On Homeland, paranoia and Security

Noam Chomsky in conversation with Igmade (Daniel Mock and Stephan Trüby)

Igmade: Mr. Chomsky, what’s your favorite color?

Noam Chomsky (laughs): If I have to pick one it would be blue because blue makes me feel good.

Blue is also one of the colors of the color-coded terror-alert system of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). .

Could be…

It is the color of second lowest threat level..

Really? Okay…

You don’t seem to be too interested in this terror alert system…

Well, I know that it exists. You hear about orange alerts and so on but I don’t really pay much attention.

So you don’t know with which colour you have to live in at the moment?


How do you explain the fact that the DHS does not count on language as the main technique to administer fear?

The same reason that traffic lights are coloured and don’t have words. You don’t have a traffic light that says stop and another one that says start, you have a red and green and that attracts people instantly. You don’t have to decode it in your mind and furthermore you don’t have to be literate. To read something takes more attention, it’s a heavier perceptual load than just to see a color. That’s about the most primitive experience we have.

Why does the Bush administration try to govern with the help of colors? Has it anything to do with the aim to address human affects more directly than with language? 

I think it’s just to alert people. If you want to catch people’s attention quickly you use immediate perceptual experiences. Colors are much more immediate than writing, and writing is after all a very recent human invention. A tiny little corner of a human history has writing, but colors go back to our mammalian origins.

You wouldn’t call this alert system propagandistic?

Frankly I don’t see any objection to it – as I don’t object to traffic lights. Their idea is that you should be concerned about terror. Of course you should!

Propaganda, as you showed for example in your books Media Control and Consent Without Consensus, was first established in democracies, not in dictatorships…

Well, propaganda has always existed. But the huge industries “to control the public mind – as the British Ministry of Information had put it – were developed in the free countries. The Nazis picked it up from the Anglo-American countries. Hitler was convinced that Germany lost the World War I because Germany was unable to compete with the pretty substantial Anglo-American propaganda system. Later, the successes of the Anglo-American propaganda system were quickly picked up by the business world, and that led to the public relations industry. The free countries are those, in which the state cannot control people by force. You have to control their opinions and attitudes.

Do you miss a stronger DHS?

You know, what I think they have to do is, have a real Department of Homeland Security, not a fake one. Terrorism is such a serious threat. You can see it over and over. The Iraq invasion is a perfect example. I am pretty sure it has increased the threat of nuclear terror. But this is such a low priority for the Bush administration.

Did the old Leviathan again become a key figure to describe contemporary politics in the United States and elsewhere?

We do not have a powerful state in United States, by comparative standards. But there are plenty of Leviathans around, corporations for example. A corporation is basically a totalitarian system; orders come from the top down, there is very limited accountability to the public, corporations are extremely powerful, and they’re all integrated with one another. The Bush administration is trying to create a powerful state. I mean they are not conservatives. They’re radical reactionaries, so they want an extremely powerful state, directed to the needs of the rich and the powerful. But in the United States, a couple  centuries of popular struggle have led to a high degree of freedom. In most of Europe, there isn’t even a conception of freedom of speech. Remember the discussions about the Patriot Act: One of its parts were regulations allowing the FBI to gain records from libraries to see what people are reading. Libraries all over the country – even conservative small towns – just refused to comply and said:  “We’re not going to do it and if you insist on it, we will burn all our records.”

The two 9/11’s

There seems to be a general understanding that the events of 9/11 have caused a consolidation of power. Could  you elaborate on its characteristics? Why is it an historic event?

The first question we should ask is which 9/11 are we talking about. There are two of them. If you go to Latin America, they call what happened in September of 2001 the second 9/11. But in the West, where we only care about ourselves, and we don’t care what we do to other people, so that’s the only 9/11.

When was the first 9/11?

The first one was 9/11 in 1973 and it was much worse than 9/11/2001.

You are talking about the US-backed coup of Pinochet against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile?

