Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

A few days ago, Noam Chomsky released a statement critical of the recent U.S. operation that killed Osama bin Laden.  Chomsky is a well known and accomplished scholar who has written extensively on issues of linguistics, communication, and philosophy.  His work on metaphor is standard reading in my academic field.  However, this statement borders on absurdity and makes me wonder what the man could be thinking.

Chomsky begins by calling the operation a “planned assassination.” Reports have recently come out contradicting initial statements that bin Laden was killed in a firefight and saying the there was minimal resistance.  Perhaps these more recent statements are part of a “psychological operation” to portray bin Laden as an ineffective fighter.  The fact is that nobody except the people involved and their superiors really know what took place in the Abbottabad compound.  Given conflicting accounts of the raid it is unreasonable to say with certainty (as Chomsky does) what really happened.

But does it really matter?  Whether it was a fight or an assassination, Chomsky’s basic argument is that the operation “multiply violat[ed] norms of international law.”  Without saying what these norms are, Chomsky argues that we really don’t have concrete evidence that bin Laden organized the 9/11 attacks, and that “Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that ‘we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.'”

It is true that we have no videotapes of bin Laden and his associates sitting around maps planning the attacks. In the absence of that, we have to rely on circumstantial evidence of capability, involvement in other high-profile attacks (U.S.S. Cole, African embassy bombings, earlier WTC attempt), and stated intent. On that evidence we can only conclude that al-Qaeda and its leaders were the perpetrators, unless we want to subscribe to crazy conspiracy theories that the U.S. government colluded with the Mossad to do the dead.

Then there is the 2004 statement by bin Laden himself:

I will speak to you about the reasons behind these incidents. I will honestly tell you about the minutes in which the decision was made so that you will consider. I say to you that God knows that the idea of striking the towers never occurred to us. But, after things had gone too far and we saw the injustice of the US-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I started thinking of that.

The events that influenced me directly trace back to 1982 and subsequent events when the United States gave permission to the Israelis to invade Lebanon, with the aid of the sixth US fleet. At those difficult moments, many meanings that are hard to describe went on in my mind. However, these meanings produced an overwhelming feeling to reject injustice and generated a strong determination to punish the unjust ones. While I was looking at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the unjust one in a similar manner by destroying towers in the United States so that it would feel some of what we felt and to be deterred from killing our children and women.

Chomsky dismisses this as “rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.”  But this is a faulty analogy.  We know who won the Boston Marathon.  A better analogy would be Timothy McVeigh.  We had no videotape of him actually lighting the fuse on his truck bomb, just a lot of evidence connecting him with the crime.  Nobody treated his confession as disingenuous boasting.

Chomsky also says: “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.”  This is another faulty analogy. Whatever one says about Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (and I was no supporter of that move), it was not a surprise attack intentionally designed to slaughter thousands of innocent people. He also has not been responsible for ten years of continued attacks killing thousands of his own people, as has bin Laden.

A more appropriate counterfactual is this: How might we have reacted if Adolf Hitler had escaped to Argentina after the fall of Berlin, and the Allied powers had sent a commando team to assassinate him and dump his body in the Atlantic?  We would have said he got what he deserved, and good riddance.