Civilization vs. Barbarism

An Interview with Noam Chomsky
conducted by M. Junaid Alam

On December 17, 2004 I met with Professor Noam Chomsky at his MIT office to get his thoughts on the ideological justifications and historical realities behind America's "war on terror." Professor Chomsky spent a half-hour taking apart the framework of "civilization" versus "barbarism," pointing to Western and particularly US state-sponsored atrocities, laying out the grave nature of war crimes committed in Iraq, attacking the intellectual culture which sanctions massive suffering, and explaining the elite's knowledge of the roots of terrorism. The transcript follows below.

Transcribed by the interviewer and slightly edited for clarification by Professor Chomsky

Alam: Professor Chomsky, thank you for doing this interview with Left Hook.

In the time we have, I wanted to discuss with you the consequences and implications of America's current war stance, how some of its programs or objectives might be interrelated.

The first thing I wanted to bring up is, it seems that the general ideological picture painted for us by the administration and conservative outlets is that the overall so-called war on terror is about the "civilized" world combating "barbarism," a position Business Week recently voiced. In what ways do you think this is historically or politically inaccurate, in terms of the scale and intensity of the crimes committed by ourselves versus the "barbarians," presumably Islamists and nationalists in Iraq and Palestine?

Chomsky: Well, it doesn't even come close. I mean, the level of destruction and terror and violence carried out by the powerful states far exceeds anything that can imaginably can be done by groups that are called terrorists and subnational groups. I mean just take, say, Iraq. The best current estimate of deaths after the invasion is 100,000 maybe more, maybe less. Take a long time for Islamic terrorists to kill 100,000 people. Take say, the most extensive terrorist act attributed to Islamic terrorists, 9-11. About 3,000 people killed, which is a pretty horrible atrocity. But as atrocities go, it doesn't rank very high.

Take for example, what south of the Rio Grande is often called the other 9-11. September 11th, 1973, in which the United States was very heavily involved -- that's the bombing of the presidential palace, the military coup, the death of the president, the destruction of the leading democracy, the oldest democracy, in Latin America. The official death toll for that 9-11 is ­ the official death toll is over 3,000, but that's just the bodies they can actually count. The estimated toll is probably twice that. If you give that number in comparative terms, comparative population terms, that'd be the equivalent of about 50 to 100,000 people killed in the United States. We've just learned recently the detailed numbers of people tortured -- it's 30,000, that's 700,000 in the United States, thousands of cases of rapes and other abuse, and many people just lost, disappeared, who knows what happened to them.

It also set up international terrorist operations, under the rubric of what was called Operation Condor, which brought together similar state terrorist organizations in
neighboring countries which the US also had a major role in establishing...The US intelligence compared DINA, the Chilean state terror organization, compared them to the Gestapo and KGB. They didn't fool around, and that's the way they were viewed by the United States while the US was supporting them, and Britain was supporting them enthusiastically, and so on. In fact their international terror activities only stopped when they went one step too far. They murdered a well-known diplomat in Washington DC, and that's not allowed, so they were sort of called off and stayed pretty brutal, but not that bad.

Well that's one event ­ September 11th, 1973. Happens to be one in which the US was only indirectly involved. If we take those which the US carried out itself, then the scale isuncountable. I mean, take the one case where the US was indeed condemned for international terrorism and ordered to terminate the crime, namely the attack on Nicaragua, which went to the World Court. The World Court had to take a very narrow case, because the US had excluded itself from all international treaties. So the US cannot be brought to the World Court for major crimes, for example the supreme international crime, invasion, or violation of the UN Charter, or violation of the Genocide Convention, these are things the US is exempt from, because they exempted themselves from being subjected to international treaties in World Court proceedings.

So the World Court had to deal with Nicaragua case on extremely narrow grounds, just bilateral Nicaragua-US treaties, and customary international law. Nevertheless the Court condemned the US for what it called unlawful use of force, gave a pretty broad judgment, well beyond the actual terms of the case, ordered the US to terminate the crimes, pay substantial reparations. The US ignored the ruling, vetoed two Security Council resolutions affirming it, and went on with the war.

The end result was, again in per capita terms, about the equivalent of 2.5 million people being killed in the United States. More than the number of deaths in all wars including the Civil War in US history, destroyed the country, it's now the second poorest
country in the hemisphere. After the US took it over again in 1990, it went downhill further -- by now, it's estimated that over half the children under 2 are suffering from severe malnutrition, I mean, probable brain damage.

In the early 80's, when the US started the war, Nicaragua was being praised by international organizations, even international banks, for its substantial progress, won prizes for improvement, UNICEF prizes for ­ awards for improvement in child health and development. Now it's quite the opposite.

I mean this is a single incident, so it totally outweighs all terrorist activities you can attribute to anyone else, but it's not even worth discussing.

