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The United States is a Leading Terrorist State: An Interview with Noam Chomsky

An Interview with Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian

Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist, writer and professor of linguistics at MIT, is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign policy, international affairs, and human rights. Among his many books are World Orders Old and New (Columbia University Press, 1996), Class Warfare (Common Courage, 1996) and Powers and Prospects (South End Press, 1997). His latest books are The Common Good (Odonian Press, 1997) and The New Military Humanism (Common Courage, 1999).

Q: There is rage, anger and bewilderment in the U.S. since the September 11 events. There have been murders, attacks on mosques, and even a Sikh temple. The University of Colorado, which is located here in Boulder, a town which has a liberal reputation, has graffiti saying, “Go home, Arabs, Bomb Afghanistan, and Go Home, Sand Niggers.” What’s your perspective on what has evolved since the terrorist attacks?

A: It’s mixed. What you’re describing certainly exists. On the other hand, countercurrents exist. I know they do where I have direct contacts, and hear the same from others. In this morning’s New York Times there’s a report on the mood in New York, including places where the memorials are for the victims of the terrorist attack. It points out that peace signs and calls for restraint vastly outnumbered calls for retaliation and that the mood of the people they could see was very mixed and in fact generally opposed to violent action. That’s another kind of current, also supportive of people who are being targeted here because they look dark or have a funny name. So there are countercurrents. The question is, what can we do to make the right ones prevail?

Q: The media have been noticeably lacking in providing a context and a background for the attacks on New York and Washington. What might be some useful information that you could provide?

A: There are two categories of information that are particularly useful because there are two distinct, though related, sources for the attack. Let’s assume that the attack was rooted somehow in the bin Laden network. That sounds plausible, at least, so letsay it’s right. If that’s right, there are two categories of information and of populations that we should be concerned with, linked but not identical. One is the bin Laden network. That’s a category by itself. Another is the population of the region. They’re not the same thing, although there are links. What ought to be in the forefront is discussion of both of those. The bin Laden network, I doubt if anybody knows it better than the CIA, since they were instrumental in helping construct it. This is a network whose development started in 1979, if you can believe President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. He claimed, maybe he was just bragging, that in mid–1979 he had instigated secret support for Mujahedin fighting against the government of Afghanistan in an effort to draw the Russians into what he called an “Afghan trap,” a phrase worth remembering. He’s very proud of the fact that they did fall into the Afghan trap by sending military forces to support the government six months later, with consequences that we know. The U.S., along with Egypt, Pakistan, French intelligence, Saudi Arabian funding, and Israeli involvement, assembled a major army, a huge mercenary army, maybe 100,000 or more, and they drew from the most militant sectors they could find, which happened to be radical Islamists, what are called here Islamic fundamentalists, from all over, most of them not from Afghanistan. They’re called Afghanis, but like bin Laden, they come from elsewhere.

Bin Laden joined very quickly. He was involved in the funding networks, which probably are the ones which still exist. They were trained, armed, organized by the CIA, Pakistan, Egypt, and others to fight a holy war against the Russians. And they did. They fought a holy war against the Russians. They carried terror into Russian territory. They may have delayed the Russian withdrawal, a number of analysts believe, but they did win the war and the Russian invaders withdrew. The war was not their only activity. In 1981, groups based in that same network assassinated President Sadat of Egypt, who had been instrumental in setting it up. In 1983, one suicide bomber, maybe with connections to the same networks, essentially drove the U.S. military out of Lebanon. And it continued.

By 1989, they had succeeded in their holy war in Afghanistan. As soon as the U.S. established a permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden and the rest announced that from their point of view this was comparable to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and they turned their guns on the Americans, as had already happened in 1983 when the U.S. had military forces in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is a major enemy of the bin Laden network, just as Egypt is. That’s what they want to overthrow, what they call the un–Islamic governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other states of the Middle East and North Africa. And it continued.

In 1997, they murdered roughly sixty tourists in Egypt and destroyed the Egyptian tourist industry. And they’ve been carrying out activities all over the region, North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, for years. That’s one group. And that is an outgrowth of the U.S. wars of the 1980s and, if you can believe Brzezinski, even before, when they set the “Afghan trap.” There’s a lot more to say about them, but that’s one part.

