The Left Debates September 11

The exchange between Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens prompted a torrent of reader mail on questions raised by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Opinion is virtually split down the middle on whose commments–Chomsky’s or Hitchens’s–are more relevant and resonant. There’s also a dissenting minority clamoring for the combatants to stop their “ridiculous verbal duel” and, in the words of another writer, “start training their sights on the real enemies,” and “stop bickering over points of emphasis.”

Following is a representative sampling of some of the comments we’ve received.

Penn Valley, Pa.

Apparently Christopher Hitchens cannot understand that attacking supposed rationalizations for X may be de facto rationalizing for Y (“Against Rationalization,” The Nation, October 8). Thus, his attack on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and their alleged leftist apologists, in this article, and his even more furious assault on these same villains in his Nation web piece “Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism,” were a key part of his own arsenal of rationalizations for support of US action to rid the world of these devils. In fact, in a remarkable new line of thought, Hitchens instructs the left that it should be regularly supporting US and NATO cleansing actions when they are rectifying matters they screwed up in the past–if “we” did wrong earlier “does this not double or triple our responsibility to remove them from power?… Do ‘our’ past crimes and sins make it impossible to expiate the offense by determined action?” His faith in the imperial powers to straighten out by further violence the nasty results of their earlier policies is touching, and shows us that his support of the NATO war against Yugoslavia was no eccentricity, but rather represents a new, Paul Johnson-like, shift in Hitchens’s politics. (They are close now: Johnson says “the answer to terrorism” is “colonialism” [Wall Street Journal, October 9], and Hitchens says we must now “assume the burden [of civilization] ourselves” [London Mirror, October 4].)

In “A Rejoinder to Noam Chomsky” in early October, Hitchens put up two sentences regarding my own writing, as follows (he is referring to my reply to him entitled “FOR Rationalization–Of Imperial Violence”):

Herman had moved from opposing the bombing of Serbia to representing the Milosevic regime as a victim and as a nationalist peoples’ democracy. He has recently said, in a ludicrous attack on me, that the “methods and policies” of the Western forces in Kosovo were “very similar” to the tactics of Al Qaeda, an assertion that will not surprise those who are familiar with his style.

This packs a lot of misrepresentation into two sentences. Nowhere have I ever used any one of the three words “nationalist peoples’ democracy” to describe the Milosevic regime and never would, so Hitchens’s language is straightforward fabrication and misrepresentation. For Hitchens I must be an apologist for Milosevic because I have “opposed the bombing of Serbia,” just as one might be called an apologist for Saddam Hussein for objecting to the “sanctions of mass destruction.” But of course he is not an apologist for NATO and Bill Clinton for supporting the bombing of Serbia.

Notice also that he speaks of my making the “Milosevic regime,” rather than the people of that regime, the “victim” of NATO bombing. But I have never focused my sympathy on the regime as victim, just the people killed, injured and traumatized. Imagine how Hitchens would assail, for outrageous insensitivity to the real civilians massacred, an individual who spoke sarcastically of somebody being bothered by the recent New York/Washington attacks, which only “victimized” the “Bush regime.”

Hitchens says that I equate the tactics of Al Qaeda with those of the Western forces “in Kosovo.” But my text compared the attack on civilians here with the systematic NATO bombing of civilian facilities in Serbia, not the military operations in Kosovo. In both the attacks on New York/Washington and Serbia, civilian “collateral damage” was either entirely acceptable or positively desired. In the Serbian case there is solid evidence that the destruction of civilian facilities and inevitable civilian deaths and injuries were planned for and seen as positive, necessary to bring Yugoslavia to it knees quickly after it was found that attacking the Serbian military forces in Kosovo was not effective.

