Norman Finkelstein interview, Part II

Lou Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 13 19:56:18 MST 2001

Following the tragedy on September 11, Left-wing writer Christopher
Hitchens, criticised people like yourself and Noam Chomsky for their
'masochistic' response to the 'Islamic fascism' practised by Bin
Laden and his followers. What do you think an appropriate response
would be to the destruction of the World Trade Center?

(Incredulously) Well, my views are so conventional it is hard to
understand why Christopher Hitchens would point to me at all, and
frankly what Noam Chomsky had to say on the topic was interesting in
its insights, but his general view was utterly banal. You have to
look to the social and political roots of what happened, because if
we were just dealing with a bunch of lunatics on the loose, then the
whole question would be just a psychiatric and security question. We
would bring to psychiatrists to explain what is the source of this
lunacy, and we would rely on our security services to correct the
problem. But plainly, no one really believes this is strictly a
psychiatric or a policing problem, because there has been massive
social and political commentary trying to explain it. The moment you
have massive social and political commentary trying to explain a
phenomenon, then you know we are no longer dealing with a strictly
psychiatric question. When there were the Jim Jones mass suicides
there was no such commentary, as everyone knew they are a socially
and politically marginal cult, but nobody in their right mind would
say the Bin Laden phenomenon is something marginal. Everyone
understands that this is rooted in a deeper problem.

The next question is what are the sources of the problem? If you are
a mainstream conservative the usual answer is that the fundamental
source of the problem can be located in the Arab--Islamic world
loathing of modernity, freedom and all the virtues of enlightenment
and capitalist industry that the US stands for. If you are off the
mainstream, or on the Left end of the political system, you say the
main source of the problem is US foreign policy in the Middle East
which has evoked hatred among Arab-Islamic society because of US
crimes in Iraq, the US backed Israel crimes against the Palestinians,
and so forth. (Angrily) My point is that everyone, from whatever end
of the political spectrum, tries to locate the Bin Laden phenomenon
in some deeper social and political current, so for Mr. Hitchens to
come along and say that to explain (the attacks) is a form of
rationalisation--this is sheer idiocy! There is literally not a
single person, apart from Mr. Hitchens who tries to explain it in a
deeper social and political current, we may disagree on what this
current is, but we all realise that this is not Jim Jones, or the
Branch Dravidians.

What do you think of America's moral authority to spearhead a crusade
against terrorism?

If you understand terrorism to mean the targeting of civilian
populations in order to achieve political goals, then plainly the US
qualifies as the main terrorist government in the world today, if
only because of the sheer force it has at its disposal. I am not
claiming that another government were it to be in the position of the
US would act better, but given the predominant material and political
weight of the US today, means that they are going to be the main
terrorist state in the World today, and I think that's true.

I think I can safely assume that you are not a supporter of George
Bush, so did you vote for Ralph Nader or Al Gore in the last

I voted for Nader, and I have no doubts at all that it was the right
thing to do because the Nader candidacy was extremely energising and
a terrific phenomenon in American life, and I hope he continues.

What do you think of the prospects for the Green Party to become a
genuine Third Force in US Politics?

I think we are now heading for very dismal time. It seems like Bush
is launching a perpetual war. We endured the nightmare of the
destruction of Iraq, but at least that had a beginning and an end.
This current 'war' does not seem to have an end, and I think it is
even conceivable that it going to endure the remainder of my lifetime
and in this political climate it is very speculative to make any
meaningful predictions for the future.

How democratic is America given the enormous financial and media
powers with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo?

There are contradictory tendencies in American society. There's a
huge range of activities that one can engage in that mark it as a
quite free society. It's also true to say that the powers that be
have so much control over how people think that there are fewer and
fewer people make use of the rights and information available to
them. So I think that both are true. The amount of control exercised
by the ruling elites over the decisions, choices, lifestyles, and so
forth of American society mean that many of the rights and
information that is available are not accessed. I can say what I
wantthe worst that is going to happen to me is that I lose my job. I
am not going to get shot or put in a psychiatric hospital..though it
is also true to say that if a movement developed which actually tried
to use on a mass level the rights available, I suspect there would be
substantial repression.

