I sent six questions to Noam Chomsky. His answers, by email, are below.
(1) There has been an immense movement of troops and extreme use of military rhetoric, up to comments about terminating governments, etc. Yet, to many people there appears to be considerable restraint…what happened? From the first days after the attack, the Bush administration has been warned by NATO leaders, specialists on the region, and presumably its own intelligence agencies (not to speak of many people like you and me) that if they react with a massive assault that kills many innocent people, that will be answering bin Laden’s most fervent prayers. They will be falling into a “diabolical trap,” as the French foreign minister put it. That would be true — perhaps even more so — if they happen to kill bin Laden, still without having provided credible evidence of his involvement in the crimes of Sept. 11. He would then be perceived as a martyr even among the enormous majority of Muslims who deplore those crimes, as bin Laden himself has done, for what it is worth, denying any involvement in the crimes or even knowledge of them, and condemning “the killing of innocent women, children, and other humans” as an act that “Islam strictly forbids…even in the course of a battle” (BBC, Sept. 29). His voice will continue to resound on tens of thousands of cassettes already circulating throughout the Muslim world, and in many interviews, including the last few days. An assault that kills innocent Afghans — not Taliban, but their terrorized victims — would be virtually a call for new recruits to the horrendous cause of the bin Laden network and other graduates of the terrorist networks set up by the CIA and its associates 20 years ago to fight a Holy War against the Russians, meanwhile following their own agenda, from the time they assassinated President Sadat of Egypt in 1981, murdering one of the most enthusiastic of the creators of the “Afghanis” — mostly recruits from extremist radical Islamist elements around the world who were recruited to fight in Afghanistan. After a little while, the message apparently got through to the Bush administration, which has — wisely from their point of view — chosen to follow a different course. However, “restraint” seems to me a questionable word. On Sept. 16, the New York Times reported that “Washington has also demanded [from Pakistan] a cutoff of fuel supplies,…and the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population.” Astonishingly, that report elicited no detectable reaction in the West, a grim reminder of the nature of the Western civilization that leaders and elite commentators claim to uphold, yet another lesson that is not lost among those who have been at the wrong end of the guns and whips for centuries. In the following days, those demands were implemented. On Sept. 27, the same NYT correspondent reported that officials in Pakistan “said today that they would not relent in their decision to seal off the country’s 1,400- mile border with Afghanistan, a move requested by the Bush administration because, the officials said, they wanted to be sure that none of Mr. bin Laden’s men were hiding among the huge tide of refugees” (John Burns, Islamabad). According to the world’s leading newspaper, then, Washington demanded that Pakistan slaughter massive numbers of Afghans, millions of them already on the brink of starvation, by cutting off the limited sustenance that was keeping them alive. Almost all aid missions withdrew or were expelled under the threat of bombing. Huge numbers of miserable people have been fleeing to the borders in terror, after Washington’s threat to bomb the shreds of existence remaining in Afghanistan, and to convert the Northern Alliance into a heavily armed military force that will, perhaps, be unleashed to renew the atrocities that tore the country apart and led much of the population to welcome the Taliban when they drove out the murderous warring factions that Washington and Moscow now hope to exploit for their own purposes. When they reach the sealed borders, refugees are trapped to die in silence. Only a trickle can escape through remote mountain passes. How many have already succumbed we cannot guess, and few seem to care. Apart from the relief agencies, I have seen no attempt even to guess. Within a few weeks the harsh winter will arrive. There are some reporters and aid workers in the refugee camps across the borders. What they describe is horrifying enough, but they know, and we know, that they are seeing the lucky ones, the few who were able to escape — and who express their hopes that ”even the cruel Americans must feel some pity for our ruined country,” and relent in this savage silent genocide (Boston Globe, Sept. 27, p. 1). Perhaps the most apt description was given by the wonderful and courageous Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, referring to Operation Infinite Justice proclaimed by the Bush Administration: “Witness the infinite justice of the new century. Civilians starving to death while they’re waiting to be killed” (Guardian, Sept. 29). (2) The UN has indicated that the threat of starvation in Afghanistan is enormous. International criticism on this score has grown and now the U.S. and Britain are talking about providing food aid to ward off hunger. Are they caving in to dissent in fact, or only in appearance? What is their motivation? What will be the scale and impact of their efforts? The UN estimates that some 7-8 million are at risk of imminent starvation. The NY Times reports in a small item (Sept. 25) that nearly six million Afghans depend on food aid from the UN, as well as 3.5 million in refugee camps outside, many of whom fled just before the borders were sealed. The item reported that some food is being sent, to the camps across the border. If people in Washington and the editorial offices have even a single gray cell functioning, they realize that they must present themselves as humanitarians seeking to avert the awesome tragedy that followed at once from the threat of bombing and military attack and the sealing of the borders they demanded. “Experts also urge the United States to improve its image by increasing aid to Afghan refugees, as well as by helping to rebuild the economy” (Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 28). Even without PR specialists to instruct them, administration