Freedom and the Political Economy of Terror

by Abu Spinoza

Dissident Voice
March 3, 2003



Book Review: Noam Chomsky, Power and Terror: Post-9/11 Talks and Interviews (Seven Stories Press, February 2003)


In his book Development as Freedom, the eminent Indian-Bengali economist Amartya Sen (1999, xi) writes:


And yet we also live in a world with remarkable deprivation, destitution, and oppression. There are many new problems as well as old ones, including the persistence of poverty and unfulfilled elementary needs, occurrence of famines and widespread hunger, violations of elementary political freedoms as well as basic liberties, extensive neglect of the interests and agency of women, and worsening threats to our environment and to sustainability of our economic and social lives. Many of these deprivations can be observed, in one form or another, in rich countries as well as poor ones.


Sen then goes on to investigate five distinct types of freedom, including (a) political freedoms, (b) economic facilities, (c) social opportunities, (d) transparency guarantees, and (e) protective securities. He explores the connections that link various types of freedom with one another.


Political freedom in the forms of free speech and elections help to promote economic security. Social opportunities in the forms of education and health facilities help economic participation. Economic facilities in the form of opportunities for participation in trade and production can help generate personal abundance as well as public resources for social development.


Sen (1999) shows that freedom of different types can strengthen each other. His contribution to understanding development as freedom is indeed profound. However, he does not discuss issues of power and terror, which are substantive forces in the world. Terror and violence are weapons of the strong and powerful against the weak and dispossessed. The scale of crimes committed with the economic support and the violent capabilities of the state and the backing of concentrated wealth exceed by far the crimes committed by various retail terrorists, bandits, gangsters, rouges, fringe elements, assorted secessionists’ organizations, and national liberation movements. Of course the crimes of the strong do not justify the crimes of the weak.


American dissident Noam Chomsky’s (2003) recent book, Power and Terror: Post 9/11 Talks and Interviews, provides a succinct but an illuminating discussion of the problems of power and terror. It is illustrated with plenty of concrete examples. He proceeds from the premise that as moral agent human beings’ actions ought to meet certain minimal and universal principles. He assumes the simple and basically self-evident principle that one should to apply to oneself the same standards that one applies to others. This essay will examine Chomsky’s analysis of power and terror, bearing in mind Sen’s (1999) conception of human freedom as both a goal and a means for development.



While acts of terrorism of the weak against the powerful must be condemned, the far more prevalent case of terrorism of the powerful against the weak must also be exposed, resolutely condemned, and vanquished. Yet the latter is unmentionable. The magnitude of various crimes of violence and terror have to be put in perspective and the causes of violence and terrorism have to be understood if one wishes to reduce the likelihood of more acts of terrorism and seeks to root out the causes of violence and terrorism. Chomsky’s (2003) view is that in order to stop or reduce terrorism, one must stop participating in it. This is an elementary and simple but important principle. The strong generally refuse to abide by this principle unless compelled to do so under public pressure or some other constraints. He discusses a wide range of issues and cases. He observes that among intellectuals “the atrocities that you commit somewhere else don’t exist.” This has been true of intellectuals serving power. The United States is not an outlier in this respect. In today’s world, the United States is a superpower. It has a determining impact on the lives of people every corner of the planet.


The unusual degree of freedom and political rights that exist in United States affords the privileged segment of its citizenry the capability to mitigate the abuse of the power and gives them the responsibility to prevent or minimize the harm caused by power interests. Chomsky takes this responsibility seriously. His analysis is motivated by these concerns. The robustness and explanatory power of his analysis can be demonstrated by examining some of the main contemporary foreign policy issues, such as the war with Afghanistan, the bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, the looming war against Iraq, Palestine under occupation, Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds, famines and starvation, and the rhetoric of terrorism. These topics are briefly examined here.