Yes. Let’s do a thought experiment: Suppose that the airplane had actually hit the White House and killed the President, and it was immediately followed by a military coup, organized by Al-Quaida, which destroyed the oldest democracy in the hemisphere and immediately proceeded to kill over 50-100,000 people, tortured 700.000, set up a terrorist organization in Washington, which began to carry out assassinations around the world, overthrew governments, installed neo-Nazi regimes and so on. Something similar to that did happen! In Latin America. I just changed numbers to per capita equivalents. What we do doesn’t matter because we are allowed to kick other people in the face, smash them, and destroy them. But if anything happens to us, it’s a colossal tragedy.

You think that the first 9/11 in Chile had a deeper impact on the world than the second one?

The second 9/11 was a tragedy, a horrible tragedy. It changed the world a lot. Not  nearly as much as the first 9/11, but it affected the West. The first one didn’t affect the West. So we have neo-Nazi states all over Latin America, they’re slaughtering people. Who cares? The second 9/11 killed people who were not supposed to be killed: white, privileged westerners. It was the first time in hundreds of years that what we call the West – Europe and its offshoots – have been subjected to the kinds of atrocities that they carry out all the time in other countries and that is unique. The guns are pointed in the other direction for the first time. That’s why it is historic.

State, terrorism and anarchism

You repeatedly characterized the United States as a country which can only be portrayed as a kind of “innocent victim“, if we adopt the convenient path of ignoring the record of its actions and those of its allies…

Yes, the United States happens to be the only state in the world that has been condemned by the World Court for international terrorism and would have been condemned by the Security Council, except that it vetoed the resolutions. This referred to the U.S. terrorist war against Nicaragua; the court ordered the United States to desist and pay reparations. The U.S. responded by immediately escalating the crimes, including first official orders to attack what are called soft targets – undefended civilian targets. This is massive terrorism. Remember when the war on terror was declared. It was declared in 1981, the year when the Reagan Administration came into the office. Right through the 1980’s, the country was periodically terrorized by one or another invented threat. It began right away with Libyan hit men, wandering around Washington, trying to assassinate our leader, who was hidden in the White House, surrounded by tanks. The tourist industry in Europe kept collapsing periodically, because Americans were afraid to travel, because there might be an Arab hiding behind a lamp-post, who’s going to kill them.

In 1985, the United States were in a state of national emergency…

…declared by Reagan because of the threat to the national security of the United States supposedly by Nicaragua. If someone would have watched this from Mars, he wouldn’t have known if he should have laughed or cried! The Nicaraguan army is only two days from Texas, and we have to tremble in fear. Reagan gave a passionate speech in which he said something like ”I’m going be like Winston Churchill, who stood up against the Nazis and I’m not going to give up.” It worked; it frightened the population and allowed it to more or less tolerate the massive terrorist war that the Reagan administration was carrying out in Central America.

But apart from what you call “state terrorism,” most of the terrorism in the United States seems to be a hermit’s business. How do you understand the Unabomber, who lived for decades in a primitive hut in Montana, in respect to this?

I was on the Unabomber’s’ list. And for about a year the police picked up my mail at the MIT mail center and inspected it to make sure there were no bombs. But that’s irrelevant, I didn’t pay much attention to him.

We are sitting here approximately 35 miles away from Concord, Massachusetts, which is the Mecca of the American transcendentalists. Do you see any similarities between the Unabomber and Thoreau, who also lived in a primitive hut next to the Walden lake?

I don’t think the Unabomber has anything to do with Thoreau.

Was the Unabomber an anarchist?

He has nothing to do with anarchism, or the anarchist tradition.

Could you describe the influence of Emerson and Thoreau on your work?

The American transcendentalists are a different world. They were pretty much individuals rather than anarchists. It’s not hard if you’re a privileged person, living in a nice colony, right outside the cultural center of Boston.

… which isn’t the right place for anarchism?

Anarchism, real, serious anarchism, comes out of popular struggles. The peak was the Spanish Revolution, which was almost quickly crushed by the joint efforts of Stalin, Hitler, and the Western democracies. They worked together to make sure they  crushed the anarchist revolution. But during it,  during a year of functioning there were many pretty impressive things, which were frightening to the West.

