Noam Chomsky

Lives in:
Known For:

Dec 27, 1928.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Massachusets, USA.
Linguist, Intellectual, & Activist


Gilbert Achcar

Lives in:
Known For:

Nov 5, 1951.
London, UK
Intellectual, Writer, & Activist

The following is a continuous excerpt from a dialogue between Noam Chomsky, Gilbert Achcar, and their interviewer Stephen Shalom as appeared in the book Perilous Power. This excerpt reveals the roots and causes of religious fundamentalism in the US, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the world in the post-modern era.


Fundamentalism[Pages] 27-39

CHOMSKY: Do we agree that the power, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, is a reflection of the decline, both internal and external, of secular nationalism?

ACHCAR: I would be even more straightforward than that. The present strength of Islamic fundamentalism is a direct product of very direct U.S. policies. What you've said is perfectly correct, but with the proviso added that secular nationalism has been weakened and destroyed by the United States as its main enemy. In the 1960s, the dominant trend in the Muslim world in general was secular nationalism and, in the Arab world, Arab nationalism as embodied by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The United States fought this brand of nationalism, basing itself on the most reactionary brand of Islamic fundamentalism implemented and propagated by the Saudi kingdom. That's something of which I keep reminding my audiences in my public talks: The main and oldest ally of the United States in the Middle East is not Israel, it's the Saudi kingdom, which existed long before the state of Israel was even born. And the United States very deliberately used Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Saudi kingdom in countering secular nationalism, communism, or whatever kinds of secular left-wing or progressive currents there were all over the area. And this policy continued through the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The United States backed Islamic fundamentalism in that war - the Mujahideen. Who were the Mujahideen? They were Islamic fundamentalist groups, some of them very fanatic, used against the Soviet Union.

CHOMSKY: That's exactly how it looks to me. In fact, again, we can go on. U.S. backing of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan through the 1980s was another case of support to an Islamic fundamentalist regime against secular nationalism.

ACHCAR: The United States even supported the Taliban at the beginning, when they came to power in Afghanistan in 1996.

CHOMSKY: Nasser of course was the main Arab enemy in the 1950s and 1960s, but the same policy extended to Abdul-Karim Qassem after he overthrew the monarchy in Iraq in 1958 because the United States assumed it was a nationalist coup, on behalf of a secular nationalist movement, that (we now know from U.S. government internal records) President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles greatly feared was going to take over the oil of the Middle East and use for regional purposes - which would have been a horrendous disaster for the United States. The U.S. didn't use Middle East oil at that time, but it wanted the oil to be there for its allies, Europe and Japan. If under Nasser's and then, they thought, Qassem's influence in Iraq, the region might use the oil for its own population, and its own development, this would greatly weaken the strong U.S. control over its supply in Europe and Japan. So, yes, secular nationalism had to be destroyed. And Saudi Arabia, the most extreme fundamentalist state, was the way to do it, and later in the Reagan years the United States helped Pakistan move toward fundamentalism. They even allowed it to develop nuclear weapons and pretended they didn't know.

Israel did pretty much the same. Israel wanted to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO, which was secular nationalist, and, in the course of this, helped develop Islamic fundamentalist groups up to the late 1980s. (ACHCAR: That's right.) Israel was in fact explicitly supporting such groups to counter the PLO in the Occupied Territories. They pretty much did the same in Lebanon. I don't think they intended it there, but that's what happened. They invaded Lebanon to demolish the secular PLO, and they ended up with Hezbollah.

ACHCAR: Actually, they very deliberately disarmed all groups that were based on secular ideologies with a multireligious membership - communist or nationalist or other. ANd they didn't disarm communalist groups, whether Shiite or Druze, not to mention their Christian allies.

CHOMSKY: Was there a source for Hezbollah prior to the Israeli invasion? Did Hezbollah grow out of something indigenous in Lebanon that was already there?

