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The Chomsky/Harris feud: Tribalism, Ethics and the Debate that Wasn’t

Intellectual giants Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky duked it over by email recently, but sadly one person wanted to debate while the other engaged in name calling.
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Due to fear, ancient human tribes tended to survive on an attack first model. The preemptive strike was the best form of deterrence. Based on the ill-tempered email exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky (published as The Limits of Discourse on Sam Harris blog), and the responses to it, not much has changed. Despite the “interesting non-interchange” the ethics of modern statecraft, terror, and war, remain important topics. What follows will attempt to unearth what was missing...

The debate is based on comments from Noam Chomsky on the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Chomsky’s, A Quick Reaction, September 12, 2001:

The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do 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 probably killing tens of thousands 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. But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt.  

We stick with our tribe, but sometimes our tribalism is misplaced. A quick review sees this phenomenon on display in Andrew Aghapour’s, 3 Lessons Noam Chomsky Taught Us on Debating Intolerant People from His Exchange with Sam Harris, Alternet 28 May 2015. Notably, when the title refers to Harris as “Intolerant,” and Chomsky as a teacher, one is hardly surprised by what follows.

So what are the 3 lessons?

  • Call Out Bullshit Thought Experiments: If your opponent creates a thought-experiment that bends reality to fit their assumptions, pummel them with the facts.

“Bends reality”? But that’s precisely what a thought experiment is! By these lights “Schrödinger's cat,” “Maxwell’s demon,” and “Brain in a Vat” scenarios are also “ludicrous and embarrassing.” Therefore, the “Bullshit” philosophy of Descartes, Kant and Schrodinger can all be tossed out.

If your argument involves ditching vast swathes of human knowledge there’s a good chance it’s flawed.

  • “Civility” is a Dubious Rhetoric When it Comes to State Power:

Seriously? We should replace civility with name calling? As noted by Ben Cohen previously, Chomsky has history in engaging in correspondences marred by vitriol, even with fans such as George Monbiot.

Aghapour exempts Chomsky from civil discourse on the pretext that civilized debate would “exclude facts and perspectives necessary for questioning dominant powers.”

This isn’t a “lesson,” only lame excuse making for Chomsky’s personal attacks.

How a rational discussion would “exclude facts and perspectives” is left unanswered. How could it possibly?

Personal attacks are far too often used as a way to obfuscate, and avoid scrutiny.

  • Drop the Mic on Your Way Out: The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird, a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content

Harris flagged right from the start his hopes to publish their correspondence, and gained permission to publish it. Chomsky’s glib observation doesn’t deserve repeating.

These 3 lessons should studiously be avoided. Dissing well-known philosophical devices, resorting to ad hominem, and making facile observations are unworthy of praise - even if practiced by our intellectual heroes. Loyalty to the tribe shouldn’t extend this far…

The Missing Discussion

The key question which evolved from Chomsky statement about the 9/11 attacks is whether it was a fair and reasonable comparison, and whether “the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state,” as argued by 9 Chomsky in his book 9/11.  Here, Chomsky argues that the only difference between it and previous atrocity’s, was that the victim in this case was the United States.

In The Limits of Discourse two ideologies collide and the resulting smoke and debris leave both combatants unable or unwilling to acknowledge one another’s arguments. Sam Harris has a post 9/11 concern with the fundamental core beliefs of Islam, and their influence on extremist behavior. As a critic of US foreign policy, Chomsky has helped his many followers form a more nuanced world view rejecting US exceptionalism and jingoist nationalism.

“Moral Equivalence”

The Limits of Discourse provides no hint of the previous exchanges between Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, and Leo Casey, which are enlightening both in challenging Chomsky’s denials and understanding why Harris sought this particular exchange. Understandably perhaps, Chomsky’s, A Quick Reaction, issued just one day after 9/11 drew widespread criticism. He strenuously denies suggesting “moral equivalence” between the two events, but deconstructing his statement suggests otherwise.

The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton's bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext

In labelling both events as “major atrocities” Chomsky asks his reader to draw an obvious comparison between al-Shifa and 9/11, in moral terms. Morally, a “major atrocity” isn’t a neutral event. Natural disasters, or large scale accidents, are never described this way. Unquestionably, “major atrocity” suggests malevolence of intent.

Yet Chomsky tetchily demands Harris withdraw his “accusations”:

I am also sorry that you evade the fact that your charge of “moral equivalence” was flatly false, as you know.

