© 2001 The Nation Company, L.P.
COLUMN | Special Report

A Rejoinder to Noam Chomsky: Minority Report

The two related questions before the house are these. Can the attacks of September 11 be compared to an earlier outrage committed by Americans? And should they be so compared?

Noam Chomsky does not rise much above the level of half-truth in his comparison of the September 11 atrocities to Clinton's rocketing of Sudan. Since his remarks are directed at me, I'll instance a less-than-half-truth as he applies it to myself. I "must be unaware," he writes, that I "express such racist contempt for African victims of a terrorist crime." With his pitying tone of condescension, and his insertion of a deniable but particularly objectionable innuendo, I regret to say that Chomsky displays what have lately become his hallmarks.

I have a very clear memory of the destruction of the Al-Shifa chemical plant in Khartoum on August 20 1998, and of the false claim made by the Administration that it had sought out and destroyed a nerve gas facility that was linked to Osama bin Laden's shady business empire. I wrote a series of columns in The Nation, dated October 5, October 19 and November 16, 1998.The first one of these was recirculated on the web by Salon magazine. I then wrote an expanded essay for the January 1999 issue of Vanity Fair. And the chapter in my book No One Left To Lie To, titled "Clinton's War Crimes," is a summary and digest of all the above. I quoted Tom Carnaffin, the British engineer who had helped construct the plant. I quoted the German ambassador, Werner Daum, who had recently toured it. I interviewed one of the world's leading authorities on inorganic chemistry, Professor R.J.P. Williams. I interviewed Milton Bearden, a retired CIA station chief. My conclusions, which were stated earlier and at greater length than by any of the journalists cited by Chomsky, were that the factory was a medical and pharmaceutical facility, unrelated in any way to the holdings of bin Laden, and that this could and should have been known in advance. In any case, I argued, the United States had no right to hit Sudanese territory without at least first requesting an inspection of the plant. In short, as I put it, several times and in several different ways, "only one person was killed in the rocketing of Sudan. But many more have died, and will die, because an impoverished country has lost its chief source of medicines and pesticides." As I also phrased it, the President had "acted with caprice and brutality and with a complete disregard for international law, and perhaps counted on the indifference of the press and public to a negligible society like that of Sudan."

Thus I think I am indeed "unaware," with or without Chomsky's lofty permission, of my propensity for racist contempt. Since Chomsky reads The Nation and seems to have a clip-file on Al-Shifa, he is in a position to know my views if he cares to. I think I can say without immodesty that I wrote more, and earlier, about this scandal than any other person. I also helped the late John Scanlon in preparing the basis for a lawsuit by the owner of the factory, Saleh Idris, seeking compensation from the US government. That suit is still active.

I have to say that I didn't get an unambiguous response from the left at the time, because there were those who were uneasy at the allegation that Clinton had "wagged the dog." (The bombing took place as Miss Lewinsky was returning to the grand jury, and secured him a nauseating "bounce" in the opinion polls.) It was felt in some "progressive" quarters that to make too much of the atrocity was to "give ammunition" to the Republicans. I may be mistaken, but I don't remember Noam Chomsky circulating the news of the war crime when it would have made any difference. Certainly not with the energy he does now--by way of a comparison with the massacres in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania.

How exact is this comparison? Chomsky is obviously right when he says that one must count "collateral" casualties, though it isn't possible to compute the Sudanese ones with any certainty. (And he makes a small mistake: The Sudanese regime demanded at the UN only that there be an on-site inspection of the destroyed factory--a demand that the United States resisted, to its shame.) But must one not also measure intention and motive? The clear intention of the September 11 death squads was to maximize civilian deaths in an area renowned for its cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic character. (The New York Yemeni community alone is "missing" some 200 members, mainly push-cart vendors in the nearby streets.) The malicious premeditation is very evident and manifest: The toll was intended to be very much higher than it was. And I believe I have already pointed out that the cruise missiles fired at Sudan were not crammed with terrified civilian kidnap victims. I do not therefore think it can be argued that the hasty, politicized and wicked decision to hit the Al-Shifa plant can be characterized as directly homicidal in quite the same way. And I don't think anyone will be able to accuse me of euphemizing the matter.

