Giving his take on "The War on Terrorism," Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky described the events of Sept. 11 as a "horrendous atrocity, probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history outside of war," then went on to suggest that even this horror may be seen in the context of the chronic use of violence by powerful, wealthy nations.
"This is the culture in which we live," said the professor of linguistics and long-time progressive activist in his Oct. 18 lecture. "The world is ruled by force. The only way we can put a permanent end to terrorism is to stop participating in it."
Throughout the talk in a packed Room 26-100 (also seen via video in five overflow rooms), Chomsky bore down on the "propagandist, militarist leaning" in US media, as well as what he described as the history of American terrorism in Nicaragua, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Argentina, Columbia and Turkey, not to mention Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
"This is the first time the guns have been pointed the other way. For hundreds of years, Europeans have been slaughtering each other and slaughtering people all over the world. But the Congo didn't attack Belgium. India didn't attack England. Algeria didn't attack France," he said. "The world looks very different depending on whether you're holding the lash or being whipped by it."
Chomsky said terror, as defined by the US Army manuals, is the driving force of American foreign policy, although the "elites" don't want to call it that. Here at home, terrorism is seen as what people who are against us do, he said. When America perpetrates violence, it is renamed counterinsurgency or counterterror--terms coined by various US administrations to rationalize its actions, he said.
"It's a pretty impressive feat for a propaganda system to carry this off in a free society," Chomsky said. "The United States can contribute to millions of deaths around the world because of the silence or servility of the educated classes who could easily find out about this."
Chomsky led an enthusiastic audience through several cases of US-backed violence throughout the developing world, none of which was ever successfully brought to the World Court or any other venue of international justice, including the United Nations. He applauded Nicaragua's numerous attempts to "bring the United States into the sphere of international accountability" and derided the US denial of the legitimacy of the World Court or "any rule of international law."
Chomsky said several American allies in the current war on terrorism--among them Russia and Pakistan--were themselves terrorist states, client states or both, and that many of them actually nurtured, with CIA help, the very networks that American "militarists" are now seeking to destroy.
He returned consistently to the theme of ending violence, stopping terrorism and warding off the impending "silent genocide" of starvation that US bombings could cause millions of Afghans by making food delivery impossible.
A "sensible proposal," he said, would be a "U.N. initiative to bring together elements within Afghanistan that would try to construct something from the wreckage." This effort should be funded by the United States and Russia, since "these two countries have practically wiped out Afghanistan in the past 20 years; they should provide massive reparations," he said.
Chomsky discussed the "weak case" against Osama bin Laden, the "strong case" against perpetrating more violence under any name, and the "moral imperative" for citizens of the United States and other leading nations to be responsible for their actions, including becoming educated about their governments' real activities.
"You and I are responsible for what you and I can do and what we do. If we're serious, we should be concerned with what we can do. If there's an elementary moral truism, that's it," he said.
Chomsky's generally somber discussion included two rays of light: his enthusiasm for scouring the media and for critical analysis of the free press, and his delight in language itself.
"One of the good things that's happened since Sept. 11 is that some of the press and some discussion has begun to open up. The Wall Street Journal ran serious, searching reports on the reasons why people of the region, even if they hate bin Laden and despise what he's doing, nevertheless support him in many ways as the conscience of Islam. [Businesspeople] are very angry at the United States because of its intervention to block democracy, to stop economic development and its devastation of Iraq," Chomsky said.
Near the end of his talk, he gave a quick history of the naming of the current war on terrorism, evoking laughter as he deconstructed the various labels the Bush administration has tried for the "bombing and starving and violence" now underway.
"At first it was going to be a crusade. Then it was going to be Infinite Justice. Then it was changed to Enduring Freedom. And there are plenty of people around the world who have endured what we call freedom. Fortunately, we have a very well-behaved educated class so nobody has yet pointed out this ambiguity," he said with a wry look.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 24, 2001.