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Book Review: Noam Chomsky's "9/11"

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Jan 12, 2002, 5:00:50 AM1/12/02

Carlin Romano

Once again, Chomsky's on anti-U.S. hobbyhorse


By Noam Chomsky

Seven Stories Press. 125 pp. $8.95

'The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken
seriously," Hubert Humphrey once told a University of Wisconsin audience.
"To be taken seriously depends entirely on what is being said."

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Noam Chomsky's life - at least, his
mainstream media life. In his home discipline of linguistics, the longtime
MIT professor remains a historic figure, the man who argued in his
revolutionary Syntactic Structures (1957) that our fundamental linguistic
abilities should be seen as innate and biologically grown rather than
learned - thus launching a program of "transformational grammar" that
overran behaviorism, historical philology and other encrusted activities of
the field.

But in his chosen hobby as radical political commentator, author and
pop-off, Chomsky has long been viewed by many as a fanatical anti-American
and (in the view of some) self-hating Jew who can find American or Israeli
culpability behind almost any misdeed in the universe.

Back in the relatively halcyon '90s, in Media Control, another short book
from Seven Stories Press, the self-appointed arbiter of proper international
conduct wrote that Manuel Noriega was "a minor thug" compared "with George
Bush himself" and that everybody "goosestepped on command" during the
Persian Gulf war. About the gulf war itself, Chomsky announced: "No reason
was given for going to war that could not be refuted by a literate teenager.
. .. That again is the hallmark of a totalitarian culture."

Sure enough, before smoke and ash stop belching from ground zero, before
loved ones are even finished with funeral services for "vaporized" victims,
he's back. From the imperial safety of his suburban Massachusetts home, from
the cushy protectorate of his lifetime perch at a top academic partner of
the Pentagon, Noam the Foam is here to tell us: (1) "We should not forget
that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state"; (2) bin Laden has been
"eloquent" in expressing the concerns of Palestinians under occupation; (3)
"Many who know the conditions well are also dubious about bin Laden's
capacity to plan that incredibly sophisticated operation from a cave
somewhere in Afghanistan"; and (4) "The 'war on terror' is neither new nor a
'war on terror.' "

In the world according to Chomsky, America's 1998 attack on the Al-Shifa
pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which directly killed one or two people
(depending on which source you trust), constituted a far greater terrorist
act than the Sept. 11 assaults. It's elementary, my dear Watson. The loss of
pharmaceuticals to the Sudanese population can be considered to have caused,
Chomsky estimates, tens of thousands of deaths. ("What would the reaction
have been," Chomsky asks, "if the bin Laden network had blown up half the
pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing

Chomsky gives lip service to some sentiments he seems to view as the price
of admission for saying more peculiar things about Sept. 11. The attacks
were "a particularly horrifying terrorist crime." But then, boilerplate
recorded, it's on to America's almost genocidal wickedness in Indonesia,
Turkey, Nicaragua, Israel and elsewhere. Similarly, he repeatedly mentions
that bin Laden's activities have been counterproductive for the poor Muslims
he claims to champion, yet asserts that we must take bin Laden "at his word"
in assessing his motivations.

And on it goes.

"Nothing can justify crimes such as those of September 11," Chomsky writes,
before immediately adding, "but we can think of the United States as an
'innocent victim' only if we adopt the conventional path of ignoring the
record of its action and those of its allies, which are, after all, hardly a

Chomsky's analytic methods remain consistent from year to year, a triumph of
cynical doublespeak. When a mainstream news article supports some point of
his, he cites it as though no further proof were necessary. He summarizes
reports about the Sudan attack, for instance, with the addendum that these
"accounts are by respected journalists writing in leading journals." But
when mainstream articles more typically challenge his view, they're worse
than false - they're corrupt.

In similar style, Chomsky traditionally launches ad hominem attacks on those
who disagree with him, often suggesting that anyone who can surf the Net
knows that he's right. As fellow top linguist George Lakoff once told the
New York Times, "He's a genius, and he fights dirty when he argues." In this
volume, Chomsky knifes the immensely more thoughtful philosopher Michael
Walzer, who urges confrontation with and rejection of "all the arguments and
excuses for terrorism." Rather than accept Walzer's stance as a considered
moral position - the view that a ban on killing innocents should anchor any
coherent morality - Chomsky disingenuously writes, vis-a-vis Walzer's
position: "[I]n effect, this translates as a call to reject efforts to
explore the reasons that lie behind terrorist acts that are directed against
states he supports." Chomsky both reverses Walzer's call to confront such
reasons and slimes him as duplicitous at the same time.

The problem with Chomsky is not that he introduces irrelevant examples or
information. We should think about and criticize the Sudan bombing, if it
was wrongheaded. We should ponder whether the United States behaves wisely
when it refuses to honor the judgment of international courts. But Chomsky's
hammering of such matters always comes with an overwhelming absence of
goodwill toward the intelligence and judgment of others, as if any
explanation but his were preposterous.

That arrogance backfires, particularly when he discusses international law,
a subject in which he exhibits either illiteracy or bad faith. He ritually
treats international law as if it were, or ought to be, binding upon states
in exactly the way domestic law is upon citizens. Yet one of the first
things law students learn is that international law remains peculiar because
it arises from the voluntary submission of sovereign states, leaving it in
many circumstances with nonbinding force. Like his reiterated mantra that
the perpetrators of Sept. 11 should be treated as mere violators of domestic
terrorism laws (a distinctive case of Chomskyan reverence for federal
legislation), his position seems rooted more in political reflex than

As usual, world events keep proving Chomsky wrong. In this volume, which
went to press Oct. 15, he rails at America's supposed demand that Pakistan
cut off food aid to Afghanistan, as if that meant eliminating food to
ordinary Afghans rather than to Taliban members likely to steal it.
According to Chomsky, our policy is essentially, "OK, let's proceed to kill
unknown numbers, maybe millions, of starving Afghans who are victims of the
Taliban." While he rants in well-heeled Massachusetts, ordinary American
soldiers and international caregivers risk their lives to bring food and
medicine to grateful Afghans.

Page by page, his misfires accumulate. Chomsky declares that "an attack
against Afghanistan will probably kill a great many innocent civilians,
possibly enormous numbers," but it hasn't. Chomsky warns that attacking
Afghanistan will drag America into bin Laden's "diabolical plot," provoking
the Middle East street to rise up against us. But it hasn't.

Every year at MIT, a group of puckish scientists affiliated with the Journal
of Irreproducible Results awards the "Ignobles" for work that, so to speak,
doesn't work out. Expansion of the prizes to the social sciences is long
overdue. These eminent pranksters owe the first bauble for lifetime
achievement to Chomsky. He's earned it.

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