For Chomsky, the praise and self-adulation of intellectuals and the elite press to champion Bush2’s war and future wars (or Clinton’s war against Serbia) was no surprise. He has never had any illusions about the intellectual guns for hire and the justifiers of power and force, nor has he been anything but suspicious of those who sign up for normative revolutions — left, right, or center — that defined the 20th century. Chomsky sees the role that intellectuals adopted willingly and uncritically as a sign of deepening disaster for a humanity which depends upon moral intelligence and rationality, features that are very fragile and easily perverted or misrepresented by sovereign states and their elites.
The problem for American intellectuals is especially acute given the belief that the United States won the Cold War and did so because of its moral superiority, and technological and military prowess. Because the United States emerged “victorious” it meant that there was no need for doubt or self-evaluation as to what government said or did. All that the media and intellectuals had to do was shut up — embrace and swim in the “mainstream.” Poisonous consequences follow as all empires who, like Icarus, flew too close to the blinding sun. When a “hyperpower” like the United States, uses propaganda to transform the truth of events as they are and uses occasions as pretexts to do what its leadership wills while concocting self-serving moralisms that are false, the danger to humanity can be overwhelming. The story becomes the self-justifying narrative which, over a short period of time, creates an official narrative that is passed from one government official to the next, one journalist to the next, and one school official to the next–to the unsuspecting student who grabs onto the merry go round horse of false patriotism. What else can one say seeing students cheering at the White House gate after President Obama announced the demise of the almost forgotten visionary murderer Osama bin Laden? Chomsky argues that law without morality is the destructive virus of moral platitudes which are central to holding world civilization from collapsing unto itself. Thus, we learn that NATO did more damage than Serbia in the Balkan war; that the war was unlawful according to UN standards–(this was of virtually no concern, official or unofficial in the United States;) that the reprisal bombing Afghanistan was transformed into a full scale war and occupation that was supported and applauded; that when Bush 2 government officials were Bush 1 officials, they had no problem standing aside as Saddam Hussein’s government killed thousands.
Hijacking Language: Epistemes of Power
Such features take on many aspects. One is how words are used, the second is how politics is conducted, and the third is how institutions for the future are to be derived and understood. What Chomsky sees, and one would be hard put to disagree, is that words are strung together as slogans for propaganda, as noted in Myth of the State by Ernst Cassirer. The words are meant to mask what in fact is going on whether in internment camps or among secret intelligence agencies and gangs fighting their own wars. Politics is the means to ensure that those without power have no legitimate voice in politics. That is, they are unrepresented; they must stay unrepresented or be manipulated and they must be kept from the kind of dialogue and actions that would upset the hierarchies of the powerful. The third aspect is how to ensure that institutions retain flexibility for the use of force rationalized by laws that are intended to derive their legitimacy from the power of the strong over the weak.
So this situation leaves Chomsky in a condition of acute discomfort similar to the kind that gripped those axial men and women who seek to escape the present for a more humane future, although he intimates just having a future for humanity may be quite enough.
There is in Chomsky the burning desire for truth in which words are intended to match up to the extent possible with explanations of reality, even reality itself. They are words and concepts meant to clarify rather than mask and which follow a tightly reasoned logic that cannot be dismissed. This is the one means that logical truth and knowledge have to hold power to account. Obviously, the battle over what to call things is not a matter to be taken lightly for, over time, in the normal course of a language’s evolution, the meanings of words change. Thus, the Department of War was officially renamed the Department of Defense after World War II at a moment when American leaders thought it necessary to project the image of benign passive defense as it sought to solidify a worldwide empire. After all, who needed a Department of War once the war ended? Certainly not a nation that had just finished with war — its leaders were hardly finished with war as a means to establish and maintain primacy. No doubt Chomsky would now argue for the Department’s name to be closer to the truth. It would be called the Department of Murder and Maiming. Its task is to win, lose or draw and its means are murder, threats and maiming.
In 2005, new lessons were learned by the ideologues of power. They must find a means to confront the hard and stubborn facts of truth. The lesson in Iraq seemed to be obvious and painful. After the war ended, the imperial state entered into a new stage as it related to the occupied or, in present day language, the “failed” state. It must be put together like a Potemkin village or stage set to give the appearance of independence but the reality would be quite the reverse. The failed state must open itself to the economic guidance and control of the imperial state (referenced as the free market) and it must adopt a controlled national security system dictated by the imperial dominating state.