officials must comprehend that they should send some food to the refugees who made it across the border, and at least talk about air drop of food to starving people within: in order “to save lives” but also to “help the effort to find terror groups inside Afghanistan” (Boston Globe, Sept. 27, quoting a Pentagon official, who describes this as “winning the hearts and minds of the people”). The New York Times editors picked up the same theme the following day, 12 days after the journal reported that the murderous operation is being put into effect. On the scale of aid, one can only hope that it is enormous, or the human tragedy may be immense in a few weeks. But we should also bear in mind that there has been nothing to stop massive food drops from the beginning, and we cannot even guess how many have already died, or soon will. If the government is sensible, there will be at least a show of the “massive air drops” that officials mention. (3) International legal institutions would likely ratify efforts to arrest and try bin Laden and others, supposing guilt could be shown, including the use of force. Why does the U.S. avoid this recourse? Is it only a matter of not wishing to legitimate an approach that could be used, as well, against our acts of terrorism, or are other factors at play? Much of the world has been asking the US to provide some evidence to link bin Laden to the crime, and if such evidence could be provided, it would not be difficult to rally enormous support for an international effort, under the rubric of the UN, to apprehend and try him and his collaborators. However, that is no simple matter. Even if bin Laden and his network are involved in the crimes of Sept. 11, it may be quite hard to produce credible evidence. As the CIA surely knows very well, having nurtured these organizations and monitored them very closely for 20 years, they are diffuse, decentralized, non-hierarchic structures, probably with little communication or direct guidance. And for all we know, most of the perpetrators may have killed themselves in their awful missions. There are further problems in the background. To quote Roy again, “The Taliban’s response to US demands for the extradition of Bin Laden has been uncharacteristically reasonable: produce the evidence, then we’ll hand him over. President Bush’s response is that the demand is non-negotiable’.” She also adds one of the many reasons why this framework is unacceptable to Washington: “While talks are on for the extradition of CEOs can India put in a side request for the extradition of Warren Anderson of the US? He was the chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas leak that killed 16,000 people in 1984. We have collated the necessary evidence. It’s all in the files. Could we have him, please?” Such comparisons elicit frenzied tantrums at the extremist fringes of Western opinion, some of them called “the left.” But for Westerners who have retained their sanity and moral integrity, and for great numbers among the usual victims, they are quite meaningful. Government leaders presumably understand that. And the single example that Roy mentions is only the beginning, of course, and one of the lesser examples, not only because of the scale of the atrocity, but because it was not explicitly a crime of state. Suppose Iran were to request the extradition of high officials of the Carter and Reagan administrations, refusing to present the ample evidence of the crimes they were implementing — and it surely exists. Or suppose Nicaragua were to demand the extradition of the US ambassador to the UN, newly appointed to lead the “war against terror,” a man whose record includes his service as “proconsul” (as he was often called) in the virtual fiefdom of Honduras, where he surely was aware of the atrocities of the state terrorists he was supporting, and was also overseeing the terrorist war for which the US was condemned by the World Court and the Security Council (in a resolution the US vetoed). Or many others. Would the US even dream of responding to such demands presented without evidence, or even if the ample evidence were presented? Those doors are better left closed, just as it is best to maintain the silence on the appointment of a leading figure in managing the operations condemned as terrorism by the highest existing international bodies — to lead a “war on terrorism.” Jonathan Swift would also be speechless. That may be the reason why administration publicity experts preferred the usefully ambiguous term “war” to the more explicit term “crime” — “crime against humanity as Robert Fisk, Mary Robinson, and others have accurately depicted it. There are established procedures for dealing with crimes, however horrendous. They require evidence, and adherence to the principle that “those who are guilty of these acts” be held accountable once evidence is produced, but not others (Pope John Paul II, NYT Sept. 24). Not, for example, the unknown numbers of miserable people starving to death in terror at the sealed borders, though in this case too we are speaking of crimes against humanity. (4) The war on terror was first undertaken by Reagan, as a substitute for the cold war — that is, as a vehicle for scaring the public and thus marshalling support for programs contrary to the public’s interest — foreign campaigns, war spending in general, surveillance, and so on. Now we are seeing a larger and more aggressive attempt to move in the same direction. Does the problem that we are the world’s foremost source of attacks on civilians auger complications for carrying through this effort? Can the effort be sustained without, in fact, a shooting war? The Reagan administration came into office 20 years ago declaring that its leading concern would be to eradicate the plague of international terrorism, a cancer that is destroying civilization. They cured the plague by establishing an international terrorist network of extraordinary scale, with consequences that are — or should be — well-known in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere — while using the pretexts, as you say, to carry out programs that were of considerable harm to the domestic population, and that even threaten human survival. Did they carry out a “shooting war”? The number of corpses they left in their wake around the world is impressive, but technically, they did not usually fire