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Chomsky: War Drums Beating in the Age of Terror

America's violent response to September 11 has only served to heighten the risk of further terrorist attacks.
War drums beating in the age of terror
September 11, 2003


America's violent response to September 11 has only served to heighten the risk of further terrorist attacks, says Noam Chomsky.

Amid the aftershocks of suicide bombings in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Najaf, and countless other horrors since September 11, it is easy to understand why many believe that the world has entered a new and frightening "age of terror", the title of a recent collection of essays by Yale University scholars and others. However, two years on, the United States has yet to confront the roots of terrorism, has waged more war than peace and has continually raised the stakes of international confrontation.

On September 11, the world reacted with shock and horror, and sympathy for the victims. But it is important to bear in mind that for much of the world, there was a further reaction: "Welcome to the club." For the first time in history, a Western power was subjected to an atrocity of the kind that is all too familiar elsewhere.

Any attempt to make sense of events since then will naturally begin with an investigation of US power - how it has reacted and what course it might take. Within a year, Afghanistan was under attack. Those who accept elementary moral standards have some work to do to show that the US and Britain were justified in bombing Afghans to compel them to turn over people suspected of criminal atrocities, the official reason given when the bombings began.

Then in September 2002 the most powerful state in history announced a new National Security Strategy, asserting that it would maintain global hegemony permanently. Any challenge would be blocked by force, the dimension in which the US reigns supreme.

At the same time, the war drums began to beat to mobilise the population for an invasion of Iraq. And the campaign opened for the mid-term congressional elections which would determine whether the Administration would be able to carry out its radical international and domestic agenda.

The final days of 2002, foreign policy specialist Michael Krepon wrote, were "the most dangerous since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis", which Arthur Schlesinger described as "the most dangerous moment in human history." Krepon's concern was nuclear proliferation in "Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the Indian subcontinent", an "unstable nuclear proliferation belt stretching from Pyongyang to Baghdad". Bush Administration initiatives last year and this year have only increased the threats in and near this unstable belt.

The National Security Strategy declared that the US - alone - has the right to carry out "preventive war": preventive, not pre-emptive, using military force to eliminate a perceived threat, even if invented or imagined. Preventive war is simply the "supreme crime" condemned at Nuremberg.

From early September last year, the Administration issued grim warnings about the danger that Saddam Hussein posed to the US, with broad hints that Saddam was linked to al-Qaeda and involved in the September 11 attacks. The propaganda assault helped enable the Administration to gain some support from a frightened population for the planned invasion of a country known to be virtually defenceless, and a valuable prize at the heart of the world's major energy system.

Last May, after the putative end of the war in Iraq, George Bush declared on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln that he had won a "victory in the war on terror (by having) removed an ally of al-Qaeda." But September 11, 2003, arrives with no credible evidence for the alleged link between Saddam and his bitter enemy Osama bin Laden. And the only known link between the victory and terrorism is that the invasion of Iraq seems to have increased al-Qaeda recruitment and the threat of terrorism.

The Wall Street Journal recognised that Bush's carefully staged Abraham Lincoln extravaganza marked "the beginning of his 2004 re-election campaign", which the White House hoped would "be built as much as possible around national security themes". If the Administration lets domestic issues prevail, it is in deep trouble. Meanwhile bin Laden remains at large. And the source of the post-September 11 anthrax terror is unknown - an even more striking failure, given that the source is assumed to be domestic. The Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are still missing, too.

For the second anniversary and beyond, we basically have two choices. We can march forward with confidence that the global enforcer will drive evil from the world, much as the president's speech writers declare, plagiarising ancient epics and children's tales. Or we can subject the doctrines of the proclaimed grand new era to scrutiny, drawing rational conclusions, perhaps gaining some sense of the emerging reality.

The wars that are contemplated in the war on terror are to go on for a long time. "There's no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland," Bush announced last year. That's fair enough. Potential threats are limitless. And there is strong reason to believe that they are becoming more severe as a result of Administration lawlessness and violence.

We should also be able to appreciate recent comments on the matter by Ami Ayalon, the 1996-2000 head of Shin Bet, Israel's general security service, who observed that "those who want victory" against terrorism without addressing underlying grievances "want an unending war". The observation generalises in obvious ways.

The world has good reason to watch what is happening in Washington with fear and trepidation. The people who are best placed to relieve those fears, and to lead the way to a more hopeful and constructive future, are the people of the US, who can shape the future.

Noam Chomsky is a political activist, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and author, most recently, of Middle East Illusions, 9-11 and Power and Terror.

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