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Noam Chomsky on the 9/11 Decade and the Assassination of Osama bin Laden: Was There an Alternative?

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Ten years ago, at a time when lawmakers from both sides of the aisle joined together to authorize endless war, Noam Chomsky’s was the leading voice to call for the United States to rethink its actions in the Middle East and across the globe. His 2001 book, simply titled “9-11,” became a surprise bestseller. The book collected a series of interviews Chomsky had given on the roots of the 9/11 attacks and his prescription for a just response. A decade later, Chomsky has just released an updated version titled “9-11: Was There an Alternative?” which refers to the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden and the continuity Chomsky sees between the Bush administration’s foreign policy and President Obama’s. “Right at this moment, Obama has succeeded in descending even below George W. Bush in approval in the Arab world,” says Noam Chomsky. “The policies change, but they’re hostile. We should understand where atrocities come from. They don’t come from nowhere. And if we’re serious, we should try to do something about what is the basis for them.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to mark the decade since the September 11th attacks in the United States, today we spend the hour with MIT professor, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author, Noam Chomsky.

In the months after 9/11, as the Bush administration attacked Afghanistan and geared up for the invasion of Iraq, Noam Chomsky released a small book that provided the definitive counter-narrative to the jingoism of the time. The book was called simply 9-11, a collected series of interviews Chomsky had given on the roots of the 9/11 attacks and his prescription for a just response. At a time when lawmakers from both sides of the aisle joined together to authorize endless war, Chomsky’s was the leading voice to call for a look in the mirror, for a rethinking of U.S. actions in the Middle East and across the globe. 9-11 went on to become a surprise bestseller.

Ten years later, Professor Chomsky has just released an updated version. It’s called 9-11: Was There an Alternative? “Was there an alternative?” refers to the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden and the continuity Chomsky sees between the Bush administration’s foreign policy and President Obama’s.

Today, we’ll speak with Noam Chomsky about the decade since 9/11, at a time when the U.S. is at war in several areas, at home in continued economic turmoil. Noam Chomsky has just returned from Iceland and Norway. He’s joining us from Boston, Massachussetts. And I’m joined here in New York for this interview by Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté, who covered the thwarted Gaza-bound aid flotilla in Greece.

Welcome, Aaron, joining me in this interview. It’s good to have you with us.

AARON MATÉ: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And thanks so much, Noam Chomsky, for being with us so soon after you’ve come back from your trip. Noam, why don’t we begin with this new book? You wrote 9-11 10 years ago, what become the definitive counter-narrative at the time. What did you feel was important to understand then, and now, with Was There an Alternative?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, as you mentioned, it wasn’t really a book, it was a collection of interviews, the ones that we were able to get transcripts for. Some of them we couldn’t.

There were a number of things that I thought had to be pointed out. By now, I think they’re hardly even controversial. But one was that the claim that the U.S. was being attacked because, as the president put it, they hate our freedoms was completely untenable. They hated our policy. In fact, it would be more accurate to say we hate their freedoms. There’s plenty of documentation about that, going back to the 1950s. Shortly after the president’s speech, the Pentagon had a study of this, and they concluded, yes, it’s not that they hate our freedoms, it’s they hate our policies.

And as I say, evidence about that is enormous, back to the '50s. So, for example, in 1958, President Eisenhower, in internal documents long since released, asked his—raised the question with his staff about why there's a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world. He said, not from the governments, but from the people. And the National Security Council, major planning body, had just released a study on this in which they said that they concluded that there’s a perception in the Arab world that the United States supports harsh, oppressive dictatorships and that the U.S. blocks democracy and development and that we do it because we want to keep control over their energy resources. And it went on to say that this is fairly accurate, and that’s pretty much what we should be doing, as long as the populations are kept quiet.

And so it goes on. I won’t run through the details, but so it goes on until the present. In fact, right at this moment, Obama has succeeded in descending even below George W. Bush in approval in the Arab world. It’s minuscule, few percent. And it’s the policies, same—the policies change, but they’re hostile. So, one thing is, we should understand where atrocities come from. They don’t come from nowhere. And if we’re serious, we should try to do something about what is the basis for them.

That’s been—the other issue, which was important, or I think we have a lot more evidence about it now, is that there probably were much more constructive alternatives. The attack, the attack on the—the 9/11 attack was pretty harshly criticized in the—throughout the Muslim world, but particularly in the jihadi movement—you know, fatwas from leading clerics, harsh condemnation. It would have been—it’s very likely that it would have been possible, then, to split the jihadi movement, to isolate al-Qaeda, to move to apprehend the suspects—and, of course, in our system of justice, theoretically, people are suspects unless they’re—until they’re sentenced—so, to apprehend the suspects, treat it as a criminal action, try to make use of the fact that there were—that there was tremendous antagonism to this even among the jihadi movement, and move on to a much more constructive relationship with the general Muslim-Arab world.

Well, that path wasn’t taken. The path that was taken was to lash out of violently, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. That simply was kind of following Osama bin Laden’s playbook. Actually, that was pointed out pretty quickly by people like Michael Scheuer, the—he didn’t identify himself then, has since—the CIA—head of the CIA task force that was tracking bin Laden. He ended up concluding the United States is bin Laden’s best ally. We’re helping—his goal was to mobilize the Muslim world around the fear that the United States was attacking Islam, was carrying out a crusade, they have to defend themselves. And we helped. The invasion of Iraq, particularly, gave a big shot in the arm to the jihadi extremists. It was predicted by U.S. and British intelligence agencies—that’s been released since—that the attack on Iraq would increase terror, and it did, by a factor of seven the first year, according to RAND Corporation quasi-governmental statistics.

