George Scialabba on how “panting polemicist” Christopher Hitchens’s remarks against Noam Chomsky are evidence of a widespread and troubling failure among intellectuals.
By **George Scialabba**
After 9/11, Noam Chomsky wrote that, from a historical point of view, what was new about the murder of 3000 civilians was that it was carried out against the United States rather than by the United States. Our national conversation about 9/11, he suggested, ought to include some reflection on the question raised by President Bush in the bombing’s immediate aftermath: “Why do they hate us?”
For the sake of our national security, not to mention honor, Chomsky argued, we should try to answer that question honestly, taking into account our longstanding opposition to independent Arab nationalism and Iranian democracy; our ardent support for the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, followed abruptly by our horrifying degradation of Iraqi society through bombing and boycott in the 1990s; our indifference to the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs, especially since 1967; and in the background of these, of moral if not immediate historical relevance, the holocaust visited on Indochina in the 1960s and 70s; our collaboration with massacre and repression in Latin America, and particularly Central America, throughout the 20th century; our material and diplomatic support for near-genocidal violence by Indonesia against East Timor and by Turkey against the Kurds, and so on.
Chomsky was generally reviled for this suggestion. It was widely assumed—in an immemorial tradition of moral obtuseness—that to explain was to excuse. Notwithstanding the terrorists’ frequent declarations that it was not America’s secular culture or democratic ideals but rather its violence against Muslims and support for Middle Eastern dictators that prompted their attacks, to assign any motive except impotent envy, theological rancor, or eliminationist anti-Semitism to al-Qaeda and its allies was ruled “anti-American.”
Christopher Hitchens joined this anti-American exercise, writing in December 2001 that for Chomsky:
“the September 11 crime is a mere bagatelle when set beside the offenses of the Empire. From this it’s not a very big step to the conclusion that we must change the subject, and change it at once, to Palestine or East Timor or Angola or Iraq. All radical polemic may now proceed as it did before the rude interruption.”
Over the last decade, Hitchens has reenacted the drama of Dorian Gray: his prose style has waxed ever more elegant, while his political judgment and his polemical morality have decayed.
A bagatelle is a trifle. To say or imply that a “horrifying atrocity” (Chomsky in 9-11 , referring to 9/11) or a “colossal atrocity” (ibid.) or a “terrorist crime” (ibid.) or a “crime against humanity” (ibid.) is a trifle would be execrable. To falsely accuse a political opponent of saying such a thing would also, of course, be execrable. Did Chomsky imply—Hitchens was not brazen enough to claim he actually said—that 9/11 was a trifle? Consider this (hypothetical) sentence: “The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a mere bagatelle compared with the cataclysm Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly unleashed on the world in October 1962.” Does this sentence imply that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were trifles? Could an honest polemicist claim that it does?
But this slur about “9/11 denial” is only an hors d’oeuvre. The main course is “moral equivalence.”
“It’s not a very big step,” Hitchens continued, “to the conclusion that we must change the subject.” If the subject is “What should America do about terrorism?”, then at least part of the answer must be: we should understand why others commit it, against us in particular. If those who commit it say they do so because we have behaved and continue to behave criminally toward them or their communities, then, if we are either honorable or prudent, we must ask ourselves whether this accusation is true. If it is true, then we should stop behaving criminally. Of course, there’s no reason why we can’t simultaneously take steps to protect ourselves against further violence, though any steps that don’t address the source of the danger won’t help permanently.
What did those in charge of protecting us actually do after 9/11? They did everything possible to prevent public discussion of the terrorists’ declared motives and grievances. Hitchens did his part, by ridiculing those who suggested that resentment against American actions, and not merely against American virtues, may have incited the terrorist attack. And then someone really did change the subject. Our leaders, once again with Hitchens’s help, changed the subject to Iraq, with what consequences we know.
Asked recently by this website for a response to the killing of bin Laden, Chomsky made three points :
1) The U.S. government appears to have behaved lawlessly in this episode, ordering an extrajudicial execution, as well as in earlier episodes involving bin Laden: for example, by not requesting extradition after 9/11, despite the professed willingness of the Afghan government to discuss the matter, but simply demanding that he be turned over and invading the country when he was not; and by never bothering to produce judiciable evidence of bin Laden’s individual involvement in 9/11, however easy it may have been to do this.