ACHCAR: Yes, it grew out of the Amal movement, a Shiite communalist movement that was not disarmed by the Israelis, just as they did not disarm the Druze militias, or the Christian right-wing militias. But they disarmed of course the PLO and the Lebanese left.

CHOMSKY: Was Amal fundamentalist?

ACHCAR: No. They were founded by a religious figure, but were always more a Shiite communalist organization than a religious one, let alone a fundamentalist one.

CHOMSKY: So how did the transition go from Amal to Hezbollah?

ACHCAR: By a radicalization that was catalyzed by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

CHOMSKY: And that catalyzed fundamentalists?

ACHCAR: Yes. And so you had a splinter group that developed into Hezbollah, and that was backed by Iran. That's the classic tale of the Sorcerer's Apprentice - you'd find tens of such cases in the area, more specifically related to the issue of Islamic fundamentalism. It's actually because, as a general pattern in the region, when Arab nationalism, Nasserism, and similar trends began to crumble in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism as a tool to counter whatever remnants there were of the left or of secular nationalism. Another striking illustration of the same phenomenon is Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. He fostered Islamic fundamentalism to counter the remnants of Nasserism after he took over in 1970 and ended up being assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981. It's the same story all over again: The U.S. government let some kind of genie out of the bottle, but they can't control it and after a while, it turns against them. The combination of their own repression of progressive or secular ideologies and the subjective failure - the bankruptcy - of these ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, left the ground open to the only ideological channel of anti-Western protest available, which was Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism was a religious ideology that was tolerated and even used and encouraged by the local regimes and by the United States, and that became the channel to which the resentment against the United States and the regimes themselves finally transferred.

CHOMSKY: Without trying to draw the analogy too closely, I think there is something partially similar in the U.S. Christian fundamentalist situation. "Fundamentalism" is a Protestant term; it comes from Princeton in the early part of the last century. But what we call fundamentalism had very deep roots in the United States from the early colonists, and it's always been there. There's always been an extreme, ultrareligious element, more or less fundamentalist with several revivals repeating over and over; there was another one in the 1950s. That's why we have "In God We Trust" and "One Nation Under God" and all this stuff. But in the last twenty-five years it has been turned for the first time into a major political force. And that I think is conscious exploitation, similar to what you're describing, to try to undermine, in this case, progressive social policies. Not very radical policies but, rather, the mild social democratic policies of the preceding period are under serious attack - under neoliberal attack, under neoconservative attack. The Christian fundamentalists who were always there were mobilized into a political force for the first time to provide a base for this, and also - to the extent that the political system functions, which is not much - to shift the focus of many voters from the issues that really affect their interests (such as health, education, economic issues, wages) over to religious crusades to block the teaching of evolution, gay rights, and abortion rights. These are all issues, for example, about which CEOs just don't care very much. They care a lot about the other issues. And if you can shift the focus of the debate and attention and presidential politics and so on to questions that are quite marginal for the wealthy - questions of, say, gay rights - that's wonderful for people who want to destroy the labor unions, construct a social/political system for the benefit of the ultrarich, while everyone else barely survives.

This fundamentalist mobilization has occurred during a unique period of American economic history - there's never been anything like it - where, for about twenty-five years, real wages have either stagnated or declined for the majority. Real median family incomes for the majority are steady or maybe declining. That's never happened before. There were things like the Great Depression, but never twenty-five years of stagnation for the majority through a period with no serious economic disruptions. Working hours have been going way up, social benefits way down, indebtedness growing enormously. These are real social and economic crises. And the way it's been dealt with, to a large extent, is by mobilizing what's always been there, the Christian fundamentalist sectors, and turning them into an active political force. And in the same period, shifting the discourse, and the focus and so on, to those issues that are of concern to the fundamentalists, but of only marginal concern to the people who own and run the society. In fact, you could take a look at the attitudes of CEOs: They're what are called liberal. They're not very different from college professors. And if the population can become obsessed with "evolution theory" and gay rights and so on, fine with them, as long as they're running the social and economic policies. So, for example, after the last election, the business press was describing the "euphoria," as they called it, in boardrooms; and it wasn't because they were against gay marriage. Some were, some weren't; many of them or their children are gay anyway - no, what they knew is that it was a free run for business. And if you can manage that, that's an achievement; it's one of the ways the population can be kept under control. Plus inducing fear, which is a standard device.

