Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yglesias, Chomsky, Alterman, Bin Laden - Strange Bedfellows Indeed

I consider myself a rare bird in at least one respect: I consider myself, by and large, in agreement on Noam Chomsky on certain issues, and disagreement on others. Like most commentators, he gets as much right as he does wrong, and while reading him seems to be a rite of passage among many on the Left, no longer reading him after a certain point also seems to be a rite of passage. It is certainly difficult, to say the least, to keep up with all his public statements and publications. I have 10 volumes of his in my library, and that hardly scratches the surface.

It is enough to be honest and admit that, over the past decade and a half or so, Chomsky has become a bit of a cranky persona. He understands that his words will be eagerly accepted by a few, considered and dismissed by more, and ignored and vilified by the vast majority who may hear of him (the even more vast majority, in all likelihood, have no idea who Chomsky is or what he does). This crankiness expresses itself in his oft-stated insistence that, while the information he amasses to put forth his arguments is publicly available, his interpretation, while plausible to a far greater degree than most popular interpretations, will be devoutly ignored, something he seems to find frustrating.

I will also admit that, since 9/11, I have taken a pass on Chomsky. I do know that he came out, early and clearly, and called the terrorist attacks on the United States what they were - criminal acts. All the same, his seeming need to make sure a certain clarity and moral equivalency is brought to bear usually compel him to make statements that, in this context at least, I had no desire to hear. Even now, a decade later, the wound still seems raw, and I have no desire to hear someone, anyone, add to their statement on the events of that day, some qualifier that boils down to, "The United States deserved it." Whether or not he ever said it, even supposing he edged toward such a statement is enough for me to keep my distance.

It is no surprise, then, to read him being critical of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy Seals, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition - except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, who they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them (according to the White House).
I disagree with this initial interpretation of events in almost every respect. Osama Bin Laden was a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, of acts of terror not just in the United States but in many parts of the world (most notably in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Indonesia being the most publicized). In attacking the non-military target of the World Trade Center with the use of irregular forces who had seized control of civilian aircraft for use as bombs, he violated multiple international ordinances as well as the laws of the a number of countries. The deaths in the World Trade Center were not just American; citizens from all over the world worked there, and died there. The attack, whether intended as such or not, was a direct assault on the citizens of many nations.

He was a legitimate military target. After the Bush Administration set aside the pursuit of Bin Laden as the central goal of our international law enforcement and civilian and military intelligence efforts, he rested in relative comfort in a large, walled property in Pakistan. The United States did what it had to do, the President ordered what any President would order, and the raid commenced and in the course of the raid, Osama Bin Laden was killed. The act itself, the raid, the political and international and domestic legal disputes, to me, are of no consequence when placed up against the reality that, as a war criminal, Osama Bin Laden enjoyed no right of protection by any nation-state, and the US was perfectly within any and all legal bounds, once his whereabouts were discovered, to act precisely as it did. No other course, certainly not capture and trial before a court of law here or elsewhere, seems to me either feasible or, given the circumstances, realistic.

This does not mean I celebrated his death. On the contrary. Death is never something to celebrate, certainly not violent death. Sad resignation, I guess, describes my feelings about the entire affair, an ending ordained by Bin Laden himself when he attacked the United States in Africa in 1998, in the waters off Aden in 2000, and here at home in 2001.

Matt Yglesias notes an interesting bit of left-wing folderol, and begin by quoting from a column by The Nation's Eric Alterman:
The killing of Osama bin Laden was a just and necessary undertaking; just because he had the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands, and necessary because his continued escape from justice was an inspiration to others to try to follow in his footsteps. But it should not be occasion for joy. The Talmud tells the story of angels dancing and singing as the waters of the Red Sea close over the heads of the Egyptian troops after the Israelites have safely crossed over, only to be rebuked by their God: “How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the sea?”
In the piece from Chomsky linked and quoted above, comes the following:
[Geoffrey] Robertson attributes the murder to “America’s obsessive belief in capital punishment—alone among advanced nations—[which] is reflected in its rejoicing at the manner of bin Laden’s demise.” For example, Nation columnist Eric Alterman writes that “The killing of Osama bin Laden was a just and necessary undertaking.”
Yglesias considers this, at the very least, duplicitous on the part of Chomsky, misconstruing the words of Eric Alterman to make it appear that Alterman was "celebrating" the death of Osama Bin Laden. Actually, this is a case where, I believe, it is Matt Yglesias, in his zeal to support a fellow not-quite-as-radical-as-Chomsky liberal, misunderstands what Chomsky is up to here. The elder critic is not claiming that Alterman is "celebrating" anything. Rather, how I read this particular passage is Chomsky quoting Alterman to support a previously quoted view regarding American attitudes toward acts of public death, state-mandated execution in this case. I do not read Chomsky claiming that Alterman is "rejoicing" over Bin Laden's death. Rather, I read Chomsky as bolstering his argument by citing a respected liberal intellectual who also defends the assassination of Bin Laden, an act that Chomsky feels was unnecessary.

So, here we have an odd thing. We have one liberal, Matt Yglesias, defending another liberal, Eric Alterman, against what he feels is the intellectual dishonesty of a left-wing anarchist, Noam Chomsky, in a longer meditation on the death of a psychopathic war criminal, Osama Bin Laden.

The only person who comes out of this looking good is me.

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