Well, that’s what happens when you lash out violently without seeking to understand the nature of what’s happening and pursuing the options for diplomatic, peaceful, negotiated settlements, and treating crimes as crimes. When there’s a crime, you try to identify the likely perpetrators, apprehend them, bring them to—bring them to a fair trial. I mean, that—it’s very likely that that could have been done at the times. We don’t know. There were tentative offers from the Taliban to allow a trial of bin Laden. It was not pursued. It was—the U.S. just dismissed it: “We don’t talk to you.” Well, could that have succeeded? We can only speculate.

It truly could have been done on May 2nd, when U.S. commandos, Navy SEALs, apprehended bin Laden—defenseless, was with his wife, no arms—apprehended him and assassinated him, then dumped his body at sea. That’s kind of an action which is just bound to increase speculation, cynicism, doubt—quite different from what in fact should have been done. Actually, one of the leading British legal specialists, civil libertarian, who incidentally approved of the action, nevertheless pointed out that the way it was carried out was criminal and dangerous in its implications. He compared it to the treatment of the far more horrendous war criminals after the Second World War. He pointed out that the British government wanted to just kill the Nazi leaders, but the U.S. government, or Truman, insisted that they be tried. They followed. And, in fact, then came the Nuremberg trials, which, you know, had their flaws, but at least did bring out in public the nature of the crimes. They also led to a quite an important conclusion by the chief prosecutor, U.S. chief prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson. He informed the tribunal, in rather eloquent words, that, as he put it, we were handing these defendants a “poisoned chalice,” and if we ever sip from it, if we ever commit such crimes as aggression, one of the major crimes, then we must suffer the same punishment, or else, essentially, the trial is a farce. And that’s a choice we’ve had to make since. Not the right answer, in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Noam Chomsky, Professor Emeritus at MIT. He has a new book out, 10 years after his book 9-11. It is called 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, with a new essay written after the assassination of Osama bin Laden. We’ll come back to this discussion in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is MIT professor Noam Chomsky. His latest book is called 9-11: Was There an Alternative? That last question, “Was there an alternative?,” referring to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Aaron?

AARON MATÉ: Well, Noam, you mentioned the changes in discourse between 10 years ago and today. And actually, this issue of the reasons behind 9/11 came up last night at the Republican presidential debate. Congress Member Ron Paul of Texas drew boos from the crowd and a rebuke from other candidates on the podium when he criticized U.S. foreign policy in discussing the roots of 9/11.

REP. RON PAUL: We’re under great threat because we occupy so many countries. We’re in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world. We’re going broke. The purpose of al-Qaeda was to attack us, invite us over there, where they can target us. And they have been doing it. They have more attacks against us and the American interests per month than occurred in all the years before 9/11. But we’re there, occupying their land. And if we think that we can do that and not have retaliation, we’re kidding ourselves. We have to be honest with ourselves. What would we do if another country, say China, did to us what we do to all those countries over there?

So, this whole idea that the whole Muslim world is responsible for this and they’re attacking us because we’re free and prosperous, that is just not true. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been explicit. They have been explicit, and they wrote and said that we attacked—we attacked America because you had bases on our holy land in Saudi Arabia, you do not give Palestinians a fair treatment, and you have been bombing—I didn’t say that, I’m trying to get you to understand what the motive was behind the bombing. At the same time, we had been bombing and killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for 10 years. Would you be annoyed? If you’re not annoyed, then there’s some problem.

AARON MATÉ: That was Republican Congress Member Ron Paul of Texas speaking last night at the Republican presidential debate. Noam Chomsky, your response?

NOAM CHOMSKY: I think what he said is completely uncontroversial. You can read it in government documents. You can find it in polls. Maybe people don’t like to hear it, but, as I mentioned before, it goes back to the 1950s. Actually, right after 9/11, the Wall Street Journal, to its credit, did a study of privileged Muslims, sometimes called “monied Muslims,” people in the Muslim world who are deeply embedded in the U.S. global project—lawyers, directors of multinational corporations and so on, not the general population. And it was very much like what Eisenhower had—was concerned about, and the National Security Council, in the 1950s. There was a lot of antagonism to—a lot of antagonism to U.S. policy in the region, partly support of dictators blocking democracy and development, just as the National Security Council concluded in 1958.

Also, by then, by 2001, there were much more specific things: very much a lot of anger about the U.S. backing for the way—Israeli occupation of the Occupied Territories, settlements, the bitter oppression of the Palestinians, and also, something that isn’t discussed much here but meant a lot there—and remember, these are privileged Muslims, leaders of—those who kind of carry out, implement the general U.S. economic and social policies in the region. The other thing, besides the Israeli—support of Israeli crimes, was the sanctions against Iraq. This was 2001, remember. The sanctions against Iraq were brutal and destructive. They killed hundreds of thousands of people. Both of the international diplomats who administered the Oil-for-Food program, distinguished international diplomats—Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, in sequence—both of them resigned in protest because they regarded the sanctions as genocidal. They were carrying out a kind of a mass slaughter of Iraqis. They were strengthening Saddam Hussein. They were compelling the population to rely on him just for survival. And these were major crimes of the 1990s. And privileged Muslims, monied Muslims, in the Saudi Arabia, elsewhere, were bitterly opposed to this, not because they hate our freedoms, because they don’t like murderous and brutal policies.

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