Shortly after the September 11 attacks, the inimitable Noam Chomsky issued a statement giving some of his thoughts on the matter. It's pretty bad stuff, even for Chomsky, but it's worth examining nonetheless. I've included both the text (which I believe is in the public domain) and my analysis of it.

The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton's bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it). Not to speak of much worse cases, which easily come to mind.

This is a cute beginning. If someone were to criticize Chomsky for downplaying the attacks, he can, with mock innocence, point out that he explicitly said the attacks were atrocities. He then goes on to devote much more space to the bombing of the Sudan. This is a fairly straightforward rhetorical trick, one that Chomsky himself explained in Manufacturing Consent: people devote more space to things they think are more important. So by Chomsky's own standards, we see he considers the Sudan bombing to be more significant than 9/11.

This is rather odd because, as Chomsky himself acknowledges, we don't actually know enough about the Sudan bombing to make meaningful comparisons to 9/11. Now, that might very well be the U.S.'s fault, but we still don't know. It's important to note, though, that Chomsky isn't actually making a real comparison here: he doesn't say that the attacks did not reach the scale of the Sudan; he says that they "may" not. (Gotta love conditionals!) So ultimately this is a fairly empty statement.

But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt. The primary victims, as usual, were working people: janitors, secretaries, firemen, etc.

This is a nice little leftism--lo for the suffering of the working class!--but there are at least four things wrong with it:

1. No evidence is provided to support it. There is a very good reason for this: Chomsky made this statement within 24 hours of the attacks, well before there was any attempt at a reasonable list of victims. Thus Chomsky cannot possibly know what he is talking about here, and the statement is at best a fabrication.

2. That said, it's quite likely that, if we were actually to look at the data, we'd find that a lot of victims were from the working class. Of course, given that one of the targets was the World Trade Center, it's also quite likely that a disproportionate number of victims were upper-middle-class or upper-class. But of course Chomsky says nothing about this.

3. What is a "primary" victim supposed to be, anyway?

4. In any case, why should we care about the economic class of the victims? Surely, if all lives are equally valuable, it's irrelevant.

It is likely to prove to be a crushing blow to Palestinians and other poor and oppressed people.

Whoops! That didn't happen. Data from B'tselem and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society show that, aside from a spike around April 2002, the number of Israeli and Palestinian deaths remained relatively constant from September 2000 to January 2004. Now, the region is certainly a bloody mess, and I certainly don't know how to solve it, but that's not the point. The September 11 attacks and our responses to them do not seem to have caused an increase in Palestinian deaths.

It is also likely to lead to harsh security controls, with many possible ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom.

This is as close as Chomsky gets to the truth in this piece. The increase in security is obvious to anyone who's been to an airport since 9/11 (though I'd hesitate to call it "harsh") and there are also some frightening things in the Patriot Act. Fortunately, the judicial system is hacking away at many of the Bush administration's actions, including the obviously unlawful detention of Jose Padilla, and on the whole I'm optimistic that we'll get through this with most of our Constitution intact.

The events reveal, dramatically, the foolishness of the project of "missile defense." As has been obvious all along, and pointed out repeatedly by strategic analysts, if anyone wants to cause immense damage in the US, including weapons of mass destruction, they are highly unlikely to launch a missile attack, thus guaranteeing their immediate destruction. There are innumerable easier ways that are basically unstoppable.

This is a blatant logical error. The existence of one threat (terrorism) does not magically eliminate another threat (missile attacks), nor does it render useless the methods designed to defend against that other threat (missile defense). Indeed, nobody seems to have clued the North Koreans in to the uselessness of their missiles. There are any number of problems with missile defense (in particular, as of this writing it doesn't seem to work), but the existence of terrorism isn't one of them.

But today's events will, very likely, be exploited to increase the pressure to develop these systems and put them into place. "Defense" is a thin cover for plans for militarization of space, and with good PR, even the flimsiest arguments will carry some weight among a frightened public.

This much turned out to be true.

