et tu me parles des "dangers du terrorisme islamiques"....pffff...

Simple Truths, Hard Problems: Some

thoughts on terror, justice, and selfdefence*


To dispel any false expectations, I really am going to keep to very

simple truths, so much so that I toyed with suggesting the title ‘In

Praise of Platitudes,’ with an advance apology for the elementary

character of these remarks. The only justification for proceeding

along this course is that the truisms are widely rejected, in some

crucial cases almost universally so. And the human consequences

are serious, in particular, with regard to the hard problems I have

in mind. One reason why they are hard is that moral truisms are so

commonly disdained by those with sufficient power to do so with

impunity, because they set the rules.

We have just witnessed a dramatic example of how they set the

rules. The last millennium ended, and the new one opened, with an

extraordinary display of self-adulation on the part of Western

intellectuals, who praised themselves and their leaders for introducing

a ‘noble phase’ of foreign policy with a ‘saintly glow,’ as

they adhered to ‘principles and values’ for the first time in history,

acting from ‘pure altruism,’ following the lead of the ‘idealistic

new world bent on ending inhumanity,’ joined by its loyal partner

who alone comprehends the true nobility of the mission, which has

now evolved even further into the ‘Bush messianic mission to graft

democracy onto the rest of the world’—all quoted from the elite

press and intellectuals. I am not sure there is any counterpart in the

non-too-glorious history of modern intellectual elites. The noblest

achievement was a ‘normative revolution’ in the 1990s, which

established a ‘new norm in international affairs’: the right of the

self-designated ‘enlightened states’ to resort to force to protect suffering

people from evil monsters.1

Philosophy 80 2005 5

doi:10.1017/S0031819105000021 ©2005 The Royal Institute of Philosophy

* Talk at Royal Institute of Philosophy, London, May 19, 2004.

1 For sources, see my New Military Humanism (Common Courage,

1999), A New Generation Draws the Line (Verso, 2000), and Hegemony or

Survival (Metropolitan, 2003, updated 2004). I will keep here to citations

not easy to locate in fairly standard work, or in recent books of mine,

including these.

As anyone familiar with history knows, the normative revolution

is not at all new; it was a constant refrain of European imperialism,

and the rhetorical flights of Japanese fascists, Mussolini, Hitler,

Stalin and other grand figures were no less noble, and quite possibly

just as sincere, so internal documents reveal.

The examples given to justify the chorus of self-acclaim collapse

on the slightest examination, but I would like to raise a different

question, bearing on how rules are established: why was the ‘normative

revolution’ in the decade of the 1990s, not the 1970s, a far

more reasonable candidate?

The decade of the 1970s opened with the Indian invasion of East

Pakistan, saving probably millions of lives. It closed with

Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, ousting the Khmer Rouge just as

their atrocities were peaking; before that, State Department intelligence,

by far the most knowledgeable source, was estimating

deaths in the tens or hundreds of thousands, not from ‘mass genocide’

but from ‘brutal rapid change,’ awful enough, but not yet

approaching the predictions of high US officials in 1975 that a million

might die as a result of the carnage of the earlier years of

bombing and atrocities. Their effects have been discussed in the

scholarly literature, but perhaps the simplest account is the orders

that Henry Kissinger transmitted, in the usual manner of the obedient

bureaucrat, from President Nixon to the military commanders:

‘A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that

flies on anything that moves.’2 It is rare for a call for war crimes to

be so stark and explicit, though it is normal for it to be considered

entirely insignificant among the perpetrators, as in this case; publication

elicited no reaction. By the time of the Vietnamese invasion,

however, the charges of genocide that had aroused mass fury

from the moment of the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975,

with a level of fabrication that would have impressed Stalin, were

finally becoming plausible. So the decade of the 1970s was indeed

framed by two authentic cases of military intervention that terminated

awesome crimes.

Even if we were to accept the most extreme claims of the chorus

of adulation for the leaders of the ‘enlightened states’ in the 1990s,

there was nothing that comes close to the humanitarian consequences

of the resort to force that framed the decade of the 1970s.

So why did that decade not bring about a ‘normative revolution’

with the foreign policy of the saviours basking in a ‘saintly glow’?

Noam Chomsky


2 Elizabeth Becker, ‘Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark

Photos of Abuse,’ New York Times, May 27, 2004.

The answer is simplicity itself, but apparently unstateable; at least,

I have never seen a hint of it in the deluge of literature on this

topic. The interventions of the 1970s had two fundamental flaws:

(1) They were carried out by the wrong agents, them, not us; (2)

Both were bitterly denounced by the leader of the enlightened

states, and the perpetrators of the crime of terminating genocide

were harshly punished, particularly Vietnam, subjected to a USbacked

Chinese invasion to teach the criminals a lesson for bringing

Pol Pot’s crimes to an end, then severe sanctions, and direct

US-UK support for the ousted Khmer Rouge. It follows that the

1970s could not have brought about a ‘normative revolution,’ and

no one has ever suggested that it did.

The guiding principle is elementary. Norms are established by

the powerful, in their own interests, and with the acclaim of

responsible intellectuals. These may be close to historical universals.

I have been looking for exceptions for many years. There are

a few, but not many.

Sometimes the principle is explicitly recognized. The norm for

post-World War II international justice was established at

Nuremberg. To bring the Nazi criminals to justice, it was necessary

to devise definitions of ‘war crime’ and ‘crime against humanity.’

Telford Taylor, chief counsel for the prosecution and a distinguished

international lawyer and historian, has explained candidly

how this was done:

Since both sides in World War II had played the terrible game of

urban destruction—the Allies far more successfully—there was

no basis for criminal charges against Germans or Japanese, and

in fact no such charges were brought... Aerial bombardment had

been used so extensively and ruthlessly on the Allied side as well

as the Axis side that neither at Nuremberg nor Tokyo was the

issue made a part of the trials.3

The operative definition of ‘crime’ is: ‘Crime that you carried out

but we did not.’ To underscore the fact, Nazi war criminals were

absolved if the defence could show that their US counterparts carried

out the same crimes.

Taylor concludes that ‘to punish the foe—especially the vanquished

foe—for conduct in which the enforcer nation has

engaged, would be so grossly inequitable as to discredit the laws

themselves.’ That is correct, but the operative definition also discredits

the laws themselves, along with all subsequent tribunals.

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


3 Taylor, Nuremberg and Vietnam: an American Tragedy (Times Books,


Taylor provides this background as part of his explanation of why

US bombing in Vietnam was not a war crime. His argument is

plausible, further discrediting the laws themselves. Some of the

subsequent tribunals are discredited in perhaps even more extreme

ways, such as the Yugoslavia vs. NATO case now being adjudicated

by the International Court of Justice. The US was excused, correctly,

on the basis of its argument that it is not subject to the jurisdiction

of the Court in this case. The reason is that the US signed

the Genocide Convention (which is at issue here) with a reservation

stating that it is inapplicable to the United States.