Now suppose you live in the dominating state, the one that has fixed itself at the apex of military power? What are demands the state makes domestically?
In a smooth running authoritarian system, the citizen need not be told what to believe — least of all those whose task is that of “communicator.” The question of what language should be invented by the state, banned or internalized as a system of self deception, is at the heart of a state that seeks control over its own populace.
Mass Media Spreads the Word
But does it really matter in the 21st century what a person says or writes, or whether she is heard matters? The communications’ noise level is astonishing, and the capacity to listen is very difficult in a world where emphasis is on speed, instant communication and flash images.
Luckily there are more than a few who crave “hot facts” and their explication, as reflected in the rise of blogs and alternative media. So the question is: who are the ones that bring us “hot facts”, facts that change our perceptions of the fake as reality with truths that can arouse the consciousness of many to admit to what is happening all around them? The onslaught of a communications system, for the most part command-oriented and Orwellian in its function, drives out truth in ways that bad money drives out good money. The expansion of advertising to increase desire through the media is broadly similar to the kind of monetary inflation which Germany experienced after World War I. The paper money was worthless, and so it is that most of the content of our mass communications whether it be news, talk shows, advertising, sitcoms are cumulatively worthless. The nature of economic control of a few dominant media corporations, the narrow band of opinion which is allowed in the public space and the fears and insecurities that hover over the society like dark clouds ready to burst at any moment, leave a deadening of the critical sense and therefore a cheapening of citizenship which is to be replaced with the stunts of power, from aggressive wars to destruction of individual rights and the appropriation of God whose chaplains in the armed forces are agents of the State or better be, lest they end up charged with treason.
But beneath the radar screen there are other tendencies, hardly understood by an older generation and lived to excess by a younger generation. Different cultures emerge which frighten because they talk and speak in violent terms. They have not quite learned the language of masking and diplomatic subtlety. Street poetry attempts to warn us the way the German expressionist painters of the nineteen twenties tried in Germany. Of course in a vibrant free economy the poets of the street are soon commodified and that ends their critical project. The Department of “Defense” invents their own words shoving reality in categories that were either gruesome stupid or both. Body counts, in the Indochina war were the indication of why the U.S. was winning the war. And then in the Iraq war we are treated to another older soporific phrase, “collateral damage,” which mercifully we learn is small because of our “surgical strikes,” accurate and pin point like a laser. And we are also protected from exercising our humanity. Of course there are tens of thousands of “collaterals” broken, uncared for and given less attention than a ten second ad for deodorant.
Resisting Epistemological Violence
So, what does the truth teller do, since he is not concerned with the problematic of power? He is like the child who calls things by their right names and announces that the King is wearing no clothes. What does he demand of a populace that can hardly remember its name one day to the next but is described in multiple identification numbers from department store numbers to social security numbers to prison numbers and tax numbers?
The sane person trying to hold on sounds like a scold as he seeks coherence and honesty from a system of political organization that cannot abide truth telling from its citizens or employees. For his efforts, the doubting citizen receives nothing more than the smile of contempt and the propaganda of repetition — a style perfected by Bush2. The doubters do try and answer the contemptuous and supercilious smile. And in doing so it seems that the doubter wants principles to match up with facts and action, surely a very difficult task under any circumstance.
