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Chomsky Replies About East Timor


Note: this post is a response from Noam Chomsky in the ZNet Forum’s, a benefit to all ZNet Sustainers…. if this interests you, check out the program today, and consider supporting ZNet...

Reply from NC,

Alan Nairn and Amy Goodman were among those at the independence day celebration yesterday (May 19) near Dili. I had a chance to talk to them a bit right as the ceremony ended; they were broadcasting live all day over Democracy Now, on WBAI. It’s a fantastic event, almost miraculous. For the first time, I said what I’d thought since 1975 about the prospects. If ever there were a hopeless effort, this was it. The asymmetry of force was awesome, even without the US and soon UK (and to a lesser extent others) weighing in on the side of the Indonesians. But the Timorese won, unbelievably. It’s a remarkable tribute to what the human spirit can achieve.

So what are the prospects? Objectively, pretty dim, I suppose. But given what they achieved against far worse odds, who knows? A lot will depend on the West. The US and UK owe them massive reparations, not aid. Others too. Indonesia’s another story. Does the US want to incorporate them into its sphere of influence? No question about that, though it’s pretty small potatoes for the US. One might have hoped that Clinton and Holbrooke would have had the good grace to stay away, or at least to apologize. That’ll be the day.

Which gets to your second question. I don’t think there’s a general answer, any more than in personal life. Sometimes people are genuinely sorry for things they have done that they know are wrong. Other times they find ways to rationalize. Anyone who is not a saint, and is at least a little honest, can think of examples in his or her own life. When we get to major war criminals of the kind you are mentioning, chances are that rationalization takes over. If they didn’t have that capacity, they’d never have gotten where they are. Sometimes internal records are revealing. About 40 years ago Rand declassified Japanese counterinsurgency documents from their wars in the 30s. I wrote an article at the time comparing them to US counterinsurgency manuals for Vietnam. Pretty similar. Not a very popular article. The Japanese documents included a lot of general commentary, for internal use only, and with a ring of sincerity. They knew they were committing crimes, but from an “excess of benevolence,” as a leading US Asia scholar described US involvement in Vietnam (which he strongly opposed; way out on the left). Perhaps more interesting are the Moynihan types. He cheerfully admits in his memoirs that he was directly responsible for a substantial slaughter in East Timor, but without the slightest regret, apparently. And he was confident, rightly, that his pride in having undermined the UN and international law, and contributed to massacre, would not detract in the slightest from his reputation as a man who had courageously upheld international law in a lone struggle, etc., etc.

People are odd creatures.

As for Hussein and Milosevic, its worth remembering that they’ve quickly shifted from friend and ally to demon and back, depending on their role in US policy. That’s quite independent of crimes.

Noam Chomsky


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