Afghanistan and 'the War Against Terrorism'


The war against Afghanistan has led to the deaths of at least 3,000 civilians, according to Mark Herold’s (2002) comprehensive study of available media reports. It also led to countless injuries, immense hardships, diseases, and dislocations of Afghans. Thus, grave sufferings were inflicted on one of the poorest people in the world. The US military actions put a large number of people on the brink of malnutrition and risk of starvation. It is doubtful that there will be a complete accounting of the deaths and the sufferings of the Afghans and other wretched masses because it is of little consequences to the rich and the powerful. Based on his exhaustive survey of available media reports about the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Herold (2002) explains the high level of civilian casualties due to:


[T]he apparent willingness of U.S. military strategists to fire missiles into and drop bombs upon, heavily populated areas of Afghanistan. A legacy of the ten years of civil war during the 80s is that many military garrisons and facilities are located in urban areas where the Soviet-backed government had placed them since they could be better protected there from attacks by the rural mujahideen. Successor Afghan governments inherited these emplacements. To suggest that the Taliban used ‘human shields’ is more revealing of the historical amnesia and racism of those making such claims, than of Taliban deeds. Anti-aircraft emplacements will naturally be placed close by ministries, garrisons, communications facilities, etc. A heavy bombing onslaught must necessarily result in substantial numbers of civilian casualties simply by virtue of proximity to ‘military targets’, a reality exacerbated by the admitted occasional poor targeting, human error, equipment malfunction, and the irresponsible use of out-dated Soviet maps. But, the critical element remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by U.S. military planners and the political elite, as clearly revealed by U.S. willingness to bomb heavily populated regions.


There is no reason to believe that the bombing of Afghanistan has reduced the future possibility of terrorism either globally or against civilians in the West. The bombing of Afghanistan was purely an act of revenge. It resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime but most of the members of al-Qaida network escaped and were not brought to justice. No one could possibly blame the Afghan people for the crimes committed against the American people but they had to pay a higher price. Chomsky points out that Afghan opinion was against US bombing but this was irrelevant to US planners or the media. The civilian casualties in Afghanistan are rarely discussed in the mainstream media.


The Bombing of al-Shifa


In his earlier book, Chomsky (2001) cited the bombing of al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as a perfect example of the arrogance of the world’s only superpower. It is known that there was no credible evidence linking al-Shifa to terrorism. The bombing of the plant destroyed significantly Sudan’s ability to produce critical medical drugs. For poor country in the midst of ethnic and regional civil war, it is a major devastation. Although reports of the lack of evidence tying al-Shifa factory to terrorism and the potential consequences of the bombing of this factory to the Sudanese population were available in the mainstream press, the international community (which is a “code” word used by the elite for expressed wishes of the Western countries) have neither investigated this crime nor labeled those responsible for this as terrorists, let alone call for their punishment. No US official has bothered to apologize for the destruction of this factory. Sudan has neither received nor been offered any form of compensation. Because the indirect victims of the destruction of al-Shifa are from a developing African country, little will be heard about them.


The Looming War Against Iraq


Since the tragic events of 9-11, the Anglo-American authorities have relentlessly pursued a policy of provoking hostilities with Iraq under one pretext or another. Iraq’s rich oil resources, believed to be the second largest in the world, loom in the background of the Western powers’ aim of establishing control over the country. This aim cannot be articulated too openly because of the shamelessness of trying to rob the inhabitants of a country of their own natural resources. The Bush administration tried and is still trying to justify its war plans by linking the Iraqi regime to al-Qaeda terrorists. In spite of concerted efforts, the administration failed to produce an iota of evidence of any link. The US authorities have also tried to accuse Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction that could threaten Western countries, including the US, with destruction. National Security Adviser Condelezza Rice evoked fears of mushroom clouds over American cities. Again, no material evidence has been yet produced that shows that Iraq actually possess weapons of mass destruction.


The lack knowledge or evidence does not prevent the Bush administration from advocating and preparing for the use of force against Iraq. If Iraq did possess weapons of mass destruction, then there is still no reason to believe that Iraq has the capability to launch them against NATO. Suppose, however, Iraq had the capability to use them, there is no reason to think that it is about to engage in aggression. None of the neighboring countries of Iraq, including those that it attacked previously, claim that it poses any lethal danger to them at this time. It should be kept in mind that the Western countries and Arab regimes consistently supported Saddam Hussein without any hesitation when he was committing ghastly atrocities against Kurds and other Iraqis. Hussein’s regime was favored because Iraq had invaded Iran. Iraq was such a close relationship with Washington that it was the only country other than Israel that could get away with attacking a US naval ship. In fact even after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 New York Times correspondent and columnist Thomas Friedman openly advanced the perpetuation of “iron-fisted military junta” in Iraq. Such advocacy reveals the contempt for human rights and rights of the Iraqi people to democracy and self-determination.