Another is the people of the region. They’re connected, of course. The bin Laden network and others like them draw a lot of their support from the desperation and anger and resentment of the people of the region, which ranges from rich to poor, secular to radical Islamist. The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, has run a couple of articles on attitudes of wealthy Muslims, the people who most interest them: businessmen, bankers, professionals, and others through the Middle East region who are very frank about their grievances. They put it more politely than the poor people in the slums and the streets, but it’s clear. Everybody knows what they are. For one thing, they’re very angry about U.S. support for undemocratic, repressive regimes in the region and U.S. insistence on blocking any efforts towards democratic openings. You just heard on the news, it sounded like the BBC, a report that the Algerian government is now interested in getting involved in this war. The announcer said that there had been plenty of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, which is true, but he didn’t tell the other part of the story, which is that a lot of the terrorism is apparently state terrorism. There’s pretty strong evidence for that. The government of course is interested in enhancing its repression, and will welcome U.S. assistance in this.

In fact, that government is in office because it blocked the democratic election in which it would have lost to mainly Islamic–based groups. That set off the current fighting. Similar things go on throughout the region.

The “moneyed Muslims” interviewed by the Journal also complained that the U.S. has blocked independent economic development by “propping up oppressive regimes,” that’s the phrase they used. But the prime concern stressed in the Wall Street Journal articles and by everybody who knows anything about the region, the prime concern of the “moneyed Muslims”—basically pro–American, incidentally—is the dual U.S. policies, which contrast very sharply in their eyes, towards Iraq and Israel. In the case of Iraq, for the last ten years the U.S. and Britain have been devastating the civilian society. Madeleine Albright’s infamous statement about how maybe half a million children have died, and it’s a high price but we’re willing to pay it, doesn’t sound too good among people who think that maybe it matters if a half a million children are killed by the U.S. and Britain. And meanwhile they’re strengthening Saddam Hussein. So that’s one aspect of the dual policy. The other aspect is that the U.S. is the prime supporter of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory, now in its thirty–fifth year. It’s been harsh and brutal from the beginning, extremely repressive. Most of this hasn’t been discussed here, and the U.S. role has been virtually suppressed. It goes back twenty–five years of blocking diplomatic initiatives.

Even simple facts are not reported. For example, as soon as the current fighting began last September 30, Israel immediately, the next day, began using U.S. helicopters (they can’t produce helicopters) to attack civilian targets. In the next couple of days they killed several dozen people in apartment complexes and elsewhere. The fighting was all in the occupied territories, and there was no Palestinian fire. The Palestinians were using stones. So this is people throwing stones against occupiers in a military occupation, legitimate resistance by world standards, insofar as the targets are military.

On October 3, Clinton made the biggest deal in a decade to send new military helicopters to Israel. That continued the next couple of months. That wasn’t even reported, still isn’t reported, as far as I’m aware. But the people there know it, even if they don’t read the Israeli press (where it was immediately reported). They look in the sky and see attack helicopters coming and they know they’re U.S. attack helicopters sent with the understanding that that is how they will be used. From the very start U.S. officials made it clear that there were no conditions on their use, which was by then already well known. A couple of weeks later Israel started using them for assassinations. The U.S. issued some reprimands but sent more helicopters, the most advanced in the U.S. arsenal. Meanwhile the settlement policies, which have taken over substantial parts of the territories and are designed to make it virtually impossible for a viable independent state to develop, are supported by the U.S. The U.S. provides the funding, the diplomatic support. It’s the only country that’s blocked the overwhelming international consensus on condemning all this under the Geneva conventions. The victims, and others in the region, know all of this. All along this has been an extremely harsh military occupation.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

A: There’s a lot more. There is the fact that the U.S. has supported oppressive, authoritarian, harsh regimes, and blocked democratic initiatives. For example, the one I mentioned in Algeria. Or in Turkey. Or throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Many of the harsh, brutal, oppressive regimes are backed by the U.S. That was true of Saddam Hussein, right through the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds. U.S. and British support for the monster continued. He was treated as a friend and ally, and people there know it. When bin Laden makes that charge, as he did again in an interview rebroadcast by the BBC, people know what he is talking about.

Let’s take a striking example. In March 1991, right after the Gulf War, with the U.S. in total command of the air, there was a rebellion in the southern part of Iraq, including Iraqi generals. They wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They didn’t ask for U.S. support, just access to captured Iraqi arms, which the U.S. refused. The U.S. tacitly authorized Saddam Hussein to use air power to crush the rebellion. The reasons were not hidden. New York Times Middle East correspondent Alan Cowell described the “strikingly unanimous view” of the U.S. and its regional coalition partners: “whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for stability than did those who have suffered his repression.” Times diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman observed, not critically, that for Washington and its allies, an “iron–fisted Iraqi junta” that would hold Iraq together just as Saddam’s “iron fist” had done was preferable to a popular rebellion, which was drowned in blood, probably killing more people than the U.S. bombing. Maybe people here don’t want to look, but that was all over the front pages of the newspapers. Well, again, it is known in the region. That’s just one example. These are among the reasons why pro-American bankers and businessmen in the region are condemning the U.S. for supporting antidemocratic regimes and stopping economic development.

