The world is full of anti-American prophets. Yet none is quite so influential, and maddeningly odd, as Noam Chomsky. On one hand, no other living scholar is cited as often or widely. On the other hand, his commentaries on public issues are so twisted and offensive that they appear in publications such as Guernica, the self-described “magazine of art & politics” that no one had never heard of before Chomsky used it as a forum for his now-infamous May 6 essay, “My reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death.”
The most jaw-dropping statement in that article was that “we might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.” But Chomsky said some other bizarre things too.
Notably, the MIT linguist emphasized that bin Laden was only a “suspect” in the 9/11 attacks, and then, after some historical meandering, added: “There is much talk of bin Laden’s ‘confession,’ but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.” These words have appalled just about every sensible person, including Alan Dershowitz, who wrote on Wednesday: “Noam Chomsky has shown his true colors. . . . He apparently thinks Osama Bin Laden is the innocent victim of a cold-blooded murder. . . . If Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were not responsible for 9/11, who was?”
It so happens that I asked Noam Chomsky exactly this question two years ago, when I was doing research for my recently published book about 9/11 conspiracy theorists, Among The Truthers.
Chomsky-haters might assume that their bête noire is a hero within the “9/11 Truth Movement” (as the Bush-did-it crowd call themselves). In fact, the exact opposite is true.
I learned this the hard way at a 911 Truther event in Montreal in early 2009. (The speaker that night was Richard Gage, the head of a group called “Architects & Engineers for 911 Truth.”) When a fellow in the crowd mentioned Chomsky’s name during the Q&A, the cascade of catcalls was extraordinary. I later found out that Chomsky is reviled by conspiracy theorists because he refuses to use his intellectual fame to back their cause. They call Chomsky the dean of the “Left Gatekeepers”—and some have written lengthy tracts arguing that he is secretly an agent of right-wing corporate agents seeking to suppress the “truth” about 9/11. In at least one case that I have confirmed, a leading 9/11 Truther called Chomsky’s personal residence at 2:00 in the morning to challenge him on his views.
None of this serves to excuse the vile nonsense that Chomsky wrote in his Guernica essay. But it does put his views about 9/11 into context. He is not some garden-variety conspiracy theorist. Rather, he might better be described as a hard-boiled anti-American monomaniac who simply refuses to believe anything that any American leader says, whether on the subject of 9/11 or anything else.
When I asked Chomsky in 2009 about what he believes actually happened on September 11, 2001, he told me what he tells every Truther who’s come calling. He doesn’t realty think about the issue much, and he finds the obsessions of 9/11 Truthers to be a distraction from American crimes (as he describes them) that are far more serious than the destruction of the World Trade Center.
This is how Chomsky put it to a relentless 9/11 Truther who engaged him in a lengthy email debate on the issue:
Suppose that the government demolished WTC and lied about it. That would rank so low among [official American lies] that it would take some work even to go down the list to find it. Consider the lies that led to the massacre of perhaps 4-million people in Indochina and the destruction of three countries (not to speak of creating the Khmer Rouge). Or the lies that led to acquiescence in Reaganite terror, leaving some 200,000 tortured and mutilated bodies in Central America and four countries ruined, perhaps forever; along with 1.5 million corpses in the countries subjected to Reagan-backed South African depredations; and on, and on. Or … consider one of the very minor peccadilloes and lies of leaders, [Bill] Clinton’s destruction of most of the pharmaceutical industry in a poor African (mostly Muslim) country, with an estimated tens of thousands dead—small by our standards.
Noam Chomsky understandably drives his critics crazy. Yet he himself never seems to get angry, perhaps because he is so absolutely sure of his position. Even in his online email debates with conspiracy theorists—including one exchange I’ve seen that extends to 15,000-words—he exhibits the patience of Job, going back to his main thesis over and over again, long after ordinary souls would have thrown their hands up in exasperation and put their Truther correspondents on auto-delete.
And what is his main thesis? As the catalogue above indicates, it is this. In every historical episode in which the Americans have projected state power, the overall death toll must be laid at Washington’s door; and, moreover, should be treated as an intended (or at least predictable) consequence of American leaders who are either full-blown murderers or so recklessly indifferent to human life as to be morally indistinguishable from them. Chomsky’s entire career as a commentator on foreign affairs consists of building this catalogue in his mind—a catalogue that he rattles off with an idiot savant’s precision at the drop of a hat, and to which, apparently, Osama bin Laden’s death now has been added. Nowhere is there any indication that this list-maker pays much attention to the opposite side of the ledger—the millions upon millions of lives saved, either from death or slavery at the hands of totalitarian forces, in the fight against the Soviet Union and the more modern Islamist threat.
Nor does he seem to pay any regard to the freedom won in these struggles—freedom that allows people like him, and crackpot conspiracy theorists as well, to shout bloody murder at their government without any fear that SEAL Team 6 will invade the MIT campus and carry his body away.
Chomsky’s reaction to bin Laden’s death isn’t something new. It follows a pattern of monomania he has traced for decades. The only surprise is that anyone is still surprised.