There is this suspicion about anarchism that it is regressive and unqualified for a developed industrial society. How do you see the chances for an anarchist revolution nowadays?

Anarchism goes perfectly well with industrial societies. The anarchist revolution in Spain took place in the industrialized Catalonia as well as in peasant areas. The fact that it was an industrial society just gave an opportunity for an anarchist revolution.

How could an anarchist system of society deal with fears and threats?

Try to reduce them. How do you deal with fears and threats in a family? Try to deal with them and reduce them.

And with threats from outside? Anarchist experiments are always under threat. Is anarchy thinkable without self-defense?

In the Spanish civil war, they had the whole Western world as enemies. Camillo Berneri, an Italian anarchist living in Spain, made a proposal: He said, to fight a conventional war doesn’t make any sense. We are never going to be able to fight a conventional war against these forces. In domestic Spain, he said, there should be guerrilla war. His main idea was to undermine Franco’s army, which was mostly an army from Morocco and to support forces in Morocco and all of North Africa. They were calling for liberation.

Science, conspiracy and Radicality

You are probably the most often quoted radical in the world. Already as a student you were a radical. Did you come to linguistics because of or despite of your radicality?

I came to linguistics by accident. High school was terribly boring,  and I got in the college pretty young – I was 16 and very excited. However, after a year it also became boring, but I met through straight political connections an interesting person, Zellig Harris. He was an anti-state scientist, which was not usual at that time, and a part of the anti-Bolshevik left. That attracted me a lot. And then I found out that he was the top linguist in the country.

Could you please describe the relation between your scientific and your political work? Are there any subliminal revolutionary implications in your linguistic theories?

My favorite weeks ever were around 1980 or so, when a friend from Argentina sent me a copy of La Prensa – one of the main Argentinian newspapers; in the same week some other friend sent me a copy of the Russian newspaper Istvestia, and they were denouncing me and the Transformational Grammar, but for opposite reasons. La Prensa was denouncing it because it was revolutionary and Istvestia was denouncing it because it was  counter-revolutionary. So you have the choice.

It seems that in the United States  – and maybe also in Israel – conspiracy theories are an integral element of public culture. Does this have to do with the fact that both states are based on escape, along with the claim to realize some kind of paradise?

First of all, I don’t think that conspiracy theories are very widespread in Israel. I don’t think this is true. In the United States there is some proof to it, but that’s part of something else. I mean let’s take religious fundamentalism. Can you think about another country in the world apart from the United States where about half of the population thinks that all living creatures were created 6.000 years ago?

You are hinting at the discussions around religiously motivated theories of Intelligent Design (ID), which basically say that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected, evolutionary process such as natural selection…

Right. Religious extremism goes way back to the colonists. The colonists were religious fanatics. There is a whole history in the United States with pretty extremist views – and among the American conspiracy theories. They are partly fostered by the fact that people feel disenfranchised in the United States.


Most people feel the government is working for rich people. That might be right. And they feel that they cannot do anything about it. Unions have been destroyed; suburbanization had a big effect – it separates people from one another. The United States, after the Reagan years, has the highest work load and the lowest wages. The Greenspan years are considered wonderful years. Yeah, they were wonderful, but for maybe 5% of the population. So people are overworked, tired, alone, atomized…

Sigmund Freud said that every theory tends to be paranoiac. What’s your opinion about the relationship between science, theory, and paranoia?

Scientists can be just as crazy as other people. You find in some fields some individuals who have a fanatic dedication to an idea but I wouldn’t call that paranoia. Scientists have external criteria!

We don’t mean paranoia as a form of illness, but as a form of productivity…

Sure you can find paranoia, but science is pretty much a cooperative enterprise. Just take a look at the articles that have been published, half of them have ten names on them.

From the kibbutz to suburbia

Could you describe how your Kibbutz experience influenced you?

In 1953 I lived in a very left wing Kibbutz near Haifa, but I didn’t stay there very long. It didn’t influence me very much.

Do you think the Kibbutz is still a relevant form of society?