In short, the crime is a gift to the hard jingoist right, those who hope to use force to control their domains. That is even putting aside the likely US actions, and what they will trigger -- possibly more attacks like this one, or worse. The prospects ahead are even more ominous than they appeared to be before the latest atrocities.

Well, it did do good things for Bush's approval ratings, I suppose, though it also helped create a bunch of people who absolutely despise him. (It was also a nice little gift to Chomsky, who cranked out a lucrative book a few weeks later.) It's worth noting that the use of force is not by any stretch of the imagination limited to the right; for more on this, see the history of the twentieth century.

As to how to react, we have a choice. We can express justified horror; we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes, which means making an effort to enter the minds of the likely perpetrators. If we choose the latter course, we can do no better, I think, than to listen to the words of Robert Fisk, whose direct knowledge and insight into affairs of the region is unmatched after many years of distinguished reporting.

This is fairly standard for Chomsky, who frequently trades endorsements with Robert "My beating by refugees is a symbol of the hatred and fury of this filthy war" Fisk. (As is widely known, Fisk's supposed "insight" into the region and culture did not keep him from being beaten into a bloody pulp by Afghan refugees. But then, he seemed to enjoy it.)

Describing "The wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people," he writes that "this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps." And much more. Again, we have a choice: we may try to understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead.

I'm going to leave this bit alone, as most of it is Fisk, not Chomsky. (Besides, I have a strong aversion to discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they tend to decay into pointless shouting.)

That aside, the numerous flaws of this piece are (I hope) quite clear. It does, however, provide a good example of Chomsky's work and the difficulties involved in criticizing it: the errors, distortions, and outright fabrications are so densely packed that it can take a paragraph to critique a sentence. But it's still worth doing--especially when the author is as revered as Noam Chomsky.

Jabbi's "On the Bombings Pt. 1": I regret that I was not clearer. I meant that if someone were to criticize Chomsky for minimizing the American deaths, he would point to the quotation and say that he acknowledged them. But by his own logic, he is minimizing them by devoting less space to them than to the Sudan. As for the facts of the Sudan, they're quite appalling (and I think Clinton should've been impeached for that, not for the whole lying-about-sex a way, it was even more criminal than Iraq II). But whatever these facts may be, Chomsky makes a comparison, then says that we don't know enough about it.

Jabbi's "Irrelevant Deaths": Maybe he is referring to the innocence of the victims. He doesn't say so, and in any case, why isn't some twenty-two-year-old stockbroker considered innocent? Why do the poor, but not the rich, warrant this presumption of innocence? I don't consider it inconsequential that Chomsky is making a statement that he cannot possibly know is true, but there we may disagree.

Jabbi's "Complete Spectrum Dominance": I consider it rather dangerous to assume that nobody will do something insane. Moreover, if missile defense worked, there would be a tactical advantage for the US in that it could prevent effective retaliation by the North Korean missiles, if we were ever to attack them. Not that I want to, but still.

"Dubya's popularity": I don't think I said that Chomsky was expressing leftist bigotry. I did say that the use of force was not limited to the right (which implicitly acknowledges that the right does it too). I did say that Chomsky financially benefited from the book he wrote, which, as far as I can tell, is true. I never said he approved of them.

sid: I'm using Israeli-Palestinian deaths as an index of oppression because I cannot think of another hard statistic that's more relevant. Since we can't even agree about what these data show, I don't really think it would be useful to use something more vague.

Anyway, it's telling that sid chooses to ignore the data from 2000, since these are the data that contradict his point. (Beware of people who throw out data for no good reason.) The data clearly show that in September-December 2000, 272 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces. In September-December 2001, 245 Palestinians were killed. Thus, more Palestinians were killed in the last four months of 2000, even though the data from 2000 (but not 2001) only include the last few days of September. More importantly, though, the data show that there are substantial month-by-month fluctuations in the number of Palestinian deaths, and this fluctuation needs to be taken into account (instead of being ignored) before asserting that September 11 had anything to do with any increase or decrease. Go look at the data and see what you think.

For a graph of these data, which shows the extent of the fluctuation, see: