Noam needs a fact checker

Human Rights Watch says Chomsky's wrong, plus responses to E.O. Wilson.

Published January 22, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "The Salon Interview: Noam Chomsky" by Suzy Hansen.

Noam Chomsky states in a Jan. 16 interview with Suzy Hansen, "That one bombing [of the al-Shifa plant in Sudan], according to the estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch, probably led to tens of thousands of deaths."

In fact, Human Rights Watch has conducted no research into civilian deaths as the result of U.S. bombing in Sudan and would not make such an assessment without a careful and thorough research mission on the ground.

We have conducted research missions and issued such estimates for Iraq and Yugoslavia, after U.S. bombing campaigns there. In our experience, trenchant and effective criticism of U.S. military action requires factual investigation.

-- Carroll Bogert, Communications Director, Human Rights Watch

In your interview with Noam Chomsky, he said that "nobody believes" Sept. 11 was an "armed attack" in the legal sense of the term. You inserted an editor's note pointing out that "after the attacks, NATO allies invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states, 'An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.'"

But you're not telling the whole story. In recent years, Washington has made repeated efforts to persuade the NATO alliance to include terrorism in its official definition of Article 5 armed attacks. The allies have always refused. International law usually makes a distinction between acts of terrorism and "armed attacks." A 1999 NATO communiqué specifically distinguished between Article 5 armed attacks and "other risks of a wider nature, including acts of terrorism"-- so-called "Article 24" issues.

Then came Sept. 11. Washington quickly drafted a resolution invoking Article 5 to respond to a terrorist attack -- even though NATO officially does not count terrorism as an Article 5 issue. In the emotionally charged atmosphere, the allies had little choice but to support the U.S. But immediately after the vote, they made clear their objections. Several allied countries wanted assurances that the interpretation of Article 5 would be clarified in the future.

"Article 24 was slipped into Article 5," a NATO official complained to the Financial Times on Sept. 19. "The legal experts should have been consulted. But the allies knew such consultations would drag on for days. It was a fait accompli. There was no time for legal niceties." An alliance diplomat added that "political solidarity with the U.S. took precedence over legality. The Europeans could not be seen to be wavering."

Finally, another diplomat made a point very similar to Chomsky's view on combating terrorism: "We believed then, as now, that NATO's role was not about combating terrorism. This should be left up to democratic and civil institutions, involving the police, the judicial authorities and all diplomatic and political instruments."

Instead of using an editor's note to contradict him, maybe you should have brought up the NATO vote in the interview and let Chomsky respond for himself.

-- Seth Ackerman, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, New York

When I saw Chomsky's (oddly rendered) face on your splash story, I was pretty stoked -- I've agreed with a good bit of what he's had to say about global politics.

Unfortunately, not only was Chomsky apparently nursing a massive hangover and fairly ornery, you seem to have chosen an interviewer with almost no knowledge of Chomsky's work or his way of seeing political events -- except perhaps for what she reads in the popular media.

You simply cannot attempt to interview a lifelong political science academic (that's what he is, and his derogatory use of the word is aimed at those who, unlike him, regard academia as a place removed from the turmoil of the real world) without at least a passing familiarity with political theory. For example, your interviewer kept confusing states and nations -- and Chomsky noticed, and clammed up. Suddenly the discussion is not about reasonable responses but popular perceptions -- wonderful. Clearly someone needs to skim through Hannah Arendt.

You can't couch pointed questions in the simplistic, propagandistic terms Chomsky's been fighting his entire life and expect a relevant answer. The interviewer's knowledge of Chomsky's response to Sept. 11 apparently was limited to the news section of the Washington Post.

This is not Tim Robbins you're talking to; Chomsky and some of his colleagues, like Edward Herman, have thought about this stuff -- and the solutions they've come up with, for some reason, drive mainstream media types crazy. Why do you ignore the implications of what he's saying and revert over and over to "we've heard a lot about" and "some people are saying?" Are you afraid (writing for Salon!) of being labeled a commie? Chomsky himself indicts the popular press for ignoring the subtexts of terrorism and focusing on trivialities. That's exactly what you've managed to do here.

Come on, Salon, I've come to expect better. You have done zero justice to a very provocative progressive of uncommon honesty. I read Salon and buy my family subscriptions because I want to get beneath the usual media drivel and talk about substance. You've disappointed me.

-- Ryan Goudelocke

Thank you for publishing this! After months of tolerating Salon's parochial coverage of American foreign policy and the Middle East, it is a pleasure to read something that unabashedly -- and with no apologies -- states the obvious truth about the arrogance and hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy.

Chomsky dares to believe that the peoples of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America actually have lives and viewpoints that are of equal value to those of U.S. citizens.

This is such a revolutionary concept for American society -- liberals and conservatives alike -- that Chomsky is naturally treated with contempt in his own country.

It is not for nothing that he is so deeply appreciated wherever he goes in the countries of the south (the "developing" world). His appearances are always sold out within hours or days. After all, they know who respects them and who does not.

-- Sandra Necchi

Did you ever see the film "Zardoz?" Whenever I read Chomsky I feel like one of the "Eternals" living inside those plastic bubbles, while the "Exterminators" do their work outside.

-- Oliver Franks

Chomsky's case that a criminal proceeding would be the correct way to respond to al-Qaida makes moral sense, but it would be a complete failure in reality. There is simply no way that bin Laden and other true believers in his cause will permit themselves to be taken alive by any power on earth. The reason for this assessment is that bin Laden's group is actually a millenarian and apocalyptic religious movement, as well as an astonishingly successful and powerful political one.