Hitchens obfuscates this NATO focus on civilians by his reference to Kosovo instead of Serbia, and he has never criticized the deliberate bombing and killing of civilians in Serbia. Quite the contrary: In his November 29, 1999, evaluation of that war in The Nation, he says “The NATO intervention repatriated all or most of the refugees and killed at least some of the cleansers. I find I have absolutely no problem with that.” As he doesn’t mention the thousands of Serbian civilian casualties from the NATO bombing, he clearly had no problem with that either. (Here and elsewhere he also fails to recognize that the refugees needing repatriation were generated by the NATO bombing that he supported; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had no registered refugees from Kosovo before the war.) One can reasonably conclude that Hitchens is indignant at my comparison because of his different evaluation of civilians in Serbia as compared with those in this country. This is entirely consistent with his longstanding demonization of Milosevic and denigration of his people as unworthy victims, if not “willing executioners.”

(For a fuller analysis of Hitchens’s writings on the Kosovo war, click here.)


Los Angeles, Calif.

I have been and remain an ardent admirer of both Noam Chomsky’s courage and his rigorous and penetrating analysis of the major role that US hegemony and intervention has played and continues to play in the perpetuation of our present world order. Surely, he is correct in his suggestion that we need to scrutinize and be wary of the Orwellian doublespeak and double standards that result in the condemnation of our purported foes, while at the same time insulating ourselves and whoever our allies may be at the moment from being called to account as well. I am also in agreement that a judgement of US foreign policy should be based on both its immediate and longterm consequences. The architects and implementers of deadly policies should not be immune from culpability for the generally foreseeable chain reactions that their initial conduct sets into motion.

Nevertheless, there is something to Hitchen’s contention that one’s intent does matter ! Our own system of jurisprudence differentiates between crimes and torts and also takes into consideration such concepts as intent, depraved indifference, negligence, gross negligence, etc. Moreover, there are different degrees of illegal homicide, down to and including voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. For those among us who would like to eventually see an international rule of law replace warfare as the means by which we mediate conflict and mete out justice, these standards and concepts serve as a good starting point and are also instructive. Using them as a basis, and with all respect due to Professor Chomsky, there is clearly a distinction of deep substantive difference between the US bombing of the pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan in 1998 and the acts that occurred on September 11.


Ben Lomond, Calif.

The Hitchens/Chomsky argument is a dirt-clod thrown into an avalanche of despair. Thanks, boys.

Hitchens thanks those of us who “demand” he tell us what to do. He suggests that we ask ourselves that question seriously sometime soon. What? We weren’t already asking seriously enough? Many of us are trying with as much emotional and intellectual honesty as we can muster to understand and act. We are stumbling over assumptions we probably should have questioned a long time ago. We trying to make politically coherent logic out of ideas we’ve never had to think through, contradictions we’ve never had to reconcile. The context for our struggle is a torrent of official lies from almost every available source. It ain’t easy.

Is Hitchens is saying that we may have to make common cause with the US government (and greater surrounding apparatus of global empire)? I agree that certain kinds of military and diplomatic actions now contemplated or implemented by the Bush regime might under other circumstances result in an improved world, an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, without the brutality of the Taliban, a Middle East without Osama bin Laden or others of his fanatical ilk, a better chance for peace and progress in the Middle East and Central Asia. And I am not afraid to support such actions if they might lead to such a world. I just don’t really believe they will, and Hitchens has done little to change my view in that regard (the opposite, in fact, in years of reading his articles).

Count on the Bush regime to do everything wrong here. Count on missed opportunities piling up like the bodies and the rubble. Count on arrogant dismissal of any opposing view, any objection from within our inch-deep, mile- wide war alliance. Count on alternating bouts of destructive meddling and indecision among US political elites in the aftermath of this round of attacks. Count on another cycle of Islamist violence followed by another round of essentially untargeted, violent US response. Count on many more US and Afghani casualties.

Many of us who question this “war on terrorism” are not timorous or guilt-ridden. We’re not valueless relativists, forever searching for easy moral equations. We’re confused and grief-stricken. We think that US action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda (and Iraq next?) will not be motivated by anti-totalitarian, pro-secular, pro-democratic solidarity. We have every reason to believe that the bungling brutes now in command will leave this situation worse than they found it, doing just enough to create a lull in time for the next election cycle. Meanwhile, as long as this madness goes on, there’s no safe place for any of us.

So, Hitchens, what do we do?