In an outraged comment on the efforts of Justice Department

lawyers to demonstrate that the president has the right to authorize

torture, Yale Law School Dean Howard Koh—who, as Assistant

Secretary of State, had presented Washington’s denunciation of all

forms of torture to the international community—said that ‘The

notion that the president has the constitutional power to permit

torture is like saying he has the constitutional power to commit

genocide.’4 The same legal advisers should have little difficulty

arguing that the president does indeed have that right.

The Nuremberg Tribunal is commonly described by distinguished

figures in the field of international law and justice as ‘the

birth of universal jurisdiction.’5 That is correct only if we understand

‘universality’ in accord with the practice of the enlightened

states, which defines ‘universal’ as ‘applicable to others only,’ particularly


The proper conclusion at Nuremberg and since would have been

to punish the victors as well as the vanquished foe. Neither at the

postwar trials nor subsequently have the powerful been subjected

to the rules, not because they have not carried out crimes—of

course they have—but because they are immune under prevailing

standards of morality. The victims appear to understand well

enough. Wire services report from Iraq that ‘If Iraqis ever see

Saddam Hussein in the dock, they want his former American allies

shackled beside him.’6 That inconceivable event would be a radical

revision of the fundamental principle of international justice:

tribunals must be restricted to the crimes of others.

Noam Chomsky


4 Edward Alden, ‘US INTERROGATION DEBATE: Dismay at

attempt to find legal justification for torture,’ Financial Times, 10 June 2004.

5 Justice Richard Goldstone, ‘Kosovo: An Assessment in the Context of

International Law,’ Nineteenth Morgenthau Memorial Lecture, Carnegie

Council on Ethics and International Affairs, 2000.

6 Michael Georgy, ‘Iraqis want Saddam’s old U.S. friends on trial,’

Reuters, Jan 20, 2004.

There is a marginal exception, which in fact underscores the

force of the rule. Punishment is permissible when it is a mere tap

on the wrist, evading the real crimes, or when blame can be restricted

to minor figures, particularly when they are not like us. It was,

for example, considered proper to punish the soldiers who carried

out the My Lai massacre, half-educated half-crazed GPs in the

field, not knowing who was going to shoot at them next. But it was

inconceivable that punishment could reach as far as those who

planned and implemented Operation Wheeler Wallawa, a mass

murder operation to which My Lai was a very minor footnote.7 The

gentlemen in the air-conditioned offices are like us, therefore

immune by definition. We are witnessing similar examples right

now in Iraq.

We might return in this connection to Kissinger’s transmission

of Nixon’s orders on bombing Cambodia. In comparison, the

widely reported admission by Serbia of involvement in the

Srebrenica massacre does not merit much attention. The prosecutors

at the Milosevic Tribunal face difficulties in proving the crime

of genocide because no document has been discovered in which the

accused directly orders such a crime, even lesser ones. The same

problem has been faced by Holocaust scholars, who of course have

no doubt of Hitler’s responsibility, but lack conclusive direct documentation.

Suppose, however, that someone were to unearth a

document in which Milosevic orders the Serbian air force to reduce

Bosnia or Kosovo to rubble, with the words ‘Anything that flies on

anything that moves.’ The prosecutors would be overjoyed, the

trial would end, and Milosevic would be sent off to many successive

life sentences for the crime of genocide—a death sentence, if it

followed US conventions. One would, in fact, be hard put to find

such an explicit order to carry out genocide—as the term is currently

employed with regard to crimes of enemies—anywhere in

the historical record. In this case, after casual mention in the

world’s leading newspaper, there was no detectable interest, even

though the horrendous consequences are well-known. And rightly,

if we adopt, tacitly, the overriding principle that we cannot—by

definition—carry out crimes or have any responsibility for them.

One moral truism that should be uncontroversial is the principle

of universality: we should apply to ourselves the same standards we

apply to others—in fact, more stringent ones. This should be

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


7 On this and other such operations, based in part on unpublished investigations

of Newsweek Saigon bureau chief Kevin Buckley, see Chomsky

and Edward Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights, vol. I

(South End, 1979).

uncontroversial for everyone, but particularly so for the world’s

most important citizens, the leaders of the enlightened states, who

declare themselves to be devout Christians, devoted to the Gospels,

hence surely familiar with its famous condemnation of the

Hypocrite. Their devotion to the commandments of the Lord is

not in question. George Bush reportedly proclaims that ‘God told

me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then He instructed

me to strike at Saddam, which I did,’ and ‘now I am determined to

solve the problem of the Middle East,’8 also at the command of the

Lord of Hosts, the War God, whom we are instructed by the Holy

Book to worship above all other Gods. And as I mentioned, the

elite press dutifully refers to his ‘messianic mission’ to solve the

problem of the Middle East, in fact the world, following our

‘responsibility to history to rid the world of evil,’ in the president’s

words, the core principle of the ‘vision’ that Bush shares with

Osama bin Laden, both plagiarizing ancient epics and children’s

fairy tales.

I am not sufficiently familiar with the sayings of Tony Blair to

know how closely he approaches this ideal—which is quite familiar

in Anglo-American history. The early English colonists in North

America were following the word of the Lord as they slaughtered

the Amalekites in the ‘New Israel’ that they were liberating from

the native blight. Those who followed them, also Bible-waving

God-fearing Christians, did their religious duty by conquering and

possessing the promised land, ridding it of millions of Canaanites,

and proceeding to war against the Papists in Florida, Mexico, and

California. Throughout they were defending themselves from the

‘merciless Indian savages’—unleashed against them by George III,

as the Declaration of Independence proclaims—at other times

from the ‘runaway negroes’ and ‘lawless Indians’ who were attacking

innocent Americans according to John Quincy Adams in one of

Noam Chomsky


8 Arnon Regular, Ha’aretz, 24 May 2003, based on minutes of a meeting

between Bush and his hand-picked Palestinian Prime Minister,

Mahmoud Abbas, provided by Abbas. See also Newsweek, ‘Bush and God,’

March 10, 2003, with a cover story on the beliefs and direct line to God of

the man with his finger on the button. Also ‘The Jesus Factory,’ PBS

Frontline documentary, on the ‘religious ideals’ that Bush has brought to

the White House, ‘relevant to the Bush messianic mission to graft democracy

onto the rest of the world’; Sam Allis, ‘A timely look at how faith

informs Bush presidency,’ Boston Globe, 29 April 2004. White House aides

report concern over Bush’s ‘increasingly erratic behavior’ as he ‘declares

his decisions to be “God’s will”’; Doug Thompson, publisher, Capitol Hill

Blue, 4 June 2004.

the most celebrated State Papers in American history, written to

justify Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida in 1818, and the

opening of the murderous Seminole wars. The event was of some

significance for other reasons: it was the first executive war in violation

of the constitutional requirement that only Congress can

declare war, by now so fully the norm that it is scarcely noted—

norms being established in the conventional way.

