by Noam Chomsky
March 26, 2010
Erich Fromm Lecture 2010
Text of lecture delivered at the International Erich Fromm Society, Stuttgart, Germany, March 23, 2010
The president could not have been more justified when he condemned “the evil scourge of terrorism.” I am quoting Ronald Reagan, who came into office in 1981 declaring that a focus of his foreign policy would be state-directed international terrorism, “the plague of the modern age” and “a return to barbarism in our time,” to sample some of the rhetoric of his administration. When George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” 20 years later, he was redeclaring the war, an important fact that is worth exhuming from Orwell’s memory hole if we hope to understand the nature of the evil scourge of terrorism, or more importantly, if we hope to understand ourselves. We do not need the famous Delphi inscription to recognize that there can be no more important task. Just as a personal aside, that critical necessity was forcefully brought home to me almost 70 years ago in my first encounter with Erich Fromm’s work, in his classic essay on the escape to freedom in the modern world, and the grim paths that the modern free individual was tempted to choose in the effort to escape the loneliness and anguish that accompanied the newly-discovered freedom — matters all too pertinent today, unfortunately.
The reasons why Reagan’s war on terror has been dispatched to the repository of unwelcome facts are understandable and informative — about ourselves. Instantly, Reagan’s war on terror became a savage terrorist war, leaving hundreds of thousands of tortured and mutilated corpses in the wreckage of Central America, tens of thousands more in the Middle East, and an estimated 1.5 million killed by South African terror that was strongly supported by the Reagan administration in violation of congressional sanctions. All of these murderous exercises of course had pretexts. The resort to violence always does. In the Middle East, Reagan’s decisive support for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which killed some 15-20,000 people and destroyed much of southern Lebanon and Beirut, was based on the pretense that it was in selfdefense against PLO rocketing of the Galilee, a brazen fabrication: Israel recognized at once that the threat was PLO diplomacy, which might have undermined Israel’s illegal takeover of the occupied territories. In Africa, support for the marauding of the apartheid state was officially justified within the framework of the war on terror: it was necessary to protect white South Africa from one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups,” Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, so Washington determined in 1988. The pretexts in the other cases were no more impressive.
For the most part, the victims of Reaganite terror were defenseless civilians, but in one case the victim was a state, Nicaragua, which could respond through legal channels. Nicaragua brought its charges to the World Court, which condemned the US for “unlawful use of force” — in lay terms, international terrorism — in its attack on Nicaragua from its Honduran bases, and ordered the US to terminate the assault and pay substantial reparations. The aftermath is instructive.