“That’s not what you said yesterday or did today which completely contradicted what you said you would do to protect humanity in the future. You don’t live up to any truths and boundaries that I can understand except as saying that these are boundaries for you to do what you want and for you to hold me down. The boundaries that are supposed to protect me from intrusion, that is my personal sovereignty, my space and law, exclude me from you but it doesn’t keep you from coming into my territory. You use the inviolability of your space against terrorists to increase ten and a hundredfold our insecurity and fear without a thought of what needs changing in our own policies. You send conflicting messages, and you are aggressive figuring you can get away with anything you want, sugar coating it and buying me off with ice cream, or putting me in time out if I am too obstreperous, or you want to take away my baseball mitt when I get into a fight or you want to frighten me. And you abuse me in so many ways I have no place to turn except escape, find ways to disaffiliate, decolonize and offer truths as the alternative to propaganda.“
But one should not think that this is an easy road to travel. There are answers to these complaints. As Chomsky is an American citizen and is bounded by the hopes, the optimism and the naïveté which virtually all Americans have no matter how much they are skeptical, abused, sophisticated or savants. One has to shovel through the Augean stables to get a clear view of what is happening. And there is little help from most of the intellectual/force class. If you listen carefully you hear the echoes of Henry Kissinger or Dean Acheson, and other players of the 20th century, Goebbels and Vyshinsky. And what does the American version of the class of dominators say to one another and to us in moments where truth about behavior is being shared?
“Of course in the twentieth century the “mother” country, the parent, cannot be held to the standard that is expected of the colonized. That would surely be absurd. The colonizer does not seek permission from the colonized. That would be like asking permission from your dog. And the colonized or those who see themselves as independent, even humane are not to act on the basis of their benevolent instincts without the permission of their masters. But the colonizer must also have rules. To put this another way it is only a writ from a court that separates the police from breaking into my house legally as against what a common burglar does. It is the power of authority that defines truth. And we give out the writs. After all, the meaning of “privileged” is “private law;” it is not law that is universally applicable. Law makes distinctions between classes and individuals. It is power that decides which bin you will be dropped in. Sometimes the decision is made as a result of tradition, other times it is as a result of whim. But it is hardly your choice. And as for international affairs there is no room for democracy, if that means coming to a collective decision on the basis of research, dialogue settled notions of morality. Democracy is a handy slogan. No more.”
“Yes,” says the guardian of the state, “sometimes we have to destroy the village in order to save it and a fortiori we may have to destroy the world in order to save it or your yearning for moral purity. Of course we have to sugar coat what we do in soothing language. Your friends are impatient. They must recognize that progress takes time and that morality is learned through immorality and brutality. After all, how can humanity know what it is against? To teach these things is ‘hard work’ as our dear leader, George W. Bush would put it for has he not gone through his own personal epiphany and conversion having known the hell of drunkenness to emerge as one of God’s chosen? His notion of suffering on the way to redemption may, in his mind, provide a model for all of humanity.”
This view, and the view of the dominating class, separates means from ends to an extent that Chomsky would not tolerate.
“Let me give an example of how the law works its will through the different classes. What was taken to be good manners finally came to be nominated as illegal, even criminal. Duels were thought of as mutual attempts at murder but they were finally outlawed. Rape until recently was understood to be one of the benefits of war for soldiers but that is now a crime. So it may be that given enough time wars will be outlawed and rascals like me, believers like modern-day De Maistre will be held personally responsible for their actions as was the case with the much maligned Pinochet who was caught in the changing winds of history. Perhaps someday we will be held were under the Kellogg-Briand pact for war crimes and aggressive war at Nuremberg. But you know that case was flawed for no one thought to put forward a universal principle of justice and apply it. We are not fools. International law is changing and we don’t forget that Justice Jackson, the American prosecutor at Nuremberg said in his argument to the Court that all leaders, including American leaders could and should be held in the future to the same standards as were articulated at Nuremberg. So we are mindful of these glacial changes. There are ways we intend to fight them over the next generation through the use of sovereignty and utter disengagement from the childish idea of equality before the law. Of course those of us with the monopoly of violence at our fingertips know that young people fear boredom and with the proper patriotic noises they are delighted to join adventures and crusades where they risk themselves for us – those of us who define the why and the benefits from the war. Truly styles change and progress is slow. It is, how shall we put it, evolutionary and slow. Nevertheless we have our own project. We are not bereft of ideals. Our task is to replace international law where there may be any semblance of symmetry and equality in the law, that is, what my state can do, your state can do.”
