Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 4/11
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These tasks have been well within the capacity of the media and the terrorologists.26 The U.S. role is easily excised; after all, the phrase "U.S. terrorism" is an oxymoron, on a par with "thunderous silence" or "U.S. aggression." Israeli state terrorism escapes under the same literary convention, Israel being a client state, though it is recognized that there were Jewish terrorists in a distant and forgotten past. This fact can be placed in proper perspective by following the suggestion of the editor of a collection of scholarly essays, who invokes the plausible distinction between "morally unacceptable terrorist attacks" on civilians and more ambiguous attacks on agents of authority and persecution. "We would therefore distinguish sharply between the Irgun Zvai Leumi's attacks on British soldiers and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's violence against airline passengers traveling to Israel."27

One can imagine a different formulation, for example, a sharp distinction between the attacks against Israeli and U.S. soldiers by Arabs who are termed "terrorists," and the many murderous attacks on Arab civilians by the Irgun Zvai Leumi, and the Israeli army in later years. But that would hardly create a proper image for a sound and sober analysis of "the consequences of political violence."

The great significance of international terrorism as an ideological instrument is illustrated by the reaction when someone breaks ranks and documents the part that the United States and its clients have played in conducting, organizing, and supporting international terrorism. If such work cannot simply be ignored, it elicits virtual frenzy -- "deranged," "absurd," and "fantasies" are some phrases drawn from 1988 commentary, unaccompanied by even a semblance of an argument. Such reactions are not without interest, and merit some thought.

There are three positions that one might take with regard to terrorism: (1) We can attribute it to official enemies, whatever the facts. (2) We can dismiss the entire discussion of terrorism as ideologically motivated nonsense, not worthy of attention. (3) We can take the phenomenon seriously, agree that terrorism warrants concern and condemnation, investigate it, and let the chips fall where they may. On rational assumptions, we dismiss the first and accept the third. The second position is at least arguable, though in my judgment wrong; I think there is every reason to take terrorism seriously, and the concept is as clear as most that enter into political discourse.

But considerations of rationality are not pertinent. The first and wholly irrational position is the standard one in the media and the literature of terrorology, overwhelmingly dominant. The second position is regarded as more or less tolerable, since it absolves the United States and its clients from blame apart from their attempts at ideological manipulation. The third position, in contrast, is utterly beyond the pale, for when we pursue it, we quickly reach entirely unacceptable conclusions, discovering, for example, that Miami and Washington have been among the major world centers of international terrorism from the Kennedy period until today, under any definition of terrorism -- whether that of the U.S. Code, international conventions, military manuals, or whatever.

A variant of the first position, still tolerable though less so than the pure form, is to argue that it is unfair to condemn Palestinians, Lebanese kidnappers, etc., without considering the factors that led them to these crimes. This position has the merit of tacitly accepting -- hence reinforcing -- the approved premises as to the origins of the plague. The second position can be made still more palatable by restricting it to a psychocultural analysis of the Western obsession with terrorism, avoiding the institutional factors that led to the choice of this marvellously successful public relations device in the 1980s (an analysis of such institutional factors, readily discernible, can be dismissed with the label "conspiracy theory," another familiar reflex when it is necessary to prevent thought and protect institutions from scrutiny). The idea that talk of terrorism is mere confusion provides a useful fall-back position in case the role of the United States is exposed. One can, in short, adopt this device to dismiss those who pursue the unacceptable third option as hopeless fanatics and conspiracy theorists, and then return to the favored first position for the interpretation of ongoing events.

The first position, simple and unsubtle, completely dominates public discussion, the media, and what is regarded as the scholarly literature. Its dominance and utility are obvious at every turn. To select an example from late 1988, consider the refusal of the State Department to permit Yasser Arafat to address the United Nations in November. The official grounds were that his visit posed a threat to U.S. security, but no one pretended to take that seriously; even George Shultz did not believe that Arafat's bodyguards were going to hijack a taxi in New York or take over the Pentagon (it is, perhaps, of some interest that no one cared that the official rationale was unworthy even of refutation, but let us put that aside). What was taken seriously was the story that accompanied the spurious reasons offered: that Arafat was not permitted to set foot on U.S. soil because of the abhorrence for terrorism on the part of the organizers and supporters of the contra war, government-run death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, the bombing of Tripoli, and other notable exercises in violence -- all of which qualify as international terrorism, or worse, if we are willing to adopt the third position on the matter of terrorism, that is, the position that is honest, rational, and hence utterly unthinkable.

As the invitation to Arafat was being considered, Senator Christopher Dodd warned that if Arafat were permitted to address the General Assembly, Congress would cut off U.S. funding for the United Nations. "I think you can't underestimate the strong feeling in this country about terrorism," Dodd informed the press; a leading dove, Dodd has ample knowledge of Central America and the agency of terror there. Explaining "Shultz's `No' to Arafat," the front-page New York Times headline reads: "Personal Disgust for Terrorism Is at Root of Secretary's Decision to Rebuff the P.L.O." The article goes on to describe Shultz's "visceral contempt for terrorism." Times Washington correspondent R.W. Apple added that Mr. Shultz "has waged something of a personal crusade against terrorism," which "has always mattered so intensely to Mr. Shultz."28 The press, television, and radio either expressed their admiration for Shultz for taking such a forthright stand against the plague of terrorism, or criticized him for allowing his understandable and meritorious rage to overcome his statesmanlike reserve.

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26 See appendix V, section 2.

27 Martha Crenshaw, ed., introduction, Terrorism, Legitimacy and Power: The Consequences of Political Violence (Wesleyan, 1983).

28 Dodd, AP, Nov. 25; Shultz, Robert Pear, NYT, Nov. 28, 1988. An accompanying article by Alan Cowell refers to the "protestations of outrage" on the part of the Arab nations after Arafat was excluded. Shultz feels genuine "visceral outrage"; Arabs produce "protestations," perhaps merely for show. Apple, Dec. 15, 1988.