If you attended Nader's rallies and speeches as I did, he was
delivering a very hard-hitting critique of US capitalism, I mean it
is as tough as you can really get and he was able to pull it off. No
one prevented him from holding his mass rallies. They prevented him
from appearing on TV, they excluded him from appearing on the
(presidential candidates) debate, but he was able to organise in
constituencies around the country. If it ever became a bigger
phenomenon, what would have happened . I don't know.

The Pro Israeli lobby has had spectacular success in getting its
version of events picked up by the media, with even the openly anti
Arab / pro Israel polemic 'Exodus' on the US school curriculum. Noam
Chomsky has even criticised liberal publications such as the New
Republic for being openly racist toward Arabs, and Rana Kabbani has
said that hating Arabs (and Muslims in particular) is the last
acceptable form of racism, would you agree?

I think that they are openly racist in that they say things about
Arabs that would not be permitted about other ethnic groups. These
people are not pro-Israel, but Israel serves an interest to the US
ruling elites and by that fact it serves a useful interest to
American Jewish organisations. The moment that Israel ceases to be an
interest, Israel will no longer be a concern of these organisations.

You said in your second book that one small Palestinian boy asked you
if it was true that Americans believed all Palestinians to be
animals, and you didn't answer not having the heart to tell him it
was. Yet you also said that Arabs should reach out to America to try
and build a counter consensus to Hollywood demonisations. Is this
really plausible given the perceptions in American of Arabs and

Nowadays nothing is possible with the events of September 11, a lot
of hard work over many years to try to build a counter consensus
disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center. I am utterly
pessimistic about the prospects now, but I did not think it was
impossible (before). Israel was suffering quite a number of major
public relations disasters, beginning with the Lebanon War, the first
Intifadah, and then the second Intifadah. As much as the mainstream
media tries to depict the reality in a manner that suits US-Israeli
interests, enough of the truth was coming through that Israel was
suffering a public relations disaster. There were some prospects, how
significant the prospects were we don't know, because not enough
effort was made in trying to exploit those prospects, but after
September 11 I don't think there is much hope.

I get the impression that you think that the West was in some way
responsible for the tragedy of September 11.

Lets put it this way. The so-called West, and really we're talking
about the United States, and to a lesser extent its pathetic puppy
dog in England, have a real problem on their hands. Regrettably, it's
payback time for the Americans and they have a problem because all
the other enemies since the end of World War Two that they pretended
to contend with .. were basically fabricated enemies. The Soviet
Union was a conservative bureaucracy by the end of World War Two,
which apart from the sphere of influence it carved out--mostly for
defensive reasons--was plainly in retrospect a stabilising force in
international affairs. Then the enemies that the US conjured up as
the Soviet Union fell into decline beginning in the early
1980`senemies like Libya, Iraq, narco-terrorists and so forththese
were basically enemies created by the United States to--among other
things--justify repressive policies around the world, and to inflate
its military budget. Now they do have a problem on their hands, and
its going to exact a cost from Americans. The American elites can
talk about honour and creativity until the cows come home, but it's
not going to be like the Iraq shooting fish in a barrel situation,
like they did when they destroyed Iraq in 1991. Frankly, part of me
says - even though everything since September 11 has been a
nightmare--'you know what, we deserve the problem on our hands
because some things Bin Laden says are true'. One of the things he
said on that last tape was that 'until we live in security, you're
not going to live in security', and there is a certain amount of
rightness in that. Why should Americans go on with their lives as
normal, worrying about calories and hair loss, while other people are
worrying about where they are going to get their next piece of bread?
Why should we go on merrily with our lives while so much of the world
is suffering, and suffering incidentally not with us merely as
bystanders, but with us as the indirect and direct perpetrators. So
that I think that you can summon up all the heroic and
self-aggrandizing rhetoric you want, but there is a problem facing
all of us now, and maybe it's about time that the United States
starts having to confront the same sort of problems that much of
humanity has had to confront on a daily basis for God knows how long.

Don Atapattu lives in Manchester, England.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 12/13/2001

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