But all that the colonizer says relies on our inability to call things by their proper names. If Chomsky had his way as you would have it, he would be calling things by their right names. And admittedly there would be an advantage to those who are the commanded. Some might show up to be murderers for the Department of Murder, but without God, religion, or patriotism we know the Department would wither. Imagine, that there would not be McNamara’s body counts. It would be what the obstreperous demonstrators said, “Hey McNamara, how many people have you killed today?” But we should not fool ourselves that changing the Department’s name would be enough to dismantle the bureaucratic machinery whose job it is to act first and justify afterwards. When the Department of Murder spokesman talked about collateral damage in Iraq, when an embassy was bombed by mistake or a wedding party was turned into a funeral, or a mosque was besmirched, he would need to invent a term sufficiently Orwellian as to obscure the patent criminality of the act. Thus, the spokesman should tell us that 500 collaterals were killed today, or whatever number it is which now reaches in the tens of thousands. This semantic invention would be of real service to those who didn’t like the phrase: how many were murdered today?
Now imagine that the Department of Murder’s spokesman would use the old language of “taking out” cities and mountains with “bunker busters” to describe nuclear weapons. Perhaps even in the Department of Murder there would be no reason for the dominating class to give up this language of self-deception and lying if “it works.” That is to say, if the hierarchic command and organizational antidemocratic structure of government remains.
The Burden of Responsibility Hoax
And imagine a conversation with Chief Justice Rehnquist whose career has based on how he could be of service to the most powerful and stable elements in the society. As I have said, law is the game of putting reality into “proper” categories. Rehnquist had no interest in 2000 in elections as a “fundamental right” since conservatives are fond of pointing out it is not guaranteed in the Constitution. Rehnquist’s interest was in stability and control to be maintained by the most powerful elements in American life through the limits of the American electorate.
Responsibility to him had always been an election based on exclusion and so it was that to protect “stability” he saved the union by favoring the election of Bush2 and closing down a recount in the entire state of Florida. This was hardly a surprise since as a young man he fought hard against the right of Mexicans to vote in a 1962 election in Arizona. Rehnquist always understood the burden and responsibility that he carried for the nation and the class which he chose to serve. Like the Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov he would say this is the burden we carry, of responsibility which cannot be trusted to others. It is a burden which the New York Times often carries on its front pages where its star reporters report as fact, lies with a certitude that emboldens even the doubters to pick up the cudgels for war. Such was the role Judith Miller played with her articles on Hussein’s faux weapons of mass destruction. It was also the burden of a supine Congress which saw its responsibility as surrendering its constitutional power to declare war to a voracious executive hell bent on war and with this surrender doing further, possibly irreparable damage to republicanism which defines the Constitution and the belief that we live in a republic of indirect democracy where the citizenry’s expectations are that the people will participate and judge through Congress. Congress was not to be the replica of the Supreme Soviet or the Reichstag under Hitler. It was to exercise its skeptical attitudes toward aggressive war against Iraq and the utterly absurd shifting claims of the Bush2 government which changed its rationale for undertaking a “war of election” (General Wesley Clark’s the “liberal” Democrats’ name for aggressive war) in the time it took the Bush2 clique to change their shirts for dinner. How embarrassing it was to hear the Bush2 administration lie with abandon knowing that the media would be complicit in war making and praising the executive for its commitment to all that Bush the fantasist intended to make right and just in the world.
And there were further benefits: the United States could test out its new way of making war. It could test out “shock and awe,” a concept not so far from the German General staff idea of the blitzkrieg. Even the most sophisticated observer could only be amazed at how quickly the leaders of the major parties, Gephardt and Kerry, were prepared to throw the constitutional powers of Congress into a funeral pyre as they stoked their own presidential ambitions while misreading the mood of the American people. And the media – what did it do? Some have argued that it is the free press (let us say the media) that separates any modern state from fascism. Well, this is a hard task for the media to accomplish when the stakes are high; television licenses, advertisers, profits to owners, access and perks are the blandishments and no one was ever penalized for choosing the road of conformity.
International Law vs. U.S. Exceptionalism
It should not be surprising that the media took little or no interest in the United Nations, except to deprecate it. For well over a generation the Right has sought ways to destroy the imperfect and flawed United Nations. In an act of bravado, President Bush2 made clear that if the UN intended to retain relevance it would have to go along with his decisions to make war and bring free markets and democracy, Bush2 style, to places the United States saw as ready for his taking and reform. These might be the axis of evil or some other benighted area ripe for the taking. Depending on one’s point of view his statements were throwbacks to Woodrow Wilson, although less charitable analysts saw in his megalomaniacal claims either the shades of Adolf Hitler or Charlie Chaplin.
