Noam Chomsky is well known for his achievements in linguistics and his commentary against American imperialistic behavior. He is less well known for his fondness of ants.
Strictly speaking, Chomsky has never explicitly stated that he is an admirer of ants. But his repeated use of the insect to illustrate his views on American attacks on foreign soil strongly indicates that he has a proper understanding of the supremacy of the venerable Formicidae. I noted his use of ants in a previous post, in which Chomsky compared the treatment of non-U.S. citizens by the U.S. government to our treatment of ants that “we step on when we walk down the street”. However, I did not realize at the time that such a reference was not unique to the 2011 case of Anwar al-Awlaki, and that such metaphors by the professor date back to over a decade ago.
In a 2007 response to Samantha Power on terrorism, Chomsky had this to say:
Evidently, a crucial case is omitted, which is far more depraved than massacring civilians intentionally. Namely, knowing that you are massacring them but not doing so intentionally because you don’t regard them as worthy of concern. That is, you don’t even care enough about them to intend to kill them. Thus when I walk down the street, if I stop to think about it I know I’ll probably kill lots of ants, but I don’t intend to kill them, because in my mind they do not even rise to the level where it matters. There are many such examples. To take one of the very minor ones, when Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility in Sudan, he and the other perpetrators surely knew that the bombing would kill civilians (tens of thousands, apparently). But Clinton and associates did not intend to kill them, because by the standards of Western liberal humanitarian racism, they are no more significant than ants. Same in the case of tens of millions of others.
Like the metaphorical use in 2011, Chomsky here criticizes the U.S. government for treating “collateral damage” – i.e. “humans” – like ants. Or perhaps he is actually criticizing the U.S. government’s (and his own) lack of concern for the lives of ants? Hm…
Similarly, in his 2003 book, Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World, Chomsky implements the ultimate metaphor (ants) to discuss collateral damage, this time in relation to the War in Afghanistan:
It is acceptable to report the “collateral damage” by bombing error, the inadvertent and inevitable cost of war, but not the conscious and deliberate destruction of Afghans who will die in silence, invisibly – not by design, but because it doesn’t matter, a deeper level of moral depravity; if we step on an ant while walking, we have not purposely killed it.
It is revealing that the eloquent Chomsky turns to ants when he must try to illustrate the “deeper level of moral depravity” involved in the bombings he describes. Again, perhaps he is trying to show that ants should be considered as having the same moral status as humans. Just think – if mankind viewed ants like they do their fellow man, would such atrocities ever occur?
In any case, Noam Chomsky has provided a decade of apt ant metaphors. However, despite my satisfaction with his choice of insect, I sincerely hope he will not have another chance to make such a connection.
Also, one (more serious) final note: I wrote this post prior to the horrible events in Boston on Monday. I think it is therefore even more important to mention that Chomsky, and those like Glenn Greenwald who comment on the atrocities of U.S. action abroad in the light of national tragedies, clearly do not think that domestic loss is irrelevant compared to the abuses of our government abroad. Rather, they (and I) believe that we, as American citizens, ought to realize that our response to violence is marked by “selective empathy”. All too often, we view the foreign victims of U.S. bombings as mere ants, while American victims of events like the Boston Marathon bombings deserve the status of humanized parents, siblings, and infants. Regardless of how interesting I find ants, I believe it is a human obligation to view all humans as, well, humans. No one is “collateral damage”. Goods are damaged. People are killed.