Is Noam Chomsky Right or Wrong?

Noam Chomsky was asked, ‘What do you think of the U.S. increased reliance—President Obama increasingly using drones to attack people in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond?’

He answered: ‘Good comment about that made by Yochi Dreazen. He’s the military correspondent—was the military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is now for some other outfit, a military analyst. He pointed out accurately—this after the killing of Osama bin Laden, which he approved of, but he said that there’s an interesting difference between Bush and Obama. I mean, I’m now paraphrasing in my own terms, not his terms, so the way I would have said it is: Bush—if Bush, the Bush administration, didn’t like somebody, they’d kidnap them and send them to torture chambers; if the Obama administration decides they don’t like somebody, they murder them, so you don’t have to have torture chambers all over.

Actually, that tells us something else. Just take a look at the first Guantánamo detainee to go to trial under Obama. Trial means military commission, whatever that is. The first one was a very interesting case and tells us a lot. The first one was Omar Khadr. And what was his crime? His crime was that when he was 15 years old, he tried to defend his village against an attack by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. So that’s the crime, therefore he’s a terrorist. So he was sent to Bagram, then to Guantánamo, eight years in these torture chambers. And then he came up for trial under Obama. And he was given a choice: you can plead not guilty and stay in Guantánamo for the rest of your life, or you can plead guilty and get another eight years. So his lawyers advised him to plead guilty. Well, that’s justice under our constitutional law president, for a 15-year-old kid defending his village against an attacking army. And there was nothing said—the worst part is, there’s nothing said about it.

Actually, the same is true of the Awlaki killing, you know, this American cleric in Yemen who was killed by drones. He was killed. The guy next to him was killed. Shortly after, his son was killed. Now, there was a little talk about the fact that he was an American citizen: you shouldn’t just murder American citizens. But, you know, the New York Times headline, for example, when he was killed, said something like “West celebrates death of radical cleric.” First of all, it wasn’t death, it was murder. And the West celebrates the murder of a suspect. He’s a suspect, after all. There was something done almost 800 years ago called the Magna Carta, which is the foundation of Anglo-American law, that says that no one shall be subjected to a violation of rights without due process of law and a fair and speedy trial. It doesn’t say, if you think somebody’s a suspect, you should kill them.’


  1. 'Tis Himself says

    Chomsky is right in this particular instance.

    The reason why the Guantanamo prisoners are kept in Cuba rather than the US is that supposedly the Constitution and its rights only pertain to the US. So rights against torture, for speedy trials, etc. don’t apply to people in Guantanamo.

  2. daniel-sahn says

    There’s nothing at all even mildly controversial in what Noam Chomsky is saying. That it would naturally attract such controversy in the first place, in my own country the U.S.of A., that is what I find deeply unsettling.

  3. unbound says

    Seems pretty straightforward that Noam is right in his observations…i.e. I agree with daniel-sahn.

    Most people have the delusion that their home country is the best of the best and quickly turn a blind eye to the problems instead of confronting them head on. Like most other problems, the first step in getting better is to admit we have a problem.

    Houston, we have a problem.

  4. says

    It literally sickens me when ever I think of GitMo prisoners, who they were, how they were captured, and then [and are] treated, this poor 15 year old kid a tragic example. But I can’t see the problem with going after anyone, even an American, who actively work at executing more terrorists attacks. Many who rail against them might ponder that the same people we are trying to kill, and others like them, are killing far more innocents in their own lands than we ever will [excepting the abomination of shrubs Iraq war]. Does anyone know how many days go by, on average over the last 5 years or so, without some kind of suicide bombing in some Muslim country?

    In general, I usually agree with Chomsky, in most things I have heard out of him, as I become ever more embarrassed to be an American.

  5. says

    I’m not quite sure what we’re wondering if Chomsky is right about. If it’s the supposed trade-off between torture at Guantánamo and death by drone, then Dreazen’s sentiment only seems to apply if we presume that the Bush administration would not have increased drone use, or killed more people in such attacks, than Obama had they (or a similar administration) remained in power — which is a different issue than which has a worse track record on torture. Considering the other human rights abuses happily incurred by Bush, this strikes me as a somewhat mobile goalpost.

    If it’s his criticisms about Khadr’s treatment then they seem fair. Is it relevant to the question (about increased reliance on drones), though?