It's kind of striking, but my impression is that there was a real shift with the administration of Jimmy Carter. Pre-Carter, nobody really cared very much whether the president was religious - did anyone care whether Lyndon Johnson went to church every Sunday? But Carter, who was probably sincere, somehow taught party managers that if you put on a pious face - and you talk about how you're lusting in your heart and feel guilty and you saw Jesus and so on - that's a way of appealing to a big voting bloc. Now, since Carter, I think every presidential candidate has pretended to religious experience. Even Bill Clinton, who's probably about as religious as I am, made sure to be seen every week singing in the Baptist church. It has been in some ways parallel to what you describe about the rise and use, in fact, of Islamic fundamentalism.

ACHCAR: You are making a very important remark here, actually, because one has to ask: Why, starting from Carter, did this become profitable politically?

CHOMSKY: The Carter years also saw the initiation of the neoliberal policies; that's the same period.

ACHCAR: And here we have precisely the coincidence I mentioned previously. We have the crisis of the mid-1970s - global economic crisis, a major synchronized economic crisis, which created a state of disarray, the loss of familiar points of reference, the spread of what sociologists call "anomie" for all kinds of people. ANd this made the ground very fertile for religious revivalism or fundamentalism, because in such situations people tend to seek refuge in identity markers. Thus we've seen all over the world, since the shift of the last quarter of the twentieth century, a huge rise in all kinds of identity or tribal politics, whether ethnic, nationalist, religious, sectarian, fundamentalist, or whatever, and this applies to U.S. society, too. Hence the kind of Carter appeal, as you said. The reason the same religious decoy was not used before in the same way was that it wouldn't have been effective before. Actually at some points in modern history, it was even counterproductive for politicians to show too much religious face.

SHALOM: Perhaps we should clarify terms here. There are some very traditional, religious Muslims who say that "fundamentalism" is an attitude toward religion and that it doesn't imply that you want to impose this on somebody else. So, for example, in the United States we have the Amish, who are religious traditionalists, but they don't go around trying to blow up people of other religions and so on. So according to this view one shouldn't use "fundamentalism" as a politically derogatory term; what we are calling fundamentalism should be called something else, like extremist fundamentalism or something of that sort. Do you buy that distinction?

CHOMSKY: I think religious Muslims would make that distinction, just as, when some Jewish fundamentalists were stopped just before they blew up a mosque, religious Jews dissociated themselves from them. That makes sense. But I think Gilbert [ACHCAR] is talking about something else, the general phenomenon of the rise of the fundamentalist appeal along with the collapse of secular nationalism and the real problems that people are facing. They have to have some way of identifying among themselves in order to confront these problems. The method of secular nationalism, communism, and so on, which had been partially smashed from the outside, partially deteriorated from within, left a vacuum. And there was something comparable in the United States. The 1970s saw the onset of a severe reaction against the social and economic programs enacted under President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and continuing through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society that benefited the majority of the population. Starting with the breakdown of the international economic order, known as the Bretton Woods system, capital became increasingly deregulated and neoliberal programs were instituted that caused for much of the population not massive suffering, not disaster, but difficult social and economic conditions; in fact, that had never happened before in American history. It became possible - I think maybe Carter initiated it, unintentionally - to mobilize religious sentiment, which had always been there, and to turn it into a major political force, into the focus of political discourse, to the limited extent to which it exists, displacing social and economic issues. Take right now. For most of the population, the major issues are things like exploding health care costs. But neither political party wants to deal with that; they're too much in the pocket of the insurance companies and the financial institutions and so on. So instead they have battles about evolution theory and intelligent design, and they'll argue about that. Meanwhile, the rich go on their way, running the country. The correlation between these social and economic programs of the roughly neoliberal kind that have led to serious conditions for most of the population, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, revivalism, and exploitation and magnification of religious fundamentalism as a political phenomenon for the first time, and as a core of political debate - that correlation is too close to be disregarded, I think.