In his later years, long after his own grisly contributions were

past, Adams did deplore the fate of ‘that hapless race of native

Americans who we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious

cruelty.’ This is ‘among the heinous sins of this nation, for

which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement,’ Adams

believed. The first US Secretary of War had warned many years

earlier that ‘a future historian may mark the causes of this destruction

of the human race in sable colours.’ But they were wrong. God

and the historians are slow in fulfilling this task. Unlike Bush and

Blair, I cannot speak for God, but historians speak to us in mortal

tongues. In a typical example, two months ago one of the most distinguished

American historians referred in passing to ‘the elimination

of hundreds of thousands of native people’ in the conquest of

the national territory—off by a factor of ten, apart from the

interesting choice of words. The reaction was null; it would be

somewhat different if we were to read a casual comment in

Germany’s leading newspaper that hundreds of thousands of Jews

were eliminated during World War II. There is also no reaction

when a highly regarded diplomatic historian explains in a standard

work that after their liberation from English rule, the colonists

‘concentrated on the task of felling trees and Indians and of rounding

out their natural boundaries.’9 It is all too easy to multiply

examples in scholarship, media, school texts, cinema, and elsewhere.

Sports teams use victims of genocide as mascots, usually

with caricatures. Weapons of destruction are casually given similar

names: Apache, Blackhawk, Comanche helicopters; Tomahawk

missiles; and so on. How would we react if the Luftwaffe named its

lethal weapons ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy’?

The British record is much the same. Britain pursued its divine

mission in the evangelization of Africa, while exercising in India ‘a

trusteeship mysteriously placed in their hands by Providence,’ easy

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


9 Gordon Wood, ‘“Freedom Just Around the Corner”: Rogue Nation,’

New York Times Book Review, March 28, 2004; Thomas Bailey, A

Diplomatic History of the American People (Appleton-Century-Crofts,


to comprehend in a country ‘where God and Mammon seemed

made for each other.’10 Figures of the highest moral integrity and

intelligence gave a secular version of the creed, strikingly John

Stuart Mill in his extraordinary apologetics for British crimes,

written just as they peaked in India and China, in an essay now

taken to be a classic of the literature of ‘humanitarian intervention.’

It is only fair to note that there were different voices. Richard

Cobden denounced Britain’s crimes in India and expressed his hope

that the ‘national conscience, which has before averted from

England, by timely atonement and reparation, the punishment due

for imperial crimes, will be roused ere it be too late from its lethargy,

and put an end to the deeds of violence and injustice which have

marked every step of our progress in India’—echoing Adam Smith,

who had bitterly condemned ‘the savage injustice of the

Europeans,’ particularly the British in India. Cobden hoped in vain

It is hardly much of a relief to recognize that their continental

counterparts were even worse, in deed, denial, and self-adulation.

While quoting Cobden we might recall another of his maxims,

highly pertinent today, and also qualifying as a moral truism: ‘no

man had a right to lend money if he knows it to be applied to the

cutting of throats’11 or, a fortiori, to sell the knives. It does not take

an extensive research project to draw the appropriate conclusions

with regard to the regular practice of the leading enlightened states.

The common response of the intellectual culture, some memorable

exceptions aside, is entirely natural if we abandon the most

elementary of moral truisms, and declare ourselves to be uniquely

exempt from the principle of universality. And so we do,

constantly. Every day brings new illustrations. The US Senate has

just lent its consent to the appointment of John Negroponte as

Ambassador to Iraq, heading the world’s largest diplomatic mission,

with the task of handing over sovereignty to Iraqis to fulfill

Bush’s ‘messianic vision’ to bring democracy to the Middle East

and the world, so we are solemnly informed. The appointment

bears directly on the principle of universality, but before turning to

that, we might raise some questions about other truisms, regarding

evidence and conclusions.

That the goal of the Iraq invasion is to fulfill the president’s mes-

Noam Chomsky


10 Historians Thomas Pakenham and David Edwards , cited by Clifford

Langley, ‘The Religious Roots of American Imperialism,’ Global

Dialogue, Winter-Spring 2003.

11 Cited by Pier Francesco Asso, ‘The “Home Bias” Approach in the

History of Economic Thought,’ in J. Lorentzen and M. de Cecco, (eds.),

Markets and Authorities (Elgar: UK, 2002).

sianic vision is simply presupposed in news reporting and commentary,

even among critics, who warn that the ‘noble’ and ‘generous’

vision may be beyond our reach. As the London Economist poses the

problem a few weeks ago, ‘America’s mission’ of turning Iraq into

‘an inspiring example [of democracy] to its neighbours’ is facing

obstacles.12 With considerable research, I have not been able to find

exceptions in the US media, and with much less research, elsewhere,

apart from the usual margins.

One might inquire into the basis for the apparently near universal

acceptance of this doctrine in Western intellectual commentary.

Examination will quickly reveal that it is based on two principles.

First, our leaders have proclaimed it, so it must be true, a principle

familiar in North Korea and other stellar models. Second, we must

suppress the fact that by proclaiming the doctrine after other pretexts

have collapsed, our leaders are also declaring that they are

among the most accomplished liars in history, since in leading their

countries to war they proclaimed with comparable passion that the

‘sole question’ was whether Saddam had disarmed. But now we

must believe them. Also obligatory is the dispatch deep into the

memory hole of the ample record of professed noble efforts to bring

democracy, justice, and freedom to the benighted.

It is, again, the merest truism that pronouncements of virtuous

intent by leaders carry no information, even in the technical sense:

they are completely predictable, including the worst monsters. But

this truism also fades when it confronts the overriding need to reject

the principle of universality.

The doctrine presupposed by Western commentary is accepted

by some Iraqis too: one percent agreed that the goal of the invasion

is to bring democracy to Iraq according to US-run polls in Baghdad

last October—long before the atrocities in April and the revelations

of torture. Another five percent felt that the goal is to help Iraqis.

Most of the rest took for granted that the goal is to gain control of

Iraq’s resources and use Iraq as a base for reorganizing the Middle

East in US interests13—a thought virtually inexpressible in enlightened

Western commentary, or dismissed with horror as ‘anti-

Americanism,’ ‘conspiracy theory,’ ‘radical and extremist,’ or some

other intellectual equivalent of four-letter words among the vulgar.