the guns, apart from transparent PR exercises like the bombing of Libya, the first crime of war in history that was timed precisely for prime time TV, no small trick considering the complexity of the operation and the refusal of continental European countries to collaborate. The torture, mutilation, rape, and massacre were carried out through intermediaries. Even if we exclude the huge but unmentionable component of terrorism that traces back to terrorist states, our own surely included, the terrorist plague is very real, very dangerous, and truly terrifying. There are ways to react that are likely to escalate the threats to ourselves and others; there are ample precedents for more sane and honorable methods, which we’ve discussed before, and are not in the least obscure, but are scarcely discussed. Those are the basic choices. (5) If the Taliban falls and bin Laden or someone they claim is responsible is captured or killed, what next? What happens to Afghanistan? What happens more broadly in other regions? The sensible administration plan would be to pursue the ongoing program of silent genocide, combined with humanitarian gestures to arouse the applause of the usual chorus who are called upon to sing the praises of the noble leaders committed to “principles and values” and leading the world to a “new era” of “ending inhumanity.” The administration might also try to convert the Northern Alliance into a viable force, perhaps to bring in other warlords hostile to it, like Gulbudin Hekmatyar, now in Iran. Presumably they will use British and US commandoes for missions within Afghanistan, and perhaps resort to selective bombing, but scaled down so as not to answer bin Laden’s prayers. A US assault should not be compared to the failed Russian invasion of the 80s. The Russians were facing a major army of perhaps 100,000 men or more, organized, trained and heavily armed by the CIA and its associates. The US is facing a ragtag force in a country that has already been virtually destroyed by 20 years of horror, for which we bear no slight share of responsibility. The Taliban forces, such as they are, might quickly collapse except for a small hard core. And one would expect that the surviving population would welcome an invading force if it is not too visibly associated with the murderous gangs that tore the country to shreds before the Taliban takeover. At this point, most people would be likely to welcome Genghis Khan. What next? Expatriate Afghans and, apparently, some internal elements who are not part of the Taliban inner circle have been calling for a UN effort to establish some kind of transition government, a process that might succeed in reconstructing something viable from the wreckage, if provided with very substantial reconstruction aid, channeled through independent sources like the UN or credible NGOs. That much should be the minimal responsibility of those who have turned this impoverished country into a land of terror, desperation, corpses, and mutilated victims. That could happen, but not without very substantial popular efforts in the rich and powerful societies. For the present, any such course has been ruled out by the Bush administration, which has announced that it will not be engaged in “nation building” — or, it seems, an effort that would be more honorable and humane: substantial support, without interference, for “nation building” by others who might actually achieve some success in the enterprise. But current refusal to consider this decent course is not graven in stone. What happens in other regions depends on internal factors, on the policies of foreign actors (the US dominant among them, for obvious reasons), and the way matters proceed in Afghanistan. One can hardly be confident, but for many of the possible courses reasonable assessments can be made about the outcome — and there are a great many possibilities, too many to try to review in brief comments. (6) What do you believe should be the role and priority of social activists concerned about justice at this time? Should we curb our criticisms, as some have claimed, or is this, instead, a time for renewed and enlarged efforts, not only because it is a crisis regarding which we can attempt to have a very important positive impact, but also because large sectors of the public are actually far more receptive than usual to discussion and exploration, even it other sectors are intransigently hostile? It depends on what these social activists are trying to achieve. If their goal is to escalate the cycle of violence and to increase the likelihood of further atrocities like that of Sept. 11 — and, regrettably, even worse ones with which much of the world is all too familiar — then they should certainly curb their analysis and criticisms, refuse to think, and cut back their involvement in the very serious issues in which they have been engaged. The same advice is warranted if they want to help the most reactionary and regressive elements of the political-economic power system to implement plans that will be of great harm to the general population here and in much of the world, and may even threaten human survival. If, on the contrary, the goal of social activists is to reduce the likelihood of further atrocities, and to advance hopes for freedom, human rights, and democracy, then they should follow the opposite course. They should intensify their efforts to inquire into the background factors that lie behind these and other crimes and devote themselves with even more energy to the just causes to which they have already been committed. The opportunities are surely there. The shock of the horrendous crimes has already opened even elite sectors to reflection of a kind that would have been hard to imagine not long ago, and among the general public that is even more true. Of course, there will be those who demand silent obedience. We expect that from the ultra-right, and anyone with a little familiarity with history will expect it from some left intellectuals as well, perhaps in an even more virulent form. But it is important not to be intimidated by hysterical ranting and lies and to keep as closely as one can to the course of truth and honesty and concern for the human consequences of what one does, or fails to do. All truisms, but worth bearing in mind. Beyond the truisms, we turn to specific questions, for inquiry and for action.