ACHCAR: To address your question, Steve, one must enter into a semantic discussion about terms and their meanings, as one might choose different terms. For instance, one might speak of "orthodoxy" to label a narrow interpretation or literal interpretation of religion, as long as it is practiced at just the personal or familial level. The term "fundamentalism" generally points not only to the literal interpretation of religious scriptures but also to the desire of imposing it on society and government, and having everyone abide by these rules. That's what is usually meant by "fundamentalism." And in that meaning, we can see, for the reasons that we've just mentioned, that it's a global phenomenon, not something related to Islam alone. Jewish fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, Catholic, Protestant, etc. - all brands of religious fundamentalism arose in the last quarter-century. It's a remarkable phenomenon, synchronized worldwide.

CHOMSKY: I think Hindu fundamentalism is a good example. Because, again, it existed since the 1920s, but it became a powerful and extremely dangerous phenomenon in just the last two decades or so.

ACHCAR: Exactly, and for the same reasons, the same basic ingredients. The social and economic conditions created by the major shift in the world economy after the 1970s, on the one hand, and, on the other, the bankruptcy of all kinds of progressive ideologies, because of the social and political failure of the states that embodied these ideologies, whether nationalist or communist or whatever: All that combined led to the vacuum being filled by the only ideological tool remaining for the expression of the mass resentment, which was religion. That's also because the nonrational, the faith dimension of religion, makes religious ideologies much more difficult to refute than ideologies embodied in state models and political experiments that reached their limits. So, yes, this is a global historical phenomenon that of course is not limited to Islam.

CHOMKSY: Jewish fundamentalism is a little different. It is associated, in part, with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, in part, here in the United States, with developments in the 1960s. It's interesting that the extremist Jewish groups took off in the late 1960s, sometimes in conscious imitation of things like Black nationalism, and some of them became the Jewish Defense League, which modeled themselves on Black nationalists. But there was also a very sharp rise in the number wanting to live according to some image of the seventeenth century. So where you had some young people in the late 1960s going off to a Hindu ashram, others were joining the Lubavitcher Rebbe - and this just exploded. And it was worked into ways of justifying the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

ACHCAR: And it was used for expansionist purposes as in the case of the Gush Emunim, the religious settler movement in the Occupied Territories. Simha Flapan, a former leader of Israel's Mapam Party, made the point in his book The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities that it was the Labor Party's Yigal Allon who encouraged them to establish the first settlement in Hebron.

In the case of Islamic fundamentalism, by any criterion one wants to use, it's obvious that by far the most fundamentalist Islamic state on earth is the Saudi kingdom. It is the most obscurantist, the most reactionary, and the most oppressive of women. The treatment of women there is absolutely appalling. When you compare the Saudi kingdom to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran looks like a beacon of women's emancipation. I am not kidding. That is in relative terms, of course. By the standard of women's emancipation, democracy, or whatever social value of modernity you want to take into consideration, Iran would rank much higher than the Saudi kingdom. And yet, the country that the United States vilifies as fanatically religious is Iran, whereas the Saudi dynasty are "our friends." And courted friends, at that.

SHALOM: What are the origins of Saudi fundamentalism?