    If it’s a violation of due process then the point is moot if the person in question has resisted apprehension, i.e. waived due process by not turning themselves in. From what i’ve read, this is obviously the case with the Awlakis, but please clue me in if i’m wrong. (By the way, even Fox News discussed Awlaki’s U.S. citizenship; i’m not sure what Chomsky is driving at by claiming that this fact was ignored.)

    If, instead, it’s his general cynicism over U.S. military policy, which he implies has not improved with the change in administrations, then of course the context is much larger and includes which conflicts each administration got us into and how many people, of which affiliations, were killed in each. I don’t know how good i feel about the Obama administration by this metric, but i do feel better than i did about Bush.

  6. says

    Chomsky is right. Killing either by drone, or flown in task force is assassination. When one of the victims is a US citizen, things are even worse. As commander in chief Obama is responsible for assassinations.
    It could be envisaged that Obama could be put on trial for these events if there were world wide revolution, but in the meantime I hope Americans re elect Obama.

    I am sure Obama has insight into his own condition.

      • says

        Morally worse to a very slight, hair-splitting degree. Because there are specific laws protecting American citizens from their own government. We also have laws against wantonly killing foriegners, but we have rules when we can. Those rules probably would have been violated in this case, even if the person was not a US citizen. Morally, you could make a case that it doesn’t matter where they are from, and I’d agree most of the time. If the shooter and the person were both soldiers though, in uniform, on a battlefield, that would obviously change things. Like I said, splitting hairs.

      • says

        If you read a lot of chomsky it becomes obvious when he is saying something to point out the absurdity of it and when he is genuinely arguing for the idea. The idea that it is somehow worse to kill americans is the unexamined assumption behind the majority of internal debate about american foreign policy, so he says it outright to discuss the absurdity of foreign policy in light of that.

        I mean, the whole argument he is making is that if foreign people were treated as equals with americans all of these killings would be called murders and everyone would be outraged. It is difficult to think that he genuinely believes that it is morally worse to kill americans than anyone else in light of that.

  7. Corey says

    Noam usually makes sense and exemplifies measured thoughtful, despite what people love to say about him. The most controversial thing about him is that he is critical about Israel and U.S. foreign policy, and that he is an anarchist (albeit not remotely what most people think of when they hear the word anarchist). Putting aside the don’t-listen-to-that-nutty-liberal propaganda, I find him to be far less divisive or extreme in his viewpoints than many of the mainstream rhetors from cable tv and radio political entertainment.

  8. StevoR says

    Noam Chomsky is human.

    Like most humans (including me) he is sometimes rght and very often wrong.

    Very often too a mix of both.

    Right and wrong is often subjective and a lot more complicated than it seems.

    And most humans (including me) are pretty messed up.

    I don’t think there’s much doubt that Anwar Al-Awliki (& arguably his supporters and the people killed with him) was a horrible person, an evil man preaching evil and harmful misogniyst nonsense.

    I think realistically the world is better off without its Awlikis. And their followers.

    Yes, I know they’re human beings like me.

    Yes, the drone attacks raise difficult ethical questions.

    Obama isn’t perfect. He beats the alternatives.

    The US, Western way ain’t perfect either. It beats the alternatives too. Especially the Muslim theocratic Al Quaida alternative.

    War is an awful thing.

    I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does. Including Noam Chomsky.

    We all have our points of view. Our right to express that.

    Ultimately, I know there’s so much that I don’t know.

    That Chomsky doesn’t.

    Its a tough one.

    I’m not sorry Awliki is gone. I won’t miss him. The world .. often sucks.

    • Albert Bakker says

      I think the ethical questions drone attacks raise are primarily so difficult because those drones aren’t sent by other countries to hit American targets. Perhaps it is conceivable that might things one day be reversed thusly the answer to this vexing moral problem might suddenly seem a lot less complicated, perhaps even a lot less suitable to philosophize about grey areas.

    • says

      I don’t think there’s much doubt that Anwar Al-Awliki (& arguably his supporters and the people killed with him) was a horrible person, an evil man preaching evil and harmful misogniyst nonsense.

      I think realistically the world is better off without its Awlikis. And their followers.

      The argument is so not about if you think the deceased was a good guy or not. The argument is about the right of american politicians to decide for everyone else who dies or who gets tortured. Your post did nothing to address that core issue, the unsaid assumption in your post is that american exceptionalism is correct. It is the idea that americans get to decide these things for the rest of the world because we are somehow better than others (more moral, valiant, effective, whatever). Too bad it isn’t true!

