism. Exactly what is it? And there is a related question, 
namely what is terrorism? The 4th question which is narrower but important
has to do with the origins of the crimes of September 11th. And the 5th 
question that I want to talk a little about is what policy options there 
are in fighting this war against terrorism and dealing with the situations
that led to it.

I'll say a few things about each.  Glad to go beyond in discussion and 
don't hesitate to bring up other questions. These are ones that come to my
mind as prominent but you may easily and plausibly have other choices.

1. What's Happening Right Now?

Starvation of 3 to 4 Million People

Well let's start with right now. I'll talk about the situation in 
Afghanistan. I'll just keep to uncontroversial sources like the New York 
Times [crowd laughter]. According to the New York Times there are 7 to 8 
million people in Afghanistan on the verge of starvation. That was true 
actually before September 11th. They were surviving on international aid. 
On September 16th, the Times reported, I'm quoting it, that the United 
States demanded from Pakistan the elimination of truck convoys that 
provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian 
population. As far as I could determine there was no reaction in the 
United States or for that matter in Europe. I [It?] was on national radio
all over Europe the next day. There was no reaction in the United States
or in Europe to my knowledge to the demand to impose massive starvation on 
millions of people. The threat of military strikes right after September..
...around that time forced the removal of international aid workers that 
crippled the assistance programs. Actually, I am quoting again from the 
New York Times. Refugees reaching Pakistan after arduous journeys from AF 
are describing scenes of desperation and fear at home as the threat of 
American led military attacks turns their long running misery into a 
potential catastrophe. The country was on a lifeline and we just cut the 
line. Quoting an evacuated aid worker, in the New York Times Magazine.

The World Food Program, the UN program, which is the main one by far, were
able to resume after 3 weeks in early October, they began to resume at a 
lower level, resume food shipments. They don't have international aid 
workers within, so the distribution system is hampered. That was suspended
as soon as the bombing began. They then resumed but at a lower pace while 
aid agencies leveled scathing condemnations of US airdrops, condemning 
them as propaganda tools which are probably doing more harm than good. 
That happens to be quoting the London Financial Times but it is easy to 
continue. After the first week of bombing, the New York Times reported on 
a back page inside a column on something else, that by the arithmetic of 
the United Nations there will soon be 7.5 million Afghans in acute need of
even a loaf of bread and there are only a few weeks left before the harsh 
winter will make deliveries to many areas totally impossible, continuing 
to quote, but with bombs falling the delivery rate is down to  of what is
needed. Casual comment. Which tells us that Western civilization is 
anticipating the slaughter of, well do the arithmetic, 3-4 million people 
or something like that. On the same day, the leader of Western 
civilization dismissed with contempt, once again, offers of negotiation 
for delivery of the alleged target, Osama bin Laden, and a request for 
some evidence to substantiate the demand for total capitulation. It was 
dismissed. On the same day the Special Rapporteur of the UN in charge of 
food pleaded with the United States to stop the bombing to try to save 
millions of victims. As far as I'm aware that was unreported. That was 
Monday. Yesterday the major aid agencies OXFAM and Christian Aid and 
others joined in that plea. You can't find a report in the New York Times.
There was a line in the Boston Globe, hidden in a story about another topic,

Silent Genocide

Well we could easily go on....but all of that....first of all indicates to
us what's happening. Looks like what's happening is some sort of silent 
genocide. It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the
culture that we are part of. It indicates that whatever, what will happen 
we don't know, but plans are being made and programs implemented on the 
assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in 
the next couple of weeks....very casually with no comment, no particular 
thought about it, that's just kind of normal, here and in a good part of 
Europe. Not in the rest of the world. In fact not even in much of Europe. 
So if you read the Irish press or the press in Scotland...that close, 
reactions are very different. Well that's what's happening now. What's 
happening now is very much under our control. We can do a lot to affect 
what's happening. And that 's roughly it.

2. Why was it a Historic Event?

National Territory Attacked

Alright let's turn to the slightly more abstract question, forgetting for 
the moment that we are in the midst of apparently trying to murder 3 or 4 
million people, not Taliban of course, their victims. Let's go back...turn
to the question of the historic event that took place on September 11th. As
I said, I think that's correct. It was a historic event. Not unfortunately 
because of its scale, unpleasant to think about, but in terms of the scale
it's not that unusual. I did say it's the worst...probably the worst 
instant human toll of any crime. And that may be true. But there are 
terrorist crimes with effects a bit more drawn out that are more extreme, 
unfortunately. Nevertheless, it's a historic event because there was a 
change. The change was the direction in which the guns were pointed. 
That's new. Radically new. So, take US history.

The last time that the national territory of the United States was under 
attack, or for that matter, even threatened was when the British burned 
down Washington in 1814. There have been was common to bring up 
Pearl Harbor but that's not a good analogy. The Japanese, what ever you 
think about it, the Japanese bombed military bases in 2 US colonies not 
the national territory; colonies which had been taken from their 
inhabitants in not a very pretty way. This is the national territory 
that's been attacked on a large scale, you can find a few fringe examples 
but this is unique.