ACHCAR: Saudi fundamentalism is an outgrowth of the alliance between an eighteenth-century Islamic preacher, Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab (a very fundamentalist preacher, whose name is used to label the Saudi brand of Islamic fundamentalism, "Wahhabism"), and Muhammad bin Saud, the head of a tribe that became the Saudi ruling dynasty. And this Saudi tribe conquered the major chunk of the Arabian Peninsula that was turned into the Saudi kingdom in the early 1930s. Since then, the Saudi kingdom has been based on a compromise between the ruling dynasty - to an important part of which one could apply what Noam was saying about people like Clinton, namely the skepticism about the sincerity of any religious belief they pretend to have - and the religious "Wahhabi" establishment. The Saudi kingdom has always rested on these two pillars. And the United States has very consciously fostered and supported this combination as an excellent formula for the stability of this very, very important piece of real estate for the United States.

One cannot exaggerate the degree of supervision and control that the United States exerts on the Saudi kingdom. They are now even discusisng the education curriculum of the kingdom in the U.S. Congress! I sent Noam recently a link to a resolution passed by the House of Representatives about this issue. There are not many examples in US history of the U.S. Congress interfering in such a way in the education curriculum of another country. But this is just a mockery, actually: Washington in fact wants the Saudi family to enforce only cosmetic changes, simply in order to save face after having come under assault because of the contradiction between its tight links with the Saudis and its pretension that it is democratizing the Middle East - a pretension that has become the main ideological pretext of its war drive in the region, after the collapse of the "weapons of mass destruction" fable.

The Saudi kingdom is a fairly backward society that has ossified into a tribal structure and is subject to very obscurantist religious fundamentalist control. That's something that the United States would not like to change, really, because doing so would introduce intolerable uncertainty or unpredictability regarding the future of that country.

CHOMSKY: Do you think there are progressive forces pressing for substantial change inside the Saudi kingdom?

ACHCAR: Nothing significant, for the reasons we've already noted. When you suppress all kinds of ideological expressions but one, then nature abhorring a vacuum, this one will be used as the main channel. The irony is that the phenomenon that led to Islamic fundamentalism becoming the main channel for popular resentment in the Middle East over the last few decades applies even to the Saudi kingdom, where resentment against the monarchy has taken the form of Islamic fundamentalism. Anti-House of Saud fundamentalists, like bin Laden himself, condemn the ruling dynasty for being hypocrites, allied with a morally corrupt state, an enemy of Islam: the United States. The two major rebellions against the Saudi monarchy in recent history have been the 1979 insurrection in Mecca, which was led by a fundamentalist, and then al-Qaeda.

CHOMKSY: What about the Saudi bourgeoisie?

ACHCAR: The Saudi bourgeoisie is very much under state control and very much intermingled with the dynasty for the sake of its business. You have there thousands of princes and princesses of the ruling family, and a big business layer associated with them and making such huge profits out of the exploitation of the oil income that it is defnitely not interested in taking the risk of removing the monarchy - if ever that were possible in any case. Osama bin Laden's family is a good case in point. They are extremely wealthy entrepreneurs, getting into all kinds of building projects, taking advantage of the spending craze that the Saudi kingdom has known since the 1970s, after the first major increase in oil prices. True, this same family has got one of its members mainly and truly motivated by the fanatical interpretation of Islam that is prevalent in the kingdom, who went fighting the Sovient Union in Afghanistan for years, and enjoyed the experience so much that he continued against the United States. But al-Qaeda rank and file in the Saudi kingdom are certainly not bin Ladens in that they are definitely not the sons of wealthy families. Most of them are people from relatively downtrodden segments of Saudi society. And here we have the same phenomenon at play elsewhere: There is a massive, socially rooted resentment against the monarchy and against the sponsor of the monarchy - that is, the United States. And it takes the form of Islamic fundamentalism as the only kind of ideological channel that is open to these people - even culturally speaking: Their education system is so heavily religious that, except for the wealthy people who pay for their kids to get a different kind of education by sending them abroad, or those selected by the system to get a scholarship for pursuing their studies abroad (a few thousand altogether), all the rest are prisoners of that ideological framework.

