NOAM CHOMSKY seems to lead a double life. As a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he practically invented the field of modern linguistics, but outside the academy he’s drawn more attention as a trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy and the media.

At seventy-four, Chomsky is “one of the radical heroes of our age,” according to the Guardian. His activism spans five decades, and the Village Voice compares him to “a medic attempting to cure a national epidemic of selective amnesia.” The mainstream U.S. media studiously ignore him, but he is frequently quoted in the international press, making him better-known abroad than he is at home.

Though not a particularly arresting or charismatic orator, Chomsky invariably attracts overflow audiences from New York City to New Delhi. His speaking engagements are booked years in advance. At the January 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, some twenty thousand activists, workers, and trade unionists packed a stadium to hear him. Six months later, I saw him lead seminars for small groups of students at the Z Media Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The number of attendees did not affect his delivery: he is always patient and composed, with a dry sense of humor that often goes unnoticed amid the torrent of facts.

My relationship with Chomsky began more than twenty years ago when, after reading one of his books, I wrote him a letter. I was surprised to get a reply. Letter followed letter, and a friendship developed. Since 1984 I have been interviewing Chomsky as part of my Alternative Radio program. A series of books we have done together have sold many thousands of copies, despite having almost no promotion. Our latest is Propaganda and the Public Mind (South End Press).

Chomsky has written scores of books himself, and, according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, he is among the ten most cited authors, living or dead, right behind Plato and Freud. His most recent titles are Middle East Illusions (Rowman & Littlefield) and Power and Terror (Seven Stories Press). His book 9-11 (Seven Stories Press) spent seven weeks on the New York Times extended bestseller list. The hardcover Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Domination is due out in November 2004 from Metropolitan Books.

People often ask me, “What’s Chomsky like?” I’ve always found the Philadelphia native to be straightforward, soft-spoken, and unpretentious. There is no power trip or air of superiority. His approach is best summed up by something he once said to me: “I’m really not interested in persuading people. What I like to do is help people persuade themselves.”

I caught up with Chomsky last April 5, in Boulder, Colorado, where he was helping celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of KGNU community radio. We conducted the following interview a few hours before his sold-out talk that evening. Ever generous with his time, he was bound for LA the next morning to do another benefit. As we spoke, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was underway, and coalition forces were pushing toward Baghdad. I attempted to bring together Chomsky the linguistics professor and Chomsky the media critic by asking him about language used by the government, and subsequently adopted by the media, to influence public opinion during the war.


334 - Noam Chomsky


Barsamian: What sort of propaganda is at work today with Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Chomsky: In this morning’s New York Times there’s an interesting article about Karl Rove, the president’s manager — his “minder” is what they would call it in Iraq — the one who teaches him what to say and do in order to look good and get reelected. Rove is not directly involved in planning the war — but then, neither is Bush. That’s in the hands of other people. Rove says his goal is to present the president as a powerful wartime leader so that the Republicans can push through their domestic agenda, which means tax cuts for the rich and other programs designed to benefit an extremely small, highly privileged sector of the population. (Rove says it’s to benefit the economy.)

More significant than that — and this part is not outlined in the article — is the attempt to destroy social support systems like schools and Social Security and anything based on the concept that people must have some concern for one another. That idea has to be driven out of people’s minds: that you should have sympathy and solidarity; that you should care whether the disabled widow across town is able to eat. The problem with things like schools or Social Security is that they are based on natural human concern for others. Driving such thoughts from people’s minds is a large part of the Republican domestic agenda. The best strategy for this is to produce citizens who are focused solely on maximizing their own consumption and have no concern for anyone else.

Since people aren’t going to accept total self-interest at face value, however, the way to achieve it — and this is stated explicitly in the Times article — is to make people afraid. If people are frightened, if they think that their security is threatened, they will suppress their own concerns and interests and gravitate toward strong leaders. They will trust the Republicans to protect them from outside enemies. Meanwhile the Republicans will drive through their domestic agenda, maybe even institutionalize it, so that it will be very hard to take apart. And they will do this by presenting the president as a powerful wartime leader overcoming an awesome foe. In reality, of course, Iraq is chosen precisely because it is not awesome and can be easily crushed.

This strategy is laid out pretty overtly in today’s Times — not in precisely the same words I just used, but the message is very clear. And it’s aimed at the next presidential election. That’s a large part of this war.

