Monday, May 9, 2011

I Feel Your Pain, Equivalently

There are a couple of interesting articles at Slate today. One is a column by Christopher Hitchens, enraged by Noam Chomsky's recent remarks on the assassination of Bin Laden, and -- typically for Hitchens when he talks about Chomsky since the 9/11 attacks -- full of distortions.

For example, Hitchens writes:
He is still arguing loudly for moral equivalence, maintaining that the Abbottabad, Pakistan, strike would justify a contingency whereby "Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic." (Indeed, equivalence might be a weak word here, since he maintains that, "uncontroversially, [Bush's] crimes vastly exceed bin Laden's.")
Hitchens doesn't bother to explain why it's so absurd to say that Bush's crimes vastly exceed Bin Laden's; "moral equivalence" is an epithet he's been throwing at Chomsky for years, without bothering to defend it. But he certainly takes Chomsky's remark about Iraqi commandos landing at Bush's compound out of context. What Chomsky said was:
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. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.
Hitchens is a robust defender of Bush's invasion of Iraq, so he probably would not agree that it was aggression or that Bush is a criminal, though Chomsky's summary of the human cost -- "the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region" -- is accurate, factual, even (to use one of Chomsky's own buzzwords) uncontroversial. Hitchens jumped ship in 2008 to endorse Obama, and you can't say he didn't know his man, who has turned out to be as bloodthirsty and contemptuous of all law as Bush. Still, what Chomsky was doing was one of his standard rhetorical moves, as when he says that if the Nuremberg precedents were enforced, every American president since World War II would have to be hanged. This doesn't mean that Chomsky really thinks they should be hanged (as far as I know, he opposes capital punishment); he's just pointing out the vast gap between the standards the US imposed on its defeated enemies after World War II, and the US' conduct since then. (I presume that Hitchens still considers the US invasion of Vietnam to be aggression.) Maybe Chomsky's point would have been clearer if he'd offered the image of Henry Kissinger being seized, killed, and dumped at sea by foreign commandos. Hitchens still hates Kissinger and considers him a war criminal, but I'm beginning to suspect that he's forgotten why.

Hitchens garbles Chomsky's analogy in any case. Chomsky wasn't saying that the execution of bin Laden would justify the execution of Bush by Iraqi commandos; the comparison he was drawing was between bin Laden's crimes and Bush's invasion of Iraq. I imagine there are more than a few Iraqis who'd react to a lethal raid on Bush's compound in Dallas with the same satisfaction that so many Americans feel over bin Laden's killing. And not without reason, when you consider the consequences of Bush's invasion, and Americans' celebration of it. (Remember too that many Americans believed, and probably still believe, that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks, and that the invasion was retaliation for this. That's as demented as the Truther theories about September 11 as an American black op, which Hitchens ridicules in his piece, and hints that Chomsky shares.)

For that matter, Chomsky was using a rhetorical device that was used by Martin Luther King Jr. when he said in 1967 that the US was the greatest source of violence in the world. I think it’s a safe bet that King wasn’t calling for other governments to invade the US. No, he said explicitly that he had come to realize that he couldn’t condemn the violence of others without first condemning and opposing the far greater violence being done in his name by his own government. That's Chomsky's point too. But perhaps Hitchens now considers King to have been a "capitulationist", one of the "surrender faction" on Vietnam.

Chomsky's example has all kinds of implications that he didn't bother to draw out, so let me indicate a few. For Iraqi commandos to be able to land in Texas and seize George Bush in reality, the US would have to let it happen. There would have to be Iraqi military bases nearby, probably just across the border with Mexico. And despite the US' supposedly collegial relationship with Iraq since the invasion, that could never happen without our nuking Mexico and probably Iraq as well: the US would never tolerate foreign military bases on our neighbors' soil, though we expect and demand that other countries accept US military bases on theirs. So, in order for Iraqi commandos to be able to strike in the US, there would have to be collaboration between the US and Iraq on a level that is unthinkable now, but which exists between the US and Pakistan. Perhaps the US would release a Pakistani intelligence operative who shot down American pursuers in broad daylight, but only under the kind of compulsion that forced Pakistan to free a murderous US intelligence operative. The kind of situation which would give Iraq the power to assassinate Bush could only happen in a very different America than the one we live in: it would have to be an America subjected to its former victims, with many of us killed by predator drones controlled from Baghdad, and fundamentalist resistance forces in the mountains, say, of Idaho. While I would like to see George Bush brought to justice, including by Iraqis since the US surely will never do it, I don't think it would be worth the human cost necessary to let those commandos roam free -- just as I feel about the killing of Bin Laden. As I've written before, I don’t want to see this country destroyed, not just because I live here and there are people I love who live here (though those are valid reasons), but because I don’t want to see any country destroyed. I didn’t want to see the Soviet Union destroyed in an orgy of blood-letting, nor did I want to see Vietnam bombed back into the Stone Age, nor did I want to see Iraq destroyed, nor do I want to see Iran destroyed, nor Israel nor Lebanon nor Afghanistan nor Colombia nor China nor North Korea nor Indonesia nor Cuba nor the frothing Batistas-in-exile in Miami – even though they all have the blood of countless innocents on their hands.

I get the impression that many Americans have forgotten that the US supported various extremely brutal military dictatorships in Pakistan for decades, which killed and tortured their own citizens to repress political opposition. Right after the 9/11 attacks, a self-declared liberal journalist friend told me that the US should reach out to "moderate" Muslim regimes as allies; Pakistan was one he had in mind. But that's the past; we must look to the future.