I think it could have been a very viable form of society. By now the Kibbutz seems to be pretty much a wealthy suburb, with some elements of cooperative structures. But it had a very special role in Israel. Funding there was a kind of deal with the government, that the kibbutzim would be partially subsidized, substantially in fact. In return they would provide the elite elements for the military.

Especially the paratroopers…

Yes, but also the commandos, the generals and so on. Most of them came out of the Kibbutz movement. If you  were a young male in the Kibbutz, your ideal was to be a paratrooper. And if you didn’t make it to the elite forces, that was a kind of a shame. Israel was a country that had real threats at that time. The idea that you are a sort of defending a pioneering institution by being a commander was part of the trait of the Kibbutz movement. But one of the very serious threats in Israel right now is that this is no longer happening. The elite forces are coming substantially from the ultra right religious groups. And that’s extremely dangerous. Like 25 years ago, top military analysts in Israel were warning that this country could face a right-wing military coup. You know, when you get people on the level of colonel, to be imbued with fanatic, nationalist, religious ideologies, that’s the stage where military coups are not unthinkable. Young Kibbutz kids no longer plan to be a pilot. 

Where do you live now? In the woods, in suburbia, or in the city?

I live in an ordinary middle class suburb, right outside of Boston. I have a rather conservative taste. The decision behind it was that we have three children and we wanted them to go to a good school, and we didn’t want to send them to a private school.

The suburban civilization seems to be very American…

It was created  from the 1940s by the biggest state social engineering project in history under the Eisenhower administration – in some respects beyond anything they did in Russia. The specific goal was to eliminate or severely weaken public transportation, destroy the inner cities, force everyone to use cars, trucks. And in the 1940s, there was an authentic conspiracy, a real one, between General Motors, Firestone Rubber, and Standard Oil California to buy up the public transportation system, destroy it, and force everyone into buses and cars. The conspiracy went to court and they were convicted and fined – I think $5,000 or something. Then the government moved in and took it over, under cover of defense.

You mean President Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956?

Yes. The pretext of the National Defense Highway Act was that we have to move missiles around the country. But the point of it was to massively subsidize road transportation – cars, trucks, gasoline and so on – and to undermine public transportation. The funding went into the road system and the aircraft system, which is just a straight off-shoot of the government; I mean, they call it private, but it’s just as private as the Airbus is.

What were the effects of this?

One of the effects of this was that it shifted the population out of the city and into the suburbs. They destroyed the public transportation system. Take the suburb where I live, Lexington, 10 miles west of  Boston. Boston has a pretty efficient subway system that goes from right near the MIT out toward the western suburbs, but it stops at the edge of Cambridge. There was an effort to extend it to the western suburbs. If they had done so, it would take me 10 minutes to get to work in the morning but in this way I had to fight traffic for 45 minutes in both directions. But in this case the citizens of Lexington – professionals, doctors, lawyers, professors, considered on the left in the United States – refused to allow it. They would rather fight traffic for two hours a day than face the danger, that a poor black kid from downtown Boston might be walking around the streets of Lexington. So those kinds of racist attitudes along with massive state intervention essentially drove the population into the suburbs.

Mr. Chomsky, thank you very much for this talk.

The interview took place on 15.11.2005  at Noam Chomsky’s office at the MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

2023 Tracked Changes by Stephan Trüby published in VOLUME 62

The Chomsky Test

The book 5 Codes – Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror is for me to date the strangest book I have ever been involved in (as co-editor, author and interviewer). The initial thesis of the book was provocatively vague: Based on the Homeland Security Advisory System introduced in March 2002, which was supposed to warn of the danger of terrorism in post-9/11 times with five color codes (it was abolished again in April 2011 and replaced by the National Terrorism Advisory System, which only uses text, not colors)…; based on this, 5 Codes was intended to be a book that “investigates the entanglements of producing space, paranoia and risk.” With plenty of assured randomness, we assigned the spatial categories ‘wilderness’, ‘suburbia’, ‘gated communities/camps’, ‘back-up-architectures/gadgets’ and ‘war rooms’ corresponding to the five colored terror alert levels ‘Green’, ‘Blue’, ‘Yellow’, ‘Orange’ and ‘Red’, which also formed the chapter structure. It certainly wasn’t a bad idea, because hardly any other cultural practice is as intensively concerned with “calming fear, averting danger and guaranteeing safety to the same extent as architecture.” The book was intended to represent a spectrum between peace and wartime architecture and, well, literally escalates as you leaf through it. So, it was much more about curatorial settings than about scientific justifications.