CHOMKSY: What about the sectors that have come back from abroad? Do they return with secular, more modern ideas and aspirations?

ACHCAR: No, very rarely with regard to aspirations. Most of them come back with just the happiness of being "Saudis," of enjoying a society where they can afford to have a lot of privileges that their Western counterparts could not afford to have - several servants, for instance. Also, it's such a patriarchal society, and since those who study abroad are male by an overwhelming majority, most of them are not interested in shaking off the prevailing structure. This is a very hypocritical society indeed, because it allows segments of society to enjoy some kinds of prohibited pleasures - as long as it is hidden, and not ostentatious. Moreover, the wealthy can afford every now and then to take vacations in more liberal countries. Saudi princes and the rich have flats or villas or palaces, depending on the level of wealth, in various places where they can go and enjoy a different kind of life at will, while the Saudi kingdom is their business base. Such people have a vested interest in keeping the structure as it is.

CHOMKSY: There's nothing like a labor movement?

ACHCAR: Oh, it's unimaginable in the Saudi kingdom. It's the most represive kind of state; if "totalitarianism" has any meaning, that's totalitarianism there. Any attempt at organizing anything challenging the powers that be is repressed in the most terrible way. In the Saudi kingdom, people risk their lives or physical integrity for things that you would consider as trivial. It's a country where you have special police whipping people found in the street at the time of prayer. It's a society under total control; it's difficult to imagine worse than that. And that is a major ally of the United States and the single Muslim state that is courted by all the Western states, because of its oil wealth. The United States knows that this very oppressive structure is the only guarantee that exists for the stability of the Saudi kingdom, and it also guarantees that the kingdom needs U.S. protection. The United States is the Lord Protector, the overlord of the Saudi kingdom, which in turn is a "protected kingdom," as in medieval history, and has been so from its inception in the sense that it built relations with the United States almost from the start, to counter Britain and then the Soviet Union, or whichever threat it faced. And I think that Western public opinion, U.S. public opinion in particular, remains in a state of ignorance about that. People don't realize who the stanchest ally of the United States in the Middle East really is and what it means. And whenever there is some critical attention being paid to the Saudis, it is for a rather dubious agenda, as is the case with the criticism by some of the neocons and other supporters of Israel, as part of the Saudi-Israeli competition in the United States.

CHOMKSY: Those neocons are not important people - you know, people make a big fuss about them, but among the policies that they're proposing, only those that fit general policy are accepted; those that oppose general policy are simply dismissed. (ACHCAR: I agree.) Like the proposals of Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and the rest, to impose a Hashemite kingdom on Iraq and so on - they just throw them out.

ACHCAR: This neocon discourse hostile to the Saudi kingdom is the kind that this administration, or any other for that matter, would never buy into. That is quite obvious: I agree with Noam entirely on this issue, and I never accepted the view that the neocons were ruling the country.

Chomsky on the Definition of Terrorism

Defining Terrorism[Pages] 1-2

CHOMSKY: I've been writing about terrorism since 1981. That's the year the Reagan administration came into office, and they declared very quickly that a focus of the administration was going to be a war on terrorism - in particular, state-directed international terrorism. President Ronald Reagan, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and other officials of the administration spouted elaborate rhetoric about "the plague of the modern age," a return to "barbarism in our times," the "scourge of terrorism," and so on.

Anyone with even a minimal acquaintance with history knew what was going to happen. It was going to turn into a terrorist war. You don't declare a war on terrorism unless you're planning yourself to undertake massive international terrorism, which is indeed what happened. And I expected that, as did my friend Ed Herman, and together and separately we began writing about terrorism. Since this was in the context of the Reagan administration's declaration of the war on terror, the natural thing to do seemed to be to take the official definitions of the U.S. government. So I took the definition that's in the U.S. Code, the official system of alws, which is pretty reasonable; and shorter versions are in army manuals and so on. That's the definition I've been using ever since. It is pretty much a commonsense definition. It says that terrorism is "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature... through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." It's also essentially the same as the official British definition, at present. However, the U.S. definition was rescinded in practice, presumably because of its obvious implications. If you take it literally, it turns out, almost trivially, that the United States is a leading terrorist state, and that the Reagan administration in fact was engaging in extensive international terrorism. So it had to change the definition, obviously, because it couldn't allow that consequence. And since that time there have been other problems.

