Noam Chomsky on Pittsburgh Attack: Revival of Hate Is Encouraged by Trump’s Rhetoric
Democracy Now! Nov 2, 2018
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. The nation is continuing to grieve the 11 Jewish worshipers who were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday in what’s being described as the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Funerals were held Thursday for three more victims of the shooting: husband and wife Sylvan and Bernice Simon, and Richard Gottfried.
Robert Bowers, who’s accused of the mass shooting, pleaded not guilty Thursday. He’s charged with 44 counts—including murder and hate crimes—over 30 of which could be subject to the death penalty. Bowers has a history of posting anti-Semitic and xenophobic content and was posting on the far-right social media site Gab until just before the shooting. He referred to the migrant caravan as an “invasion,” repeating the words that President Trump uses.
We continue our conversation now with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned professor, linguist and dissident. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—Chomsky was. I asked him about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and other recent right-wing attacks.
NOAM CHOMSKY: When I was a child, the threat that fascism might take over much of the world was not remote. That’s much worse than what we’re facing now. My own locality happened to be very anti-Semitic. We were the only Jewish family in a Irish—mostly Irish and German Catholic neighborhood, much of which was pro-Nazi, so I could see it better on the ground.
What we’re now seeing is a revival of hate, anger, fear, much of it encouraged by the rhetorical excesses of the leadership, which are stirring up passions and terror, even the ludicrous claims about the Nicaraguan army ready to invade us—Ronald Reagan—the caravan of miserable people planning to kill us all. All of these things, plus, you know, praising somebody who body-slammed a reporter, one thing after another—all of this raises the level of anger and fear, which has roots.
The roots lie in what has happened to the general population over the past 40 years. People really have faced significant distress. An astonishing fact about the United States is that life expectancy is actually declining. That doesn’t happen in developed societies, apart from, you know, major war or huge famine. But it’s happening because of social distress, and not necessarily impoverishment. The people who are demonstrating this fear and resentment may be even moderately affluent, but what they see is they’re stagnating.
In the past, there was—you had this dream: You worked hard, you could get ahead, your children would be a little better. Now it stopped. It stopped for the last 40 years as a result of very specific socio and economic policies, which have been designed so that they sharply concentrate wealth, they enhance corporate power, that has immediate effects on the political system in perfectly obvious ways, even to the point where lobbyists literally write legislation. This onslaught has literally cast a bunch of the population aside. They’re stagnating. They are not moving forward. They see no prospects. And they’re bitter and angry about it.
And this anger and bitterness can take pathological forms. It could take very constructive forms. It could lead to popular organized movements, which would dedicate themselves to overcoming these blows against decent human existence, which certainly can be done. The groundwork for that has been severely undermined, for example, by the destruction—careful, planned destruction—of labor unions, the main force, historically, for leading the way towards more progressive, humane policies. All of these are a package. They’ve all gone together for 40 years—there’s precursors, of course—and it has led to a situation where you get an outburst of what Gramsci once called morbid symptoms, pathological developments, of the kind that you mentioned, growing out of a soil that is rich in incitement to such things happening.
AMY GOODMAN: So, and then, if you could talk about specifically the targeting of the Jewish worshipers, I mean, and the clear connection that the shooter made between this temple and HIAS, what’s formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the group that has helped to resettle refugees of any religion for well over a hundred years? And he repeated words that Trump has begun using more and more about, you know, they’re helping the “invaders” come in. If you could respond specifically to that?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s pretty clear that he’s whipping up terror about invasions, people pouring across the border to plan to kill us all, to destroy our civilization. You take people who are already somewhat disturbed and living under harsh conditions, this can incite them to acts of extreme violence against targets like the Jewish temple. All the anti-Semitic tropes are pointing in that direction, but most—also against Afro-Americans, immigrants, any vulnerable population or population that’s easy to target for lots of cultural and historical reasons, all this amplified by the loud speaker up in the White House and his minions, who are doing what they can to terrorize the population, create the conditions under which you can get something like the attack on the synagogue.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to turn, then, to a clip of the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, who was interviewed by Ayman Mohyeldin onMSNBC on Sunday, so it was soon after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Dermer was asked if Trump’s rhetoric is in part to blame for the massacre.