No nation or group of nations was going to stand in the way of his exercising his responsibility of world leadership. That he and the United States would have to back away and then denounce international law—as weighted as it is to the powerful–because international law was not being made solely in the White House made logical sense to the ideology of national triumphalists who believed that with the United States having “won” the Cold War it was now the keeper of the laws. It is no wonder that we have to denounce international laws, as weak as they are, because they do not recognize American exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is our reward for having wasted trillions of dollars in cold and hot wars, gotten dirty hands up to our elbows in moral corruption and murder, embraced what we knew was stupid and told not so golden lies to ourselves and the world about what we were doing. Of course we depended on state terrorism to keep power and stability in a chaotic world where there were enemies and challengers galore whether from gangs, states or zealots.
It would be absurd to believe that any Western nation acted differently as it stretched its global reach. And certainly no comfort can be taken from the way we settled our differences toward native Americans, Blacks, and other nations such as Mexico and Spain.
As Madison put it, even the powerful must live (to some extent!) within a set of flexible rules, lest the barons and cardinals of one’s own nation tear themselves apart and everyone else in the process. It was not until the twentieth century that some capitalists understood this lesson for themselves. Theodore Roosevelt organized rules so that the wolves of power who view themselves as mini-sovereigns can protect themselves from each other as the prodigious Court of Appeals Judge Posner would have it and as the latest corporate gun for hire will show as he rules on the Supreme Court. As it is domestically, so it is internationally–only more so because there are no checks on sending the military wherever and whenever the executive cares to whereas within the United States there is a semblance of legality with corporations playing the rationalizing and initiating role through government.
Sixty-five years after the Second World War during which FDR recognized the limits to American power, American leaders reserve for themselves, under the name of the United States, the power and the rules which allow it to be recognized now and in the future as the “indispensable” and paramount nation.
During the Cold War, American leaders had invented a charade of consultation with its allies especially those part of NATO. This was the essence of prudent imperialism where atmospherics were everything and who decides other than the United States nothing for all participants knew who decided. The United States had no interest in being first among equals. Privileges went with being the “indispensable” nation. In the cold war negotiators from other nations learned that the United States does not negotiate it advertised its positions which fits with the framework that it sets up as objective reality; that is to say, a skewed reality based on the vision of the powerful.
The Inception of the United Nations: U.S. Ambivalence
While Chomsky believes strongly in use of scientific knowledge and in the importance of truth being the goal of science, there is a less inflexible standard that builds on the tradition of scientific rationality while taking in to account the problematic of power. This mode of thinking grows out of a liberal-pragmatist tradition when it is not overtaken by instrumentalism.
In fairness, let it be noted that there was another tendency in American foreign and domestic policy, which developed out of liberalism. It was not that of naked power, or “honeyed” power, certainly it seemed much less cynical than the present. Indeed, it was a period–a short one–where people from different parts of the world did see the United States as an experiment in freedom. Left New Dealers were admired and part of a world dialogue of change in the context of principles which fit with the aspirations of people who spelled out their hopes in such foundational documents as the UN Charter. Perhaps that period can be portrayed as cynical but this, in my view, is not quite adequate. I have in mind the establishment of the UN as an organization whose purpose, judging from its Charter, was to find a means of linking sovereignty and justice to one another, while holding individual powerful states (the Big 5) to collective responsibility. The UN was also to ensure that power, to the extent that it was necessary, took its cues from law and justice, universally accepted, rather than manifesting itself as naked force that was imposed by one or more nations (France came in to the Security Council through American insistence, and over the objection of the Soviets who viewed France as far too friendly with the Nazis during World War II.) They were to be held in check through a system of consensus and veto. This moment at the end of the Second World War deserves some explication. It was with regard to the establishment of the United Nations, an institution which was predicated on the idea of shared power among the most powerful that also accepted a new reality. The people of the world, not only entities known as states, had to be recognized as the sovereign basis of the international system. And in this sense attention was to be paid to the will of the people (given voice through decolonization and human rights) and to ensure that in central issues they were to be protected at least as much as what was given to the American people, reserving to Congress the right to make war. Similarly, war was illegal in the international system unless the UN legal and political machinery declared it as such. While the British favored a return to spheres of influence politics and the resurrection of empires, especially its own, F.D. Roosevelt, who had favored the League of Nations, believed that the day of the old empires was over and that something different had to emerge from the second world war. Liberation and decolonization were to be taken seriously, indeed they were thought to be the wave of the future. Through the General Assembly, such sentiments would be forcefully expressed and over time special pleading and international conferences would be held, for refugees, children, development, women, disarmament, human rights, antiracism which served as the basis for a changed world consciousness. (It should be noted that George Kennan, the consummate elitist who later became something of a liberal icon, absolutely disagreed with FDR’s vision. Kennan believed in the dominance of the United States and in the importance of ensuring that the periphery of world, serves U.S. interests. And this could be attained through prudent imperialism.)