      If you look at US military support over the years, the support generally goes to truly violent and antisocial leaders, people who intend genocide or torture for their citizens. You just don’t hear about how awful they are on the news or in history books (most of them anyway), like you do the awlikis of the world. If you had any familiarity with the US track record of supporting genocidal/torturers you would have difficulty making the “well we ARE killing the bad guys” argument with a straight face. The government always says it is supporting the right side and killing the bad ones, even when (like in vietnam) they claim to be defending a country against its own citizens, a mindfuck that is difficult to comprehend for anyone not properly indoctrinated. All governments make these arguments to justify their crimes, it is sad that you uncritically believe such transparent rubbish. Your arguments are ridiculous to anyone familiar with elementary facts about US aggression. I suggest you familiarize yourself with the actions of your leaders. It is so easy to be critical of the actions of others, but you have little power to change any of that. You have a chance at changing the behavior of your leaders here though, they should be the target of the majority of criticism as a result.

  9. says

    Noam chomsky consistently applies the moral standards our leaders espouse to their actions. This should be the expected course of debate in a free society rather than a controversy.

  10. Tang says

    Chomsky expects that every enemy soldier in wartime must go through the civil court system with its English notions of prisoner rights before any attempt may be made to halt their war activities. He is nuts. No war has ever been fought that way. Should the French have told the Wehrmacht to please proceed with their tanks to the nearest courthouse so they could be fined for trespassing? The notion is ridiculous.

    It is true that people who are pulled off the street and out of their homes to be accused of terrorist activities should have a right to defend themselves, and the US has failed to permit this, but these are not the people who Chomsky is talking about. He is talking about enemy soldiers and their commanders who are killed in enemy territory while working or fighting for the enemy. Awlaki was the CinC of al-Qaeda’s forces in Arabia, and he was killed in al-Qaeda territory (Yemen had no presence there for years). Killing him was completely justified.

    The Awlaki assassination was very much like the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto. It may not be seen as sporting and may not meet with someone’s personal code of martial honour, but there is nothing legally wrong with it. Awlaki’s US citizenship was irrelevant. Yamamoto was a former US resident and had gone to Harvard; if he had obtained US citizenship, it would have made no difference in whether his killing as a Japanese officer was justified.

    According to the Axis History website, eight American citizens were killed while fighting for Germany in World War II. No one ever considered it a war crime to kill them without a trial.

    Drones with human operators present no more moral or legal question than cruise missiles which present no more question than bombs dropped from an airplane. It reduces down to the same question of whether it is acceptable to walk up to somebody and stab them to death with a sword. In wartime, that is what usually happens when all peaceful attempts to resolve a dispute fail.

    A counterargument can be made that the US has not officially declared war since WWII. Two rebuttals, each sufficient, are that 1) Congress has authorized the use of military force, which is legally equivalent to a declaration of war and is how Congress chooses to declare war these days, and 2) al-Qaeda declared war on the US, so no counter-declaration is necessary.

    Finally, in the interest of humanist universalism, demand that Chomsky apply his own standards to al-Qaeda.

    • Albert Bakker says

      Yes well, perhaps you should one day decide to pick up a book of his or actually listen to what he actually says instead of the voices in your head. It is actually not Chomsky’s “expectations” that are ridiculous, but the straw men you ascribe to him and then attack are.

      You are welcome to abandon every pretense to paint the US as a nation under the rule of law, but instead as a bunch of war crazies out to kill everyone with war toys they deign dangerous and everyone stupid enough to be somewhere in the vicinity (or suspected vicinity) with an army of lawyers to cover their asses, but you should perhaps understand that other people start from a proposition very different from that. I think you would find such people among those who actually make these decisions in US government and military. It is mainstream after all.

      By the way: your link to eight American citizens who were killed in WWII were serving in the Waffen SS or perhaps in the Wehrmacht as it reads “they were killed during their service.” I don’t know exactly how this should have any relation to your argument whatsoever, but then again nothing much else of your argument has any bearing on reality.

      • Dan M. says

        Chomsky describes the killing of bin Laden as an “assassination” (at 2:54) of a “suspect” (3:07). While in this particular clip, he’s not expressing expectations that “every” soldier be treated as accused under civil law, he’s certainly expecting that bin Laden be treated as such.

        Bin Laden was the self-admitted and widely-reputed leader of an armed organization that killed thousands of people. That makes him unambiguously a military leader of a group that the US was at war with.

