Chomsky, Bin Laden, and bad analogies

Digressing a bit here.

Andy and I were watching The House on Garibaldi Street last night. While we were watching, one of my colleagues sent around this piece from Wall Street Journal pundit Bret Stephens.

Stephens is kind of a young guy yet, and he wants to make his bones as the next conservative tough-guy columnist, and he’s not quite there yet. Or this bit suffered from really a bad edit. Because this argument is a mess.

So Chomsky writes that he think the US treatment of bin Laden was illegal and immoral. His basis for doing so comes down to his belief that bin Laden was entitled to due process and the respective government, Pakistan, was entitled to being treated like a sovereign nation.

Chomsky’s original analogy that the manner of bin Laden’s death would be, to his supporters, like a rogue state assassinating Obama in the US is a bit silly. Bin Laden did not represent an electorate, nor had he any lawfully recognized role in any country that in any way makes Obama and bin Laden analogous as leaders or potential victims of political violence. Their names start with O and end in A, and US conservatives hate them both. That’s pretty much all of what bin Laden and Obama had in common. Just because a bunch of violent and disaffected men were willing to take orders from bin Laden did not make him a head of state.

Similarly, Stephens wants us to believe that Chomsky’s behavior is analogous to that of Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who openly supported the Nazis and was nasty to his Jewish colleagues. Heidegger was banned from teaching afterwards.

But I am trying and trying to make the connection Stephens wants me to between Heidegger and Chomsky, and I can’t. His point was what? That we should ban Chomsky from teaching? I doubt he does much teaching as it is. That Heidegger was banned from teaching for supporting a regime that killed off 6 million Jews (and millions of others) and that Chomsky’s defense of a mass murderer’s entitlement to due process are somehow the same?

I’m no fan of Chomsky’s, but Stephens and his lot should just say what they want to say: Chomsky’s a radical and I hate his guts so I want him fired and muzzled. And I’d like to use this moment, when he’s said something unpopular, to fire up the mob to pursue those goals and remind my choir of why we hate academics.

That would be faster than making a bunch of specious and incoherent arguments about Heidegger.

The real issues here are those that Chomsky brings up, but you don’t have to agree with him even on the precedents he lists.

There is a reason why I started the essay off with our watching The House on Garibaldi Street. For those who don’t read espionage, or don’t remember, this was book account of the Mossad’s intelligence agents’ kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann out of Argentina in 1960 after years of looking for him. Argentina was patently uncooperative, and so the Isrealis had to sneak Eichmann out of the country in order to bring him to trial. It was later made into a movie.

There was a subsequent international outcry at the Mossad action — not because anybody sane in the world really thought a man like Adolf Eichmann deserved much mercy, but because the Isrealis violated the sovereignty of another nation–at a time when they were struggling to get other nations to recognize theirs. International law should mean something.

Here’s the salient analogy between US action and previous actions.

Bin Laden was in Pakistan. We could have, in theory, worked with them more than we did.

However, the reality and theory break down when sovereign nations openly harbor war criminals. Pakistan behaved a lot like the Argentinians did about Eichmann (and Mengele, who was tragically never caught and brought to justice): “Oh, my, that would be terrible if war criminals were being harbored here. What a shame that would be. My. Tsk. Tsk.” And then complete inaction–either because they don’t care, they were collaborating, or they are just ineffectual vis-a-vis the tremendously wealthy networks of militants protecting the criminal. Whether rogue nation, puppet state, incompetent, or simply incapable, they weren’t doing their job in supporting international law.

So you can’t really blame the Isrealis for asking for forgiveness rather than permission in Eichmann’s case, and ditto with Obama and Pakistan, even though neither of the nation’s action plan were strictly cricket, either, in terms of how one goes about extraditing criminals. (And countries like the US, who allowed the former Shah of Iran, hardly Nice Guy Dictator, shelter should probably be less strident in their condemnations of others. Shoes go on both feet; the US showed mercy to the Shah by allowing him to get medical treatment here, and the US demonstrated friendship to the Eypgtians who had taken the Shah in. Permitting the Iranians to nab him would have been bad manners, but might have put us on stronger ground when demanding justice with regard to atrocities directed at us.)

However–and this is where I wish things had been different with bin Laden–the Isrealis brought Eichmann back to stand trial, and there was value in that trial–the opportunity to speak truth, remember, and confront somebody–make them accountable for their actions. For people to look at and speak to the man who killed their families, friends, and children. For the rest of the world to hear the trial, understand the dedication and passion of Isreali Intelligence, and their willingness to wait for a trial before serving justice.

All that means something, and it means something real, to all of us. It had to be tempting for the members of the Mossad to simply strangle the life out of Eichmann, to watch the light go out of his eyes at their hands all the while they think of the misery and pain that he caused them.

In the end, Eichmann, too, was executed. He had a long time to think about his death. He had to look at the people he had immiserated. Stripped of the power and wealth that his Nazi toadies had given him, he was utterly friendless. Alone, and without protection as he climbed a set of stairs he would never walk down on his way to feeling the floor give way under his feet, the rope slipping inexorably around his next as he fell. The rest of world saw the face of evil reduced to a shrunken, pathetic old man trying to rationalize his own cowardice and inhumanity, which were both probably beyond even his own comprehension when, suddenly, he was the one with the dagger at his throat.

For another example, was there anything more wretched than Sadam Hussein at the end?

Eichmann’s body was also left to the oceans.

But a bullet to the face stops it all. I doubt bin Laden would have come peacefully. It was a co-constructed death, but that doesn’t make it any less premature. The world won’t suffer because it’s short a man like Osama bin Laden. But it does suffer without the trial.

It’s all over but the punditry. But focusing on the issues, instead of the domestic liberals/conservatives you loathe, might be helpful.