The United States in Roosevelt’s vision of the UN would be bound by the rules which came out of the UN resolutions. It was prepared to work with other nations in establishing international institutions that would organize and stabilize fundamental differences in the economy, political differences and armed conflict. Further that it was prepared to address issues of war and how to keep the peace through respect and recognition of shared responsibility. In other words, it was prepared to shift a number of aspects of sovereignty to an international organization. Ironically, this shift had the effect of recognizing the sovereignty of formerly subject peoples. This was a universalist vision, aspirations, that would define progress and the means to move toward those progressive, universalist objectives. Of course there was a contradiction between what national leaders said and what they did. But for a moment the dogs of war took a short holiday having killed 57 million people.
The second feature of the American position was that of war crimes and its claims that the German war leaders had broken the Kellogg-Briand pact which tied them to a no war clause outside of their own imperial holdings. That is to say nations that signed the pact could still make aggressive war against insurgents in their own possessions. What emerged from the American position was the statutes which established the war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg where leading Nazi war criminals had to confront their accusers or documents which established a clear pattern and practice of murderous horror. The American position was clear. War was the overarching illegality and war crimes followed war as night the day. This unexceptionable insight was played out in World War 2 as it is played out in Iraq by occupying forces and their antagonists. And, by implication, the Nuremberg judgments would apply to Americans. It is interesting to note that, in 1973, 39 members of Congress introduced a bill (on which hearings were held in the House Judiciary Committee) that called for the internalizing of the war crimes standards of Nuremberg into American law. In this sense, it was a continuation of the Nuremberg principle, and the position taken by the Senate in the 1920’s, which passed a resolution introduced by Senator Borah of Idaho, stating that war was illegal and a war crime.
In its inception the British feared that the United States favored the UN as an instrument to control everything. The Soviets, after much cajoling, went along with a UN organization overcoming their fears that the institution would be used as a worldwide tool to organize and encircle the Stalinist experiment. But none of this seemed to be Roosevelt’s concern. He held the political view that politics was a ragged enterprise,but that a direction could be given that would change frameworks and consciousness for generations. Small nations such as those from Northern Europe saw the UN as a protector of their interests and a place where they could playa larger role in international affairs. Trigvie Lie of Norway represented this understanding of the UN’s role. Roosevelt believed that the changes which war had set off both domestically and internationally spoke to a new period in human history. The Roosevelt vision was soon snuffed out with the emergence of the Cold War and the Orwellian fable between the United States and the Soviet Union which propped up each side’s ruling elites.
U.S. Interventionisms: an Uninterrupted History
What was the cold war about anyway? We know that more millions were killed during the cold war than any time in history. The American government claimed that it was fighting for freedom and democracy, concepts which had a “wandering” meaning during the cold war as they still do. What did such words mean by the nineteen eighties? Chomsky noted the United States was prepared to pummel the wretched to the ground in merciless ways until it gets bored or sees its interests moving in a different direction. This was the story in Central America for over a generation where the United States supported civil wars, just as it had supported its interventions throughout the 20th century. Its rationale was simple. Any independent enterprise of a nation which sought disaffiliation from the American imperium was suspect. Permissions had to be asked and when Ortega did not seek permission or Chavez sought an independent foreign policy the United States felt threatened, even intimidated. In the case of killing thousands, an aroused public opinion among some — including members of Congress who paid dearly for challenging Ronald Reagan (Note the political destruction of Speaker Jim Wright who sought to both understand what was going on and work out settlement with Nicaragua) — finally let both sides pick up their dead and end the wars.