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


12 ‘Another intifada in the making,’ ‘Bloodier and sadder,’ Economist,

April 17, 2004.

13 Walter Pincus, ‘Skepticism About U.S. Deep, Iraq Poll Shows,

Motive for Invasion Is Focus of Doubts,’ Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2003.

Richard Burkholder, ‘Gallup Poll of Baghdad: Gauging U.S. Intent,’

Government & Public Affairs, Oct. 28, 2003.

In brief, Iraqis appear to take for granted that what is unfolding is

a scenario familiar from the days of Britain’s creation of modern

Iraq, accompanied by the predictable and therefore uninformative

professions of virtuous intent, but also by secret internal documents

in which Lord Curzon and the Foreign Office developed the plans

to establish an ‘Arab facade’ that Britain would rule behind various

‘constitutional fictions.’ The contemporary version is provided by a

senior British official quoted in the Daily Telegraph: ‘The Iraqi government

will be fully sovereign, but in practice it will not exercise

all its sovereign functions.’14

Let us return to Negroponte and the principle of universality. As

his appointment reached Congress, the Wall Street Journal praised

him as a ‘Modern Proconsul,’ who learned his trade in Honduras in

the 1980s, during the Reaganite phase of the current incumbents in

Washington. The veteran Journal correspondent Carla Anne

Robbins reminds us that in Honduras he was known as ‘the proconsul,’

as he presided over the second largest embassy in Latin

America, with the largest CIA station in the world—perhaps to

transfer full sovereignty to this centrepiece of world power.15

Robbins observes that Negroponte has been criticized by human

rights activists for ‘covering up abuses by the Honduran military’—

a euphemism for large-scale state terror—‘to ensure the flow of US

aid’ to this vital country, which was ‘the base for Washington’s

covert war against Nicaragua.’ The main task of proconsul

Negroponte was to supervise the bases in which the terrorist mercenary

army was armed, trained, and sent to do its work, including

its mission of attacking undefended civilian targets, so the US military

command informed Congress. The policy of attacking such

‘soft targets’ while avoiding the Nicaraguan army was confirmed by

the State Department and defended by leading American liberal

intellectuals, notably New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, who was

the designated spokesman for the left in television commentary. He

chastised Human Rights Watch for its sentimentality in condemning

US international terrorism and failing to understand that it

must be evaluated by ‘pragmatic criteria.’ A ‘sensible policy,’ he

urged, should ‘meet the test of cost-benefit analysis,’ an analysis of

‘the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the

likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end’—

Noam Chomsky


14 Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor, ‘Handover still on course as

UN waits for new leader to emerge,’ Daily Telegraph, May 18, 2004.

15 Robbins, ‘Negroponte Has Tricky Mission: Modern Proconsul,’ Wall

Street Journal, April 27, 2004.

‘democracy’ as US elites determine, their unquestionable right. Of

course, the principle of universality does not apply: others are not

authorized to carry out large-scale international terrorist operations

if their goals are likely to be achieved.

In this case the experiment was a grand success, and is indeed

highly praised. Nicaragua was reduced to the second-poorest country

in the hemisphere, with 60% of children under two afflicted with

anaemia from severe malnutrition and probable permanent brain

damage,16 after the country suffered casualties during the terrorist

war that in per capita terms would be comparable to 2.5 million

dead in the US—a death toll ‘significantly higher than the number

of US persons killed in the US Civil War and all the wars of the

twentieth century combined,’ in the words of Thomas Carothers,

the leading historian of the democratization of Latin America, who

writes from the standpoint of an insider as well as a scholar, having

served in Reagan’s State Department in the programmes of

‘democracy enhancement.’ Describing himself as a ‘neo-Reaganite,’

he regards these programmes as ‘sincere,’ though a ‘failure,’ because

the US would tolerate only ‘top-down forms of democracy’ controlled

by traditional elites with firm ties to the US. This is a familiar

refrain in the history of pursuit of visions of democracy, which

Iraqis apparently comprehend, even if we choose not to. It is worth

stressing the word ‘choose,’ because there is no shortage of


Negroponte’s primary task as proconsul in Honduras was to

supervise the international terrorist atrocities for which the US was

condemned by the World Court in a judgment that reached well

beyond Nicaragua’s narrow case, shaped by its Harvard legal team

to avoid factual debate, since the facts were conceded. The Court

ordered Washington to terminate the crimes and pay substantial

reparations—all ignored on the official grounds that other nations

do not agree with us so we must ‘reserve to ourselves the power to

determine’ how we will act and which matters fall ‘essentially within

the domestic jurisdiction of the United States, as determined by

the United States,’ in this case the actions that the Court condemned

as the ‘unlawful use of force’ against Nicaragua; in lay

terms, international terrorism. All consigned to the ashcan of

history by the educated classes in the usual manner of unwanted

truths, along with the two supporting Security Council resolutions

vetoed by the US, with Britain loyally abstaining. The international

terrorist campaign received passing mention during Negroponte’s

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


16 Envío (UCA, Jesuit University, Managua), Nov. 2003.

confirmation hearings, but is considered of no particular significance,

thanks to the exemption of our glorious selves from the principle

of universality.

On the wall of my office at MIT, I have a painting given to me by

a Jesuit priest, depicting the Angel of Death standing over the figure

of Salvadoran Archbishop Romero, whose assassination in 1980

opened that grim decade of international state terrorist atrocities,

and right before him the six leading Latin American intellectuals,

Jesuit priests, whose brains were blown out in 1989, bringing the

decade to an end. The Jesuit intellectuals, along with their housekeeper

and her daughter, were murdered by an elite battalion armed

and trained by the current incumbents in Washington and their

mentors. It had already compiled a bloody record of massacres in

the US-run international terrorist campaign that Romero’s successor

described as a ‘war of extermination and genocide against a

defenseless civilian population.’ Romero had been killed by much

the same hands, a few days after he pleaded with President Carter

not to provide the junta with military aid, which ‘will surely

increase injustice here and sharpen the repression that has been

unleashed against the people’s organizations fighting to defend their

most fundamental human rights.’ The repression continued with

US aid after his assassination, and the current incumbents carried it

forward to a ‘war of extermination and genocide.’

I keep the painting there to remind myself daily of the real world,

but it has turned out to serve another instructive purpose. Many

visitors pass through the office. Those from Latin America almost

unfailingly recognize it. Those from north of the Rio Grande virtually

never do. From Europe, recognition is perhaps 10 percent.

We may consider another useful thought experiment. Suppose that

in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, security forces armed and trained by

the Kremlin had assassinated an Archbishop who was known as ‘the

voice of the voiceless,” then proceeded to massacre tens of thousands

of people, consummating the decade with the brutal murder

of Vaclav Havel and half a dozen other leading Czech intellectuals.

