Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 3/8
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This heartfelt concern over the sanctity of borders is most impressive -- even if somewhat tainted by the curious conception of a border as a kind of one-way mirror, so that its sanctity is not violated by CIA supply flights to the proxy forces who invade Nicaragua from their Honduran bases, or by U.S. surveillance flights over Nicaraguan territory to guide and direct them, among other crimes. Putting aside these matters, we can assess the seriousness of the concern by turning to the results of a controlled experiment that history obligingly constructed. Just at the time that the Free Press was consumed with rage over this latest proof of the aggressiveness of the violent Communist totalitarians, with major stories and angry commentary, the U.S. client state of Israel launched another series of its periodic operations in Lebanon. These operations were north of the sector of southern Lebanon that Israel has "virtually annexed" as a "security zone," integrating the area with Israel's economy and "compelling" its 200,000 Lebanese inhabitants "to provide soldiers for the South Lebanon army," an Israeli mercenary force, by means of an array of punishments and inducements.18 The Israeli operations included bombing of Palestinian refugee camps and Lebanese towns and villages with large-scale destruction, dozens killed and many wounded, including many civilians. These operations were barely reported, and there was no noticeable reaction.

The only rational conclusion is that the outrage over the vastly less serious and far more justified Nicaraguan incursion was entirely unprincipled, mere fraud.

The U.S. government is happy to explain why it supports Israeli violence deep inside Lebanon: the grounds are the sacred inherent right of self-defense, which may legitimately be invoked by the United States and its clients, under quite a broad interpretation -- though not, of course, by others, in particular, by victims of U.S. terror. In December 1988, just as Yasser Arafat's every gesture was being closely scrutinized to determine whether he had met the exacting U.S. standards on terrorism, to which we return, Israel launched its twenty-sixth raid of the year on Lebanon, attacking a base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine near Beirut. As is common, there was no attempt to provide a plausible pretext. "The Israelis were not in hot pursuit of terrorists," the London Guardian observed, "nor did they have their usual excuse of instant vengeance: they just went ahead and staged a demo" to prove that "the iron fist is in full working order." "The motive for the demonstration was obviously a show of strength." This "spectacular display," complete with "paratroops, helicopters, and gunboats," was "a militarily unjustifiable (and therefore politically motivated) combined operation." The timing explains the political motivation: the raid was carried out on the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, where Israel imposed "a massive military presence, a curfew and strict censorship" to block "a commemorative general strike." In addition to this obvious political motivation, "one may also discern a calculated attempt to undermine Mr Arafat" and his unwelcome moves towards political accommodation, by strengthening the hand of militants within the PLO.19

The Israeli attack was brought to the U.N. Security Council, which voted 14 to 1, with no abstentions, for a resolution that "strongly deplored" it. Ambassador Patricia Byrne justified the U.S. veto on the grounds that the "resolution would deny to Israel its inherent right to defend itself" from "attacks and reprisals that have originated on the other side" of the border. A fortiori, Nicaragua is entitled to carry out massive and regular attacks deep inside Honduras, and indeed to set off bombs in Washington. Note that such actions would be far more justified than those that the United States defends in the case of its client, as is obvious from comparison of the level of the provocation. Needless to say, this truth is inexpressible, indeed unthinkable. We therefore conclude that media commentary concerning Nicaragua is just as hypocritical as the pretense of the state authorities, from whom one expects nothing else.20

The absence of comment on the Israeli actions or even serious reporting is perhaps understandable. These operations were, after all, rather muted by Israeli standards. Thus, they did not compare with the murderous "Iron Fist" operations in Lebanon in 1985; or the bombing of villages in the Bekaa valley in January 1984, with 100 killed and 400 wounded in one raid, mostly civilians, including 150 children in a bombed-out schoolhouse; or the attack on an UNRWA school in Damour in May 1979 by an Israeli F-16 that dropped cluster bombs, leaving forty-one children dead or wounded. These were reported, but without affecting the elevated status of "this tiny nation, symbol of human decency," as the editors of the New York Times described Israel during a peak period of the repression of the Palestinian uprising with beatings, killings, gassing, and collective punishment, "a country that cares for human life," in the admiring words of the Washington Post editors in the wake of the Iron Fist atrocities.21 The fact that Israel maintains a "security zone" in southern Lebanon controlled by a terrorist mercenary army backed by Israeli might also passes without notice, as does Israel's regular hijacking of ships in international waters and other actions that are rarely even reported, and might perhaps arouse a whisper of protest in the case of "worthy victims."22 If Soviet Jews were to suffer the treatment meted out regularly to Arabs, or if some official enemy such as Nicaragua were to impose repressive measures approaching those that are standard in this "symbol of human decency," the outcry would be deafening.