Al-Qaida has all the earmarks of a cult: a closed society with a highly charismatic leader (though there is room to doubt the extent to which bin Laden, charismatic as he is, actually commands and controls the actions of the group -- he may be little more than an influential front man) and a dualistic worldview that aims to purify the world by ridding it of sources of perceived evil. However, Chomsky and other analysts miss an important point in following the old distinction of religious and political motives. Especially in the case of millenarian movements like this one, a rigid observation of the distinction can be misleading.

The distinguishing feature of all millenarianism, especially in its militant forms, is the aim to cleanse the world. It is false to make ending the world decisive, for the actual destruction of the planet is never taken as a goal. The utter futility of that exercise is clear even to the most devoted fanatic. Instead all millennialism aims to end the order of the world. The world that will end is the world in the sense of St. Augustine: the devil's realm, Satan's sandbox.

Those committed to this aim frequently but not necessarily invoke divine intervention because their fundamental belief systems lead them to suppose that no other power is capable of such a colossal task. It is the enormous size of the task that inspires them to suggest motifs of world destruction like those in the Book of Revelation, but these passages must always be read symbolically. The aim of apocalypse is always political, which permits us to recognize that even rigidly secular movements like Nazism and Marxism are fully apocalyptic in their movements. They invoke the merely superhuman instead of the supernatural, but that is a distinction that makes little difference. The locus of power is supposed to be in natural instead of in divine law, but the aim is the same: a lethal purity brought about by a return (or advance) to an imagined state of paradise.

What this means in practice is that those who are fully committed to this cause cannot be expected to surrender under any circumstances to the powers of the secular world that inevitably oppose them. Perhaps like others I was surprised by the ease with which the Taliban and lower-rank al-Qaida fighters caved in, though not in the least by the elusiveness of the upper echelons of those movements. But I do find room to wonder that they have not elected that martyrdom which they dispense so freely to their underlings.

This may be because they have not achieved their primary goal, which is a worldwide awakening in Islam, leading to the overthrow of its many corrupt and unjust governments and the institution of a revived caliphate, a universal ummah. The defeat of the secular world, symbolized in the U.S., is a secondary aim. The attack on the U.S. can be read as an opening salvo in this more important struggle. Its aim was to bring on that awakening in what bin Laden and company surely expected to be a debacle like that they inflicted on the Soviet Union. This would have demonstrated beyond any doubt that al-Qaida had the blessings of Allah and quite likely would have achieved the desired result. The failure of the U.S. to fall into the trap has apparently cost bin Laden much of his charisma in the Muslim world, but it surely will lead it to plan another and possibly more destructive strike.

Charisma imposes an impossible demand for daily miracles on its possessors. In most cases these miracles need not be large, but this is an apocalyptic game of much higher stakes than we have seen in recent years. Even, or especially, the deaths of Omar and bin Laden will not end it.

-- Ted Daniels, Ph.D., editor of "A Doomsday Reader," NYU Press, 1999

Read "A Conversation with E.O. Wilson" by John Glassie.

Much as I respect and have enjoyed Wilson's work, his interview displays a blindness about the potential of space colonization that is common in academia. Indeed, the movement of the human race into space habitats is likely to achieve many of the ends he wishes for our species better than could be hoped for if we remain forever on the earth.

He is correct that we are changing into a more homogenous gene pool, apparently unconcerned that by doing so our species will lose the very genetic diversity whose loss he laments in all other species. The best way to promote human genetic diversity, and the diversity of all those plants and animals we cherish and depend on, is to colonize space.

He claims that we are exquisitely adapted to Earth's environment. In fact, we are exquisitely adapted to Africa's environment. Other, harsher environments (like North America) have been successfully and happily colonized by the grace of our technology, our ability to adapt to previously inhospitable conditions. Fire, clothing, flint-tipped spears and agriculture are technology, not genes.

He is right that a mass migration of our species into space would be ruinously expensive. But a gradual transfer of the industrial processes that sustain modern human life into non-biosphere-polluting, resource-rich space environs would be a great benefit to our precious and fragile home. It'll take centuries to turn the earth into a nature reserve, but it can happen only when we start moving into space.

Finally, the statement that our species will survive until the sun dies is the best argument for establishing our species on planets orbiting other suns. We can no more imagine traveling to other suns now than a Spaniard in 1491 could imagine sailing west to the Indies. But that is exactly what humans do, ever since the first band of Homo erectus left Africa.

I do hope Dr. Wilson will reconsider his position on space colonization.

-- Doug Zartman

If the soul as a realm of consciousness is a dead issue (it always has been from a strictly scientific standpoint), then how valuable and meaningful is a human existence that comes forth out of a conceptual nothingness, suffers and then passes back into that nothingness regardless of the "quality" of the suffering that goes on in that human existence?

Where is the incentive in human existence to develop altruism if, as it is plainly scientifically evident, all human individuals, before they expire, lose everything that has ever meant anything to them whatsoever?

Does it not seem strange that life, in the universal sense, would be able to survive to evolve to the level of humanity if meaning can be found only in a strict adherence to the principle of a purely physical, visceral survival?

I apologize to those atheistically inclined, but on the point of the notion of consciousness being a "dead" issue, I must disagree. If universal life is happening now, it must have always been in this universe in the first place. And if it always has been, it must certainly continue for all time.

While I might be persuaded to agree that the more contemporary religious notions of a human soul are pitifully naive, it seems nonsensical to me that some aspect of human consciousness is not somehow an integral part of a universal and eternal life force.

-- Greg Mucha

By Salon Staff

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