Barsamian: Clearly, on the subject of the Iraq war, there is a huge gap between U.S. public opinion and opinion in the rest of the world. Do you attribute that to propaganda?

Chomsky: No question about it. The public-relations campaign against Iraq took off last September. This is so obvious it’s even been discussed in mainstream publications. For example, Martin Sieff, the chief political analyst for United Press International, wrote a long article describing how it was done.

In September 2002, which happened to be the opening of the midterm Congressional election, the wartime drumbeat began. And it had a couple of constant themes. One is that Iraq is an imminent threat to the security of the United States: we have to stop them now, or they’re going to destroy us tomorrow. The second is that Iraq was behind September 11. Nobody said this straight out, but it was clearly insinuated. The third lie is that Iraq is going to arm terrorists who are planning new atrocities, so, again, we’ve got to stop them now.

The polls reflected the propaganda very directly. Immediately after September 11, 2001, only 3 percent of the population thought that Iraq had been involved. Since September 11, 2002, that number has grown to roughly 60 percent. More than half the U.S. population believes that Iraq was responsible for September 11, that Iraqis were on the planes, and that Iraq is planning new attacks. No one else in the world believes any of this.

When Congress authorized the president to use force in October, it said that Iraq was a threat to the security of the United States. Yet no other country regards Iraq as a threat. Even Kuwait and Iran, both of which have been invaded by Iraq, don’t regard Iraq as a threat to their security. As a result of the UN sanctions, which have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — probably two-thirds of the population is on the edge of starvation — Iraq has the weakest economy and the weakest military force in the region. Its military expenditures are about one-third those of Kuwait, which has one-tenth of Iraq’s population. And, of course, the real superpower in the region is that offshore U.S. military base known as Israel, which has hundreds of nuclear weapons and massive armed forces. After the U.S. takes over, it’s very likely that Iraq will increase its military spending and maybe even develop weapons of mass destruction just to counterbalance other states of the region, particularly Iran. This administration will support the buildup, just as the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration supported Saddam Hussein’s military programs, including weapons of mass destruction, right up to the day of his invasion of Kuwait.

But the other countries in the Middle East weren’t afraid of Iraq. They hated Saddam Hussein, but they weren’t afraid of him. For the past five years, in fact, they’ve been trying hard, over strong U.S. objections, to reintegrate Iraq back into their own system. Only in the United States is there fear of Iraq. And you can trace the growth of this fear to propaganda.

The United States controls the hemisphere. It controls both oceans. . . . The last time the U.S. was threatened was during the War of 1812. Since then, it has just conquered others. And somehow this incredible security engenders a fear that somebody is going to come after us.

Barsamian: It’s interesting that the United States is so susceptible to fear.

Chomsky: Whatever the reasons are for it, the United States happens to be a very frightened country, comparatively speaking. Fears of almost everything — crime, aliens, you name it — are off the chart.

And the people in Washington know this very well. They are, for the most part, the same people who ran the country during the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration. And they’re reusing the script: pursuing regressive domestic programs and staying in power by pushing the panic button every year. If you do this in the United States, it’s not hard to succeed.

Barsamian: What is it about our culture that makes Americans susceptible to propaganda?

Chomsky: I didn’t say we’re more susceptible to propaganda; we’re more susceptible to fear. We’re a frightened country. Frankly, I don’t understand the reasons for this.

Barsamian: So if the fear is there, then propaganda becomes easier to implement.

Chomsky: Certain kinds of propaganda become much easier to implement. When my kids were in school forty years ago, they were taught to hide under their desks to protect themselves from atomic bombs. At that time, President Kennedy was trying to organize the hemisphere to support his terrorist attacks against Cuba. The U.S. is very influential in this hemisphere, and most countries just went along, but Mexico refused. The Mexican ambassador said, “If I try to tell people in Mexico that Cuba is a threat to our security, 40 million Mexicans will die laughing.”

People in the United States didn’t die laughing. They were — and are — afraid of everything. Take crime. Our crime rate isn’t that much higher than any other industrial society. Yet fear of crime is much greater here than in other countries. Even nonsensical fears, like alien abduction, are higher. If you go to Europe and ask people, “Are there aliens among us?” they’ll laugh. Here, probably half the population will say yes.

Barsamian: Don’t you think the media contribute to that with TV crime shows and movies?

Chomsky: Probably, but there is also a background fear that the media exploit, and it goes pretty far back. It probably has to do with conquest of the continent, where the colonists had to exterminate the native population; and with slavery, where Americans had to control an oppressed people that threatened, if only by their existence, to turn on their masters. And it may just be a result of the enormous security we enjoy. The United States controls the hemisphere. It controls both oceans. It cannot be seriously threatened. The last time the U.S. was threatened was during the War of 1812. Since then, it has just conquered others. And somehow this incredible security engenders a fear that somebody is going to come after us.

Barsamian: On Thursday, March 6, President Bush gave a prime-time press conference, his first in a year and a half. It was actually a scripted press conference. He knew in advance whom he was going to call on. A study of the transcript reveals Bush repeating certain words and phrases: “Iraq”; “Saddam Hussein”; “increasing threat” or “deep threat”; “weapons of mass destruction”; “9/11”; “terrorism.” On the following Monday, there was a sharp spike in public-opinion polls: a majority of Americans now believed that Iraq was connected to 9/11.

Chomsky: You’re right about the spike in the polls, but the change began back in September, when the poll results first indicated widespread belief in Iraqi participation in 9/11. That belief has to be continually reinforced, however, or it will drop off. These claims are so outlandish that it’s hard to make people believe them unless you keep driving your point home.

You’re right, too, that these press conferences are carefully programmed events, like television ads. The public-relations industry has plenty of experience in this. President Reagan was carefully programmed. Everyone knew that if he got off his notecards, he was going to say something insane. He was a media creation.

This administration has a collection of highly crafted media figures. George W. Bush is crafted to be a simple, honest, religious, straight-talking man who’s got gut instincts and a deep sense of morality. Colin Powell is made out to be the moderate multilateralist, committed to diplomacy, so that when he stands up and says, “We have to go to war,” people will think it must be true. There is not a particle of evidence for Powell’s vaunted reputation, by the way. His record is horrendous.

But fear is the primary propaganda tool. Take a look at the 1988 presidential campaign. How did George H.W. Bush get elected? The Willie Horton ad campaign. Willie Horton was a convicted murderer serving time in a Massachusetts state prison when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was governor. While out on a furlough, Horton, an African American, raped a white woman. The message of the Bush campaign ads was clear: If Dukakis is elected, an African American criminal is going to come and rape your daughter. They didn’t say it in those words, but it was insinuated. And it shifted public attitudes about Dukakis.

Actually, one of the most spectacular cases of propaganda occurred in September 1989. Throughout the 1980s, the drug war had been in the news, but in September 1989, the first President Bush intensified his Hispanic-narco-traffickers-are-going-to-destroy-us rhetoric. Before that, drug trafficking hadn’t ranked high among people’s concerns. By the end of the month, it was the public’s top concern. Media coverage of the drug threat was greater than the coverage of all international affairs put together. That campaign was a buildup to the invasion of Panama, which occurred in December of that year.

Barsamian: How long has this sort of propaganda been in use?

Chomsky: The practice of using language and information to shape attitudes and opinions and promote conformity and subordination is as old as history, but it didn’t become an organized industry until the last century. And, contrary to what one might expect, this industry was created in the more democratic societies.

The first coordinated propaganda ministry, called the Ministry of Information, began in Britain during the First World War. It had the task, as the British government put it, of “controlling the mind of the world.” And it was particularly concerned with the minds of Americans. The British thought if they could convince American intellectuals of the nobility of the war effort, then those intellectuals could stir the remaining population of the United States — which didn’t want to have anything to do with European wars, and rightly so — into a fit of anti-German fanaticism and hysteria. This would convince the U.S. to join the war, which was the ultimate goal, because Britain needed U.S. backing.

So Britain’s Ministry of Information aimed its efforts primarily at American opinion leaders. And it succeeded, especially with liberals of the John Dewey circle, who organized a propaganda campaign that, within a few months, turned a relatively pacifistic population into fanatics who wanted to destroy everything German. It got so the Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn’t play Bach. These liberal intellectuals actually took pride in the fact that, for the first time, wartime fanaticism was created not by military leaders and politicians, but by the more responsible, serious members of the community — namely, them.