New York City

What a relief to read Christopher Hitchens. The generality of craven mumbles by those of the left since the 11th has been dismaying. A friend forwarded a long scroll of such stuff from the London Review of Books. I could come up with no better response than to sputter with indignation and sheer disbelief. I dare say there are many contributors in The Nation who are saying that they too want nothing more than to give peace a chance. But at least you’ve got Hitchens for a saving remnant.


Washington, D.C.

With all the hubris and adrenaline of a high school football player, Hitchens has trampled some important facts in his most recent blitz on Chomsky, once again scoring points for the wrong side. Hitchens offers up the case of the Kurds in northern Iraq as testament to US good will and effective humanitarianism. He writes: “We might even remember that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection…” This is a dangerous half-truth, and one peddled most often by those seeking to maintain or increase patrols of the northern no-fly zone.

Of the three factions of Kurds in northern Iraq, two have indeed fared quite well (the KDP and the PUK) under the northern no-fly zone policy. Consequently, US ties to these factions steadily grow, and both factions have been discussed by the US as potential “contra“-style forces for toppling Saddam. However, the third faction of Kurds (the PKK) in northern Iraq has faced increased repression due to the no-fly zone. In a quiet war which has left over 30,000 dead, the US is supplying Turkey with arms and intelligence so as to repress and eliminate rebel Kurds in the region. Thanks to the northern no-fly zone and US complicity, Turkey has not only been able to step up its bombing of Iraqi Kurdish villages (over 2,000 destroyed to date), but Turkey has also sent major troop incursions into northern Iraq, last December 10,000 crossed the border.

Why is the US safeguarding some Kurds in Iraq while facilitating the slaughter of others? Because the northern no-fly zone has far less to do with real humanitarianism than it has to do with real-politick. The enemy of our friend is our enemy and so goes the fate of the PKK, adversary to our ally Turkey. As most of the US military personnel whom I have interviewed readily admit, the larger and stated goal of the northern no-fly zone was and is to fence in Saddam’s military while also preventing further destabilizing effects of more of the 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds from fleeing into Turkey. Undoubtedly there have been some Kurds who have benefited from the no-fly zone policy. But it’s difficult to see how humanitarianism more than pragmatic self-interest was at heart when in 1991 President Bush instructed the Kurds to “rise up” against Saddam, implying that the US would provide air cover. The uprisings materialized but the air cover did not as the US watched thousands of Kurds get massacred. Mr. Hitchens may want to be a bit more careful and exact in his discussion of US policy in northern Iraq.

Middle East Report

San Francisco, Calif.

I’m a long-time lefty and peace activist, but I have to say, I’m totally behind Christopher Hitchens on this one. And I’ll tell you why–religious fundamentalism.

Since I was a small boy living in California near the Mexican border, I’ve heard nothing but religious (and racial and sexual) bigotry coming from born-again Christians (including my own sister). Now I have to listen to (and deal with) fundamentalist Islamic bigotry coming from half way around the world. I’m sick of it, and willing to hit back hard, whether it’s against the stupidity of the Right Reverends Robertson, Falwell or Sheldon, or that disaffected rich boy and king-size chickshit bin Laden. Religious fundamentalism must be attacked openingly and aggressively as fascism. And while I don’t condone any form of violence, I have no problem with severe ridicule and belittlement. So let’s start harpooning.


All Chomsky is saying is that we create our own monsters in our own image for our short-sighted instant gratification. We turn a blind eye to pseudoreligious monarchies, where the rich board weekend flights to Bahrain, etc., to indulge in un-Islamic debauchery, only to return on Saturday to mouth theological proclamations, standing besides the Ulema. These governments allow us to station troops and thus alienate many of the Saudis and much of the Islamic world.

In Iran, we overthrow an elected government, support a secular tyrant, who rules by corruption and torture and thus alienate the population and the clergy.

In Iraq, we first encourage a cruel despot to start a war against Iran and then beat him up, incite rebellion against him by Kurds and Shiites and then abandon them to be decimated. We also impose sanctions, which kill a million children.

In Turkey, we promote a brutal regime that maltreats its citizens and systematically kills Kurds, just as our Algerian puppet government murders its own citizens.