        Other than the ridiculing hyperbole, how has Tang mischaracterized Chomsky here? Chomsky wants to apply civil law to a military operation. You say that some people start from a different position then Tang’s description of conventional laws of war, and Chomsky is certainly one of those. But that doesn’t make him correct; it makes him one of the people who ignores the legal history of war.

        • Jesse says

          Actually, the issue isn’t giving Miranda readings to people while bombs are going off around you — that’s a canard. It’s the issue of whether we see bin Laden as a criminal or like a nation-state.

          That is, if we are to see him as a criminal, then you do what you do with criminals. When Tim McVeigh blew up the Murrah building we did not send troops to Michigan, we did not suddenly fire drone missiles at his hometown. The criminal justice system was seen as adequate to deal with him.

          The same is true of violent criminals in foreign countries who get extradited to the US.

          On the other hand, if we are treating bin Laden as a belligerent in war, that’s fine, but then our very own standards say that people are treated as POWs, not “disappeared” or simply executed on the spot. (I mean come on, those POW flags I see arguing essentially that there be an “accounting” of all the Vietnam War dead show how Americans seem to feel about this).

          Right now we are in a situation where the war on terror will never, ever end. And that means anyone taken to Guantanamo will never, ever leave there.

          I want to see the American who says the North Koreans are perfectly justified in taking people because you know, technically they are still at war with the US.

          I don’t shed any tears for bin Laden. But right now the situation is that the adminstration has said they can kill anyone, anywhere, for providing “support” to a “terrorist” organization. That means if you are a US citizen living abroad, and you print leaflets for somebody, yo can be killed if that somebody is defined as a terrorist. And who is a terrorist? Well, in the late 60s and early 70s it might have been those who opposed the Vietnam War. The FBI seems to think it could be old ladies in Code Pink. Terrorist means whatever some bureaucrat somewhere thinks it should mean, and there is no recourse or justice since all the information that would lead you to the person responsible is classified.

          Basically, if your politics offend someone in our government, our government has said it has the right to murder you anytime, anywhere.

          Before you flip out about how some of these people were evil and killed others, think about what happens if Iran, say, decides that the US — which has sponsored terror attacks in that country — were to apply that standard and lob a few drones at Washington. Think of the reaction.

        • Albert Bakker says

          “But that doesn’t make him correct; it makes him one of the people who ignores the legal history of war.”

          Not really, but lets set aside US centered legalistic quibbles aside for a moment. In another FT blog Dispatches From The Culture Wars, there’s an entry about an Iranian Rapper living in a foreign country, Shahin Nahjafi who pulled a Rushdie and is now for reasons that completely elude anyone with the remotest claim to sanity sentenced to death for singing about some shi’ite saint figure. Iran for the moment at least lacks US technological prowess and political power to coerce foreign governments to look the other way while business is taken care of. So their version of a drone will probably have distinct human features but be at least equally or maybe even more effectively remote controlled.

          And completely legal under Iranian law.

  11. Ben says

    Is it me or is the only reason the question–is he right or wrong–being asked, is because it’s Noam Chomsky doing the talking? Because he’s plainly right, it’s absurd to murder people on suspicion of terrorism, it’s absurd to think that Obama has had better policies than Bush and that we don’t live in a one-party system with two factions (look at the drone programs, indefinite detentions, signing the NDAA, keeping GitMo open, escalating Afghanistan presence, and lets not get into domestic surveillance, escalating raids on state-legal marijuana clinics, and the litany of other terrible Obama Admin policies at home and abroad), and it’s absurd to think that killing American citizens abroad gets a big uproar, but drop bombs on funerals in the Middle East and, oopsy, moving on to the next funeral and, oopsy, moving on to the next funeral and, oopsy. What’s a few score dead kids, ammirite? If you can’t tell, I think we’re living in a nightmare.

    • StevoR says

      @Ben :

      Because he’s plainly right, it’s absurd to murder people on suspicion of terrorism, [Emphasis added.]

      Its a lot more than mere suspicion of terrorism when it comes to Osama bin laden and Anwar Al Awliki. These are well known, notorious terrorists who are quite open and proud of that.

      There is no doubt of their guilt.

      Or of their desire to continue threatening atrocities against us unless they are stopped.

      Sometimes I think its better to be realistic and practical instead of overly idealistic and blind to the predictable consequences of doing things more humanely – which may end up killing more innocent civilians rather than taking out a few inarguably evil men.

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