According to previous exchanges with Hitchens he was merely noting the similarity in death tolls. Reply to Hitchens Rejoinder (my emphasis)

Can the attacks of September 11 be compared to an earlier outrage committed by Americans? And should they be so compared?” NB: His question. If he wants to consider that question, fine, but I didn’t raise it or discuss it, nor will I now. Recall that his series of denunciations takes off from a single sentence in a composite response to journalists in which I said, accurately, that the toll of the "horrendous atrocities" of September 11 might be comparable to the toll of the destruction of half the pharmaceutical supplies of Sudan. The rest is the product of his imagination.


Hitchens condemns the claim of "facile 'moral equivalence' between the two crimes." Fair enough, but since he fabricated the claim out of thin air, I feel no need to comment.

Notice how this contradicts his previous comments in Chomsky replies to Hitchens (my emphasis):

Assuming so, in the brief message Hitchens may have seen, I did not elaborate, assuming — correctly, judging by subsequent interchange — that it was unnecessary: the recipients would understand why the comparison is quite appropriate.


To regard the comparison to Sept. 11 as outrageous is to express extraordinary racist contempt for African victims of a shocking crime,

And then, in the discourse with Harris, Chomsky appears to argue al-Shifa is much worse than 9/11. But even if he regards al-Shifa as worse he doesn’t evade “moral equivalence,” as the comparison doesn’t require exactitude.

If he isn’t invoking some sort of “moral equivalence” then his comparison is nonsensical. Why else make the comparison of the two “atrocities” if not for moral reasons?

Chomsky’s reasoning is even foggier in The Limits of Discourse:

As you know (apologies for the accuracy), I described 9/11 as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” In the case of al-Shifa, I said nothing of the sort.  I described it as an atrocity, as it clearly is, and merely stated the unquestionable facts. There is no “moral equivalence,” the term that has been regularly used, since Jeane Kirkpatrick, to try to undercut critical analysis of the state one defends.

As Harris points out:

You then appear to be upbraiding me for not immediately detecting an important difference between a “horrendous crime” and an “atrocity.” Is there one?

And, as per previous, he described both events as an “atrocity.” Chomsky’s objection to “moral equivalence” is based on its well-known use as a propaganda tool “to try to undercut critical analysis…” and his unwillingness to be called out for it.

It’s a smokescreen. Chomsky clearly wants others to draw the conclusion of moral equivalence between the two events whilst denying suggesting it himself.

Leo Casey:

It is time for Chomsky to either openly take these positions and openly defend these claims, or to stop making them. To do otherwise is to engage in a disingenuousness that ill-serves public discourse on such important matters.

A Reply to Chomsky’s “basic question”

What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair, the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan.That aside, if the U.S. or Israel or England were to be the target of such an atrocity, what would the reaction be?

Chomsky upbraids Harris for not responding to this “basic question,” having rejected Harris thought experiment as “irrelevant,” and “ludicrous and embarrassing.” Chomsky appears to think the question exposes how the West values the lives of those in weaker nations as “mere things,” noting triumphantly and repeatedly the failure of Harris to address it, as if suggestive of a critical moral failing.

Anyone who cites this passage has the minimal responsibility to give their reactions.  Failure to do so speaks volumes.

So let’s consider his “basic question.”

Chomsky claims al-Shifa “probably” led to tens of thousands of deaths. Although it’s false (as I will explain) we will assume it’s true for the purpose of comparison. Let’s assume tens of thousands is actually 40,000 deaths. Sudan had 28.1 million people in 2001, and the U.S. had 292.8 million.

Assuming the U.S. has a better capacity to deal with a similar atrocity let’s propose casualties are proportionally half in the U.S – this would equate to approximately 208,000 Americans. Does Chomsky actually contend 208,000 U.S. deaths is a better moral outcome than 40,000 Sudanese deaths?

Evidently, yes! Chomsky Replies to Hitchens:

Proportional to population, this is as if the bin Laden network, in a single attack on the US, caused "hundreds of thousands of people -- many of them children -- to suffer and die from easily treatable diseases," though the analogy is unfair because a rich country, not under sanctions and denied aid, can easily replenish its stocks and respond appropriately to such an atrocity -- which, I presume, would not have passed so lightly.

Chomsky appears to regard countries as independent moral agents. This is implied by measuring the overall impact to the nation. True, 40,000 Sudanese deaths might have consequences “vastly more severe” on Sudan, than 200,000 deaths on the U.S. But, in what “Bizarro world” are 200,000 deaths preferable to 40,000? Inverse to Chomsky’s claims regarding western attitudes, his assumptions lead him to value one Sudanese life as more valuable than five U.S. lives.

The lesson of Chomsky’s “basic question” mirrors his indictment of the West back on himself, demonstrating nothing about western attitudes to the lives of the weak and poor but, rather an odd ambivalence towards U.S. lives. Perhaps it’s an attitude borne of a career in opposing U.S. foreign policy, the same ambivalence in which he regards the 9/11 attack as chickens coming home to roost.