During these close to 200 years, we, the United States expelled or mostly 
exterminated the indigenous population, that's many millions of people, 
conquered half of Mexico, carried out depredations all over the region, 
Caribbean and Central America, sometimes beyond, conquered Hawaii and the 
Philippines, killing several 100,000 Filipinos in the process. Since the 
Second World War, it has extended its reach around the world in ways I 
don't have to describe. But it was always killing someone else, the 
fighting was somewhere else, it was others who were getting slaughtered. 
Not here. Not the national territory.


In the case of Europe, the change is even more dramatic because its 
history is even more horrendous than ours. We are an offshoot of Europe, 
basically. For hundreds of years, Europe has been casually slaughtering 
people all over the world. That's how they conquered the world, not by 
handing out candy to babies. During this period, Europe did suffer 
murderous wars, but that was European killers murdering one another. The 
main sport of Europe for hundreds of years was slaughtering one another. 
The only reason that it came to an end in 1945, had nothing to 
do with Democracy or not making war with each other and other fashionable 
notions. It had to do with the fact that everyone understood that the next
time they play the game it was going to be the end for the world. Because 
the Europeans, including us, had developed such massive weapons of 
destruction that that game just have to be over. And it goes back hundreds
of years. In the 17th century, about probably 40% of the entire population 
of Germany was wiped out in one war.

But during this whole bloody murderous period, it was Europeans 
slaughtering each other, and Europeans slaughtering people elsewhere. The 
Congo didn't attack Belgium, India didn't attack England, Algeria didn't 
attack France. It's uniform. There are again small exceptions, but pretty 
small in scale, certainly invisible in the scale of what Europe and us 
were doing to the rest of the world. This is the first change. The first 
time that the guns have been pointed the other way. And in my opinion 
that's probably why you see such different reactions on the two sides of 
the Irish Sea which I have noticed, incidentally, in many interviews on 
both sides, national radio on both sides. The world looks very different 
depending on whether you are holding the lash or whether you are being 
whipped by it for hundreds of years, very different. So I think the shock 
and surprise in Europe and its offshoots, like here, is very 
understandable. It is a historic event but regrettably not in scale, in 
something else and a reason why the rest of the world...most of the rest 
of the world looks at it quite differently. Not lacking sympathy for the 
victims of the atrocity or being horrified by them, that's almost uniform,
but viewing it from a different perspective. Something we might want to 

3. What is the War Against Terrorism?

Well, let's go to the third question, 'What is the war against terrorism?'
and a side question, 'What's terrorism?'. The war against terrorism has 
been described in high places as a struggle against a plague, a cancer 
which is spread by barbarians, by "depraved opponents of civilization 
itself." That's a feeling that I share. The words I'm quoting, however, 
happen to be >from 20 years ago. Those are...that's President Reagan and 
his Secretary of State. The Reagan administration came into office 20 
years ago declaring that the war against international terrorism would be 
the core of our foreign policy....describing it in terms of the kind I 
just mentioned and others. And it was the core of our foreign policy. The 
Reagan administration responded to this plague spread by depraved 
opponents of civilization itself by creating an extraordinary 
international terrorist network, totally unprecedented in scale, which 
carried out massive atrocities all over the world, primarily....well, 
partly nearby, but not only there. I won't run through the record, you're 
all educated people, so I'm sure you learned about it in High School.
[crowd laughter]

Reagan-US War Against Nicaragua

But I'll just mention one case which is totally uncontroversial, so we 
might as well not argue about it, by no means the most extreme but 
uncontroversial. It's uncontroversial because of the judgments of the 
highest international authorities the International Court of Justice, the 
World Court, and the UN Security Council. So this one is uncontroversial, 
at least among people who have some minimal concern for international law,
human rights, justice and other things like that. And now I'll leave you an
exercise. You can estimate the size of that category by simply asking how 
often this uncontroversial case has been mentioned in the commentary of 
the last month. And it's a particularly relevant one, not only because it 
is uncontroversial, but because it does offer a precedent as to how a law 
abiding state would respond to...did respond in fact to international 
terrorism, which is uncontroversial. And was even more extreme than the 
events of September 11th. I'm talking about the Reagan-US war against 
Nicaragua which left tens of thousands of people dead, the country ruined,
perhaps beyond recovery.

Nicaragua's Response

Nicaragua did respond. They didn't respond by setting off bombs in 
Washington. They responded by taking it to the World Court, presenting a 
case, they had no problem putting together evidence. The World Court 
accepted their case, ruled in their favor, ordered the...condemned what 
they called the "unlawful use of force," which is another word for 
international terrorism, by the United States, ordered the United States 
to terminate the crime and to pay massive reparations. The United States, 
of course, dismissed the court judgment with total contempt and announced 
that it would not accept the jurisdiction of the court henceforth. Then 
Nicaragua then went to the UN Security Council which considered a 
resolution calling on all states to observe international law. No one was 
mentioned but everyone understood. The United States vetoed the resolution.
It now stands as the only state on record which has both been condemned 
by the World Court for international terrorism and has vetoed a Security 
Council resolution calling on states to observe international law. 
Nicaragua then went to the General Assembly where there is technically no 
veto but a negative US vote amounts to a veto. It passed a similar 
resolution with only the United States, Israel, and El Salvador opposed. 
The following year again, this time the United States could only rally 
Israel to the cause, so 2 votes opposed to observing international law. At
that point, Nicaragua couldn't do anything lawful. It tried all the 
measures. They don't work in a world that is ruled by force.