The Struggle for Palestine


Following 9-11, the Israeli authorities used the rhetoric of combating terrorism to crush Palestinian resistance, kill Palestinian civilians, imprison activists, and destroy infrastructure and ruin whatever semblance of an independent state that the incompetent Palestinian Nationality Authority was able to create. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was a clear and distinct example of international terrorism, but it is not discussed as such in the annals of scholarly discourse, let alone the mainstream media. Israel’s objective was to destroy a Palestinian “peace offensive,” that is, the offer to negotiate and reach a just settlement. The US provided a green light to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon just as it has given de facto approval for Israel re-occupation of Palestinian territories.


In order to end violence and terrorism, a necessary condition for peace is the complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories. Its occupation is illegal. There are numerous UN Security Council Resolutions that call for full Israeli withdrawal from West Bank and Gaza. Under international law, the Palestinian people are entitled to resist armed occupation. Armed actions against an army of occupation and armed settlers are justified. However, attacks against civilians cannot be justified and must be condemned. It is the Palestinians who have borne the brunt of most violence and terrorism. During this intifada through Nov. 25 2002, for every one Israeli civilian wounded by a Palestinian, 40 Palestinian civilians were hospitalized due to attacks by Israelis. During this intifada, 1,926 Palestinian were killed and 21,240 injured in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The subtotal since the March 29, 2002 invasion (termed by Israel as “Operation Defensive Shield”) is 669 deaths and 2,687 injuries.


Analysts believe that these figures are likely underestimates because the Palestinian Red Crescent Society is unable to access many areas and account for those who disappeared during Israel’s attack on Jenin refugee camp. Among Israelis, 691 people died and 4,908 were injured. These statistics reveal the underlying asymmetry in power relations between Israel and the Palestinians. In the occupied territories, defenseless Palestinian refugee camps and civilian areas are often bombarded from Israeli F-16s and advanced helicopters (provided by the US), and women and children are made homeless as the occupation army bulldozes their homes. The Israeli occupation army uproots olive trees with no regard for the livelihood of peasants or the environment. Detention without trail, complete curfew, torture, collective punishment and other arbitrary abuse of powers in contravention of Fourth Geneva Convention are quite common in the West Bank and Gaza.


Chomsky (1999) has written extensively about the United States, Israel, and Palestine. The facts are fairly straightforward. The brutal Israeli occupation could not go on without massive US economic and military support. Israel and the United States’ rejection of peace can be seen in their refusal to accept in their latest to refusal to even consider Abdallah plan. The US has been blocking diplomatic settlement for the last 30 years or so. It vetoed a European Union initiative to send international monitors to the occupied territories to reduce violence.


Turkey and the Kurds


Chomsky believes that Turkish authorities provided troops for Afghanistan because the US gave critical supply of arms for Turkey’s brutal suppression of Kurds and attacks on about 3,500 villages and towns. It was probably the worst atrocity of the 1990s except from Rwanda. In the “no fly zone” in Northern Iraq, which is supposedly to protect the Kurds, Turkish planes are allowed to bomb the Kurds. Despite some improvement in recent days, the Kurds are an oppressed community in Turkey. Their human rights are severely restricted. Children are punished for wearing Kurdish colors. Even their language rights are quite limited.


Chomsky (2003) recalls an incident in southeastern Turkey; he was presented a Kurdish-English dictionary. This was part of defiance. It could incur the wrath of the authorities. Recently Osman Baydemir was jailed for using the Kurdish spelling instead of the Turkish spelling for the word “New Year”. Chomsky notes that Ismail Besikci, a leading Turkish sociologist and author of State Terror in the Middle East (1991), has been in prison for writing about the Turkish repression of Kurds. Even a Turkish state minister admitted that Turkey has carried out state terror. Yet it is never described as such in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.