Reagan’s position on Central America was consistent with the shift in American thinking on international law after the end of the good neighbor policy. Whereas before and after the second world war international law was understood to be a means of resolving disputes without loss of U.S. sovereignty, Bush2 ‘s advisors called international treaties “hot air” and said they would either be allowed to lapse or be formally withdrawn as the law of the land. This of course extended to institutions that were in a position to challenge the United States in legal, and by reference in moral and political terms. Curiously such an institution was the International Court of Justice. While the United States made clear, for example, that it would not follow the judgments of the International Court deriding its judges as an intrusion into American sovereignty and its invasive methods. The court, in a virtually unanimous decision, accepted the arguments that the United States had no business mining Nicaraguan harbors and running a paramilitary operation to destroy a government that it didn’t happen to like. (Certainly a strong argument could be made that the International Court of Justice meant nothing to the United States and its decision to continue its policies of decimation toward the Caribbean.) But soon after, the United States switched its demeanor presenting a kinder, gentler face of negotiation. That it left the nation, utterly decimated, well, that was in the past as Americans put it as they search to dominate the future, “We can’t dwell on the past and must get the past behind us” although it might be only a few decades ago. Naturally, the past is not easily forgotten nor does power want the past to be forgotten if it shows the operations of domination.
In fact, the same habits of mind exist, even the same people, but in more grandiose roles since 9/11, using their former experience as the ground for the next job and then the next. Thus John Negroponte, the ambassador who was the proconsul in charge of destabilization and covert operations in Honduras, was elevated to Iraq where, as Chomsky points out, his portfolio was running all aspects of the U.S. and spying operation. This mammoth job was soon interrupted when he was called to Washington to coordinate all intelligence activities for the U.S., foreign and domestic, covert and intelligence gathering. In other words, we will see some of the same tactics used internally to control domestic populations as are used abroad. We may term this “modified blowback.”
The distinctions made between use of certain technologies abroad and means of surveillance domestically no longer have to be governed by the old inefficiencies of law that separated out the differences in legal terms. Elites that experiment with the retention of power at all costs see the world inside and outside their own nation as a world of “them against us,” who have no protective boundaries.
The world is a “new frontier” to be dominated or the next noble mission to civilize an unruly, disrespectful world. What was thought to be criminal during the Nixon period, combining of foreign and domestic intelligence into one operation, is now the wisdom of the expert specialists, the lawyers and commentators who applaud the centralization of police and intelligence authority across jurisdictional and geographic lines. In a bit more than 25 years, the Huston memorandum–which was used against Nixon as proof of his criminal intent because he intended to set up an elite group within the White House that did break-ins, surveillance, kidnapping from the White House rather than Hoover’s hidebound FBI — has finally made its way into accepted public policy authority. Use of similar tactics was made abroad and then in the United States.
As a general rule, the blowback question since the Second World War is that the United States was prepared to use the UN as the body which identified that the United States was first among equals.
Hopes for Civil Society
There are those in American life who have no such concerns with rationalizations about power, and who learn that and that what is controlling international relations is power, indeed force and not with niceties. Recently, a radio commentator, Paul Harvey, insisted on piercing the veil of American public life. It is useful to reprint his commentary for underneath the claims of Bush2’s idea of God’s mission is the residue of Harvey’s understanding in the world. And George Bush, like America on Harvey’s telling, simply saw what he needed to do to gain power, and did it, using all the instruments of God and war. As Chomsky believes, this view is not the one that is dominant among the American people albeit Harvey has a listening audience of 18 million.
The weight of every word uttered in Chomsky’s essay is accompanied; behind his sadness, there remains a hope that if people listen to their inner voices and the effects of what is happening radical transformations can occur, or at least decent ones which take seriously the truisms that must govern a modern civilization. That is the hope of the thousands of mini-groups that have formed, all with different agendas and wildly different conditions in which they live. But all see themselves as outside the top down consensus of power dictated by the United States. And their voices can be heard and converted to action for one of the realities is how rickety the present assumptions and structures are that support the present system of nationalist triumphalism. A few years ago I saw an acquaintance coming out of a theater. He had been named the Director of the Kennedy Institute at Harvard. He had been the Secretary of Agriculture. “Who is this guy, Chomsky?” he asked. “I expected a couple of dozen people to show up to his talk and a thousand people came!”