The unofficial mastermind of the book was Heiner Mühlmann, the German cultural theorist who founded the theory of the so-called ‘Maximal Stress Cooperation’ and is perhaps best known for his book The Nature of Cultures: A Blueprint for a Theory of Culture Genetics (2011), which exposed him to a German- and English-speaking audience. In his essay ‘The Economics Machine’ – for me, still the best essay in the volume – he unfolds the dystopian vision of a capitalist world of goods, which, depending on the terror warning level calls – i.e. depending on the collective stress level – immediately offers the appropriate green, blue, yellow, orange or red products. So far so possibly already existing.

Yet, not everyone wanted to follow the editors’ paranoiac-critical method. Least of all Noam Chomsky, whom my colleague Daniel Mock and I visited on November 15, 2005, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received us in his MIT office at the Ray and Maria Stata Center, which Frank Gehry had completed a year earlier. You couldn’t tell at all that he was 76 years old at the time: wide awake, quick, yet courteous and modest. When entering his carelessly furnished office, it was clear to us that there are probably only a few intellectuals in the world who are less interested in architecture and design than Chomsky. He also didn’t understand our interest in the Homeland Security Advisory System. The comedic tone at the beginning of the interview documents this beautifully. For some reason, we thought Chomsky might be well situated in the wilderness chapter, in ‘Code Green’. Presumably this intuition was due to the physical proximity of MIT to Concord, where Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, worked.

I stumbled across two aspects when re-reading after almost 20 years, a “too much” and a “too little”. First to the “too little”: I remember reading everything I could find about Peter Eisenman’s early reception of Chomsky on the flight across the Atlantic to Boston. In my archive I also found a question for Chomsky that I had already prepared: “Did you know that there is something like a ‘Chomskyesque’ architecture? In the early seventies, Peter Eisenman tried to push his work in that direction. He was very interested in your ‘universal grammar’. Basically, what he said, was, that the crisis of modernism was not a crisis of words but a crisis of syntax. Therefore, he tried to focus on the syntactic qualities of architecture. He wasn’t interested in meaning, but only in the relations between different signs. How does that sound to you? What do you think about linguistic analogies like this?” After I asked Chomsky this question, he confessed that he had never heard of Eisenman and his reception of architecture. It’s a pity that this was omitted in the final text version.

Now to the “too much”. At one point we make a bold insinuation: “It seems that in the United States – and maybe also in Israel – conspiracy theories are an integral element of public culture.” How and why on Earth did we come up with something like that? And why do we only mention these two countries? Perhaps with this statement we hoped to please our interlocutor, who is repeatedly accused of both anti-Americanism and Jewish anti-Semitism (if such a thing exists). Now I’m shocked by it, and I’m happy about Chomsky’s objection to our sentence (I’m also happy because I couldn’t follow some of Chomsky’s more recent statements, for example about Russia’s war against Ukraine).

The conversation – the recording device was already switched off – ended with Chomsky pointing a finger at a small picture on the wall: “Do you know what it is?”, he asked. We didn’t know. The painting depicts both the 1980 assassination of Catholic liberation theologian and Archbishop Óscar Romero in El Salvador by a US-trained sniper, and the 1989 assassination of six Jesuits by US-backed death squads [Fig. 1-2]. It was only much later that I was to realize that our helplessness had failed the Chomsky test, but we weren’t the only ones. In a 2015 interview, Chomsky gives a little statistical insight into who passed the test: “Americans, almost nobody. Europeans, maybe 10 percent. Latin Americans, it used to be all of them, but younger people don’t know.”[1]

[1] Haggerty, N. (2015, April 9). Interview with Noam Chomsky. Commonweal Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/interview-noam-chomsky