Chomsky’s objectionable moral comparison is the result of the ideological prism – assessing events based on a “powerful nation versus weak nation” paradigm, without realizing how it skews the value of human lives in the same direction of his own pre-existing bias. Whose tribesmen are more valuable?

A Reasonable Comparison or an Offensive one?

Clinton’s bombing of the al-Shifa chemical factory killed one person and wounded 11 others. Undertaken following the U.S. Embassy bombings which killed hundreds in Tanzania and Kenya, on the pretext that the pharmaceutical plant housed chemical weapons, and was owned by an al-Qaeda member. Neither pretext was subsequently confirmed. The plant supplied 50-60% of the medicines to Sudan, and Human Rights Watch warned of possible significant casualties as a result. However, no evidence exists of casualties in the tens of thousands. Chomsky has been called out for misrepresenting this point by Human Rights Watch in Salon, Noam needs a fact checker, on January 23, 2002.

Leo Casey, Let Us Not Inherit This Ill Wind, argues the conjectured mass casualties from al-Shifa are quite implausible. First, the sanctions Chomsky assumes would hinder replenishment didn’t apply to medicines or humanitarian aid. Second, the major medicine, Chloroquine, produced at al-Shifa, was as common in African as aspirin is in the West. Third, Sudan had adequate resources for replacing medicines. Fourth, no aid agencies found evidence of mass casualties afterward. No reason then, to think a humanitarian catastrophe befell Sudan as a result of al-Shifa. The “probably” in Chomsky’s analysis is “probably” false, disproving his claim that the Clinton’s bombing caused more deaths than 9/11. Similarly, his claim Clinton would have known the consequences of al-Shifa would have been severe (but didn’t care) is undermined by the low probability of severe casualties.

Further, the “Evil-empire crushing the African minnow” narrative is torn asunder when considering the cruel, fundamentalist Sudanese regime of 1998. The Sudanese National Islamic Front starved its own people, housed al-Qaeda, used children as soldiers, used torture against children, encouraged the slave trade using the indigenous “Dinka” peoples, and engaged in the genocide of its southern African peoples resulting in over 1.5 million deaths in the 1990’s.

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, caused the deaths of 3000 people. Eighteen thousand businesses were destroyed or displaced. The substantial financial impact included New York City’s GDP declining by $28.4 billion, insurance losses of $40 billion, and the devaluation of the U.S. stock market by $1.24 trillion. Destabilization of the global economy and the exposure of the World Bank worsened world poverty. The attack was designed to inflict the maximum number of civilian casualties and had no specific military of strategic pretext other than causing terror, and escalating a war between Islam and the West. The attack of 9/11 is a hinge event, marking the commencement of the “age of terror,” precipitating further terror attacks and military escalations including the London bombings, Bali bombings, and U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Measured only on consequences, it’s outlandish to claim the U.S. bombing of al-Shifa which killed only one person directly was equivalent or worse than 9/11. And measured on intentions, it’s ridiculous. Chomsky admits mass casualties are only probable, not proven. His conjectures on Clinton’s motives, based only upon the inability to substantiate chemical weapons, only amount to guesswork. Contrast with the known objectives of the terrorists who intentionally hijacked passenger planes and pointed them towards buildings filled with civilians. Chomsky relies heavily on disbelieving the claims of U.S. intelligence. Lacking evidence either way Chomsky assumes the conditions necessary to an anti-U.S. stance framed by his preexisting views.


The virtue in Chomsky’s writings and critique of U.S. foreign policy, if often overstated, act as corrective against cultural bias, so aptly summed up by George Orwell.

Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. [...]There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it.

But it’s interesting how Chomsky has formed an inverse bias against the U.S. typified by an incurious attitude to the “intentions” of its enemies, such as the terrorists of 9/11. Chomsky argues all regimes claim “benign intentions” and therefore calculations on intentions are fraught.

As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general…

As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information, even in the technical sense of that term.  That’s quite independent of their “sincerity,” however we determine that (pretty easy in the Japanese case, and the question doesn’t even arise in the al-Shifa case).

Whether “intentions” are sincere is only part of the story, the real question is how they intersect with right and wrong. Chomsky argues the Nazis and the Japanese professed benign intentions. But even a suicide bomber engages in an ethical activity if one accepts his beliefs. Sincerity is only one aspect of what makes an action morally right or wrong. Hitler’s sincere belief in the extermination of all Jews must be distinguished from those who sincerely tried to prevent him from doing so. If we say “intentions” “carry no information” we submit to moral relativism, where the beliefs behind genocide, rape and torture are equal to those supporting pluralism and peace.

Most judicial systems differentiate between crimes based on intent. Punishment systems seek to balance the outcomes of a crime with the intent of the offender, and any mitigating circumstances. Manslaughter is thereby distinguished from murder. Defendants don’t get a pass because they seem sincere.

