Sam Harris, the prominent secularist and neuroscientist, recently exchanged a series of heated emails with Noam Chomsky, a linguist and leading social and foreign policy critic since the 1960s. Their discussion was buzzworthy because both men are well-known public commentators with occasionally overlapping subject matter who have never shared a forum before. Unfortunately for Harris, who reached out to Chomsky initially, the conversation didn’t go as well for him as he seemed to hope it would when he embarked on it.
A great deal of fuss was made, both by Harris and by his fans in comment threads, about Chomsky’s cantankerousness. Some readers are anxious to call the “debate” in Harris’s favor because of it. While Chomsky does clearly evince impatience and frustration with Harris, the rhetorical flourishes which so miffed Harris are typical of Chomsky’s manner: phrases like “As you know” and the rather more cutting, “If you had read further before launching your accusations, the usual procedure in work intended to be serious, you would have discovered…”
Chomsky, who has spoken at the UN more times than maybe anyone who doesn’t work there, is entitled to some impatience and frustration. Most of his discussion with Harris is driven by the question of intent on the part of perpetrators of terror and war. Harris charges, “For [Chomsky], intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.” For Harris, however, “Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story.”
Chomsky’s infamous comparison of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant bombing to the terror attacks ofSeptember 11 frames the bulk of the conversation. President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa facility in Sudan in 1998. As a result, half of the pharmaceutical supplies of Sudan were destroyed, in particular their malaria medicine, chloroquine. Although only one person was killed by the missile itself, estimations by Chomsky and others place the resultant death toll in the tens of thousands.
Thus, Chomsky drew the analogy to 9/11, though he has since retreated from the comparison to clarify that, actually, Clinton’s bombing likely killed a lot more people. For Chomsky, it’s instructive to note that we treat 9/11 as one of the most horrendous acts ever to take place – which it is – but regard crimes with comparable or greater death tolls, routinely inflicted by powerful nations against weak ones, as a fact of life hardly worth mentioning.
Officially, the Al-Shifa attack was retaliation for the bombing of several embassies in Africa, justified by accusations that the plant engineered chemical weapons for terrorists. Harris assumes an awfully charitable disposition toward Clinton, arguing that the given reasons are sufficient to establish a moral difference between the Al-Shifa bombing and 9/11. Chomsky responds that all leaders profess benign intentions before committing their crimes, and notes that the official reasons fall apart on closer examination. Indeed, Clinton never provided evidence of Al-Shifa’s weapons manufacturing and later investigations demonstrated the facility had no ties to terror.
Chomsky even goes Harris one further, suggesting that Clinton probably didn’t intend to kill thousands of people by bombing Al-Shifa – he simply didn’t bother to consider the human cost. “On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human,” Chomsky writes.