(Incidentally, the New York Times for October 2 carried a report on page B4. The World Bank now estimates that the shock suffered by the international economy as a result of September 11 will have the following effects on poorer societies. "It is estimated that 40,000 children worldwide will likely die from disease and malnutrition and 10 million people will fall below the bank's extreme poverty line of $1 dollar a day or less as a result of slower economic growth." No doubt Chomsky will wish to factor this in. Or will he prefer to say that the World Bank is the problem in the first place? His casuistry appears to be limitless.)

In a brilliant article in The New Yorker for October 12, 1998 ("The Missiles of August"), Seymour Hersh reconstructed the decision-making that led to the Al-Shifa raid. He found that four of the five Joint Chiefs had been kept in the dark about it, as had Louis Freeh of the FBI, who was then in Africa investigating the ghastly bombings of two neighboring US Embassies. I was myself able to find several senior people at the State Department and the CIA who had urged against the strike at the time and who could prove it, and would let their own names be used for quotation. It was as near to a purely presidential decision, replete with Strangelovian opportunism, as could be. Never mind for now whether this strengthens my case for trying Clinton--a case that Chomsky makes without realizing it. How fair is it to say that "the United States" decided in advance on all those Sudanese deaths? It might be fairer than one might like, but it still wouldn't come up to the Al Qaeda standard.

As one who spent several weeks rebutting it, and rebutting it in real time, I can state that the case for considering Al-Shifa as a military target was not an absolutely hollow one. (One of the main Sudanese opposition groups, for example, had identified it as a bin Laden facility engaged in the manufacture of nerve gas.) In one way this makes little difference, because Clinton never demanded an inspection and because a nerve gas plant can't be folded like a tent and moved overnight. So that what was committed was certainly an aggression. However, at least a makeshift claim of military targeting could be advanced: President Clinton and his contemptible Defense Secretary Cohen did not boast of having taught Sudanese civilians a lesson. Furthermore, the Sudanese regime had been sheltering and nurturing Osama bin Laden, had been imposing its own form of Islamic dictatorship and has in other respects a filthy record. And two embassies had just been blown up in Kenya and Dar es Salaam, with the infliction of very many hundreds of African civilian casualties, by men in bin Laden's network. (It's not specially pointful to this argument, but Chomsky's touching belief in the then-imminence of regional peace strikes me as naïve.) I thus hold to my view that there is no facile "moral equivalence" between the two crimes.

But this by no means exhausts my disagreement with Chomsky. Suppose that we agree that the two atrocities can or may be mentioned in the same breath. Why should we do so? I wrote at the time (The Nation, October 5, 1998) that Osama bin Laden "hopes to bring a 'judgmental' monotheism of his own to bear on these United States." Chomsky's recent version of this is "considering the grievances expressed by people of the Middle East region." In my version, then as now, one confronts an enemy who wishes ill to our society, and also to his own (if impermeable religious despotism is considered an "ill"). In Chomsky's reading, one must learn to sift through the inevitable propaganda and emotion resulting from the September 11 attacks, and lend an ear to the suppressed and distorted cry for help that comes, not from the victims, but from the perpetrators. I have already said how distasteful I find this attitude. I wonder if even Chomsky would now like to have some of his own words back? Why else should he take such care to quote himself deploring the atrocity? Nobody accused him of not doing so. It's often a bad sign when people defend themselves against charges which haven't been made.

