I can’t say I’ve ever understood the adulation Noam Chomsky gets in some lefty circles. His arguments are generally fairly banal, drifting into a caricature of liberalism.. I don’t doubt that at some point in his life he may have been an incisive political commentator, but I’ve never seen it.
This applies in spades to Chomsky’s reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death. Terming the operation which killed the mass murderer and seized a trove of information about al Qaeda’s operational plans “a planned assassination…violating elementary norms of international law,” and decrying that there was “no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim,” Chomsky proceeds to deny that bin Laden can even be said to have played a part in the attacks of 9/11, the embassy bombings before that, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, or terrorist attacks in England, Spain, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other nations:
In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus 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.”
Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.
This, as Chris Hitchens rightly notes, is palpable bullshit. It surely would have been preferable to have captured bin Laden alive, and then put him on trial, and in such a trial he would enjoy the presumption of innocence. But insisting that we only refer to bin Laden as a “suspect” is absurd, as absurd as pretending that OJ Simpson didn’t kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. The presumption of innocence is a principle of courtrooms, not a general obligation in all of society. We may not have a courtroom verdict on bin Laden, but we do have evidence and testimony offered in trials of his agents in al Qaeda’s many attacks, and we have the documentary record laid out by the 9/11 commission, not to mention bin Laden’s own repeated threats and boasts of successes.
Chomsky ignores substantial evidence against his position, and roots his argument in principles that would not make sense in any other context. The 19 hijackers on 9/11 died in the commission of their attacks, and so never stood trial. Must we also treat them as mere “suspects”? Must we truly keep our minds so open that our brains fall out?
The rest of Chomsky’s essay is a rambling attempt to argue that any justification for killing bin Laden must apply equally to a hypothetical assassination attempt on George W. Bush, and some de rigeur whining about the use of Native American terms (Geronimo, tomahawk) in the US military lexicon. Yawn. There are interesting questions to be raised about how bin Laden’s killing could be justified, but Chomsky isn’t even converging towards such questions.