RON DERMER: I see a lot of bad people, on both sides, who attack Jews. This is not the first time that a Jewish community has been attacked. It is the worst anti-Semitic attack in, oh, 200 years in the United States, that you have 11 dead.
AMY GOODMAN: Dermer said no world leader had made stronger statements against anti-Semitism than Trump. And then he went on to blame both sides.
RON DERMER: To simply say that this is because of one person or it only comes on one side is to not understand the history of anti-Semitism or the reality of anti-Semitism. One of the big forces in college campuses today is anti-Semitism. And those anti-Semites are usually not neo-Nazis on college campuses. They’re coming from the radical left.
AMY GOODMAN: This is right after the white supremacist attack on the synagogue, and the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. is now injecting, saying this comes from both sides. If you could respond to this? Interestingly, two days later, when Trump and his family went to Pittsburgh, the only—and this is pointed out in The New York Times—the only public official standing there to greet him was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. People like the Pittsburgh mayor and the others said this was not the time to come.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, I think it’s quite easy to understand. There is an alliance of reactionary repressive states developing under the U.S. aegis. Israel is a leading member of it. Saudi Arabia is another, one of the most brutal, regressive, harsh states in the world; United Arab Emirates; Egypt under the harsh, brutal dictatorship; the United States; Israel.
And the United States, of course, very—especially under this—the alignment goes way back, but the Trump administration has gone way out of its way to lend support to Israeli crimes, Israeli expansion. And the Israeli right wing, of course, which is increasingly dominant, is delighted. So, the fact that, say, the Israeli ambassador would come out and say that is really no more surprising than the fact that John Bolton would praise the election of a strong advocate of torture, murder and repression. It all fits the same pattern.
AMY GOODMAN: This issue of the number of people who died this weekend, the horrific massacre—11 Jews died. The model of the coverage, of knowing who each person was, hearing their names, their life stories, their ages, who their families were, knowing when the funerals are taking place through the week—what about this being a model for what’s happening in Gaza? I mean, for example, on, I think it was, Friday, six Palestinians were killed, with those ongoing protests near the separation wall. Israeli military has gunned down more than 200 Palestinians. That was Friday. Six Palestinians died. And on Sunday, three Palestinian teenagers were killed in an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Your thoughts on Dermer trying to make this connection to get away from the issue of white supremacy and, somehow, someway, blame the left?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, remember, all of this in Gaza is being done with overwhelming U.S. support, even U.S. weapons, literally.
Gaza is on the verge of becoming, literally, uninhabitable. The international monitors—U.N. and others—have warned that within just a few years, it may be literally unlivable. I mean, right now, there’s virtually no potable water. The sewage pours into the sea, because Israel has bombed and destroyed the power plants and the sewage plant.
Back in 2005, when Israel withdrew its illegal settlers in Gaza and moved them to illegal settlements in the West Bank, it imposed a siege on Gaza. The official terms for that—official, not making this up—are “We have to impose a diet on Gaza, not harsh enough so they’ll all die”—implication being that wouldn’t look very good—”but harsh enough so that they can barely survive.”
And there have been—quite apart from the brutal siege, there have been repeated attacks on Gaza by the Israeli army. Gaza is virtually defenseless. This is one of the strongest armies in the world, lashing out to devastate Gaza.
There’s always pretexts. There are pretexts for everything. Hitler had a pretext for invading Poland: He was protecting Germany from the wild terror of the Poles. And the Israelis, with U.S. backing, have concocted pretexts—no time to go through it here, there’s plenty in print about it. Every one of them collapses on inspection. It’s just a punching bag.
And the effect on the people of Gaza is to create utter desperation. The current march is just an attempt to somehow break the siege, make life possible. The problem could be overcome easily, simply by providing them with the opportunities for survival. That’s it. Not trying to block every attempt at political unification of the factions. It’s often been a pretext for another attack.
Some of what’s gone on—parts of it we’ve seen—are just grotesque, like when a highly trained Israeli sniper murders a young woman far from the border who’s trying to help—a Palestinian volunteer medic, young woman, who’s trying to help a wounded man, and a sniper murders her. Highly trained snipers. They know what they’re doing. The international monitors who have gone through the hospitals are shocked by the kinds of wounds they’re finding, purposely designed to maim people so they’ll barely—not kill them, but maim them, so they won’t be able to have a—even take part in the minimal life that exists there.