Would we know about it? Perhaps not, because the Western reaction

might have gone as far as nuclear war, so there would be no one left

to know. The distinguishing criterion is, once again, crystal clear.

The crimes of enemies take place; our own do not, by virtue of our

exemption from the most elementary of moral truisms.

The murdered Jesuits were, in fact, doubly assassinated: brutally

killed, and unknown in the enlightened states, a particularly cruel

fate for intellectuals. In the West, only specialists or activists even

know their names, let alone have any idea of what they wrote. Their

Noam Chomsky


fate is quite unlike that of dissident intellectuals in the domains of

official enemies, who are well-known, widely published and read,

and highly honoured for their courageous resistance to repression—

which was indeed harsh, though it did not begin to compare with

what was endured by their counterparts under Western rule in the

same years. Again, the differential treatment makes good sense,

given our principled exemption from moral truisms.

Let us move on to some hard problems. Perhaps none is more

prominent today than ‘the evil scourge of terrorism,’ particularly

state-backed international terrorism, a ‘plague spread by depraved

opponents of civilization itself’ in a ‘return to barbarism in the

modern age.’ So the plague was described when the ‘war on terror’

was declared—not in September 2001 when it was re-declared, but

20 years earlier, by the same people and their mentors. Their ‘war

on terror’ instantly turned into a murderous terrorist war, with horrifying

consequences in Central America, the Middle East, southern

Africa, and elsewhere, but that is only history, not the history

crafted by its custodians in the enlightened states. In more useful

accepted history, the 1980s are described by scholarship as the

decade of ‘state terrorism,’ of ‘persistent state involvement, or

“sponsorship,” of terrorism, especially by Libya and Iran.’ The US

merely responded with ‘a “proactive” stance toward terrorism,’17

and the same was true of its allies: Israel, South Africa, the clandestine

terror network assembled by the Reaganites, and others. I

will put to the side the radical Islamists organized and trained for

the cause—not to defend Afghanistan, which would have been a

legitimate goal, but to bloody the official enemy, probably prolonging

the Afghan war and leaving the country in ruins, soon to become

much worse as Western clients took over, with subsequent consequences

that we need not mention. Gone from acceptable history

are millions of victims of the real ‘war on terror’ of the 1980s, and

those seeking to survive in what is left of their devastated lands.

Also out of history is the residual ‘culture of terror,’ which ‘domesticates

the aspirations of the majority,’ to quote the survivors of the

Jesuit intellectual community in El Salvador, in a conference surveying

the actual but unacceptable history.

Terrorism poses a number of hard problems. First and foremost,

of course, the phenomenon itself, which really is threatening, even

keeping to the subpart that passes through the doctrinal filters: their

terrorism against us. It is only a matter of time before terror and

WMD are united, perhaps with horrendous consequences, as has

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


17 Martha Crenshaw, Current History, America at War, Dec. 2001.

been discussed in the specialist literature long before the 11

September atrocities. But apart from the phenomenon, there is the

problem of definition of ‘terror.’ That too is taken to be a hard

problem, the subject of scholarly literature and international conferences.

At first glance, it might seem odd that it is regarded as a

hard problem. There are what seem to be satisfactory definitions—

not perfect, but at least as good as others regarded as unproblematic:

for example, the official definitions in the US Code and Army

Manuals in the early 1980s when the ‘war on terror’ was launched,

or the quite similar official formulation of the British government,

which defines ‘terrorism’ as ‘the use, or threat, of action which is

violent, damaging or disrupting, and is intended to influence the

government or intimidate the public and is for the purpose of

advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause.’ These are the

definitions that I have been using in writing about terrorism for the

past twenty years, ever since the Reagan administration declared

that the war on terror would be a prime focus of its foreign policy,

replacing human rights, the proclaimed ‘soul of our foreign policy’


On closer look, however, the problem becomes clear, and it is

indeed hard. The official definitions are unusable, because of their

immediate consequences. One difficulty is that the definition of

terrorism is virtually the same as the definition of the official

policy of the US, and other states, called ‘counter-terrorism’ or

‘low-intensity warfare’ or some other euphemism. That again is

close to a historical universal, to my knowledge. Japanese

imperialists in Manchuria and North China, for example, were not

aggressors or terrorists, but were protecting the population and the

legitimate governments from the terrorism of ‘Chinese bandits.’ To

undertake this noble task, they were compelled, reluctantly, to

resort to ‘counter-terror,’ with the goal of establishing an ‘earthly

paradise’ in which the people of Asia could live in peace and harmony

under the enlightened guidance of Japan. The same is true of

just about every other case I have investigated. But now we do face

a hard problem: it will not do to say that the enlightened states are

officially committed to terrorism. And it takes little effort to

demonstrate that the US engages in large-scale international terrorism

according to its own definition of the term, quite uncontroversially

in a number of crucial cases.

Noam Chomsky


18 See, inter alia, my Pirates and Emperors (1996; updated edition. South

End-Pluto, 2002). For review of the first phase of the ‘war on terror,’ see

Alexander George, (ed.), Western State Terrorism (Polity, Blackwell, 1991).

There are related problems. Some arose when the UN General

Assembly, in response to Reaganite pressures, passed its strongest

condemnation of terrorism in December 1987, with a call on all

states to destroy the plague of the modern age. The resolution

passed 153 to 2, with only Honduras abstaining. The two states that

opposed the resolution explained their reasons in the UN debate.

They objected to a passage recognizing ‘the right to self-determination,

freedom, and independence, as derived from the Charter of

the United Nations, of people forcibly deprived of that right..., particularly

peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign

occupation.’ The term ‘colonial and racist regimes’ was understood

to refer to South Africa, a US ally, resisting the attacks of Nelson

Mandela’s ANC, one of the world’s ‘more notorious terrorist

groups,’ as Washington determined at the same time. And ‘foreign

occupation’ was understood to refer to Washington’s Israeli client.

So, not surprisingly, the US and Israel voted against the resolution,

which was thereby effectively vetoed—in fact, subjected to the usual

double veto: inapplicable, and vetoed from reporting and history as

well, though it was the strongest and most important UN resolution

on terrorism.

There is, then, a hard problem of defining ‘terrorism,’ rather like

the problem of defining ‘war crime.’ How can we define it in such

a way as to violate the principle of universality, exempting ourselves

but applying to selected enemies? And these have to be selected with

some precision. The US has had an official list of states sponsoring

terrorism ever since the Reagan years. In all these years, only one

state has been removed from the list: Iraq, in order to permit the

US to join the UK and others in providing badly needed aid for

Saddam Hussein, continuing without concern after he carried out

his most horrifying crimes. There has also been one near-example.