Famines and Starvation


Sen (1999) has argued that if a country has democratic institutions, like regular and fair elections and free press, it is able to prevent virulent disasters, like famine and mass starvation. The authorities are compelled to undertake transfer programs because there is public pressure to do so. Thus, he argues that the institutions of democracy can be instrumental in preventing famines by providing timely information and thereby creating pressure for public actions. However, notional democracy is not sufficient to prevent chronic starvation and disease. In a comparative study of India and China, Dreze and Sen (1989) point out that whereas India was able to avoid famines, it invested far less in rural health care services. They show that the result of this has been catastrophic. Approximately every 8 years in Indian the number of people dying from starvation, poor health, malnutrition and disease equals to a 1958-60 famine.


For Chomsky, this surely is a powerful indictment of the limits of notional democracy that is confined to periodical free elections and characterized by unequal and unfair distribution of wealth and income. This is not to suggest that formal freedoms are unimportant. As Sen (1999) has shown they are quite essential both as an instrument and as an end. These formal rights should be vigorously defended and extended.


One can further point out that existing democracies have no qualms about inflicting great miserly on Third World countries. The results of US-imposed and UN-legitimized sanctions on Iraq have been deadly. More than 1 million Iraqis, including at least half a million children, have died as a result of sanctions. Child mortality in Iraq has risen from a level comparable to that of industrial countries to that of devastated least developed countries. Iraq’s water treatment facilities and waste disposal and sanitation systems are in ruins because the sanctions bar the importation of essential spare parts. US war planners deliberately damaged the country’s water system (Nagy 2001).


Chomsky regards that this devaluation of the lives of people of the Third World is a result of the internalization of the view among Western elites that some lives are worthy whereas the lives of the others are of little consequences and therefore can be easily dispensed. Citing the case of Irish famine, Sen (1999, 170-5) has argued the British ruling class was deeply alienated from the Irish and, therefore, allowed Irish famines to occur with no concern for the plight of the victims of the famine. His view that "the sense of distance ruler and the rule -- between ‘us’ and ‘them’” is an indispensable element of alienation in the case of not just famine but also in the other modes of active affliction of cruelty on Third World nations.


The Rhetoric and the Reality of Terror


The leading Western powers and Japan supplied Indonesia’s military with weapons when Indonesia invaded and occupied East Timor until it regained independence. The post-Sept. 11 alliance between the US, Russia, China, Indonesia, Algeria, Egypt has enabled these countries to carry out their own terrorist atrocities. Cuba has also been subject to United States’ direct and proxy terror for many years. The United States has refused to extradite Emmanuel Constant, a brutal paramilitary leader tried in absentia for carrying out massacres in Haiti. John Negroponte, who is now US representative at the UN, served as the “proconsul” to Honduras while it carried out atrocities. Chomsky (2001) makes evident that the official doctrine and practice of what is euphemistically called “low intensity warfare” is actually a form of terrorism as understood in US laws. While there is some truth to the dictum that terrorism is often the weapon of the weak, terrorism actually is a frequently used tool of the powerful.


The US has often supported a variety of terrorist criminal wars. It was responsible for the unlawful use of force against Nicaragua and backed contras who carried out terrorist attacks against Nicaraguans. Chomsky recalls that the US, UK, Egypt, France, and Pakistan organized, financed, trained, and armed Islamic fundamentalists. During Indonesia’s invasion and occupation East Timor it received that military and financial support from Western countries and Japan.


The standard discourse on violence and terrorism is fraught with propaganda and distortions. It is not difficult to find examples of this in almost every issue of mainstream newspapers and scholarly journals. Leading columnists such as William Safire, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristoff, and Charles Krauthammer, and editorial writers of the trend-setting media merely echo different segments of state power and rarely say anything about the victims of the crimes of the superpower.


Consider some of the examples that Chomsky cites. Though the site of attack on the World Trade Center is described as Ground Zero, barely any mention was made of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. The targets of atomic bombings were civilian. In the mainstream press, barely any reference is made to the fact that millions perished in Vietnam due to US bombing, mines and use of chemical weapons. The US backed the Latin American elite in crushing the liberation theology within the Catholic Church. The US had labeled the African National Congress as a terrorist organization during the apartheid era and supported South Africa when it attacked its neighboring countries and killed more than 1 million people. Western state terrorism is always labeled counter-terrorism. The underlying principle is simple: The violence committed by official enemies is “terrorism” but the violence committed by Western states and their allies is called “counter-terrorism.”