President Woodrow Wilson — who had won the election on the slogan “Peace without victory” — reacted by setting up the first U.S. state-propaganda agency, called the Committee on Public Information. The members of Wilson’s propaganda agency included Edward Bernays, who later became the guru of the public-relations industry, and Walter Lippmann, a respected media figure and leading public intellectual of the day. And these men learned from that wartime experience that they could control the public mind by controlling attitudes and opinions. As Lippmann put it, we can “manufacture consent” by the means of propaganda. Bernays said, “The more intelligent members of the community” can drive the population to do whatever they want by way of what he called “engineering of consent.” Both of them believed this to be the essence of democracy.

The public-relations industry had existed before World War I, but it was very small. It’s interesting to look back at the thinking in the 1920s, when public relations really got started. This was the period of Taylorism in business; workers were being trained to act like robots: “Move to the left here,” and so on. By turning human beings into automatons, Taylorism created highly efficient industry. The Bolsheviks were very impressed with this and tried to duplicate it throughout the Soviet Union.

The thought-control experts soon realized that you could have not only “on-job control” but also “off-job control.” Off-job control means turning people into robots in every aspect of their lives by inducing a philosophy of futility and focusing their attention on the superficial aspects of life, such as fashionable consumption. Basically, it got the masses out of the way so that those who were supposed to run the show could do it without any interference. And from that came enormous industries, from advertising to universities, all consciously committed to the concept that the elite must control attitudes and opinions, and the people have no business in the public arena.

Barsamian: Which flies in the face of democratic principles.

Chomsky: Actually, they had good constitutional support for that position. This country was founded on the Madisonian principle that the people are just too dangerous to wield power: power has to be in the hands of what Madison called “the wealth of the nation” — those who respect property and its rights and want to protect the rich minority from the working majority. In order to do this, the majority has to be fragmented somehow.

Barsamian: Why did public-relations propaganda flourish in democratic societies?

Chomsky: Because governments there couldn’t rely on force to control the population. If you can’t control people by force, it becomes necessary to control attitudes and opinions. The public-relations industry was later imitated — with varying degrees of success — in Germany and Bolshevik Russia and South Africa and elsewhere. But these attempts were always based quite explicitly on the American model.

In 1933 a progressive Wilsonian named Harold Lasswell — one of the founders of modern political science — wrote an article called “Propaganda.” (People used the term freely then, before it picked up negative connotations from the Nazis.) In his article, which was published in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Lasswell said we should not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” And since people are too ignorant to understand their best interests, his reasoning goes, great humanitarians like Lasswell must marginalize and control them. And the best means for doing this is propaganda. Propaganda, Lasswell said, is just a tool, as neutral as a pump handle. You can use it for good or for evil. And since he and his associates were noble, wonderful people, they’d use it for good — to ensure that the ignorant masses remained marginalized and separated from any decision-making. This is not the right wing that I’m talking about; these are the liberal, “progressive” intellectuals.

The Leninist doctrines are approximately the same: the “right” people would be in control, because they know what’s best for everyone. The Nazis also picked up this philosophy. If you read Mein Kampf, Hitler was very impressed with Anglo-American propaganda. “The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one,” he wrote. And, “By shrewd and constant application of propaganda, heaven can be presented to the people as hell,” and vice versa. He argued, and not without reason, that propaganda was what had won the First World War, and he vowed that the next time around the Germans would be ready. They developed their own propaganda systems modeled on the democracies’. The Russians tried it, too, but theirs was too crude to be effective. Always at the forefront was the United States, because of course the more free and democratic the society, the more important it is to control attitudes and opinions.

State-run propaganda continued in the U.S. right up to the 1980s. The Reagan administration had what it called an Office of Public Diplomacy. But by that time, the public was no longer willing to accept state-run propaganda agencies, so the Office of Public Diplomacy was declared illegal, and the propagandists had to operate in roundabout ways. What took its place were private corporate systems, which don’t take orders from the government but are closely linked to it, of course. And that’s our contemporary system. We don’t even have to speculate much about what these companies are doing, because they’re kind enough to tell us in industry publications and the academic literature.

Barsamian: One of the new lexical constructions of the Iraq war is “embedded journalists.”

Chomsky: It is interesting that journalists are willing to accept that title. No journalist would be willing to describe him- or herself as a government propagandist, but to say, “I’m an embedded journalist,” is accepted. It helps enforce the concept that anything America does is right and just; if you’re embedded in an American unit, you’re objective.