Clinton offered to remove Syria from the list if it agreed to peace

terms offered by the US and Israel. When Syria insisted on recovering

the territory that Israel conquered in 1967, it remained on the

list of states sponsoring terrorism, and continues to be on the list

despite the acknowledgment by Washington that Syria has not been

implicated in sponsoring terror for many years and has been highly

cooperative in providing important intelligence to the US on al-

Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups. As a reward for Syria’s

cooperation in the ‘war on terror,’ last December Congress passed

legislation calling for even stricter sanctions against Syria, nearly

unanimously (the Syria Accountability Act). The legislation was

recently implemented by the president, thus depriving the US of a

major source of information about radical Islamist terrorism in

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


order to achieve the higher goal of establishing in Syria a regime

that will accept US-Israeli demands—not an unusual pattern,

though commentators continually find it surprising no matter how

strong the evidence and regular the pattern, and no matter how

rational the choices in terms of clear and understandable planning


The Syria Accountability Act offers another striking illustration

of the rejection of the principle of universality. Its core demand

refers to UN Security Council Resolution 520, calling for respect

for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon, violated by

Syria because it still retains in Lebanon forces that were welcomed

there by the US and Israel in 1976 when their task was to carry out

massacres of Palestinians. The congressional legislation, and news

reporting and commentary, overlook the fact that Resolution 520,

passed in 1982, was explicitly directed against Israel, not Syria, and

also the fact that while Israel violated this and other Security

Council resolutions regarding Lebanon for 22 years, there was no

call for any sanctions against Israel, or even any call for reduction in

the huge unconditional military and economic aid to Israel. The

silence for 22 years includes many of those who now signed the Act

condemning Syria for its violation of the Security Council resolution

ordering Israel to leave Lebanon. The principle is accurately

formulated by a rare scholarly commentator, Steven Zunes: it is that

‘Lebanese sovereignty must be defended only if the occupying army

is from a country the United States opposes, but is dispensable if

the country is a US ally.’19 The principle, and the news reporting

and commentary on all of these events, again make good sense,

given the overriding need to reject elementary moral truisms, a fundamental

doctrine of the intellectual and moral culture.

Returning to Iraq, when Saddam was removed from the list of

states supporting terrorism, Cuba was added to replace it, perhaps

in recognition of the sharp escalation in international terrorist

attacks against Cuba in the late 1970s, including the bombing of a

Cubana airliner killing 73 people and many other atrocities. These

were mostly planned and implemented in the US, though by that

time Washington had moved away from its former policy of direct

action in bringing ‘the terrors of the earth’ to Cuba—the goal of the

Kennedy administration, reported by historian and Kennedy

adviser Arthur Schlesinger in his biography of Robert Kennedy,

who was assigned responsibility for the terror campaign and

Noam Chomsky


19 Zunes, ‘U.S. Policy Towards Syria and the Triumph of

Neoconservatism,’ Middle East Policy, Spring 2004.

regarded it as a top priority. By the late 1970s Washington was

officially condemning the terrorist acts while harbouring and protecting

the terrorist cells on US soil in violation of US law. The

leading terrorist, Orlando Bosch, regarded as the author of the

Cubana airline bombing and dozens of other terrorist acts according

to the FBI, was given a presidential pardon by George Bush

Number 1, over the strong objections of the Justice Department.

Others like him continue to operate with impunity on US soil,

including terrorists responsible for major crimes elsewhere as well

for whom the US refuses requests for extradition (from Haiti, for


We may recall one of the leading components of the ‘Bush doctrine’—

now Bush Number 2: ‘Those who harbour terrorists are as

guilty as the terrorists themselves,’ and must be treated accordingly,

the president’s words when announcing the bombing of

Afghanistan because of its refusal to turn over suspected terrorists

to the US, without evidence, or even credible pretext as later quietly

conceded. Harvard International Relations specialist Graham

Allison describes this as the most important component of the Bush

Doctrine. It ‘unilaterally revoked the sovereignty of states that provide

sanctuary to terrorists,’ he wrote approvingly in Foreign

Affairs, adding that the doctrine has ‘already become a de facto rule

of international relations.’ That is correct, in the technical sense of

‘rule of international relations.’

Unreconstructed literalists might conclude that Bush and Allison

are calling for the bombing of the United States, but that is because

they do not comprehend that the most elementary moral truisms

must be forcefully rejected: there is a crucial exemption to the principle

of universality, so deeply entrenched in the reigning intellectual

culture that it is not even perceived, hence not mentioned.

Again, we find illustrations daily. The Negroponte appointment

is one example. To take another, a few weeks ago the Palestinian

leader Abu Abbas died in a US prison in Iraq. His capture was one

of the most heralded achievements of the invasion. A few years

earlier he had been living in Gaza, participating in the Oslo ‘peace

process’ with US-Israeli approval, but after the second Intifida

began, he fled to Baghdad, where he was arrested by the US army

and imprisoned because of his role in the hijacking of the cruise

ship Achille Lauro in 1985. The year 1985 is regarded by scholarship

as the peak year of terrorism in the 1980s; Mideast terrorism

was the top story of the year, in a poll of editors. Scholarship identifies

two major crimes in that year: the hijacking of the Achille

Lauro, in which one person, a crippled American, was brutally

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


murdered; and an airplane hijacking with one death, also an

American. There were, to be sure, some other terrorist crimes in the

region in 1985, but they do not pass through the filters. One was a

car-bombing outside a mosque in Beirut that killed 80 people and

wounded 250 others, timed to explode as people were leaving,

killing mostly women and girls; but this is excluded from the record

because it was traced back to the CIA and British intelligence.

Another was the action that led to the Achille Lauro hijacking in

retaliation, a week later: Shimon Peres’s bombing of Tunis with no

credible pretext, killing 75 people, Palestinians and Tunisians,

expedited by the US and praised by Secretary of State Shultz, then

unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council as an ‘act of

armed aggression’ (US abstaining). But that too does not enter the

annals of terrorism (or perhaps the more severe crime of ‘armed

aggression’), again because of agency. Peres and Shultz do not die

in prison, but receive Nobel prizes, huge taxpayer gifts for reconstruction

of what they helped destroy in occupied Iraq, and other

honours. Again, it all makes sense once we comprehend that

elementary moral truisms must be sent to the flames.

Sometimes denial of moral truisms is explicit. A case in point is

the reaction to the second major component of the ‘Bush Doctrine’,

formally enunciated in the National Security Strategy of

September 2002, which was at once described in the main establishment

journal Foreign Affairs as a ‘new imperial grand strategy’

declaring Washington’s right to resort to force to eliminate any

potential challenge to its global dominance. The NSS was widely

criticized among the foreign policy elite, including the article just

cited, but on narrow grounds: not that it was wrong, or even new,

but that the style and implementation were so extreme that they

posed threats to US interests. Henry Kissinger described ‘The new

approach [as] revolutionary,’ pointing out that it undermines the

17th century Westphalian system of international order, and of

course the UN Charter and international law. He approved of the

doctrine but with reservations about style and tactics, and with a

crucial qualification: it cannot be ‘a universal principle available to

every nation.’ Rather, the right of aggression must be reserved to

the US, perhaps delegated to chosen clients. We must forcefully

reject the most elementary of moral truisms: the principle of universality.

