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Dershowitz vs. Chomsky, Again

Article by Allen Mendenhall.
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For an attorney, Alan Dershowitz doesn’t argue very well, at least not in his recent attempt to take down Noam Chomsky for Chomsky’s recent op-ed, “My Reaction to Osama bin Laden’s Death.” These men have a history. Dershowitz has called Chomsky a “Holocaust denier” and has suggested that Chomsky is so out-of-touch that he lives on “Planet Chomsky.” Chomsky, in turn, has accused Dershowitz of launching a Jihad because of Dershowitz’s seemingly unconditional support for Israel. Regardless of whether one has a dog in this fight—for the record, I don’t—one can see Dershowitz’s “argument” for what it is: a collection of red herrings and other fallacies cloaked in inflammatory and nationalist rhetoric. At a time when the Middle East is in turmoil—well, more turmoil than it’s usually in—the last thing we need is Dershowitz’s loud, self-righteous, and not-so-subtle warmongering to influence public discourse about Osama bin Laden.

The title of Dershowitz’s latest spasm—I almost called it an “article”—is “Bin Laden’s Defender: Noam Chomsky.” Provocative enough. But Dershowitz goes even further. He says that Chomsky “apparently thinks Osama bin Laden is the innocent victim of a cold-blooded murder that is worse than if George W. Bush were to be assassinated in his ‘compound.'” What Chomsky really says is, “We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.” Notice that Chomsky avoids the imperative (“ask yourselves”) and carefully qualifies this sentence with “We might.” The way I see it, this sentence is nothing but a variation of the Atticus Finch cliché: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” Substitute “shoes” for Muslim “sandals” and you get the gist of Chomsky’s remark. This gist is carried over into Chomsky’s assertion, which Dershowitz notes passingly as if to avoid dignifying it with sustained treatment, that Bush’s crimes “vastly exceed bin Laden’s,” an assertion that Chomsky does not elaborate on but that probably—and I emphasize probably—has to do with statistics regarding total kills by the American army as compared to total kills by Islamic terrorists.

Chomsky does call bin Laden an “unarmed victim,” and after an overlong consultation with the Oxford English Dictionary, I must concede that Dershowitz has a point here, at least insofar as bin Laden doesn’t seem, to this writer at least, to qualify as a “living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or supernatural power” (although the word might mean that to those who worship at the idol of nationalism). If you’re a Middle-Eastern Muslim, which I most definitely am not, you might consider bin Laden a “person who is put to death or subjected to torture by another,” or who “suffers severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive treatment.” For bin Laden to qualify as a “victim” under this definition, his sufferings would have to be considered along a timeline dating back to the 1980s, and not the few minutes it took to raid his compound to put a bullet into his head. By “victim,” Chomsky might have meant “one who perishes or suffers in health, etc., from some enterprise or pursuit voluntarily undertaken,” for it’s conceivable that Chomsky would classify terrorism as a “pursuit voluntarily undertaken” and that he would cast the United States as an “enterprise.” The OED suggests a weaker signification of “victim” as one “who suffers some injury, hardship, or loss, is badly treated or taken advantage of, etc.” This general understanding of the word lends support to Chomsky’s diction especially because it (the understanding) leaves room for much subjectivity—victimhood is in the eye of the beholder, in other words. None of these definitions implies that “victim” status is forfeited or negated if the person in question suffers or is killed as a result of retaliation. Put another way, one could victimize another and still be the victim of those he victimized. Perhaps Chomsky’s word choice is not inappropriate after all. But that’s not surprising, because Chomsky is only the most renowned linguist alive.

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