2) American intellectuals and media have adhered to their usual double standard, criticizing Pakistan for its indignation over the raid while never considering their own and other Americans’ likely reaction if Iraqi or Cuban or Nicaraguan or Vietnamese commandos had raided the United States and killed Kissinger, Reagan, or George W. Bush, all of whom have or had even more innocent blood on their hands than bin Laden does. (Chomsky has used this analogy frequently, usually adding for the benefit of his more obtuse and malicious critics that IT WOULD BE WRONG for the Cubans, Nicaraguans, et al to do any such thing. (source, source)
American intellectuals, whose responsibility it was to lead the national conversation beyond uncritical acceptance of the premises of state policy, failed entirely.
3) Other evidence of imperial hypocrisy and arrogance, likewise generally unremarked, include: unwillingness to apply to ourselves the “Bush doctrine” that “societies that harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves and should be treated accordingly (the US has long harbored right-wing Cuban and Haitian terrorists), and the unfortunate naming of the Abbottabad raid “Operation Geronimo.”
Hitchens now returns to the attack , as scrupulous as before. Alleging “9/11 denial,” he reports Chomsky’s position as: “we do not know who organized the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or any other related assaults, though it would be a credulous fool who swallowed the (unsupported) word of Osama bin Laden that his group was the one responsible.” Repeatedly in 9/11—at least a dozen times in that very short book—Chomsky refers to “the bin Laden network” as the perpetrators of 9/11 and those “other related assaults.” Also dozens of times in essays and interviews since then. Still, his oddly inconsistent denial in the Guernica piece that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda” (perhaps he meant, “by al-Qaeda with bin Laden’s direct involvement”) offered an opening to the panting polemicist.
But this slur about “9/11 denial” is only an hors d’oeuvre. The main course is “moral equivalence.” During the Cold War, whenever anyone pointed out that the US was also an imperialist power or speculated that unrelenting, often violent Western hostility might have partly explained, though of course it did not justify Soviet repression, Hilton Kramer or Norman Podhoretz would thunderously accuse the speculator of asserting “moral equivalence” between Jeffersonian democracy and Stalinism. Chomsky argues that terrorism, whether American or Islamicist, should not be punished extra-judicially. Hitchens’s answer is that this implies moral equivalence—between what and what is unstated, though he seems to mean, recalling his famous outburst after 9/11, between “everything I love” and “everything I hate.” But no, Chomsky only means that terrorism, whether American or Islamicist, should not be punished extra-judicially.
Hitchens’s most contemptible gambit is this: Chomsky “doesn’t trouble himself to conceal an unstated but self-evident premise, which is that the United States richly deserved the assault on its citizens and its civil society.” It is not that Chomsky has ever said such a thing—Hitchens is not such a liar as to suggest this. It is not that Chomsky has not said the opposite many times—see, for example, the phrases quoted above from 9/11, which Hitchens has presumably read, or at least glanced at. It is that Chomsky (and the “paranoid left”) must believe it, whether he (or they) knows he does or not.
Suppose someone says that Pearl Harbor so inflamed American feeling that the firebombing of Japanese cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though morally indefensible, were all but inevitable. Does saying this absolve the American officials who ordered the bombings or imply that the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who died as a result was “richly deserved”? By Hitchens’s logic, yes.
Over the last decade, Hitchens has reenacted the drama of Dorian Gray: his prose style has waxed ever more elegant, while his political judgment and his polemical morality have decayed. Of course, Hitchens’s inability to discuss Chomsky fairly and intelligently is a mere bagatelle, significant only as a symptom of a more widespread and troubling failure. Public understanding of the nature and consequences of American foreign policy, past and present, was even more urgently necessary—morally as well as prudentially necessary—after 9/11 than before. No such understanding has dawned. American intellectuals, whose responsibility it was to lead the national conversation beyond uncritical acceptance of the premises of state policy, failed entirely. If the American citizenry ever learn, in relation to their country’s international behavior, Auden’s simple yet difficult lesson that “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return” (or their benighted sympathizers do), it will be despite rather than because of the efforts of Hitchens and the large majority of American intellectuals who, about these matters at least, agree with him.
Copyright 2011 George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?