Kissinger is to be praised for his honesty in forthrightly

articulating prevailing doctrine, usually concealed in professions of

virtuous intent and tortured legalisms.

To add just one last example that is very timely and significant,

consider ‘just war theory,’ now undergoing a vigorous revival in the

Noam Chomsky


context of the ‘normative revolution’ proclaimed in the 1990s.

There has been debate about whether the invasion of Iraq satisfies

the conditions for just war, but virtually none about the bombing of

Serbia in 1999 or the invasion of Afghanistan, taken to be such clear

cases that discussion is superfluous. Let us take a quick look at

these, not asking whether the attacks were right or wrong, but considering

the nature of the arguments.

The harshest criticism of the Serbia bombing anywhere near the

mainstream is that it was ‘illegal but legitimate,’ the conclusion of

the International Independent Commission of Inquiry headed by

Justice Richard Goldstone. ‘It was illegal because it did not receive

approval from the UN Security Council,’ the Commission determined,

‘but it was legitimate because all diplomatic avenues had

been exhausted and there was no other way to stop the killings and

atrocities in Kosovo.’20 Justice Goldstone observed that the Charter

may need revision in the light of the report and the judgments on

which it is based. The NATO intervention, he explains, ‘is too

important a precedent’ for it to be regarded ‘an aberration.’ Rather,

‘state sovereignty is being redefined in the face of globalization and

the resolve by the majority of the peoples of the world that human

rights have become the business of the international community.’

He also stressed the need for ‘objective analysis of human rights


The last comment is good advice. One question that an objective

analysis might address is whether the majority of the peoples of the

world accept the judgment of the enlightened states. In the case of

the bombing of Serbia, review of the world press and official statements

reveals little support for that conclusion, to put it rather

mildly. In fact, the bombing was bitterly condemned outside the

NATO countries, facts consistently ignored.22 Furthermore, it is

hardly likely that the principled self-exemption of the enlightened

states from the ‘universalization’ that traces back to Nuremberg

would gain the approval of much of the world’s population. The

new norm, it appears, fits the standard pattern.

Another question that objective analysis might address is whether

indeed ‘all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted.’ That conclusion

is not easy to maintain in the light of the fact that there were

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


20 The Independent International Commission on Kosovo, ‘The

Kosovo Report,’ 23 October, 2000,


Oxford University Press, 2000.

21 Goldstone, op. cit.

22 For review see New Military Humanism.

two options on the table when NATO decided to bomb—a NATO

proposal and a Serbian proposal—and that after 78 days of bombing,

a compromise was reached between them.23

A third question is whether it is true that ‘there was no other way

to stop the killings and atrocities in Kosovo,’ clearly a crucial

matter. In this case, objective analysis happens to be unusually easy.

There is vast documentation available from impeccable Western

sources: several compilations of the State Department released in

justification of the war, detailed records of the OSCE, NATO, the

UN, a British Parliamentary Inquiry, and other similar sources.

There are several remarkable features of the unusually rich documentation.

One is that the record is almost entirely ignored in the

vast literature on the Kosovo war, including the scholarly literature.

24 The second is that the substantive contents of the documentation

are not only ignored, but consistently denied. I have reviewed

the record elsewhere, and will not do so here, but what we discover,

characteristically, is that the clear and explicit chronology is

reversed. The Serbian atrocities are portrayed as the cause of the

bombing, whereas it is uncontroversial that they followed it, virtually

without exception, and were furthermore its anticipated consequence,

as is also well documented from the highest NATO sources.

The British government, the most hawkish element of the

alliance, estimated that most of the atrocities were attributable not

to the Serbian security forces, but to the KLA guerrillas attacking

Serbia from Albania—with the intent, as they frankly explained, to

elicit a disproportionate Serbian response that could be used to

mobilize Western support for the bombing. The British government

assessment was as of mid-January, but the documentary

record indicates no substantial change until late March, when the

bombing was announced and initiated. The Milosevic indictment,

based on US and UK intelligence, reveals the same pattern of


The US and UK, and commentators generally, cite the Racak

massacre in mid-January as the decisive turning point, but that

plainly cannot be taken seriously. First, even assuming the most

Noam Chomsky


23 For details, see my A New Generation Draws the Line (Verso, 2000),

which also reviews how NATO instantly overturned the Security Council

resolution it had initiated. Goldstone, op. cit., recognizes that the resolution

was a compromise, but does not go into the matter, which aroused no

interest in the West.

24 The only detailed reviews I know of are in my books cited in the two

preceding notes, with some additions from the later British parliamentary

inquiry in Hegemony or Survival.

extreme condemnations of the Racak massacre to be accurate, it

scarcely changed the balance of atrocities. Second, much worse

massacres were taking place at the same time elsewhere but aroused

no concern, though some of the worst could have easily been

terminated merely by withdrawing support. One notable case in

early 1999 is East Timor, under Indonesian military occupation.

The US and UK continued to provide their military and

diplomatic support for the occupiers, who had already slaughtered

perhaps one-fourth of the population with unremitting and decisive

US-UK support, which continued until well after the Indonesian

army virtually destroyed the country in a final paroxysm of violence

in August-September 1999. That is only one of many such cases,

but it alone more than suffices to dismiss the professions of horror

about Racak.

In Kosovo, Western estimates are that about 2000 were killed in

the year prior to the invasion. If the British and other assessments

are accurate, most of these were killed by the KLA guerrillas. One

of the very few serious scholarly studies even to consider the matter

estimates that 500 of the 2000 were killed by the Serbs. This is the

careful and judicious study by Nicholas Wheeler, who supports the

NATO bombing on the grounds that there would have been worse

atrocities had NATO not bombed.25 The argument is that by bombing

with the anticipation that it would lead to atrocities, NATO was

preventing atrocities, maybe even a second Auschwitz, many claim.

