Noam Chomsky
Lies of Our Times, January 1992

Letter from Lexington December 8, 1991

Dear LOOT,

The lead headlines on November 15 blared out "U.S. ACCUSES LIBYA AS 2 ARE CHARGED IN PAN AM BOMBING," "RETALIATION HINTED" for an "attack that killed 270 people and became a horrific symbol of terrorism." It was a "fiendish act of wickedness [which] cannot be passed over or ignored," British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd declaimed (Andrew Rosenthal, A1, NYT). Investigators in "The worldwide detective case" ranged over 50 countries, questioning 14,000 people, and "examined hundreds of thousands of bits of debris combed from an 845-square-mile area" (David Johnston, NYT, A8).

Editorials issued stern calls for punishment. The indictment "raises profound questions," the Times editors observed, posing "a challenge to nations to complete the task of doing international justice...aggressively, but judiciously." Washington Post editors hailed the "prodigious investigation," calling on the US "to deal otherwise with his regime" if Qaddafi does not extradite the suspects, recalling the bombing of Tripoli in 1986, when the US murdered dozens of civilians because it "felt sure" that Libya was responsible for a disco bombing in West Berlin -- with no credible evidence, as the German investigators informed American reporters who kept the facts under wraps, and as the media later quietly conceded (Editorials, NYT, Nov. 16; WP weekly, Nov. 25).

The reaction was not entirely uniform. The Times ran an op-ed by leading terrorologists pointing out that the evidence concerning Libya was thin and the indictment a matter of "political expedience." It avoided "the real masterminds" (Iran and Syria) and "let the Palestinians off the hook" (NYT, Nov. 16, A19). The authors are Robert and Tamara Kupperman, the former a leading proponent of Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) and the author of manuals on how to conduct it efficiently. LIC, as he defines it, is the threat or use of force "to achieve political objectives without the full-scale commitment of resources." LIC is to be distinguished from "terrorism," defined in an Army Manual as the threat or use of violence "to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature." The subtle commissar will readily perceive the distinction between LIC (noble, our policy) and terrorism (fiendish, their policy).

The government of Israel too was "convinced that Palestinian terrorists based in Syria" were responsible (Clyde Haberman, NYT, Nov. 21, A14). The following day, columnist A.M. Rosenthal denounced the President for avoiding "the proven Syrian-Palestinian involvement" (NYT, Nov. 22). Two weeks before, Rosenthal had been presented with the Defender of Jerusalem Award at a ceremony in New York for his "extraordinary devotion to the protection of Jewish rights" as "a proud Jew, unafraid to speak his mind," serving "as a calm, reasoned and yet passionate voice on Jewish and Israeli affairs" (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 7, 1991).

In short, there was a spectrum of responses. At one extreme, we have those who take the government case to be proven on the grounds that it was proclaimed. At the other are the skeptics, leading proponents of international terrorism and Defenders of Jerusalem, who adopt Israel's position that its enemies have been "let off the hook" and should be relentlessly pursued. The technical term for this display is: an Independent Press in a Free Society.

A number of topics were not discussed, for example, the worst air tragedy of the decade, the blowing up of an Air India flight in 1985 off the coast of Ireland, with 329 people killed. The bombers were traced to a paramilitary camp in Alabama where mercenaries were trained for terrorist acts (LIC) in Central America and elsewhere. According to ex-mercenaries, the camp director had close ties to U.S. intelligence and was personally involved in the Air India bombing, allegedly a "sting" operation that got out of control. On a visit to India a few months later, Attorney-General Edwin Meese conceded in a backhanded way that the terrorist operations originated in a U.S. terrorist training camp. Lacking an inquiry questioning 14,000 people and extending over an 845-square-mile area, we know little more about this operation -- though it is likely that inquiries in one or two countries, not 50, would settle the matter. We do know one thing, however: it was not "a horrific symbol of terrorism" or a "fiendish act of wickedness" that must be punished. There was another air tragedy, also killing more innocents than the bombing of Pan Am 103, that could not be entirely ignored: "the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf by the USS Vincennes in 1988," killing 290 people, which may have provoked the Lockerbie bombing (Mary Curtius, "2 Libyans charged in Pan Am blast," Boston Globe, Nov. 15). The Vincennes was part of a US naval armada dispatched to the Gulf to assist Bush's pal Saddam Hussein, then facing problems in his war of aggression against Iran. Shortly before the Vincennes shot down the Iranian airbus, its helicopters sank two Iranian speedboats. "In the wake of the Iranian airbus disaster," the culmination of Washington's "diplomatic, military and economic campaign" in support of Saddam Hussein, Iran faced reality and effectively capitulated to "Baghdad and Washington," which had "co-ordinate[d] their military operations against Teheran" (Dilip Hiro, The Longest War, Routledge 1991, 211f., 239f.).

We might ask how the news columns can be so sure that the downing of the plane was "accidental." Not everyone agrees. There is, for example, US Navy Commander David Carlson, who "wondered aloud in disbelief" as he observed from his nearby vessel as the Vincennes shot down what was obviously a civilian airliner in a commercial corridor, perhaps out of "a need to prove the viability of Aegis," its high tech missile system (Carlson, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Sept. 1989). The Commander of the Vincennes did not go unpunished. In April 1990, George Bush conferred upon him the Legion of Merit award (along with the officer in charge of anti-air warfare) for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service" and for the "calm and professional atmosphere" under his command during the period when the airliner was shot down. "The tragedy isn't mentioned in the texts of the citations," AP reported. The media kept a dutiful silence -- at home, that is. In the less disciplined Third World, the facts were reported in reviews of US terrorism (AP, April 23, 1990; Third World Resurgence, Malaysia, Oct. 1990).