Q: Talk about the relationship between ends and means. Let’s say you have a noble goal. You want to bring perpetrators of horrendous terrorist crimes to justice. What about the means to reach those ends?

A: Suppose you want to bring a president of the U.S. to justice. They’re guilty of horrendous terrorist acts. There’s a way to do it. In fact, there are precedents. Nicaragua in the 1980s was subjected to violent assault by the U.S. Tens of thousands of people died. The country was substantially destroyed, it may never recover. The effects on the country are much more severe even than the tragedies in New York the other day. They didn’t respond by setting off bombs in Washington. They went to the World Court, which issued a judgment in their favor condemning the U.S. for what it called “unlawful use of force,” which means international terrorism, ordering the U.S. to desist and pay substantial reparations. The U.S. dismissed the court judgment with contempt, responding with an immediate escalation of the attack. So Nicaragua then went to the Security Council, which passed a resolution calling on states to observe international law. The U.S. vetoed it. They went to the General Assembly, where they got a similar resolution that passed near–unanimously, which the U.S. and Israel opposed two years in a row (joined once by El Salvador). That’s the way a state should proceed. If Nicaragua had been powerful enough, it could have set up another criminal court. Those are the measures the U.S. could pursue, and nobody’s going to block it. That’s what they’re being asked to do by people throughout the region, including their allies.

Remember, the governments in the Middle East and North Africa, like the terrorist Algerian government, which is one of the most vicious of all, would be happy to join the U.S. in opposing terrorist networks which are attacking them. They’re the prime targets. But they have been asking for some evidence, and they want to do it in a framework of at least minimal commitment to international law. The Egyptian position is complex. They’re part of the primary system that organized the bin Laden network. They were the first victims of it when Sadat was assassinated. They’ve been major victims of it since. They’d like to crush it, but they say, only after some evidence is presented about who’s involved and within the framework of the UN Charter, under the aegis of the Security Council. That’s a way to proceed.

Q: Do you think it’s more than problematic to engage in alliances with those whom are called “unsavory characters,” drug traffickers and assassins, in order to achieve what is said to be a noble end?

A: Remember that among the most unsavory characters are the governments of the region, our own government and its allies. If we’re serious, we also have to ask, What is a noble end? Was it a noble end to drive the Russians into an Afghan trap in 1979, as Brzezinski claims he did? Supporting resistance against the Russian invasion is one thing. But organizing a terrorist army of Islamic fanatics for your own purposes is a different thing. The question we should be asking now is: What about the alliance that’s being formed, that the U.S. is trying to put together? We should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state. What about the alliance between the U.S., Russia, China, Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, all of whom are delighted to see an international system develop, sponsored by the U.S., which will authorize them to carry out their own terrorist atrocities? Russia, for example, would be very happy to have U.S. backing for its murderous war in Chechnya. You have the same Afghanis fighting against Russia, also probably carrying out terrorist acts within Russia. As would perhaps India, in Kashmir. Indonesia would be delighted to have support for its massacres in Aceh. Algeria, as just announced on the broadcast we heard, would be delighted to have authorization to extend its own state terrorism. The same with China, fighting against separatist forces in its Western provinces, including those “Afghanis” whom China and Iran had organized to fight the war against the Russians, beginning maybe as early as 1978, some reports indicate. And that runs through the world.

Q: Your comment that the U.S. is a “leading terrorist state” might stun many Americans. Could you elaborate on that?

A: I just gave one example, Nicaragua. The U.S. is the only country that was condemned for international terrorism by the World Court and that rejected a Security Council resolution calling on states to observe international law. It continues international terrorism. That example’s the least of it. And there are also what are in comparison, minor examples. Everybody here was quite properly outraged by the Oklahoma City bombing, and for a couple of days, the headlines all read, Oklahoma City looks like Beirut. I didn’t see anybody point out that Beirut also looks like Beirut, and part of the reason is that the Reagan Administration had set off a terrorist bombing there in 1985 that was very much like Oklahoma City, a truck bombing outside a mosque timed to kill the maximum number of people as they left. It killed eighty and wounded two hundred, aimed at a Muslim cleric whom they didn’t like and whom they missed. It was not very secret. I don’t know what name you give to the attack that’s killed maybe a million civilians in Iraq and maybe a half a million children, which is the price the Secretary of State says we’re willing to pay. Is there a name for that? Supporting Israeli atrocities is another one. Supporting Turkey’s crushing of its own Kurdish population, for which the Clinton Administration gave the decisive support, 80 percent of the arms, escalating as atrocities increased, is another. Or take the bombing of the Sudan, one little footnote, so small that it is casually mentioned in passing in reports on the background to the Sept. 11 crimes. How would the same commentators react if the bin Laden network blew up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? Or Israel? Or any country where people “matter”? Although that’s not a fair analogy, because the U.S. target is a poor country which had few enough drugs and vaccines to begin with and can’t replenish them. Nobody knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of deaths resulted from that single atrocity, and bringing up that death toll is considered scandalous. If somebody did that to the U.S. or its allies, can you imagine the reaction? In this case we say, Oh, well, too bad, minor mistake, let’s go on to the next topic. Other people in the world don’t react like that. When bin Laden brings up that bombing, he strikes a resonant chord, even with people who despise and fear him, and the same, unfortunately, is true of much of the rest of his rhetoric.