And that's only one, I'm not even talking about the major wars like say, Vietnam, which was straight aggression, can't call it terror, with, who knows, four million people or so killed, and people still dying from the effects of massive chemical warfare started by Kennedy. And that's just the United States. Take a look at other states, they're not as powerful as the US, but their violence is extraordinary ­ France in Africa, the British in Kenya and elsewhere, justfar beyond the scale of any terrorist activity.

Alam: So, so much for the framework of "civilization" versus "barbarism."

Chomsky: No, it's absurd, I mean look, let's just take ­ what's the worst atrocity since the Mongol invasions? You know, it's what happened in Germanyin the late 30's - 40's primarily. Germany was the peak of Western civilization. It was the most advanced society in the Western world, in the sciences, in the arts, in literature, the stellar example of Western civilization. In fact up until the first World War, when people turned anti-German, Germany had been described by American political scientists as the model of democracy. That's the peak of Western civilization ­ yeah, it's the worst barbarism since the Mongol invasion. What kind of correlations can one make?

Alam: It's interesting to note that ­ you mentioned a little bit the 100,000 casualties ­ it's interesting to note that while much media attention here is focused on the sensationalistic and gruesome beheadings of perhaps a few dozen foreigners in Iraq, the same media is more or less silent about the Lancet report ­ Lancet being the British medical journal ­ that said about 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, mostly by US bombing, and also missing in the media is talk about the Iraqi children's malnutrition rates which have apparently doubled.

Chomsky: They're worse than - at the level of Burundi ­ they're worse than
Uganda and Haiti ­ and that's since the war.

Alam: That actually reminded me of-

Chomsky: In fact the way the media treated this Lancet report is kind of interesting. I mean it was mentioned ­ it's not that you couldn't find it. But it was either ignored or downplayed. The standard reaction to it was well, that it was just a sample.

Alam: Exactly

Chomsky: How do you know it was accurate, and maybe the number was smaller ­ and they [Lancet] actually did give a spread, which was 8,000 to 200,000, which is ­

Alam: Excluding Fallujah, too.

Chomsky: Well, let's look at how they did it. The highest probability estimate was around 100,000. The immediate reaction has been well, maybe it's much lower. Yeah, maybe it's much lower ­ maybe it's much higher. In fact they did it very conservatively. They excluded Fallujah because that would have raised the estimate, the extrapolated estimate, they included the Kurdish areas, no fighting there, which would reduce the extrapolated estimate, and in general they did a careful and rather conservative analysis.

But it's either been ignored or the silly claim has been made that, well it's only an estimate, so maybe it's too high ­ true, it's only an estimate, so maybe it's too low. In fact that's the way every study is done of estimated casualties or health studies and so on. But whatever it is, whether it's 50,000 or 150,000, or whatever the number might be, it's obviously a major atrocity.

And in fact, it's not exactly correct that the media haven't reported the war crimes. They often report them and celebrate them. So take for example the invasion of Fallujah, which is one of the ­ it's a major war crime, it's very similar to the Russian destruction of Grozny 10 years earlier, a city of approximately the same size, bombed to rubble, people driven out.

Alam: They herded all the males, I think, they didn't let them escape the corridor.

Chomsky: Which incidentally is very much like Srebrenica ­ which is universally condemned as genocide -- Srebrenica was an enclave, lightly protected by UN forces, which was being used as a base for attacking nearby Serb villages. It was known that there's going to be retaliation. When there was a retaliation, it was vicious. They trucked out all the women and children, they kept the men inside, and apparently slaughtered them. The estimates are thousands of people slaughtered.

Well, with Fallujah, the US didn't truck out the women and children, it bombed them out. There was about a month of bombing, bombed out of the city, if they could get out somehow, a couple hundred thousand people fled, or somehow got out, and as you say men were kept in and we don't know what happened after that, we don't estimate [the casualties for which we are responsible].

But what was dramatic about Fallujah was that it was not kept secret. So you could see on the front page of the New York Times, a big picture of the first majorstep in the offensive, namely the capture of the Fallujah general hospital. And there's a picture of people lying on the ground, soldier guarding them, and then there's a story that tells that patients and doctors were taken from ­ patients were taken from their beds, patients and doctors were forced to lie on the floor and manacled, under guard, and the picture described it.

-- The president of the United States is subject to death penalty under US law for that crime - alone. I mean that's a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, Geneva Conventions say explicitly and unambiguously that hospitals must be protected, hospitals and medical staff and patients must be protected by all combatants in any conflict. You couldn't have a more grave breach of the Geneva Conventions than that.

There's a War Crimes Act in the United States passed by a Republican Congress in 1996, which says that grave breaches of the Geneva Convention are subject to the death penalty. And that doesn't mean the soldier that committed them, that means the commanders. They weren't thinking about the United States of course, but take it literally, that's what it means.