Actually, Trump had a solution to this, to the misery of Gaza and the prospect that 2 million people, half of them children, will soon be in a situation of, literally, beyond the possibility of survival. They had a lifeline, what’s called the UNRWAsupport, international support, which was barely keeping them alive. So, Trump’s reaction is to cut it, cut support for it. And he even had a reason. He said, “They’re not being grateful enough to me for my efforts to give them the ultimate deal that I’m planning.” Ultimate deal, which means give up all your rights and forget it.
Two leading American political analysts, specialists on the Middle East, with long government service, Robert Malley, Aaron David Miller, really encapsulated the Trump program very simply, said the Trump message is to the Palestinians, “You have lost. Forget it. Go away. You’re done. And because the people of Gaza are not sufficient—on the West Bank—or, sufficiently appreciative, let’s cut the lifeline.” In fact, let’s even—as he did—cut support for underfunded Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank. Let’s cut the funding for the UNRWA school in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, still reeking from the hideous Israeli-run massacre there back at the end of their invasion in ’82. You see little kids playing in the mud in dark alleys. They’ll never get out. Their children will be there, and so on. They had one hope: the UNRWA school. Good, let’s kill that. All of this, these things are, just one after another, taking place. Indescribable.
I mean, the war in Yemen, which finally, at last, is getting a little bit of attention, has been a major horror story. The most careful estimates of the killing, that are now just coming out, show that there may be seven or eight times as high as what has been—the numbers that have been given. They’re on the order of 70,000 or 80,000. The analysis of these Saudi-Emirate programs, a long study that came out of the Fletcher School of International Diplomacy at Tufts University recently, showed, quite persuasively, that the policies of the attackers are aimed at destroying the food supplies, making sure the population starves to death. They’re also trying to close the port through which some supplies come.
All of this is fully backed by the United States. U.S., and Britain secondarily, supply the arms. The U.S. supplies the intelligence for the Saudi Air Force, which is carrying out massive atrocities. All of these things are happening. For years, they’ve barely been discussed. Now, finally, you’re seeing pictures on the front page of starving Yemeni children, even a call for a ceasefire—much belated, little attention to our crucial responsibility for it.
Just like our responsibility, which is overwhelming, for the plight of the miserable people trying to escape from the troika—Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala—the three countries that have been completely under our thumb and are suffering bitterly for it, now trying to escape. So we turn them into an invasion mob planning to destroy us. All of this is surreal. It only is overshadowed by the failure to attend even minimally to the literal existential threats, that are not remote.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you consider this one of the gravest times, in your lifetime, in U.S. politics, Noam?
NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s one of the gravest times in human history. Humans have been around for 200,000 years. For the first time in their history, they have to decide—and quickly—whether organized human society is going to survive for very long. And that’s not in the remote distance.
Again, there are two—with all the problems and horrors in the world which should be attended to, there are two existential threats, both being increased. One is the threat of nuclear war, which is terminal. The other is the threat of severe environmental catastrophe, which doesn’t destroy all human life, but it does undermine the prospects for organized society.
And you mentioned earlier a third threat, also dating back to the end of the Second World War. The end of the Second World War was the opening of the nuclear age. And as I mentioned, it’s kind of a miracle that we’ve survived it. It’s also the opening of what geologists are now calling the Anthropocene, the age in which human activity is radically affecting the environment. There’s been debate about its origins. The World Geological Society more or less settled on the end of the beginning—the end of the Second World War, the late ’40s and on, where there was a sharp spike in damage to the environment.
The third is what’s called the sixth extinction, the extinction of species. The fifth extinction was around 65 million years ago, when it’s assumed that a huge asteroid hit the Earth and ended the age of the dinosaurs. It destroyed most of the species on Earth. We’re now in the midst of the sixth extinction, with very rapid destruction of other species and of the kind of environment in which they can survive, like wilderness, for example. We are pushing to the edge of not only our own survival, but that of much of the—much of life on Earth.
So, is it the most gravest moment in my life? Yes. But also in all of human history. And things like the election next week will have an impact on this.
AMY GOODMAN: As President Trump escalates his attacks and threats against the Central American migrant caravans making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration unveiled new sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba Thursday. National security adviser John Bolton declared Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua to be part of a “troika of tyranny” and a “triangle of terror.” Bolton was speaking in Miami, Florida.