Or to return to “our own little region over here,” as Henry Stimson called it, take Cuba. After many years of terror beginning in late 1959, including very serious atrocities, Cuba should have the right to resort to violence against the U.S. according to U.S. doctrine that is scarcely questioned. It is, unfortunately, all too easy to continue, not only with regard to the U.S. but also other terrorist states.

Q: In your book Culture of Terrorism, you write that “the cultural scene is illuminated with particular clarity by the thinking of the liberal doves, who set the limits for respectable dissent.” How have they been performing since the events of September 11?

A: Since I don’t like to generalize, let’s take a concrete example. On September 16, the New York Times reported that the U.S. has demanded that Pakistan cut off food aid to Afghanistan. That had already been hinted before, but here it was stated flat out. Among other demands Washington issued to Pakistan, it also “demanded…the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population”—the food that is keeping probably millions of people just this side of starvation (John Burns, Islamabad, NYT). What does that mean? That means that unknown numbers of people, maybe millions, of starving Afghans will die. Are these Taliban? No, they’re victims of the Taliban. Many of them are internal refugees kept from leaving. But here’s a statement saying, OK, let’s proceed to kill unknown numbers, maybe millions, of starving Afghans who are victims of the Taliban. What was the reaction?

I spent almost the entire day afterwards on radio and television around the world. I kept bringing it up. Nobody in Europe or the U.S. could think of one word of reaction. Elsewhere in the world there was plenty of reaction, even around the periphery of Europe, like Greece. How should we have reacted to this? Suppose some power was strong enough to say, Let’s do something that will cause a million Americans to die of starvation. Would you think it’s a serious problem? And again, it’s not a fair analogy. In the case of Afghanistan, left to rot after it had been exploited for Washington’s war, much of the country is in ruins and its people are desperate, already one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

Q: National Public Radio, which in the 1980s was denounced by the Reagan Administration as “Radio Managua on the Potomac,” is also considered out there on the liberal end of respectable debate. Noah Adams, the host of “All Things Considered,” asked these questions on September 17. Should assassinations be allowed? Should the CIA be given more operating leeway?

A: The CIA should not be permitted to carry out assassinations, but that’s the least of it. Should the CIA be permitted to organize a car bombing in Beirut like the one I described? Not a secret, incidentally; prominently reported in the mainstream media, though easily forgotten. That didn’t violate any laws. And it’s not just the CIA. Should they have been permitted to organize in Nicaragua a terrorist army which had the official task, straight out of the mouth of the State Department, to attack “soft targets,” meaning undefended agricultural cooperatives and health clinics? What’s the name for that? Or to set up something like the bin Laden network, not him himself, but the background networks? Should the U.S. be authorized to provide Israel with attack helicopters to carry out political assassinations and attacks on civilian targets? That’s not the CIA. That’s the Clinton Administration, with no noticeable objection, in fact even reported.

Q: Could you very briefly define the political uses of terrorism? Where does it fit in the doctrinal system?

A: The U.S. is officially committed to what is called “low–intensity warfare.” That’s the official doctrine. If you read the definition of low–intensity conflict in army manuals and compare it with official definitions of “terrorism” in army manuals, or the U.S. Code, you find they’re almost the same. Terrorism is the use of coercive means aimed at civilian populations in an effort to achieve political, religious, or other aims. That’s what the World Trade Center bombing was, a particularly horrifying terrorist crime. And that’s official doctrine. I mentioned a couple of examples. We could go on and on. It’s simply part of state action, not just the U.S. of course. Furthermore, all of these things should be well known. It’s shameful that they’re not. Anybody who wants to find out about them can begin by reading a collection of essays published ten years ago by a major publisher called Western State Terrorism, edited by Alex George (Routledge, 1991), which runs through lots and lots of cases. These are things people need to know if they want to understand anything about themselves. They are known by the victims, of course, but the perpetrators prefer to look elsewhere.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 06 (November)
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