In Egypt, we prop up a one-party corrupt regime, and in Lebanon and Palestine, we ignore all Israeli atrocities against Arabs.

In Afghanistan, we install an uneducated, fanatic government with the help of Pakistan, which foments terror in Kashmir, and then take this same terrorist state to our bosom to fight terrorism. It is like taking the help of Jack the Ripper to stop serial killers.

Chomsky is not against necessary punishment or justice but against mass killings like in Southeast Asia or the ones Hitchens railed against in Bangladesh and Chile, which our government and its policy mavens have repeatedly done from Guatemala to Philippines.


Los Angeles, Calif.

I just wanted to thank Christopher Hitchens for his column on the proper response to the events at the WTC and Pentagon on 9/11/01.

It’s been a long time since the left in America had cause to pick up a gun– perhaps back to WWII or the Spanish Civil War–but the Taliban and bin Laden have given the left a reason to do just that. After all, here are people seeking (in the most brutal way) the unification of church and state, the complete dehumanization of women, zero tolerance on freedom of speech, and religious war on anyone not of their faith or political beliefs. And while I appreciate the already vocal elements of the left who warn about infringements of civil liberties and raise questions on the effectiveness of current foreign policy, I’m glad Hitchens pointed out that there is a fight worth fighting here.

Through the ugliest violence perhaps seen in this country and possibly their their own (and that’s sure saying something), the Taliban and bin Laden seek to turn back everything the left has fought for until we reach the seventh century, meaning even the Magna Carta is apparently in danger. If this isn’t the left’s fight, whose is it?

Now I’m just waiting for my call from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.


Astoria, N.Y.

The essays written recently by Christopher Hitchens about the left’s response to the terrorist attacks are appalling! The fourth grade reasoning he uses is not reflective of the writing we have been used to from him over the years.

The fact that authors try to present why people resort to terror against the United States doesn’t in any way imply support or “softness” towards those groups. Quite the contrary, it makes good common sense. If your goal is to actually stop these sort of attacks in the future, then you should absolutely try to understand why the attacks happened. And if you can do anything about those causes (such as have a more balanced Middle Eastern foreign policy) than it would make sense to take that action–if for no other reason than to increase American security. Chomsky et al. aren’t soft on terrorism, Hitchens has simply gone momentarily soft in the head. Hopefully he will return to his normal, rational self in the future.


Chesapeake, Va.

Hitchens has decimated Chomsky in this exchange. Chomsky makes the task easy by relying on the vacuous mechanism of insisting that Hitchens “doesn’t really mean what he is saying, and therefore I dismiss his argument,” whereas Hitchens aligns relevant facts to refute his opponent. He identifies where Chomsky makes allegations through insinuation and innuendo even when the semantics of his phraseology appears to denote a contrary meaning (as is common with “snide” remarks), and instead of being derailed by the denotative meaning, he drills through to the real assertion and takes it apart.

What troubles me about the exchanges between these two is that if I read Chomsky’s essays in isolation, I find myself nodding in agreement. Such is the power of his presentation that I could easily be deceived by its apparent logic into accepting his conclusions. I am therefore grateful that Hitchens has taken the time to respond in detail, even when Chomsky dismisses his arguments arrogantly and summarily.



Poor Christopher Hitchens! Imagine having to deal with critics whose thinking only qualifies as “thinking.” After all: “It no longer matters what they think.” Myself, I tend to believe that Washington’s longstanding cynical realpolitik and “power without responsibility” strategies in the Middle East have some relation to the region’s growing terrorist problem. But then again, I guess it doesn’t matter what I think either.

I observe with great sadness that if anyone’s opinion is ceasing to matter–not to mention becoming unreadable–it is Hitchens’s. And I don’t care if my saying that makes me a “type” with a “tendency.”


Tucson, Ariz.

Three cheers for Christopher Hitchens. More often than not, I have abhorred his over-the-top rhetoric, but he hit the nail on the head this time with his assessment of the fascists with an Islamic face.