And then they went onto explain why they carried out this war crime in the general hospital. New York Times explained calmly that it was done because the US command described the Fallujah general hospital as a propaganda outlet for the guerrillas because they were reporting casualties. I -- don't know if the Nazis produced things like that. Of course the Times said it was "inflated" casualties - how do we know it was inflated?

Alam: We don't even count'em.

Chomsky: Well our Dear Leader said it was inflated, so that means that since we're like North Korea, it has to be inflated. But suppose it was. I mean the idea of carrying out a major war crime, explicit, because the hospital was a propaganda weapon by distributing casualty figures, I mean you really have to work to find an analog to that.

And then it went on, destroying the whole city. Finally they end up saying well the Marines are going to face a serious challenge of regaining the confidence of the people of Fallujah after having destroyed their city. Yeah, it's going to be a pretty serious challenge. It's also described how they're going to do it ­ by instituting a police state.

Alam: Right.

Chomsky: Nobody will be allowed into Fallujah until they undergo retinal scans and fingerprinting and they're going to be marked and identified, do everything except put chips in them, maybe they'll get to that next time, organize them into work gangs, in which they'll be compelled under the order to rebuild what the US has destroyed. Try and find a counterpart to that. And that's just one war crime, one part of the general atrocities.

In fact, you could argue that it's insignificant. By the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which the US initiated and carried out, it concluded that the supreme international crime is invasion, aggression, and that supreme crime includes within it all the evil that follows. So therefore the doubling of malnutrition rates, the maybe 100,000 casualties, the grave war crimes in Fallujah, they're all footnotes, they're footnotes to the supreme international crime.

And that crime is taken pretty seriously. In Nuremberg they did not try soldiers, and they didn't try company commanders, they tried the ­ the people who were on trial and hanged - were the top command. Like the German Foreign Minister was hanged. Because of participation in the supreme international crime which encompasses all the evil that follows. Do we hear anything about that?

Alam: Right.

Chomsky: But you can't say it's concealed. What I've just talked about is all quoted from the front pages. Which is even more astonishing. Actually, you know, that, however awful it is, it's a big improvement over the past. I mean much worse than this was happening in Vietnam and there wasn't even any concern. It's hard to say the words, but there's been a lot of progress since then. I mean now at least many people find it appalling. It went on in Vietnam at a much higher level for years, literally years, and there was no protest at all. I mean the war in Vietnam started in 1962, was really a war against South Vietnam. Kennedy launched it in 1962, was very brutal from the start. Bombing, chemical warfare, to destroy crops and cover to undercut support for indigenous guerrillas -- driving millions of people into what amounted toconcentration camps, or urban slums.

By the time protests developed, 1966 or 67, South Vietnam had virtually been destroyed. I mean the leading and most respected rather hawkish military analyst on Vietnam, [the Indochina] specialist Bernard Fall, by 1966 and 67, was writing he wondered whether Vietnam as a historic and cultural entity would escape extinction, under the heaviest attack that had ever been suffered by an area that size. Well, [for] years there was almost no protest. Bad now, but a lot of improvement in the last 33 years.

Alam: This brings to mind actually, for me anyway, a quote, from Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, maybe you could find something in it to comment on, he wrote ­ of the French Revolution I think he was speaking of :

"There were two 'Reigns of Terror' if we would remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold bloodour shudders are all for the 'horrors' of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak, whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror, that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror, which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."

Do you think one of the functions of the mainstream media in either not really allowing the ­ allowing for the vastness or the pity of the crimes that are deserved to be seen or really experienced ­ is that simply reflecting the prejudices and racism of American society, or is it actually creating the prejudices of American society?

Chomsky: The media are, in this respect, just part of the general intellectual culture, which includes all of us, including you and me. I mean, we don't see, we prefer not to see the horrible crimes that are going on all the time, which we could do something about easily. So take say, we just passed the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda massacres, which were pretty horrible, maybe 8,000 people killed a day for a 100 days. Pretty awful massacre. And there's a lot of wringing of hands and lamentations about how we didn't do anything about it, we didn't intervene, we didn't send military forces, and so on, wasn't that terrible. Well yeah, it was pretty terrible, but let's take a look at today.

Right now, about the same number of people, about 8,000 people, about 8,000 children in fact, are dying in southern Africa every day from easily treatable diseases. We add hunger, it's going to go way up, let's keep to easily treatable diseases. That's Rwanda-level killing among children only, in southern Africa, not for 100 days, but every day. There's a very easy way to deal with it, namely bribe pharmaceutical corporations to provide them with drugs and the limited infrastructure that's required. [But almost no one is] talking about it. I mean that's far worse than Rwanda.