The reverse notion showed up dramatically in the Peter Arnett case. Peter Arnett is an experienced, respected journalist with a host of achievements to his credit, but he’s condemned because he gave an interview on Iraqi television. Is anybody condemned for giving an interview on U.S. television?

To somebody looking at this from the outside — say, some Martian — for an independent journalist to give an interview to U.S. television is the same as to give an interview to Iraqi television. In fact, being interviewed on U.S. television is less neutral, because the U.S. is the aggressor. We’re invading Iraq. It’s as open an act of aggression as there has been in modern history. There’s not even any attempt to conceal it. It’s the same war crime for which the Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg: the act of aggression. There’s a pretense of self-defense — there’s always a pretense — but it’s no more convincing than Hitler’s.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. For an independent journalist, giving an interview to the invader shouldn’t be any different than giving an interview to the invaded. Yet the latter is described as treachery, abandoning journalistic integrity, and so on. What that says about independent journalism in the U.S. is astounding.

There’s an article in the London Review of Books this week by Charles Glass, one of the best American journalists in the Middle East — and therefore one of the least-heard-from. He’s currently an ABC correspondent in Iraq, but they almost never use him. In his article, he points out that the United States must be the only country in the world that would call someone a terrorist for defending his or her own country from attack.

Glass is sitting there in Iraq, watching this with wonder. In fact, anybody who is even a little displaced from the United States and its system of indoctrination has to observe this situation with wonder, if not enormous fear and hatred of the United States.

We’re invading Iraq. It’s as open an act of aggression as there has been in modern history. . . . It’s the same war crime for which the Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg: the act of aggression. There’s a pretense of self-defense . . . but it’s no more convincing than Hitler’s.

Barsamian: The U.S. attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 generated some interesting terms. One was “unlawful combatant.”

Chomsky: Prior to World War II, there were few laws of war, but this changed under the Geneva Convention, which was established in the postwar period to outlaw the crimes of the Nazis. Prisoners of war were granted special status by the convention, among other things. The Bush administration, with the cooperation of the media and the courts, is going back to the pre–World War II period, when there was no international law dealing with war crimes. The Bush administration is not only carrying out an aggressive war; it’s classifying the people it bombs or captures as some new category of combatant that isn’t entitled to the rights granted by the Geneva Convention.

In fact, the administration has gone well beyond that. It has now claimed the right to arrest American citizens and place them in confinement indefinitely without access to families or lawyers, and with no charges made against them. Presumably, these “suspects” will remain imprisoned until the president decides that the war on terror, or whatever he wants to call it, is over. What’s going on is a gross violation of the most elementary principles of international humanitarian law. It’s unheard of in an industrialized nation, and yet it’s been, to some extent, accepted by the courts.

In fact, a new act, sometimes called Patriot Act 2, is being kicked around inside the Justice Department. So far it’s not been ratified, but there have been a couple of articles about it in the press by law professors and others. It’s astonishing. The government is claiming the right to remove citizenship, the most fundamental right, if the attorney general “infers” — they don’t even have to have evidence — that a person is somehow involved in actions that might be harmful to the United States. You have to go to totalitarian states to find anything like this.

Look at Winston Churchill. Right in the middle of the Second World War he condemned the use of executive power to imprison people without charge as the most odious of crimes. And Britain was in rather desperate straits at the time, not like the United States today. There is a bust of Churchill looking at George Bush every day in the White House, but the president might pay better attention to Churchill’s words.

Barsamian: What do you make of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s saying on Nightline that the attack on Iraq “is not an invasion”?

Chomsky: Tony Blair is a good propaganda agent for the United States: he’s articulate, his sentences flow together, and people apparently like the way he looks. He’s following a position that Britain has self-consciously taken since the end of the Second World War. During that war, Britain realized that it was not going to be the dominant world power any longer. The U.S. was. And Britain had to make a choice: would it be just another country, or would it be a junior partner of the United States? It accepted the role of junior partner, and that’s what it’s been ever since. It brings to the table centuries of experience brutalizing and murdering foreign peoples.

Barsamian: The British occupied Iraq in the early 1920s.

Chomsky: When Britain ran the region, it did just what the U.S. is doing now: it undermined international conventions banning the use of air power against civilians. British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s comment was blunt: he said we have to “reserve the right to bomb niggers.” It’s the same now, because moral principles like that are lasting; they don’t change.

Barsamian: At the talks you give, you’re often asked, “What should I do?” We heard this question just last night in Denver, for example.