I have in the dark past written for The Nation too, but gave up on it about ten years ago. My objection (to my son, who still swears by it) was that it was simply too predictable. Any time a major issue reared up, I could foretell with pinpoint accuracy what The Nation would have to say about it. It was enormously refreshing for Hitchens to go against character. A few more like that and I might go back to subscribing.


Sydney, Australia

I am reasonably certain Christopher Hitchens would agree that Henry Kissinger’s shenanigans cannot be isolated from the nature of the Nixon regime or its cold war mentality, and that Mother Teresa’s tendencies owed something–perhaps even a great deal–to the nature of the Catholic Church. I am therefore surprised by his implication that the Islamic fascism (I do not disagree with that designation) blamed for the horrendous crime against New Yorkers in particular ought to be viewed more or less in isolation from the circumstances that bred such evil.

This is not to suggest that the terrorism of September 11 is not evil per se. It would nonetheless be rather silly not to look at where its coming from. Osama bin Laden wasn’t, after all, born with a visceral hatred for all things American. He was quite happy, in fact, to rely upon US training and largesse less than twenty years ago. Granted, the US approach towards Israel and the Palestinians at the time was not vastly different from what it is now. Nonetheless, it would be ridiculous to argue that he acquired his mindset irrespective of US policies in that part of the world. I do not think Sam Husseini is far off the mark when he links the doings of bin Laden and associates with American policies in the Middle East. There cannot be justification for such deeds, but there are explanations–and if that is what Hitchens means by “rationalizations,” then he is sorely mistaken.

None of the above is meant to imply that bin Laden is anything other than a dangerous psychopath. It is more than likely that he was one even when the US was casting him in the role of a freedom fighter. What should be beyond question is the need to dwell upon, rather than ignore, the blowback aspects of the Manhattan massacre. It is possible to be appalled by the tragedy without being entirely surprised by it. To understand why someone may have deemed it appropriate to wreak havoc does not mean that one cannot at the same time unequivocally condemn the action–with the same vehemence that one would condemn attacks by the US on innocent civilians, whether in Vietnam or in Afghanistan.

Hitchens also makes too much of the purported plan to attack the White House. That would undoubtedly have been a crime too, although perhaps a lesser crime than the World Trade Center attack, because it couldn’t have resulted in the same level of casualties. He resorts to mysticism by suggesting that any incumbent is hallowed by history. He goes on to suggest that the Capitol is exalted by being the place where elected representatives are sent. That’s all very well for purposes of a comparison with how the Taliban conduct their affairs, but on various other levels the American version of democracy falls well short of the ideal whereby parliamentarians represent the true interests of their constituents, rather than those of big business and the richest lobbyists. That provides no reason to crash a commercial airliner into the Capitol. But it needn’t be idealized either.

I have to confess I haven’t read what Noam Chomsky has written in the wake of the Manhattan outrage, which makes it difficult to defend him against Hitchens’s accusations. I agree with Hitchens that Islamic fascism needs to be condemned without reservations, and combated. It would, however, be extraordinarily myopic to pretend that Islamic fascism can be defeated without equally vigorous assaults on American fascism and Israeli fascism.


Delay Beach, Fla.

I read with considerable interest Christopher Hitchens’s essay “Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism,” his rejoinder to attacks on his depiction of the liberal/left tendency to “rationalize” the horror of September 11 and his use of the term “fascism with an Islamic face.”

Well done, Mr. Hitchens. It said what needed to be said.

Back in the distant days of the cold war, one of the ugly aspects of US foreign policy was its embrace of odious dictators (of which there was a considerable number) as long as they proclaimed their anti-communism. On the basis, no doubt, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In a grotesque mirror-image today that kind of thinking is reflected in the reactions of some on the left at which Hitchens takes aim. The rationale seems to be: The enemy of my enemy (American imperialism, in this case), while not my friend, necessarily, their motivations can be understood. And this ghastly horror can be explained as “chickens coming home to roost.”

I quite agree–such thinking has an eerie resemblance to Falwell and Robertson’s explanation of this horror.


Scotts Valley, Calif.