Chomsky on Clinton’s “intentions” from The Limits of Discourse (my emphasis):

…to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street. On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human.  That is exactly the situation. 

In decrying the Clinton bombing Chomsky makes several claims about U.S. “intentions” – no evidence of chemical weapons, no trace of part-ownership by al-Qaeda, it must have been to retaliate to the al-Qaeda embassy bombings, US knew it would inflict massive casualties, and that Clinton didn’t care about the casualties. Chomsky’s case belies the claim that “intentions” are largely meaningless. By his own logic, “intentions” are significant, and therefore his argument is contradictory and self-defeating.

He discusses the “intentions” of the 9/11 terrorists in the narrow context of past U.S. crimes and sanctions. According to Chomsky, retaliation is the natural result of U.S. aggression. Yet, U.S. retaliation for the Embassy bombings (if that’s what it was) marks the culpability of its crimes. Clearly, some weighing of “intentions” occurs, but only in relation to the U.S.  It’s almost as if those with “intent” to cause terror against the West are like children with no moral autonomy, their actions are entirely forecast by the U.S.  Not only demeaning, this is simply wrong.

The “intentions” of the terrorists are articulated by Hitchens. By their deaths the martyrs of Islamic terror highlight the futility of western attempts to lend an ear to their grievances. There will be no rapprochement with the Salafist’s driving global jihad. Anti-western sentiment is only one aspect of it. Its offense directed at Western values, and the extent of western power, as much as it objects to how western power is used. It’s a minor element in the millennia long sectarian war where loyalty depends entirely on whether one is Shi’ite or Sunni.

Portraying the U.S. as the evil monster in world affairs has serious and unwelcome consequences. The inability to distinguish between different U.S. regimes and the blanket condemnation of whatever action U.S. forces undertake in other parts of the world, demands a simplistic, utopian world view where the only policy is non-interventionist. One clings to the undergraduate dogma that, if not for U.S. imperialism, the problems of the world would vanish into the ether. Far removed from reality and the necessary role the U.S. plays in the world, this can have no bearing on U.S. policy, and can offer nothing to the debate where limited use of armed force is necessary. The debate around U.S. military policy in Syria in opposing ISIL is not especially assisted by the “wisdom” of pointing out how the Iraq war led to the escalation of sectarian violence. The ethics about what to do now are hampered by an unhealthy preoccupation with U.S. actions in the past.

Just look at the hazy uncertainty in what Chomsky recommends (Democracy Now: March 2015) in dealing with the growing power of ISIS.

Now, this cannot be dealt with by bombs. This is much more serious than that. It’s got to be dealt with by steps towards recovering, remedying the massive damage that was initiated by the sledgehammer smashing Iraq and has now spread. And that does require diplomatic, peaceful means dealing with people who are pretty ugly—and we’re not very pretty, either, for that matter. But this just has to be done. Exactly what steps should be taken, it’s hard to say

It’s much easier to say what went wrong after the fact, and no doubt we can rely on Chomsky to condemn U.S. policy in due course. But what sort of diplomacy works with an ideology based on war, and glories in death? Since the demands of the ISIS involve world domination and forced conversion to their version of Islam, only the deluded or insane would attempt to broker a deal.

The non-debate between Harris and Chomsky sees a collision of ideologies, neither of which recognizes the other. The merit of Chomsky’s analysis is in the refusal to allow the U.S. to avoid culpability for its actions. His views on U.S. foreign policy have helped shine a light on its self-interested and often amoral exceptionalism. Unfortunately, he views any reproach as vindicating U.S. aggression in every context.

Through decades of political activism and writing on the folly of U.S. state violence, Chomsky’s has constructed an imposing worldview. Through this façade he looks upon current events. Leo Casey:

I read his books, attended a few speeches and lectures and was rather impressed with the model of an engaged intellectual, working for social change, he presented. But today, as I read his writings and interviews on the September 11 mass murders, I see no sign of that man. Far from speaking truth to power, he now seems unable to speak truth to his fellow citizens. Chomsky has become a latter day William Jennings Bryan, a once great man who is so distorted by his fundamentalist faith that he has lost all sense of perspective in the world, all orientation of where those who stand with the oppressed should be. Like the William Jennings Bryan figure in the drama _Inherit The Wind_, Chomsky has become a captive of his own dogma.

In reading these debates one notices the consistent refusal by Chomsky’s to clarify his position. Along with this he completely overlooks the lack of evidence supporting his conclusion. One wonders how his acolytes support an argument he refuses to admit to making, on the basis of evidence which he doesn’t have. If not for misplaced tribalism, I doubt they would.