Chomsky’s Latest—A Breath of Fresh Air and a “Surprise Bestseller”

9-11, by Noam Chomsky. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001. 125 pgs. $8.95, in paperback.

Reviewed by Michael Livingston


Noam Chomsky is always worth reading. This preeminent critic of U.S. imperialism, and perhaps the most important linguist of the last half century, combines lucid, honest language with a vast knowledge of U.S. history and foreign policy. His latest book, 9-11, analyzes events in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. It is based on interviews conducted by U.S. and European journalists in September and October of 2001.

The book is a breath of fresh air.

At the core of Chomsky’s text lie four basic propositions: (1) the U.S. government is the leading terrorist force in the world; (2) the official U.S. response to 9-11 is immoral and hypocritical; (3) we need to ask what caused the attack; and (4) we need to think about the likely consequences of various courses of action.

Chomsky has long argued that by any reasonable definition of terrorism fairly applied, the U.S. government is the world’s leading terrorist force. For his reasonable definition Chomsky uses the official U.S. government definition: the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature, done through intimidation, coercion, or the instilling of fear.

Chomsky cites a large number of examples to prove his point, including the U.S. terrorism against Nicaragua during the 1980s, the 1985 U.S.-government-sponsored truck bombing of a mosque in Beirut that killed 80 and wounded 250, and the cruise-missile destruction of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in August 1998.

Most commentators and politicians do not use a reasonable definition of terrorism, Chomsky argues. They use a propaganda definition. “Terrorism,” in this sense, is an act of violence carried out by enemies of the U.S. government or its allies. Every government is against organized violence directed against itself. Even the Nazi regime made a huge issue out of the use of “terrorism” by anti-Nazi resistance fighters.

Chomsky feels passionately that what the U.S. government is doing is morally wrong. A moral response to the events of September 11 would have been to conduct a criminal investigation, arrest the alleged perpetrators, and try them in a court of law, as was done with the Oklahoma City bombing (an example he uses because it is analogous to what happened at the World Trade Center). An immoral response is to bomb a country and topple a government. The events of 9-11 serve essentially, in Chomsky’s view, as an excuse for terrorist acts by the U.S. government.

To make his point, he “translates” the propaganda name for post-911 U.S. foreign policy actions. Using language in a precise fashion, the best translation for the “War on Terrorism” would be “crimes against humanity.”

Chomsky feels strongly that we need to ask two questions. The first is: What caused this event? Most commentators explained the events by reference to the danger of Islamic fundamentalism and how “they” hate us for our Western values and technological development. The other explanation is that they are afraid of globalization and their response to globalization is to strike out at the United States, the leading representative of globalization. Chomsky dismisses these explanations as self-serving and obscurantist. We must look for the real reason, Chomsky argues, in U.S. policy toward the Arab and Muslim world.

The second question that must be asked is what are the likely consequences of various courses of action. The likely and easily predicted consequences of a military response will be to increase the number of people willing to resort to terrorism. The other likely consequence of a military response will be to strengthen the hand of the most “hard line” elements within our own country. In the end, the cycle of violence will escalate, as can be easily predicted from the historical record.

Chomsky has a wide-ranging intellect and he of course deals with other ideas besides the four basic propositions already mentioned. For instance, he discusses the likely impact on the anti-globalization struggle (probably negative), the historical uniqueness of the events (the first time since the War of 1812 that the continental U.S. has been attacked), the importance of the event (not that important except in the long run, except as a pretext for intervention), and other questions.

A very important point that Chomsky makes is that the events of 9-11 were immediately perceived by the Palestinians as a disaster for their cause.  By contrast, they were immediately seized on by the Israeli government as a “window of opportunity” to attack the Palestinians.

What Chomsky does not examine is the materialist basis for U.S. foreign policy, the social and economic roots of imperialism in the capitalist system. Still, 9-11 is a useful little book, one that should be widely read in these times of hyper-nationalism and intense ruling class propaganda. (According to a recent report in the New York Times, Chomsky’s book IS being widely read. The Times called it a “surprise bestseller.” And that is good news.)