To be against rationalization is not the same as to be opposed to reasoning. By all means we must meet the challenge to our understanding. I think that the forces represented by Al Qaeda and the Taliban are fairly easy to comprehend, but not very easy to coexist with. I also believe that we would do well to take them at their word. I even believe that it is true that September 11 was a hinge event. Chomsky gives me the impression of regarding it as an inconvenience. With some irritation and impatience, he manages to assimilate it to his pre-existing worldview, and then goes on as if nothing much had happened. I think it would be flattering to describe this as an exercise in clarification. And I think it also contains a serious danger of euphemism, in that it purportedly connects the mass murder of our fellows to causes (such as the emancipation of the Palestinians from occupation) which are much better considered in their own right. To propose the connection is inevitably to flatter Al Qaeda, even if only indirectly. If I seem to exaggerate, then pray consider this passage from page 39 of Chomsky's most recent book: A New Generation Draws The Line: Kosovo, East Timor and The Standards of the West (Verso 2000):

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 1998 so as not to allow in East Timor a repetition of the crimes that Indonesia, the US, and the UK had perpetrated there for a quarter-century. And when the new generation of leaders refused to pursue this honorable course, they should have been leading 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.

Here, the pretense of remorseless logic degenerates into flat-out irrationality. "These conclusions follow straightforwardly"? The accusations against Milosevic are "plausible"? A year ago it would have been possible to notice the same thing that strikes the eye today: Chomsky's already train-wrecked syllogisms seem to entail the weird and sinister assumption that bin Laden is a ventriloquist for thwarted voices of international justice. (For more on this, see an excellent forthcoming essay on Chomsky's work in The American Prospect, authored by Professor Jeffrey Isaac of the University of Indiana, to whom I am indebted.)

If there is now an international intervention, whether intelligent and humane, or brutal and stupid, against the Taliban, some people will take to the streets, or at least mount some "Candle In the Wind" or "Strawberry Fields" peace vigils. They did not take to the streets, or even go moist and musical, when the Administration supported the Taliban. But that was, surely, just as much an intervention? An intervention, moreover, that could not even pretend to be humane or democratic? I had the same concern about those who did not object when the United States safeguarded Milosevic, but did protest when it finally turned against him. Am I supposed not to notice that these two groups of "anti-interventionists" are in fact the same people?

Concluding, then. I have begun to think that Noam Chomsky has lost or is losing the qualities that made him a great moral and political tutor in the years of the Indochina war, and that enabled him to write such monumental essays as his critique of the Kahan Commission on Sabra and Shatila or his analysis of the situation in East Timor. I don't say this out of any "more in sorrow than anger" affectation: I have written several defenses of him and he knows it. But the last time we corresponded, some months ago, I was appalled by the robotic element both of his prose and of his opinions. He sought earnestly to convince me that Vaclav Havel, by addressing a joint session of Congress in the fall of 1989, was complicit in the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador that had occurred not very long before he landed in Washington. In vain did I point out that the timing of Havel's visit was determined by the November collapse of the Stalinist regime in Prague, and that on his first celebratory visit to the United States he need not necessarily take the opportunity to accuse his hosts of being war criminals. Nothing would do, for Chomsky, but a strict moral equivalence between Havel's conduct and the mentality of the most depraved Stalinist. (He's written this elsewhere, so I break no confidence.) I then took the chance of asking him whether he still considered Ed Herman a political co-thinker. Herman had moved from opposing the bombing of Serbia to representing the Milosevic regime as a victim and as a nationalist peoples' democracy. He has recently said, in a ludicrous attack on me, that the "methods and policies" of the Western forces in Kosovo were "very similar" to the tactics of Al Qaeda, an assertion that will not surprise those who are familiar with his style. Chomsky knew perfectly well what I was asking, and why, but chose to respond by saying that he did not regard anybody in particular as a co-thinker. I thought then that this was a shady answer; I now think that it may also have been an unintentionally prescient one. I don't believe that any of those who have so anxiously sought his opinions in the past three weeks have felt either inspired or educated by them, because these opinions are a recipe for nothingness. And only an old admiration should prevent me from adding, nothingness at the very best.

Go to Chomsky's re-rejoinder