For example, under Reagan administration pressure, the United Nations passed resolutions on terrorism; the first major one was in December 1987, a resolution condemning the crime of terrorism in the strongest terms, calling on all states to work together to eradicate the plague and so on - a long, detailed resolution. It passed, but not unanimously. It passed 153 to 2 with 1 abstention. Honduras abstained. The two who voted against it were the usual two, the United States and Israel. In the General Assembly proceedings, the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors explained their votes, pointing out that there was an offending passage in the resolution that said: "Nothing in the present resolution could in any way prejudice the right to self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of peoples forcibly deprived of that right ... particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation or other forms of colonial dominion, nor, in accordance with the principles of the Charter and in conformity with the above-mentioned Declaration, the right of these peoples to struggle to this end and to seek and receive support." The United States and Israel couldn't accept that, obvioulsy. The phrase "colonial and racist regimes" meant South Africa, which was still an ally under the apartheid regime. Technically, the United States had joined the embargo against South Africa - but in fact it had not. Trade with South Africa increased, and methods were found for getting around the embargo so Washington could continue to support the Pretoria regime - and the same with Israel, which was in fact one of the conduits for getting around the South Africa embargo. And "foreign occupation" was obviously referring to the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, so neither the United States nor Israel could permit resistance against that occupation - even legitimate resistance, which of course does not include terrorist attacks against civilians. So, although it's not technically a veto in the General Assembly, the United States and Israel effectively vetoed the resolution.

And when the United States vetoes something, it's a double veto: For one thing, it's blocked; and for another thing, it's erased from history. And so this U.S. action wasn't reported, right in the midst of the furor about terrorism, and it's out of history. You can barely find it in scholarly studies, since it leads to the wrong conclusions. And the same is true of the official definitions - they are down the memory hole. I continue to use them, and they continue to be the official definitions. But since then, since the mid-1980s, a scholarly industry has developed, with conferences, and ponderous tomes and meetings of the United Nations and so on, to see if someone can solve this "very difficult problem" of defining terrorism. There are dozens of different definitions and analyses in the legal journals, and nobody can quite do it. It's perfectly obvious why, but no one will say so. You have to find a definition that excludes the terror we carry out against them, and includes the terror that they carry out against us. And that's rather difficult. People have tried to restrict it to subnational groups. But that doesn't work because they want to talk about terrorist states. In fact, it's extremely hard, probably impossible, to formulate a definition that would have the right consequences, unless you define it just in terms of those consequences.

The operative definition of terror ought to be, from the point of view of U.S. policymakers: Terror is terror in the standard sense if you do it to us; but if we do it to you, it's benign, it's humanitarian intervention, it's with benign intent. That's the definition that's actually used. If the educated sectors were honest, that's what they'd say. Then the whole problem of defining would be over. But short of that, we have only two choices: either to use the official definitions, which I do; or to say, well, it's an impossible problem, very deep, and so on. And so it will remain unless we're able to recognize the operative significance.


It's the same dishonesty we see in discussions of aggression or intervention. Aren't there perfectly straightforward definitions of aggression? Robert Jackson, the chief counsel for the prosecution at the post-1945 International Military Tribunal for Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, gave a careful, clear definition of aggression. And that was reaffirmed in 1974 by a General Assembly resolution that passed in a voice vote with no objections, so there is an authoritative General Assembly resolution that says approximately the same thing. But it's useless, because according to that definition probably every American president could be charged as a war criminal. [...].