I will return to some further observations on the extraordinary protection the media have provided Israel while depicting its enemies, particularly the PLO, as evil incarnate, committed only to terror and destruction; and to the remarkable feats of "historical engineering" that have been performed, year by year, to maintain the required image.23

During Israel's March 1988 operations, there was no question of hot pursuit, and Israel is not an impoverished country attempting to survive the terrorist attack of a superpower and its lethal economic warfare. But Israel is a U.S. client, and therefore inherits the right of aggression. Nicaragua, in contrast, is denied the right even to drive attacking forces out of its own territory, on the tacit assumption that no state has the right to defend itself from U.S. attack, another crucial doctrine that underlies responsible debate.

It is remarkable to see how deeply the latter doctrine is entrenched. Thus, nothing arouses greater hysteria in the United States than reports that Nicaragua is planning to obtain MiG fighters. When the Reaganites floated such reports as part of the campaign to eliminate the minimal danger of honest reporting of the unwanted Nicaraguan elections in November 1984, even outspoken doves warned that the U.S. would have to bomb Nicaragua to destroy the invented MiGs, because "they're also capable against the United States," a dire threat to our security (Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas).24 In another propaganda coup of December 1987, a Sandinista defector was produced with elaborate accompanying fanfare in the media on his "revelations" about Sandinista intentions, the most stunning of which was that Nicaragua was hoping to obtain jet planes to defend its territory from U.S. attack, an intolerable outrage. It is, of course, well understood that Nicaragua had no other way to prevent the CIA from supplying the forces it directs within Nicaragua, or to interfere with the U.S. surveillance flights to provide these forces with up-to-the-minute intelligence on Nicaraguan troop deployments so that they could safely attack "soft targets" (i.e., barely defended civilian targets) in accordance with Pentagon and State Department directives. But no such reflections disturbed the display of indignation over this latest proof of Communist aggressiveness.25

The logic is clear: Nicaragua has no right of self-defense. It is intolerable, tantamount to aggression, for Nicaragua to interfere with U.S. violence and terror by presuming to protect its airspace, or by defending the population against the U.S. proxy forces, "the democratic resistance" of public rhetoric. For the same reason, the report by the Sandinista defector that Nicaragua intended to reduce its military forces while providing light arms to the population for defense against possible U.S. invasion elicited further outrage as it was transmuted by the Free Press into a threat to conquer the hemisphere.

This doctrine of the elite consensus is, again, highly revealing, as is the fact that its meaning cannot be perceived. We might imagine the reaction if the Soviet Union were to respond in a similar way to the far more serious threat to its security posed by Denmark or Luxembourg.

Go to the next segment.

18 Davar, July 8, 1988. For a detailed record of the reporting of these operations, see appendix III.

19 Manchester Guardian Weekly (London), Dec. 18, 1988. Julie Flint reports from Lebanon in the same issue that this "bizarre and probably bungled operation" left no visible effects except for the remnants of human bodies and "two dead mastiffs strapped with explosives." An Israeli officer was killed, elite commandoes had to be rescued clinging to helicopter skids after they abandoned their equipment and arms (which were proudly exhibited in Lebanon), and there is "no evidence that the Israelis destroyed a single ammunition dump -- and these hills are littered with them -- or inflicted casualties that would justify the size of the attack force." The failure of the raid may reflect the decline in combat effectiveness of the Israeli forces that has been a source of much concern in military circles for some years, and that has probably accelerated as the military forces have been assigned the mission of terrorizing defenseless civilians in the territories.

20 AP, Dec. 14; NYT, Dec. 15, 1988. The brief Times report quotes the Lebanese ambassador as saying that Israel "attaches no concern or importance to non-Israeli peoples." What he actually said is that Israel could hardly be expected to "show any mercy to animals" given that it attaches no importance to non-Israeli people. He had repeated the charge that Israeli forces used dogs strapped with explosives and tear gas canisters to attack people hidden in underground tunnels, then adding the comment of which a few words reached print. Dead Dobermans with explosives strapped to their body had been displayed by guerrillas (William Tuohy, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 10, 1988; see preceding note).

21 NYT, Feb. 19, 1988; WP, June 30, 1985. On the attack on the school in Damour, see Liston Pope, City Sun, June 1-7, 1988; Pope, who was teaching English at the school, writes that the attack, one of many, received 20 words in the New York Times. See my Pirates and Emperors, chapter 2, on the Iron Fist operations and the Bekaa valley bombings.

22 See chapter 5, below, and Pirates and Emperors, chapter 2, for many details.

23 Ibid., chapters 1, 2, and Fateful Triangle, on media protection of Israel. For updates, see my articles in Z Magazine, May, June 1988, and "The U.S. and the Middle East," talk given at Tel Aviv university in April 1988, to appear in Zachary Lockman and Joel Beinin, eds., Intifada: the Palestinian Uprising against Israeli Occupation (South End, 1989).

24 Boston Globe, Nov. 9, 1984.

25 For details, see my article in Z Magazine, March 1988.