Furthermore if we go a step further and ask ourselves ­ speaking of barbarism ­ what kind of society do we live in where the only way we can think of preventing Rwanda-level killing among children everyday is by bribing private tyrannies to do something about it. I mean that itself is beyond barbarism.

But we accept that, we don't think about it, we prefer not to think about it. It's not that we worry about small crimes rather than big ones, it's that attention is focused on anything that's done against us. What we do to others just doesn't matter. And it's not specific to the United States, it's quite general. It's an unfortunate part of dominant cultures and powerful societies.

Alam: With all the grandiose rhetoric about "barbarism," it's also interesting to note that the Pentagon's own Defense Science Board, composed of top military commanders and intelligence figures, issued a report about two months ago declaring that resentment in the Islamic world is mainly due to US support for Israel and US support for Arab dictatorships, and not about an inner hatred or hatred of Western values themselves. But if the top people in the Pentagon and the military understand this, then why is there such a large disconnect in what they themselves concede and what they say ­ I mean what are the strategic imperatives that are so great that they are willing to incur the wrath?

Chomsky: That was an interesting report [interruption, door is opened, background noise continues from here on] ­ this Pentagon report which was sort of interesting, is virtually a repetition, almost a verbatim repetition of a report by the NSC in 1958 when President Eisenhower raised the question with his staff, why there is a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world, and not among governments but from the people. That's Eisenhower, 1958, why is there a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world. An answer was given in an analysis by the National Security Council in 1958: it's because there's a perception in the Arab that the United States supports brutal and repressive regimes and blocks democracy and development, and we do it because we want to get control of oil and resources ­ their oil. That's 1958. And they went on to say, yes the perception's accurate, and we're going to continue doing it. That's been perfectly well known for years that that was the case.

It's exacerbated further by specific policies. Right after 9-11, as far as I know one newspaper in the United States had the integrity to investigate opinion in the Muslim world, the Wall Street Journal. They kept to the people they cared about, what they called moneyed Muslims, managers of multinational corporations, international lawyers, you know ­ their type of people ­ so there's no concern about globalization or anything else, they're part of the US-run system. But they had the same results they had as in 1958, as the Pentagon just reported. They hate and fear bin Laden, who's trying to destroy them, but nevertheless they express understanding for the position that he articulates, and they hate US policy, because it supports brutal and oppressive regimes, blocks democracy and development, because of the support for Israeli aggression and atrocities at that time, because of the Iraq sanctions, which were killing hundreds of thousands of people, devastating society, and caused enormous anger.

The Pentagon report is just repeating what anybody knew who had their eyes open. The fact that it was regarded as a surprise in the United States just shows how much intellectuals prefer to keep their eyes closed. What they said is correct, furthermore you can read it - it's articulated almost the same way in 1958, it's found in every study since. Furthermore you can find it any book on terrorism ­ any serious book on terrorism, not just anyone ranting and screaming ­ but someone taking it seriously, say, Jason Burke's study of al-Qaeda, which is the best one around, or just about anyone you pick.

They don't hate our freedom, you know, what they hate is US policies, and for good reason, because those policies have been crushing them for years. So yeah, they hate the policies. Pentagon just discovered ­ re-discovered ­ what everybody with eyes open already knew, and these 1958 reports have been declassified for about 15 years, I was writing about them in 1990. Just better not to ­ it's easier to just stand on a pedestal and scream about Islamic fascism and how it's trying to destroy us. It doesn't require thinking about the policies and doing something about them.

Furthermore that's true of what's called terrorism in general ­ I mean, it doesn't come out of nowhere. Take say the IRA ­ which the US was pretty much supporting, it was being funded ­ IRA terrorism, which was pretty serious ­ was being funded from the United States including church collections, FBI knew about it, wouldn't do anything about it. It was pretty awful, but it was not without reasons, it did draw on a reservoir of sympathy among the population, who understood the grievances that they were talking about were real...In fact when the British finally responded not by greater violence, but by paying some attention to the grievances, it led to significant improvements. In fact, big improvements. Of course, Belfast is not heaven, but it's enormously improved over what it was ten years ago.

And that's generally the case. And furthermore every serious specialist on terrorism knows it. You take a look at say, Israeli intelligence, I mean the former heads of this Shin Bet have spoken about this - the current ones can't but the former ones have - the former heads of military intelligence, and they all said the same thing: until you treat the Palestinians with respect, until you grant them their elementary rights, you're never going to stop terrorism. That's the way to do it ­ they have grievances, the grievances are real, we're treating them with contempt and humiliation and destruction, we're stealing their land and resources. [There's something like a] near-universal consensus on this, among people who care about the topic.

[Interruption, another interview beckons]

Alam: Thank you very much Professor, thank you for your time.

M. Junaid Alam is co-editor of the radical youth journal Left Hook, where this interview originally appeared. He can be reached at [email protected]