One strong sign of Hitchens's dishonesty in that piece was that he dragged out once again a grievance he's been nurturing for close to a decade now:
I can't immediately decide whether or not this is an improvement on what Chomsky wrote at the time. Ten years ago, apparently sharing the consensus that 9/11 was indeed the work of al-Qaida, he wrote that it was no worse an atrocity than President Clinton's earlier use of cruise missiles against Sudan in retaliation for the bomb attacks on the centers of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. (I haven't been back to check on whether he conceded that those embassy bombings were also al-Qaida's work to begin with.)
This refers to Chomsky's rebuttal of Hitchen's bloodlust in The Nation. Yes, Chomsky mentioned Clinton's use of missiles against a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, and said that the number of deaths resulting from the lack of the medicines that the factory would have made exceeded by far the numbers who died on September 11, 2001. Chomsky wrote elsewhere of
such minor escapades of Western state terror as Clinton's bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, leading to "several tens of thousands" of deaths according to the German Ambassador and other reputable sources, whose conclusions are consistent with the immediate assessments of knowledgeable observers. The principle of proportionality therefore entails that Sudan had every right to carry out massive terror in retaliation, a conclusion that is strengthened if we go on to adopt the view that this act of "the empire" had "appalling consequences for the economy and society" of Sudan so that the atrocity was much worse than the crimes of 9-11, which were appalling enough, but did not have such consequences.
Christopher Hitchens himself had railed against the destruction of that factory in an article in The Nation, October 5, 1998. In that article he refuted administration claims that the factory was actually used to manufacture chemical weapons for al-Qaeda, and concluded that the attack had been timed to distract attention from Bill Clinton's impeachment, not as "retaliation for the bomb attacks on the centers of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam."
Well then, what was the hurry, a hurry that was panicky enough for the President and his advisers to pick the wrong objective and then, stained with embarrassment and retraction, to refuse the open inquiry that could have settled the question in the first place? There is really only one possible answer to that question. Clinton needed to look "presidential" for a day. He may even have needed a vacation from his family vacation. At all events, he acted with caprice and brutality and with a complete disregard for international law, and perhaps counted on the indifference of the press and public to a negligible society like that of Sudan, and killed wogs to save his own lousy Hyde (to say nothing of our new moral tutor, the ridiculous sermonizer Lieberman). No bipartisan contrition is likely to be offered to the starving Sudanese, unmentioned on the "prayer breakfast" circuit.
After September 11, 2001, while trumpeting his concern for the Sudanese, Hitchens climbed back down from some of these positions: "As one who spent several weeks rebutting it, and rebutting it in real time, I can state that the case for considering Al-Shifa as a military target was not an absolutely hollow one. ... However, at least a makeshift claim of military targeting could be advanced... I thus hold to my view that there is no facile 'moral equivalence' between the two crimes." It's fun to watch Hitchens tying himself into knots here. (See this later critique, by Timothy Noah, of the validity of the attack on al-Shifa.) "Chomsky had not, however, claimed a "'moral equivalence' between the two crimes" -- that's Hitchens's pet term. Comparison is not equivalence, and I think Chomsky was tweaking Hitchens. He could (and perhaps should) have drawn other comparisons that were more fitting, such as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died because of Clinton's sanctions, Clinton's support for a murderous military regime in Haiti, Clinton's support for the genocidal Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor, and more atrocities on which Hitchens and Chomsky agreed. As I've argued, Chomsky wasn't concerned with "moral equivalence", any more than King was.

In that same piece, Hitchens stressed the importance of "intention and motive." As he said, the intention of the September 11 hijackers was to maximize civilian deaths. As he didn't say, the perpetrators of the al-Shifa attack didn't even consider the impact of destroying a nation's only pharmaceutical factory. (Perhaps Hitchens himself didn't anticipate the impact on civilians of Bush's invasion of Iraq, or maybe he didn't care.) Not that Clinton was personally much concerned. In public he felt others' pain; in private he could be more interested in inflicting it:
"We're not inflicting pain on these fuckers," Clinton said, softly at first. "When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers." Then, with his face reddening, his voice rising, and his fist pounding his thigh, he leaned into Tony, as if it was his fault. "I believe in killing people who try to hurt you. And I can't believe we’re being pushed around by these two-bit pricks."
No, we'd best not attend overmuch to "intention and motive" in US policy, which is no more aimed at maximizing freedom and happiness around the globe than al-Qaeda's. Hitchens has accused Chomsky of naivete, but what could be more naive -- to use the most charitable word -- than Hitchens's insistence that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had anything to do with overturning tyranny? As he knows full well, the US has always been able to get along with tyrants, terrorists, and Islamic fanatics -- as long as they're our tyrants, terrorists, and Islamic fanatics.

Oh yes, the other piece I noticed at Slate was on bin Laden's wives and family, and why Pakistan hasn't let the US interrogate them. It's worth reading, but it doesn't mention the one major concern you'd think would motivate anyone to keep anybody out of US hands: because they might, indeed would be tortured. I say that half-tongue-in-cheek, because Pakistan also has a history of torture, but when I remember how many Americanist fanatics are now arguing that the American use of torture contributed to the assassination of Osama bin Laden, I'd say that no matter what reasons the Pakistanis have, they should keep those women and children out of US hands.