The Cold War was not costless, neither in terms of fallout from nuclear weapons tests on future generations, or blowback from support of gangs, governments and religious groups that had their own purposes and agendas. Such was the case with Muslim fundamentalists who made common cause with the United States. As it had done throughout the Cold War and as other nations, notably the British trained native armies the American military and covert forces trained the Afghans and other fundamentalist Muslims for war with the Soviet Union, but then our allies in the struggles against godless communism turned their ire against godless capitalism and specifically the United States. The tactics against one enemy can be used a few years later against a former “friend.” Such is the way of gangs and nations. It is certainly the history of international politics. There was a special name for what happened when an asset such as a small army or gang turned on the United States.
For the sake of simplicity let us examine terrorism in terms of different categories. Some terrorist groups may fall into one category’ others may be judged as being in two or more categories. At different moments some terrorist groups disband and at other times new ones are found or take on a public persona as a result of the requirements resulting from the insatiable needs of western media. In other cases a terrorist group will seek attention for its complaint which in fact can be answered without the offending nation changing its underlying policies.
There are terrorists to fulfill national identity. Thus, Chechens seek a national identity either as a separate nation state or as part of a confederated system similar to what the Kurds wish for themselves especially if they get to control the oil. The more moderate elements of the terrorist group may accept a new status within the dominant nation for a period of time, even more than a generation. There are terrorists hoping to become political leaders of independent states, such as Begin and Arafat. There are zealots who have little interest in settling disputes politically because they are incorruptible and accept death as a preference. (More likely this group acts out of desperation and changes in their economic and social conditions will moderate their concerns and activities. How these concerns are met take on important considerations for the zeal can also dry up or support for them can evaporate. But evaporation depends on whether the colonized and the humiliated can escape the subjective feeling and reality of being occupied. But the ground is prepared for a different reality.
There are Nathan Hale idols who regret that they have but one life to give to their cause or country. Hale was memorialized with a statue in front of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. There are the wretched who are “for sale” either for future profit or for payment to their families for their deaths. Usually these volunteers are paid for through an insurance policy of the state (note Saddam’s Iraq and freedom fighters in Palestine, or American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq whose life insurance policies have recently increased. And there are nationalists among the population who insist that occupation of their land must end, and the fight goes on for generations.
Outside of state terrorism none of this negates the huge problem of terrorism as a tool and method by those corporations and hustlers who live outside the international system or the sovereign system of states. They claim that they can protect us, through private contracts, partnerships with government surveillance and domestic spying. They are current with the ideological fashion of globalization and profit from globalization in which anything can be bought and sold. In some cases these actions and ideas support one another. In other cases they may be the misguided result of a moralism based for want of a better term on a death instinct, which we find in leaders of states and among those who think that security is found in larger armed forces, more prisons and biometric prints. In other cases they are the result of the search for personal gain and the use of the state, including its secrecy provisions to carry on covert wars. And most “national security” legislation is the veil to increase personal gain while engendering greater insecurity, if not domestically than in other nations and groups. So the question remains: if the elites, the active, the frightened and humiliated, the striving and the starving are all engaged in terrorism, where does this leave humanity with its distresses and fears?
One can take comfort from the fact that she is liable to die of malnutrition and starvation, war, environmental disasters, diseases, AIDS, even visits to hospitals and work related accidents, crime and rape than a terrorist attack. This is of no comfort to victims, but perhaps if the order of priorities in the United States changed, transforming itself from a brittle national security warrior state to a peaceful democracy pleased to be out of the imperialism business there would be less need to concern ourselves with attack from terrorists. At the end of the Second World War, musicians and poets talked about that time as age of anxiety. In this sense, that period was far more age of war and terror than the present, which can surely be considered the age of anxiety, a condition that can be corrected through confronting the most important problems of this period.