Thus Spake Noam


See the response from Noam Chomsky
and the counter-response from Jeffrey C. Isaac


The huge slaughter. . . in East Timor is (at least) comparable to the terrible atrocities that can plausibly be attributed to Milosevic in the earlier wars in Yugoslavia, and responsibility is far easier to assign, with no complicating factors. If proponents of the "repetition of Bosnia" thesis intend it seriously, they should certainly have been calling for the bombing of Jakarta -- indeed Washington and London -- in early 1999 so as not to allow in East Timor a repetition of the crimes that Indonesia, the U.S., and the UK, had perpetrated there for a quarter-century. And when the new generation of leaders [an allusion to Clinton and Blair-J.I.] refused to pursue this honorable course, they should have been leading honest citizens to do so themselves, perhaps joining the Bin Laden network. These conclusions follow straightforwardly, if we assume that the thesis is intended as something more than apologetics for state violence.

These words appear on page 39 of Noam Chomsky's recent A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West. In light of the terroristic mass murder of September 11, and of the attention Chomsky's comments on that horror have received, it is worth reflecting on these chillingly prescient words.

First, in the name of an intellectual honesty that is remote from Chomsky's own literary tactics, it must be noted that Chomsky does not really support the conclusions drawn in the paragraph above -- that Jakarta ought to be bombed along with Washington and London, and that if the relevant governments forswear this task, then citizens ought to be encouraged to do the bombing themselves, "perhaps by joining the Bin Laden network." What he says is that these conclusions follow straightforwardly if we assume that the rationale for intervention in Kosovo was "something more than apologetics for state violence." The burden of Chomsky's book -- like The New Military Humanism and other essays -- is that the Kosovo rationale is nothing more than apologetics for state violence. So Chomsky, ever the logician, saves himself from the provocative conclusions he offers, which are, in his text, only frightening possibilities.

But as we know now, the conclusions are no longer logical possibilities. The conclusions have been drawn, and acted upon. And the results of the syllogism are plain to see for anyone who has seen photographs of the rubble to which Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon have been reduced.

The moral and criminal responsibility for this bit of practical reasoning can be laid only at the feet of the perpetrators and the network that supported and promoted their terror. But questions must also be raised about the intellectual responsibility of the author of a well-known essay on "The Responsibility of the Intellectuals" -- Chomsky himself. These questions do not regard the actual influence of his words on the atrocities that have taken place, but rather the view of intellectual responsibility that could even entertain words like those quoted above.

Two things are notable about these words. The first is the symmetry that Chomsky draws between the U.S.-led, NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia, and the possible bombing of Jakarta, Washington, or London by states or by "honest citizens" acting as terrorists. Chomsky makes no policy-relevant distinctions between the circumstances surrounding the Indonesian government's brutal repression of East Timor and those attending Milosevic's brutal policy of "ethnic cleansing." More to the point, he sees no difference between the brutal policies of these regimes, and the policies of the United States and Great Britain. All are terroristic policies pure and simple, and all deserve, in a manner of speaking, a terroristic response. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Simple.

The second is the equanimity with which Chomsky draws his provocative quasi-conclusion that Washington and London deserve the terrorism of Bin Laden, and indeed, deserve for their very own citizens to partake of this terrorism. Again Chomsky does not endorse such terrorism. But, ever the analyst, he indicates that, from his ever-so-acute analytical vantage point, there is a certain justice to it. For the Clinton administration, in his view, is no different than Bin Laden, and if its violence against Milosevic is justified, then so, too, is the violence of Bin Laden's minions. If citizens of the United States and Great Britain don't like these conclusions, then that, Chomsky seems to be saying, is their problem, not his.

One wonders if Chomsky ever considered the possibility that someone lacking in his own logical rigor might read his book and carelessly draw the conclusion that the bombing of Washington is required. Or that someone possessed of the requisite logic might believe the rationale for the Kosovo intervention was something more than "apologetics for state atrocities" -- perhaps even an effort on the part of "Western" democracies to promote human rights and to limit the power of despots to ravage their subjects in the name of blood, soil, or Holy War -- and wished to kill not in the name of Chomsky's effete logic, but in the name of something more powerful -- ideological, anti-Western fanaticism? One wonders.

What we do know is that in the wake of the September 11 terror Chomsky has continued to insist on the equivalence of this terror and U.S. policy, and to insist that the only thing new and remarkable about this terror is that for the first time it was enacted in Washington and New York. Here too, Chomsky is careful not to condone or endorse the terror. And here, too, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. What he sincerely desires is an end to American "imperialism." Ever the moralist, Chomsky fails here, as elsewhere, to say anything about how this result might be brought about in a reasonable way. This is not his conception of intellectual responsibility. His conception of the responsibility of the intellectual is to "speak truth to power," i.e., to relentlessly denounce American imperialism and allow others to draw their own conclusions.

For years Chomsky has endlessly recycled the same litany of charges against American foreign policy, refusing in the name of consistency to admit any distinctions beyond the distinction between the evil that is the United States and that which in his mind stands as the antithesis of this evil.
Ever the critic, Chomsky rarely if ever has said what, in his mind, the antithesis to this American imperialism is, leaving his critics to charge him with moral tone deafness and with sheer political emptiness. Those who have charged Chomsky with offering apologetics for Pol Pot or Khomeini or Hussein or Hamas or Milosevic were only partly right. By implication he did offer such apologies, through his questioning of all criticism of these murderers, and through his likening of their murderous regimes to the policies of the U.S. But this was always indirect. Chomsky has never really said what he actually, really supports. About this he has allowed his readers to wonder.

Reading the comments above in the light of September 11 suggests that perhaps we need no longer wonder. For these comments present an answer. And that is, that there is no answer. The true dialectic, for Chomsky, is not between the evils of American imperialism and some good that might (in his mind) stand against it. The true dialectic is between "American imperialism" and the terrorists and tyrants who hate it. Chomsky does not need to descend from the clouds and take sides in this struggle. He can simply observe that "the chickens have come home to roost," and say "I told you so" while the body count rises. It is for the rest of us, or at least those who care, to worry about the plight of the Kosovars, or the realistic policies that might actually bring peace to the Middle East, or how to respond to a terrorism that rightly shocks, angers, and frightens us, and rightly calls forth a decisive response.

There is a word for Chomsky's stance, and it is not courageous dissent or intellectual responsibility. It is cynicism.


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