That such arguments are taken seriously, as they are, gives no slight

insight into Western intellectual culture, particularly when we recall

that there were diplomatic options and that the agreement reached

after the bombing was a compromise between them (formally at


Justice Goldstone appears to have reservations on this matter as

well. He recognizes—as few do—that the NATO bombing was not

undertaken to protect the Albanian population of Kosovo, and that

its ‘direct result’ was a ‘tremendous catastrophe’ for the Kosovars—

as was anticipated by the NATO command and the State

Department, followed by another catastrophe particularly for Serbs

and Roma under NATO-UN occupation. NATO commentators

and supporters, Justice Goldstone continues, ‘have had to console

themselves with the belief that “Operation Horseshoe,” the Serb

plan of ethnic cleansing directed against the Albanians in Kosovo,

had been set in motion before the bombing began, and not in con-

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


25 Nicholas Wheeler. Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention and

International Society (Oxford 2000).

sequence of the bombing.’ The word ‘belief’ is appropriate: there is

no evidence in the voluminous Western record of anything having

been set in motion before the international monitors were withdrawn

in preparation for the bombing, and very little in the few

days before the bombing began, and ‘Operation Horseshoe’ has

since been exposed as an apparent intelligence fabrication, though it

can hardly be in doubt that Serbia had contingency plans, at present

unknown, for such actions in response to a NATO attack.

It is difficult, then, to see how we can accept the conclusions of

the International Commission, a serious and measured effort to deal

with the issues, on the legitimacy of the bombing.

The facts are not really controversial, as anyone interested can

determine. I suppose that is why the voluminous Western documentary

record is so scrupulously ignored. Whatever one’s judgment

about the bombing, not at issue here, the standard conclusion

that it was an uncontroversial example of just war and the decisive

demonstration of the ‘normative revolution’ led by the ‘enlightened

states’ is, to say the least, rather startling—unless, of course, we

return to the same principle: moral truisms must be cast to the

flames, when applied to us.

Let us turn to the second case, the war in Afghanistan, considered

such a paradigm example of just war that there is scarcely even any

discussion about it. The respected moral-political philosopher Jean

Bethke Elshtain summarizes received opinion fairly accurately

when she writes approvingly that only absolute pacifists and outright

lunatics doubt that this was uncontroversially a just war. Here,

once again, factual questions arise. First, recall the war aims: to

punish Afghans until the Taliban agree to hand over Osama bin

Laden without evidence. Contrary to much subsequent commentary,

overthrowing the Taliban regime was an afterthought, added

after several weeks of bombing. Second, there is quite good evidence

bearing on the belief that only lunatics or absolute pacifists

did not join the chorus of approval. An international Gallup poll

after the bombing was announced but before it began found very

limited support for it, almost none if civilians were targeted, as they

were from the first moment. And even that tepid support was based

on the presupposition that the targets were known to have been

responsible for the 11 September attacks. They were not. Eight

months later, the head of the FBI testified to the Senate that after

the most intensive international intelligence inquiry in history, the

most that could be said was that the plot was ‘believed’ to have been

hatched in Afghanistan, while the attacks were planned and

financed elsewhere. It follows that there was no detectable popular

Noam Chomsky


support for the bombing, contrary to confident standard claims,

apart from a very few countries; and of course Western elites.

Afghan opinion is harder to estimate, but we do know that after several

weeks of bombing, leading anti-Taliban figures, including

some of those most respected by the US and President Karzai, were

denouncing the bombing, calling for it to end, and charging the US

with bombing just to ‘show off its muscle’ while undermining their

efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within.

If we also adopt the truism that facts matter, some problems

arise, but there is little fear of that.

Next come the questions of just war. At once, the issue of universality

arises. If the US is unquestionably authorized to bomb

another country to compel its leaders to turn over someone it suspects

of involvement in a terrorist act, then, a fortiori, Cuba,

Nicaragua, and a host of others are entitled to bomb the US because

there is no doubt of its involvement in very serious terrorist attacks

against them: in the case of Cuba going back 45 years, extensively

documented in impeccable sources, and not questioned; in the case

of Nicaragua, even condemned by the World Court and the

Security Council (in vetoed resolutions), after which the US escalated

the attack. This conclusion surely follows if we accept the

principle of universality. The conclusion of course is utterly outrageous,

and advocated by no one. We therefore conclude, once again,

that the principle of universality has a crucial exception, and that

rejection of elementary moral truisms is so deeply entrenched that

even raising the question is considered an unspeakable abomination.

That is yet another instructive comment on the reigning

intellectual and moral culture, with its principled rejection of

unacceptable platitudes.

The Iraq war has been considered more controversial, so there is

an extensive professional literature debating whether it satisfies

international law and just war criteria. One distinguished scholar,

Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy,

argues forthrightly that international law is simply ‘hot air’ and

should be abandoned, because state practice does not conform to it:

meaning, the US and its allies ignore it. A further defect of international

law and the UN Charter, he argues, is that they limit the

capacity of the US to resort to force, and such resort is right and

good because the US leads the ‘enlightened states’ (his phrase),

apparently by definition: no evidence or argument is adduced, or

considered necessary. Another respected scholar argues that the US

and UK were in fact acting in accord with the UN Charter, under a

‘communitarian interpretation’ of its provisions: they were carrying

Simple Truths, Hard Problems


out the will of the international community, in a mission implicitly

delegated to them because they alone had the power to carry it out.26

It is apparently irrelevant that the international community vociferously

objected, at an unprecedented level—quite evidently, if

people are included within the international community, but even

among elites.

Others observe that law is a living instrument its meaning determined

by practice, and practice demonstrates that new norms have

been established permitting ‘anticipatory self-defense,’ another

euphemism for aggression at will. The tacit assumption is that

norms are established by the powerful and that they alone have the

right of anticipatory self-defence. No one, for example, would argue

that Japan exercised this right when it bombed military bases in the

US colonies of Hawaii and the Philippines, even though the

Japanese knew very well that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming

off the Boeing production lines, and were surely familiar with the

very public discussions in the US explaining how they could be

used to incinerate Japan’s wooden cities in a war of extermination,

flying from Hawaiian and Philippine bases.27 Nor would anyone

accord that right to any state today, apart from the self-declared

enlightened states, which have the power to determine norms and to

apply them selectively at will, basking in praise for their nobility,

generosity, and messianic visions of righteousness.

There is nothing particularly novel about any of this, apart from

one aspect. The means of destruction that have been developed are

by now so awesome, and the risks of deploying and using them so

enormous, that a rational Martian observer would not rank the

prospects for survival of this curious species very high, as long as

contempt for elementary moral truisms remains so deeply

entrenched among educated elites.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Noam Chomsky


26 Carston Stahn, ‘Enforcement of the Collective Will after Iraq,’

American Journal of International Law, Symposium, ‘Future Implications

of the Iraq Conflict,’ 97:804–23, 2003. For more on these matters, including

Glennon’s influential ideas and his rejection of other moral truisms,

see my article and several others in Review of International Studies 29.4,

October 2003, and Hegemony or Survival.

27 See Bruce Franklin, War Stars (Oxford, 1988).

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