JOHN BOLTON: We will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores. We will not reward firing squads, torturers and murderers. We will champion the independence and liberty of our neighbors. And this president and his entire administration will stand with the freedom fighters. The troika of tyranny in this hemisphere—Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua—has finally met its match.
AMY GOODMAN: As John Bolton spoke in Miami on Thursday, Democracy Now!‘s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke with the world-renowned professor, linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky. He joined us from Tucson, Arizona, where he now teaches at the University of Arizona. Noam Chomsky is also institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than 50 years. His recent books include Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, Who Rules the World? and Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power.
I began by asking Professor Chomsky to respond to NSA, national security adviser, John Bolton’s remarks on Latin America.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, that, of course, immediately brings to mind the “axis of evil” speech of George Bush back in 2002, which was the precursor, laying the groundwork, for the invasion of Iraq, the worst crime of this century, with horrendous consequences for Iraq, eliciting ethnic conflicts that are tearing the region apart—a major atrocity. John Bolton was behind that. And his new troika—I doubt that the U.S. will dare to do something similar, but that’s what it brings to mind.
It’s kind of interesting to see this hysterical raving alongside of another astonishing propaganda campaign that Bolton and his colleagues are carrying out with regard to the caravan of poor and miserable people fleeing from severe oppression, violence, terror, extreme poverty from three countries: Honduras—mainly Honduras, secondarily Guatemala, thirdly El Salvador—not Nicaragua, incidentally—three countries that have been under harsh U.S. domination, way back, but particularly since the 1980s, when Reagan’s terror wars devastated particularly El Salvador and Guatemala, secondarily Honduras. Nicaragua was attacked by Reagan, of course, but Nicaragua was the one country which had an army to defend the population. In the other countries, the army were the state terrorists, backed by the United States.
The most extreme source of migrants right now is Honduras. Why Honduras? Well, it was always bitterly oppressed. But in 2009, Honduras had a mildly reformist president, Mel Zelaya. The Honduran powerful, rich elite couldn’t tolerate that. A military coup took place, expelled him from the country. It was harshly condemned all through the hemisphere, with one notable exception: the United States. The Obama administration refused to call it a military coup, because if they had, they would have been compelled by law to withdraw military funding from the military regime, which was imposing a regime of brutal terror. Honduras became the murder capital of the world. A fraudulent election took place under the military junta—again, harshly condemned all over the hemisphere, most of the world, but not by the United States. The Obama administration praised Honduras for carrying out an election, moving towards democracy and so on. Now people are fleeing from the misery and horrors for which we are responsible.
And you have this incredible charade taking place, which the world is looking at with utter astonishment: Poor, miserable people, families, mothers, children, fleeing from terror and repression, for which we are responsible, and in reaction, they’re sending thousands of troops to the border. The troops being sent to the border outnumber the children who are fleeing. And with a remarkable PR campaign, they’re frightening much of the country into believing that we’re just on the verge of an invasion by, you know, Middle Eastern terrorists funded by George Soros, so on and so forth.
I mean, it’s all kind of reminiscent of something that happened 30 years ago. You may recall, in 1985, Ronald Reagan strapped on his cowboy boots and called—got in front of television, called a national emergency, because the Nicaraguan army was two days’ march from Harlingen, Texas, just about to overwhelm and destroy us. And it worked.
I mean, this spectacle is almost indescribable. Even apart from noticing where they’re coming from, the countries that we have crucially been involved in destroying, it’s—the ability to carry this off repeatedly is quite an amazing commentary on much of the popular culture.
But the troika, just like the “axis of evil,” are those who just don’t obey U.S. orders. Colombia, for example, has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere for years, but they’re not part of the troika of tyranny.
All of this rings very familiar bells. It’s a long—it’s been a long-standing element of the U.S. propaganda system on the—mostly on the far right, but not only, which goes way back and which is a kind of pathological feature of the dominant political culture that should be understood, analyzed and dismantled.
AMY GOODMAN: World-renowned professor, linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky, speaking to us from Tucson, Arizona, where he is now teaching at the University of Arizona. He is the institute professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he’s taught for more than 50 years, has written over 100 books, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We’ll air more of the interview with Noam Chomsky next week.