This case is uncontroversial but it's by no means the most extreme. We 
gain a lot of insight into our own culture and society and what's 
happening now by asking 'how much we know about all this? How much we talk
about it? How much you learn about it in school? How much it's all over the
front pages?' And this is only the beginning. The United States responded 
to the World Court and the Security Council by immediately escalating the 
war very quickly, that was a bipartisan decision incidentally. The terms 
of the war were also changed. For the first time there were official 
orders given...official orders to the terrorist army to attack what are 
called "soft targets," meaning undefended civilian targets, and to keep 
away from the Nicaraguan army. They were able to do that because the 
United States had total control of the air over Nicaragua and the 
mercenary army was supplied with advanced communication equipment, it 
wasn't a guerilla army in the normal sense and could get instructions 
about the disposition of the Nicaraguan army forces so they could attack 
agricultural collectives, health clinics, and so on...soft targets with 
impunity. Those were the official orders.

What was the Reaction Here?

What was the reaction? It was known. There was a reaction to it. The 
policy was regarded as sensible by left liberal opinion. So Michael 
Kinsley who represents the left in mainstream discussion, wrote an article
in which he said that we shouldn't be too quick to criticize this policy as
Human Rights Watch had just done. He said a "sensible policy" must "meet 
the test of cost benefit analysis" -- that is, I'm quoting now, that is 
the analysis of "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, 
and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end." Democracy
as the US understands the term, which is graphically illustrated in the 
surrounding countries. Notice that it is axiomatic that the United States,
US elites, have the right to conduct the analysis and to pursue the project
if it passes their tests. And it did pass their tests. It worked. When 
Nicaragua finally succumbed to superpower assault, commentators openly and
cheerfully lauded the success of the methods that were adopted and 
described them accurately. So I'll quote Time Magazine just to pick one. 
They lauded the success of the methods adopted: "to wreck the economy and 
prosecute a long and deadly proxy war until the exhausted natives 
overthrow the unwanted government themselves," with a cost to us that is
"minimal," and leaving the victims "with wrecked bridges, sabotaged power 
stations, and ruined farms," and thus providing the US candidate with a
"winning issue": "ending the impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua." 
The New York Times had a headline saying "Americans United in Joy" at this

Terrorism Works - Terrorism is not the Weapon of the Weak

That is the culture in which we live and it reveals several facts. One is 
the fact that terrorism works. It doesn't fail. It works. Violence usually
works. That's world history. Secondly, it's a very serious analytic error 
to say, as is commonly done, that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. 
Like other means of violence, it's primarily a weapon of the strong, 
overwhelmingly, in fact. It is held to be a weapon of the weak because the
strong also control the doctrinal systems and their terror doesn't count as
terror. Now that's close to universal. I can't think of a historical 
exception, even the worst mass murderers view the world that way. So pick 
the Nazis. They weren't carrying out terror in occupied Europe. They were 
protecting the local population from the terrorisms of the partisans. And 
like other resistance movements, there was terrorism. The Nazis were 
carrying out counter terror. Furthermore, the United States essentially 
agreed with that. After the war, the US army did extensive studies of Nazi
counter terror operations in Europe. First I should say that the US picked 
them up and began carrying them out itself, often against the same targets,
the former resistance. But the military also studied the Nazi methods 
published interesting studies, sometimes critical of them because they 
were inefficiently carried out, so a critical analysis, you didn't do this
right, you did that right, but those methods with the advice of Wermacht 
officers who were brought over here became the manuals of counter 
insurgency, of counter terror, of low intensity conflict, as it is called,
and are the manuals, and are the procedures that are being used. So it's 
not just that the Nazis did it. It's that it was regarded as the right 
thing to do by the leaders of western civilization, that is us, who then 
proceeded to do it themselves. Terrorism is not the weapon of the weak. It
is the weapon of those who are against 'us' whoever 'us' happens to be. And
if you can find a historical exception to that, I'd be interested in seeing

Nature of our Culture - How We Regard Terrorism

Well, an interesting indication of the nature of our culture, our high 
culture, is the way in which all of this is regarded. One way it's 
regarded is just suppressing it. So almost nobody has ever heard of it. 
And the power of American propaganda and doctrine is so strong that even 
among the victims it's barely known. I mean, when you talk about this to 
people in Argentina, you have to remind them. Oh, yeh, that happened, we 
forgot about it. It's deeply suppressed. The sheer consequences of the 
monopoly of violence can be very powerful in ideological and other terms.

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