In the aftermath of Sept. 11, many of those who are critical of American foreign policy, the mainstream media, and the Bush administration knew enough to keep their mouths shut. It wasn’t that their points were any less valid—or timely—than they had been on Sept. 10, 2001, just that there was a general feeling that “now is not the time.” And so they bowed their heads in mourning and decided to leave politics for another day.
That is, of course, with the exception of Noam Chomsky. In the days and months following Sept. 11, Chomsky was a whirlwind of political discussion and debate, interviewed from Germany to Italy to Connecticut. A collection of these interviews has now been compiled by journalist Greg Ruggiero, whose own interview with Chomsky makes up the final chapter of the book, 9-11.
I, myself, may not have been able to read 9-11 until recently. At the time I was attending college at Fordham University in Manhattan, getting ready for work when I saw the first plane fly into the World Trade Center on television. Despite the smoke visible outside my window, the attack didn’t seem real. Then, a few nights later, my English professor informed the class that one of our classmates had died in the attack and suddenly, the whole thing became all too real.
This sense of the human “realness” of Sept. 11 is often absent in the Chomsky interviews that make up 9-11. Chomsky talks of the attacks in a detached tone which, even if it is to be expected, is somewhat disturbing. He speaks of the attacks as a “tragedy,” but then quickly goes on to list all of the tragedies around the world that have been committed in the name of American business interests. Which is not to say that Chomsky doesn’t have a point. In fact, as Chomsky himself notes, “These facts have been completely removed from history. One has to practically scream them from the rooftops.”
For those who have been reading Chomsky for years and have grown accustomed to his methods of exposing the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy, expect more of the same in 9-11. Chomsky goes to painstaking detail to remind us that the United States remains the only country charged with international terrorism by the World Court (in 1986), a charge that led to a U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution calling on all states (specifically, the United States) to adhere to international law.
Chomsky also reveals the bumbling of the CIA, which actually rejected an offer of help from the Sudanese government, which was holding two men thought to be responsible for bombing American embassies in East Africa. The two suspects have since been identified as bin Laden operatives. As is often the case with Chomsky, you’d be hard-pressed to find this information anywhere else.
The collection of interviews with Chomsky is something of a double-edged sword, however. On one hand, it’s good that he steers clear of asking what impact Sept. 11 will have on globalization efforts—Chomsky notes that bin Laden is fighting a holy war, and likely has not even heard the term “globalization” that so many Western intellectuals conveniently fall back on. Rather, Chomsky’s focus remains narrowly on why Sept. 11 happened, what we should do next, and the consequences of those actions. Yet, precisely because Chomsky restricts himself to a narrow focus, his words, though potent in meaning, often come across as lacking in emotion. When Chomsky says, “We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders,” the reader is left with the feeling that this is more the logical summation of a precise argument than it is an impassioned cry for American citizens to wake up and take control of their future.
“The recent attack on the U.S. is certainly an act of terrorism,” Chomsky says, “but alongside the literal meaning of the term...there is also a propagandistic usage, which unfortunately is the standard one: The term ‘terrorism’ is used to refer to terrorist acts committed by enemies against us or our allies.”
Of course, Chomsky uses history to illustrate nearly all his points. For example, he turns to the 1999 Serbian conflict, in which, once the United States and Britain got involved, Serbian “terrorists” instantly became “freedom fighters.” Chomsky never suggests that bin Laden or his network are “freedom fighters.” He rightly calls them terrorists. However, in this definition, he forces American readers to acknowledge that U.S. actions in Nicaragua, Iraq and several other countries also fall under the U.S. government’s own definition of terrorism.
Despite the lack of emotion in 9-11, the book still stands out as one of the most important collections of interviews on the shelves these days. Chomsky repeatedly asks the tough question: Why? And, even if we do not receive an entirely satisfactory answer, we are still led to the next question: How can we prevent this in the future?
9-11 also serves to enlighten non-New Yorkers about the mood in the city post-Sept. 11. Chomsky correctly declares that calls for peace and unity far outweighed any war cries. Having been there at the time, I can remember feeling that this was, indeed, the overwhelming sentiment, even if the mainstream media depicted the contrary.
Chomsky remains one of the few political commentators with the courage to say that militarization, and especially a “missile defense program,” are not the answer. Indeed, he argues, these actions are more likely to perpetuate an even greater cycle of violence. If there is one lesson to take from last century’s two world wars, he says, it’s that violence and militarization only breed more violence and militarization.
Chomsky, then, doesn’t really say anything new in 9-11. Still, anyone who is not a war hawk should thank the man for continuing to say what he’s been saying for some time, never losing hope that, eventually, people will listen.