Chomsky Replies to Hitchens

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Sep 29 23:39:45 MDT 2001


Chomsky Replies to Hitchens

By Noam Chomsky

Note: Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in the Nation, and a subsequent
comment on the Nation web site.and among those he attacked in his
fulminations, was Noam Chomsky. Here, Chomsky replies...

I have been asked to respond to recent articles by Christopher Hitchens
(webpage, Sept. 24; _Nation_, Oct. 8), and after refusing several times,
will do so, though only partially, and reluctantly. The reason for the
reluctance is that Hitchens cannot mean what he is saying. For that
reason
alone -- there are others that should be obvious -- this is no proper
context for addressing serious issues relating to the Sept. 11
atrocities.

That Hitchens cannot mean what he writes is clear, in the first place,
from
his reference to the bombing of the Sudan. He must be unaware that he is
expressing such racist contempt for African victims of a terrorist crime,
and cannot intend what his words imply. This single atrocity destroyed
half
the pharmaceutical supplies of a poor African country and the facilities
for
replenishing them, with an enormous human toll. Hitchens is outraged that
I
compared this atrocity to what I called "the wickedness and awesome
cruelty"
of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (quoting Robert Fisk), adding that
the
actual toll in the Sudan case can only be surmised, because the US
blocked
any UN inquiry and few were interested enough to pursue the matter. That
the
toll is dreadful is hardly in doubt.

Hitchens is apparently referring to a response I wrote to several
journalists on Sept. 15, composite because inquiries were coming too fast
for individual response. This was apparently posted several times on the
web, as were other much more detailed subsequent responses. Assuming so,
in
the brief message Hitchens may have seen, I did not elaborate, assuming
--
correctly, judging by subsequent interchange -- that it was unnecessary:
the
recipients would understand why the comparison is quite appropriate. I
also
took for granted that they would understand a virtual truism: When we
estimate the human toll of a crime, we count not only those who were
literally murdered on the spot but those who died as a result, the course
we
adopt reflexively, and properly, when we consider the crimes of official
enemies -- Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, to mention the most extreme cases. If
we
are even pretending to be serious, we apply the same standards to
ourselves:
in the case of the Sudan, we count the number who died as a direct
consequence of the crime, not just those killed by cruise missiles.
Again, a
truism.

Since there is one person who does not appear to understand, I will add a
few quotes from the mainstream press, to clarify.

A year after the attack, "without the lifesaving medicine [the destroyed
facilities] produced, Sudan's death toll from the bombing has continued,
quietly, to rise... Thus, tens of thousands of people -- many of them
children -- have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other
treatable diseases... [The factory] provided affordable medicine for
humans
and all the locally available veterinary medicine in Sudan. It produced
90
percent of Sudan's major pharmaceutical products... Sanctions against
Sudan
make it impossible to import adequate amounts of medicines required to
cover
the serious gap left by the plant's destruction.... [T]he action taken by
Washington on Aug. 20, 1998, continues to deprive the people of Sudan of
needed medicine. Millions must wonder how the International Court of
Justice
in The Hague will celebrate this anniversary" (Jonathan Belke, _Boston
Globe_, Aug. 22, 1999).

"[T]he loss of this factory is a tragedy for the rural communities who
need
these medicines" (Tom Carnaffin, technical manager with "intimate
knowledge"
of the destroyed plant, Ed Vulliamy et al., London _Observer_, 23 Aug.
1998).

The plant "provided 50 percent of Sudan's medicines, and its destruction
has
left the country with no supplies of choloroquine, the standard treatment
for malaria," but months later, the British Labour government refused
requests "to resupply chloroquine in emergency relief until such time as
the
Sudanese can rebuild their pharmaceutical production" (Patrick Wintour,
_Observer_, 20 Dec. 1998).

And much more.

Proportional to population, this is as if the bin Laden network, in a
single
attack on the US, caused "hundreds of thousands of people -- many of them
children -- to suffer and die from easily treatable diseases," though the
analogy is unfair because a rich country, not under sanctions and denied
aid, can easily replenish its stocks and respond appropriately to such an
atrocity -- which, I presume, would not have passed so lightly. To regard
the comparison to Sept. 11 as outrageous is to express extraordinary
racist
contempt for African victims of a shocking crime, which, to make it
worse,
is one for which we are responsible: as taxpayers, for failing to provide
massive reparations, for granting refuge and immunity to the
perpetrators,
and for allowing the terrible facts to be sunk so deep in the memory hole
that some, at least, seem unaware of them.

This only scratches the surface. The US bombing "appears to have
shattered
the slowly evolving move towards compromise between Sudan's warring
sides"
and terminated promising steps towards a peace agreement to end the civil
war that had left 1.5 million dead since 1981, which might have also led
to
"peace in Uganda and the entire Nile Basin." The attack apparently
"shattered...the expected benefits of a political shift at the heart of
Sudan's Islamist government" towards a "pragmatic engagement with the
outside world," along with efforts to address Sudan's domestic crises,"
to
end support for terrorism, and to reduce the influence of radical
Islamists
(Mark Huband, _Financial Times_, Sept. 8, 1998).

In this respect, we may compare the crime in the Sudan to the
assassination
of Lumumba, which helped plunge the Congo into decades of slaughter,
still
continuing; or the overthrow of the democratic government of Guatemala in
1954, which led to 40 years of hideous atrocities; and all too many
others
like it.

One can scarcely try to estimate the colossal toll of the Sudan bombing,
even apart from the probable tens of thousands of immediate Sudanese
victims. The complete toll is attributable to the single act of terror --
at
least, if we have the honesty to adopt the standards we properly apply to
official enemies.

Evidently, Hitchens cannot mean what he said about this topic. We can
therefore disregard it.

To take another example, Hitchens writes that "I referred to the "the
whole
business [of the 1999 war] as a bullying persecution of - the Serbs!" As
he
knows, this is sheer fabrication. The reasons for the war that I
suggested
were quoted from the highest level US official justifications for it,
including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and the final summary
presented to Congress by Secretary of Defense William Cohen. We can
therefore also disregard what Hitchens has to say about this topic.

As a final illustration, consider Hitchens's fury over the "masochistic
e-mail...circulating from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter," who
joined
such radical rags as the _Wall Street Journal_ in what he calls
"rationalizing" terror -- that is, considering the grievances expressed
by
people of the Middle East region, rich to poor, secular to Islamist, the
course that would be followed by anyone who hopes to reduce the
likelihood
of further atrocities rather than simply to escalate the cycle of
violence,
in the familiar dynamics, leading to even greater catastrophes here and
elsewhere. This is an outrage, Hitchens explains, because "I know
already"
about these concerns -- a comment that makes sense on precisely one
assumption: that the communications were addressed solely to Hitchens.
Without further comment, we can disregard his fulminations on these
topics.

In one charge, Hitchens is correct. He writes that "The crime [in the
Sudan]
was directly and sordidly linked to the effort by a crooked President to
avoid impeachment (a conclusion sedulously avoided by the Chomskys and
Husseinis of the time)." It's true that I have sedulously avoided this
speculation, and will continue to do so until some meaningful evidence is
provided; and have also sedulously avoided the entire obsession with
Clinton's sex life.

>From the rest, it may be possible to disentangle some intended line of
argument, but I'm not going to make the effort, and fail to see why
others
should. Since Hitchens evidently does not take what he is writing
seriously,
there is no reason for anyone else to do so. The fair and sensible
reaction
is to treat all of this as some aberration, and to await the return of
the
author to the important work that he has often done in the past.

In the background are issues worth addressing. But in some serious
context,
not this one.




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