Iran called on the World Court to order reparations for the crime. In March 1991, Washington once again -- as in the case of its terrorist war against Nicaragua -- rejected World Court jurisdiction (Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1991). Commentators here were too mesmerized by our noble defense of international law in the Gulf to notice.

In Britain, the director of a leading academic Research Institute for the Study of Terrorism responded sharply to a challenge to the US right to demand that Libya hand over the Lockerbie bombers in the light of the Iranian airbus tragedy and US atrocities generally. The "arguments are specious," he declared loftily. In the former case, the US government "admitted to the tragic error" and "at least offered some compensation to the victims' families"; and the fact that "the US has been a belligerent in a number of wars in which many have been killed...does not justify attacks on innocent civilians" (Manchester Guardian Weekly, Dec. 8, 1991). The first response omits a few pertinent facts. The second is correct, in the sense that the USSR was a "belligerent in a war in which many were killed" in Afghanistan, as was Hitler in France, Japan in Manchuria, etc. No surprises here. Like Walter Laqueur and other respectable scholars, and their counterparts in totalitarian states, the author adheres to the convention that terrorism and aggression count as such when attributable to official enemies, while crimes conducted by the states one serves are exempt from such categories (on the "scholarly" record, see E.S. Herman and G. O'Sullivan, The Terrorism Industry (Pantheon 1990), A. George, ed., Western State Terrorism (Polity 1991), and sources cited).

Foreign Minister Hurd follows the same conventions. Needless to say, atrocities carried out by the UK or the boss in Washington do not count as "fiendish acts of wickedness." The same is true of favored friends such as Saddam Hussein or General Suharto. Thus in February 1990, when the White House was rebuffing Iraqi democrats calling for parliamentary democracy in Iraq, the British Foreign Office cooperated by impeding their efforts to condemn Iraqi terror, for fear that it might harm Anglo-Iraqi relations. Two months later, after the execution of London Observer correspondent Farzad Bazoft and other atrocities, Hurd reiterated the need to maintain good relations with Iraq.

A few months later, when Saddam committed his sole crime (disobeying orders), we were treated to much uplifting rhetoric about the sanctity of international law and the newly-discovered principle that aggressors must be brutally punished without negotiation. Meanwhile, Indonesia used the occasion to launch another major military operation in the annexed territory of East Timor, where its near-genocidal campaign far surpassed the horrors of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Britain again offered its cooperation. British Aerospace entered into new arrangements to sell Indonesia jet fighters along with co-production arrangements, "what could turn out to be one of the largest arms packages any company has sold to an Asean country," the Far Eastern Economic Review reported (July 25, 1991), while atrocities mounted and Australia firmed up its new agreement with Indonesia to rob Timorese oil. Western civilization does not lack eloquent spokespersons.

On November 18, at the height of the furor over Libya's refusal to hand over the suspected killers, the Foreign Minister of Costa Rica urged once again that the US comply with international extradition treaties and hand over John Hull, charged with premeditated homicide, trafficking in arms and drugs, and other criminal acts, in particular, participation in the 1984 bombing of a news conference at La Penca in which six people were killed (AP, Nov. 19, 1991). Costa Rica had formally requested the extradition in April. To my knowledge, neither the renewed Costa Rican request nor US response (if any) was reported.

It is not that terrorism in Costa Rica never reaches threshold.. Thus last February, Washington froze $10 million of promised economic aid in reaction to terrorist atrocities far surpassing the La Penca or Lockerbie bombings. The case involved land owned by US businessman Joseph Hamilton that Costa Rica, under severe pressures from Washington, had allowed to be used for a secret airstrip to violate a congressional ban on US arms for the contras. When the facts were revealed, President Arias ordered the land confiscated and turned over to the Santa Rosa National Park. But Hamilton (with other businessmen) claims that he was not adequately compensated, and the US Government, always a stern defender of human rights, withheld the aid in retaliation (Central America Report, Guatemala, Feb. 15, 1991).

The brazen arrogance of the powerful passes far beyond the imagination of ordinary mortals.

With the backing of the Arab League, Libya offered to submit the US-UK charges to "neutral international committees of inquiry or to the International Court of Justice." Professor Alfred Rubin of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy made the obvious point that "if the charge [against Libya] is serious, there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by presenting the case to the International Court of Justice as Libya proposes" (AP, BG, Nov. 16; Tony Walker, Financial Times (London), Dec. 6; Rubin, "The US and Britain Should Take Libya to Court," Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 2, 1991). The Bush administration flatly rejected any neutral inquiry, AP reported. Rubin's logic is impeccable. Few will pursue it.

The most insightful media comment I saw was by the person responsible for the layout of the front page of the Boston Globe. Adjacent to the lead story on the charge against Libya, there is a report opening "President Bush plans to counter public concern over his domestic policies" (John Mashek, "Bush domestic plan reported in the works; Aides cite concern on standing in polls," BG, Nov. 15).

In fact, Libya has been used as a punching bag for domestic purposes since mid-1981 (for a review, see my Pirates and Emperors, Amana 1988, 138f.). As the effects of the Reagan-Bush assault against the population become more difficult to conceal, we can anticipate regular replays of the scenario of the past years: awesome enemy, miraculous triumph by heroic leader. It is not easy to find methods to prevent the public from attending to the welfare state for the rich constructed by the statist reactionaries of the past decade, even beyond the norm, the costs to be paid by the majority of the population and future generations.


Noam Chomsky