Chomsky: You hear it a lot from American audiences, but you never hear it in the Third World. When I go to Turkey or Colombia or Brazil, they don’t ask me, “What should I do?” They tell me what they’re doing. When I went to Porto Alegre, Brazil, the first thing I did was go to a Via Campesina (International Peasant Union) meeting at a Landless Workers Movement farm. These are poor, oppressed people living under horrendous conditions, yet they would never dream of asking me what to do. They know what to do, and they do it. It’s only highly privileged people who ask, “What should I do?”

We have every option open to us. We can do anything. But we’re trained to look for a quick and easy solution that will let us go back to our ordinary lives, and it doesn’t work that way. If you want to do something, you’re going to have to be dedicated and committed. You have to keep at it, day after day. We all know what needs to be done: it’s educational programs; it’s organizing; it’s activism. That’s the way things change. You want a magic fix that will enable you to go back to watching television tomorrow? It’s not there.

Barsamian: You were an active and early opponent to U.S. intervention in Indochina in the 1960s. How has dissent changed since then in the United States?

Chomsky: Actually, another article in the New York Times today offers an interesting perspective on that. The article says that professors are the antiwar activists today, whereas the students used to be the primary antiwar activists. That’s a common misconception about the sixties. It’s true that, by 1970, as the article states, students were active antiwar protesters. But that was after eight years of a U.S. war in South Vietnam. In the early years of the war, from 1962 on, U.S. planes were bombing South Vietnam, the use of napalm was authorized, chemical weapons were used to destroy food crops, and U.S.–sponsored programs drove millions of people into “strategic hamlets” — essentially concentration camps. All of this was public. Yet there was little or no protest. It was impossible to get anybody to talk about it. Even in a liberal city like Boston, you couldn’t hold a public meeting against the war because it would be broken up — by students. You needed hundreds of state police around to allow the speakers — most of them professors like me — to escape unscathed. The student antiwar protests came after years and years of war. By then, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed, much of Vietnam had been destroyed, and the war had spread to all of Indochina.

I’m sure the Times reporter is only saying what she was taught: that there was a huge, spontaneous, student-led antiwar movement. All of the early history of protest has been wiped out, because it tells the truth: that years and years of hard work by many people finally ended up building a protest movement. But the New York Times can’t report that, because you can’t learn that dedicated, committed effort can bring about significant changes. That’s a very dangerous thought to allow people to have. What we hear about is the tail end of the movement, after all the real work was done. And we say, “How come it’s not like that now, with this war?”

Barsamian: How does one distinguish propaganda from news, and what are some techniques of resisting it?

Chomsky: There are no techniques, just ordinary common sense. If you hear that Iraq is a threat to our existence, but its closest neighbor Kuwait doesn’t regard it as a threat, nor does anybody else in the world, you should ask, “OK, where is the evidence?” As soon as you ask this, the story collapses.

You have to be critical of whatever is presented to you in any media. Of course, the whole media system and the educational system are designed to drive critical thoughts from your mind. You’re taught to be a passive, obedient follower. And unless you can break out of those habits, you’ll be a victim of propaganda. But it’s not that hard to break out.

In 1985, President Reagan declared a national emergency because of the threat posed to the U.S. by the government of Nicaragua, which, he pointed out, was two days’ drive from Harlingen, Texas. If you listened to Reagan, Nicaragua was poised to take over the hemisphere. That National Emergency Declaration of 1985, which was a means of building support for the U.S.’s covert war in Nicaragua, was a model for the Congressional declaration of 2002. The wording is almost the same. Just replace “Nicaragua” with “Iraq.”

How much critical thinking does it take to determine that Nicaragua is no threat to the United States? Again, people outside the U.S. just look at this in wonder. Throughout the 1980s, the tourist industry in Europe collapsed every few years because Americans would read news stories that made them afraid to go to Europe. They thought there would be some Arab there who would try to kill them. Europeans don’t know what to make of this. How can a country be so frightened of something that is completely nonexistent?

Barsamian: That’s happening again right now.

Chomsky: Yes, but to break out of this, we simply need to use our ordinary intelligence. Just examine what’s presented to you with common sense and skepticism. Read the newspaper the same way you would read Iraqi propaganda. How do you decide that the minister of information in Iraq isn’t to be trusted? Look at your own government the same way.