The absence of a critical perspective in the press should not surprise anyone. Nevertheless, there occasionally are useful articles and news reports that appear in the mainstream press that indirectly convey the facts. If one reads the mainstream press diligently and critically and analyzes what is conveyed between the lines, then one is able to form a fairly accurate and comprehensive view of developments in the world. Someone following the foreign press, the business press or the alternative media, particularly some excellent informative websites, such as,, or, can get a broader and balanced view of the world.


While most books on terrorism, particularly written by establishment intellectuals, are little more than repetition of standard lines, there are a number of earlier and recent thoughtful works on power and terror that may be mentioned here. Chomsky’s own books, such as Pirates and Emperors (1987) or The Culture of Terrorism (1988), have exposed how extensive is state terrorism. Edward Herman’s (1982) writings on the international terror network provide a good understanding of the national security states and the United States’ continued support for such regimes even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


After reviewing the United States’ long history of violence and resistance to it, the eminent historian Howard Zinn (2001) argues that concentrating on the class issue is critical. He holds that the left should not only oppose war but should challenge the current social and economic system that, he believes, is responsible for perpetrating successive wars. It has been well known among technical specialists, such as Falkenrath et al (1998), that the threat of terrorism is quite real and that with present technology Western states do not retain their monopoly on terrorist violence. Without exception, serious scholars on terrorism agree that in order to reduce terrorism the underlying causes have to be addressed. Application of force, security measures, and state violence, which is often itself illegal and excessive, are likely to only further aggravate disenfranchised communities and widen the social base for terrorists to obtain recruits to the nefarious causes.




Those who are subject to foreign and military occupation, dictatorial rule, poverty, violence, or state-sponsored terrorism, have their political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective securities banished into oblivion. Such phenomena are all too common in the world today. Far too many people live either unbearable poverty or without minimal political rights or both, in Afghanistan, Argentina, Congo, Colombia, Palestine, Pakistan, Zaire, and even in advanced countries like the USA or the UK. Public awareness and resistance to deprivations and denials is quite substantive and gradually growing at local, national and global levels. The current antiwar movement is a vital part of the multifaceted and complex social struggle for liberty, human dignity, justice, and peace.


In his treatise, Sen (1999, 267-8) notes:


It is characteristic of freedom that it has diverse aspects that relate to a variety of activities and institutions. It cannot yield a view of development that translates readily into some simple “formula” of accumulation of capital, or opening up of markets, or having efficient economic planning (though each of these particular features fits into the broader picture). The organizing principle that places all the different bits and pieces into an integrated whole is the overarching concern with the process of enhancing individual freedoms and the social commitment to help bring that about. The unity is important, but at the same time we cannot lose sight of the fact that freedom is an inherent diverse concept, which involves ... considerations of processes as well as substantive opportunities.


Certainly the freedom from tyranny and state-sponsored violence is one key aspect of development. It is a tribute to Chomsky that his activist work illustrates how important the absence of state-sponsored terror is to human life and society. It is, however, his actual contribution to the struggle for achieving this freedom from terror and tyranny that makes his books invaluable.


Abu Spinoza is a pseudonym for an economist. This article first appeared in Press Action (




Arnove, Anthony, eds., (2003). Iraq Under Siege, updated edition. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


Besikci, Ismail (1991). State Terror in the Middle East.


Chomsky, Noam (1987). Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World. Cheektowaga, NY: Black Rose Books.


Chomsky, Noam (1988). The Culture of Terrorism. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


Chomsky, Noam (1999). The Fateful Triangle, updated edition. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


Chomsky, Noam (2001). 9-11, eds., Greg Ruggerio. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.


Drèze, Jean; and Sen, Amartya (1989). Hunger and Public Action. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Herman, Edward (1982). The Real Terror Network. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


Herold, Marc W., (2002)."A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting".


Falkenrath, Richard A.; Newman, Robert D.; and Thayer, Bradley A (1998). America’s Achilles Heel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Nagy, Thomas J., (2001). “The Secret Behind the Sanctions How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply,” The Progressive (September).


Sen, Amartya (1999). Development as Freedom. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.


Zinn, Howard (2002). Terrorism and War, edited by Anthony Arnove. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.


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