Thank you for enlisting Noam Chomsky to “respond” to Hitchens’s last two articles. Chomsky echoes exactly my sentiments toward Hitchens’s posturings. I applaud, as well, Chomsky’s attempt to give Hitchens the benefit of the doubt for his lapse from a normally insightful and worthy body of work.

This is such an important time to have a voice of reason and clarity out of the camps of those who are willing to hold this powerful, hegemonic nation to the same standards it holds for all others. We walked away, alongside Israel, from the International Conference on Racism; we refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty (admittedly flawed for its omission of such rapidly industrializing nations as China) which would have implemented badly needed environmental standards; and we decided to withhold payment of two years worth of dues to the United Nations (not so curiously, last week, the folks on the hill finally–and quickly–appropriated the funds for such payments at this time).

I am often appalled at how little respect our nation shows for the international community and at how the mainstream media misleadingly portrays our nation as upholding democracy across the globe when, in fact, we have helped to depose or have directly deposed democratically elected governments of other nations without flinching at the historically devastating ramifications that would ensue.


Washington, DC

Christopher Hitchens’s latest “Minority Report” [Oct. 8] is the most intelligent, most sensible, most humane thing you’ve run since the horrors of September 11. Of course we should remember the arrogance of and brutalities committed by the United States abroad. But Islamic fanaticism threatens all that the left–and most of our fellow Americans–hold dear. No one will be secure until it is defeated.


Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Christopher Hitchens would like to compare the Taliban to the fascist states of the 1930s. Fascism is a red herring, a fairly meaningless word, unless directly comparable to National Socialist Germany and Fascisti Italy.

The Neanderthal Taliban, whose tenuous hold on power in Paleolithic Afghanistan was only gained through Pakistani, Saudi, United Arab Emirates, and American assistance–they are the new Fascist Germany and Italy? Please, Christopher, a shot of whatever you’re drinking.

Hitchens then begins a new crusade on Islam, but would like to remove the New York crime against humanity from any historical context. It stands as an act of loathsome brutality in and of itself–fair enough. However in the next breath, Hitchens wants America to destroy the Taliban, who he implicates in the crime, using as his main reason American culpability in their creation. Well, far be it for me to ask for consistency in any polemic.

Hitchens calls for unilateral American military action in the most unstable and nuclear infested areas of the planet. In just two weeks, with I guess his support, the American Empire has: agreed to turn its head as Putin increases the level of repression and slaughter in Chechnya; established alliances with various repressive dictatorships in the ‘stans; allied itself with Pakistan’s dictatorial regime; and compounded an already catastrophic Afghan refugee problem.

The crimes against humanity of September 11 are indefensible. The arguments against terror and the Taliban are easy, solutions at the roots of these and the myriad other problems of the world less so. Intricately knowing the role in world affairs of the post-WWII American Empire and expressing support for unilateral military action in some sort of secular jihad is despicable.


Monterrey, Mexico

I condemn Noam Chomsky’s refusal to continue the debate with Christopher Hitchens.

I want to hear both sides. I think it’s important for people like Chomsky to write at length about why and where the United States has failed. I disagree with his stance and even his tone–which seems utterly pedantic–but I’m willing to listen.

This is the most important issue of our times. Does Chomsky really think that his discourse is so compelling that responding to Hitchens is beneath him?


Greenville, S.C.

Hitchens and Chomsky are two of the most lucid political thinkers of our time. We need their clear thinking now more than ever. But could we ask them, please, to reserve all the tedious (and largely irrelevant to us) ego-battling for their personal correspondence (hopefully not later quoted) and to stick with the uncomfortable and tangled moral issues that we all face? The proportion of petty personal attacks to useful content is a bit high for times such as these.


Astoria, N.Y.

At this point in history, the last thing the progressive community needs is for two of our intellectual and journalistic champions to be squabbling over a point, the larger issues of which I suspect they largely agree.

Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky should be addressing their messages to the bulk of the American public that is unaware of the consequences of US foreign policy, not to each other. Meaningful debate strengthens noble movements; petty internecine warfare in our ranks will only serve to distract us from our larger goals.