Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix IV Segment 5/23
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2. The Obligation of Silence 20

As discussed earlier, a doctrine commonly held is that "we tend to flagellate ourselves as Americans about various aspects of our own policies and actions we disapprove of." The reality is rather different.

The prevailing pattern is one of indignant outrage over enemy crimes with much self-congratulatory appeal to high principle, combined with a remarkable ability "not to see" in the case of crimes for which we bear responsibility. In the West, there is an ample literature -- much of it fraudulent -- scornfully denouncing apologists or alleged apologists for the Soviet Union and Third World victims of U.S. intervention, but little about the behavior that is the norm: silence and apologetics about the crimes of one's own state and its clients, when a willingness simply to face the facts might make a substantial difference in limiting or terminating these abuses. This is standard procedure elsewhere as well. In the Soviet sphere, dissidents are condemned as apologists for Western crimes that are bitterly denounced by right-thinking commissars, exactly the pattern mimicked here.

A number of examples have been mentioned, and many have been discussed elsewhere. For evaluating U.S. political culture and the media, the cases to which a serious analyst will immediately turn, apart from the crimes of the United States itself, are those of its major clients; in recent years, El Salvador and Israel. The latter case has been a particularly illuminating one ever since Israel's display of power in 1967 elicited the adulation and awe that has persisted among American intellectuals. The apologetic literature is often little more than a parody of the Stalinist period.21

The elaborate campaigns of defamation launched against those who do not satisfy the requirements of the faithful also strike a familiar chord. The effect, as elsewhere, has been to intimidate critics and to facilitate the exercise of violence; and also to erect barriers in the way of a political settlement that has long been feasible.22

Israel can be secure that as long as it is perceived as a "strategic asset," it will remain "the symbol of human decency," as the New York Times described it while Israeli atrocities in the occupied territories reached such a level that the media briefly took serious notice. Israel can rely upon the American labor movement bureaucracy to justify whatever it does, to explain that although "in their effort to maintain order, Israeli Defense Forces have on occasion resorted to unnecessary force, doubt such incidents can be attributed to the inexperience of the Israeli army in riot control and other police functions, and to the frustrations of Israeli soldiers as they confront young Palestinians hurling stones and petrol bombs."23 To fully appreciate this statement and what it means, one must bear in mind that it followed one of the rare periods when the media actually gave some picture of atrocities of the kind that had been taking place for many years in the occupied territories, at a lesser but still scandalous level. John Kifner's reports in the New York Times were particularly good examples of professional journalism, consistent with his outstanding record over many years.

Apologetics of the AFL-CIO variety have served for twenty years to authorize harsh repression and endless humiliation, finally reaching the level of regular pogroms in which soldiers break into houses, smash furniture, break bones, and beat teenagers to death after dragging them from their homes; settler violence conducted with virtual impunity; and collective punishments, deportation, and systematic terror on orders of the Defense Ministry. As fashions change, leading figures in the campaign to protect state violence from scrutiny will doubtless create for themselves a different past, but the record is there for those who choose to see.

There has always been an Elie Wiesel to assure the reader that there are only some "regrettable exceptions -- immediately corrected by Israeli authorities," while he fulminates about the real crime: the condemnation of Israeli atrocities by public opinion. He tells us of the "dreamlike eyes" of the Israeli soldiers, perhaps those who had been described a few weeks earlier by reservists returning from service in the territories. They reported the "acts of humiliation and violence against Palestinian inhabitants that have become the norm, that almost no one seeks to prevent," including "shameful acts" that they personally witnessed, while the military authorities look the other way.24 Or perhaps Wiesel has in mind the soldiers who caught a ten-year-old boy, and, when he did not respond to their demand that he identify children who had thrown stones, proceeded "to mash his head in," leaving him "looking like a steak," as soldiers put it, also beating the boy's mother when she tried to protect him, only then discovering that the child was deaf, dumb, and mentally retarded. It "didn't bother" the soldiers, one participant in the beating said, and the platoon commander ordered them on to the next chore because "we don't have time for games." Or perhaps Wiesel's point is that "a picture of an Israeli soldier kicking an old Arab woman is no longer news," as the Hebrew press bitterly comments, speaking of those who accept atrocities as readily as the author of Against Silence, whose words could actually mitigate suffering and abuse if he were not committed to silence as the proper course.25 The fact that such consistent behavior over many years is treated with respect, even regarded as saintly, speaks volumes about Western culture.

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20 Addendum to p. 81.

21 For discussion of one example, see my review of Saul Bellow's To Jerusalem and Back, reprinted in Towards a New Cold War, a review that aroused such anger that it caused the suspension of the journal in which it originally appeared, so I was informed. For many more examples, see other chapters in the same book, my Peace in the Middle East? (Pantheon, 1974, chapter 5), and Fateful Triangle.

22 See appendix V, section 4.

23 "Statement by the AFL-CIO Executive Council on Israel, Feb. 16, 1988.

24 Wiesel, Op-Ed, NYT, June 23; Reuven Padhatzur, Ha'aretz, May 16, 1988. On Wiesel's long-held doctrine that it is obligatory to maintain silence in the face of atrocities of the state one loves, and that only those in power are in a position to know so that he must refrain from comment on atrocities, see Fateful Triangle and Turning the Tide. For his reiteration of the obligation of silence at the peak of the recent repression, see his article in Yediot Ahronot, Jan. 22, 1988, where he explains: "I refuse to criticize Israel, I have always refused to do this," among other similar sentiments, familiar from apologists for other states in earlier days. It would be unfair, however, to note Wiesel's practice without reference to those who now condemn him for his silence while effacing their own much worse record over many years. On the unacceptable facts, see the references of note 21. Wiesel, at least, had the integrity to adhere to his long-held position when it became unpopular.

25 Ze'ev Sachor, "Getting Accustomed to Atrocities," April 1, 1988, Hotam, one of many items translated from the Israeli press in the 1988 Report of the Israeli League for Human Rights, Tel Aviv, which give the flavor of the pogroms organized by the Defense Ministry to teach the beasts of burden a lesson. This highly informative material is next to unknown in the United States, though it is arguably of some relevance to those who are expected to pay the bills.