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                  Susan Sontag, "The Traitor," Fires Back
                            David Talbot, Salon
                              October 17, 2001

   Writer Susan Sontag has produced many texts during her four-decade
   career, including historical novels and reflections on cancer,
   photography and the war in Bosnia. But it was a brief essay, less than
   1,000 words long, in the Sept. 24 issue of the New Yorker that created
   the biggest uproar of her life.

   In the piece, which she wrote shortly after the terror attacks of
   Sept. 11, Sontag dissected the political and media blather that poured
   out of the television in the hours after the explosions of violence.
   After subjecting herself to what she calls "an overdose of CNN,"
   Sontag reacted with a coldly furious burst of analysis, savaging
   political leaders and media mandarins for trying to convince the
   country that everything was OK, that our attackers were simply
   cowards, and that our childlike view of the world need not be

   As if to prove her point, a furious chorus of sharp-tongued pundits
   immediately descended on Sontag, outraged that she had broken from the
   ranks of the soothingly platitudinous. She was called an
   "America-hater," a "moral idiot," a "traitor" who deserved to be
   driven into "the wilderness," never more to be heard. The bellicose
   right predictably tried to lump her in with the usual left-wing peace
   crusaders, whose programmed pacifism has sidelined them during the
   current political debates.

   But this tarbrush doesn't stick. As a thinker, Sontag is rigorously,
   sometimes abrasively, independent. She has offended the left as often
   as the right (political terms, she points out, that have become
   increasingly useless), alienating some ideologues when she attacked
   communism as "fascism with a human face" during the uprising of the
   Polish shipyard workers in the 1980s and again during the U.S. bombing
   campaign against the Serbian dictatorship, which she strongly

   Sontag, 68, remains characteristically unrepentant in the face of the
   recent attacks. On Monday, she talked with us by phone from her home
   in Manhattan, reflecting on the controversy, the Bush war effort and
   the media's surrender to what she views as a national conformity

   Did the storm of reaction to your brief essay in the New Yorker take
   you by surprise?

   Absolutely. I mean, I am aware of what a radical point of view is;
   very occasionally I have espoused one. But I did not think for a
   moment my essay was radical or even particularly dissenting. It seemed
   very common sense. I have been amazed by the ferocity of how I've been
   attacked, and it goes on and on. One article in the New Republic, a
   magazine for which I have written, began: "What do Osama bin Laden,
   Saddam Hussein and Susan Sontag have in common?" I have to say my jaw
   dropped. Apparently we are all in favor of the dismantling of America.
   There's a kind of rhetorical overkill aimed at me that is astonishing.
   There has been a demonization which is ludicrous.

   What has been constructed is this sort of grotesque trinity comprised
   of myself, Bill Maher and Noam Chomsky. In the Saturday New York
   Times, Frank Rich tried in his way to defend us by arguing for our
   complete lack of importance, by saying that any substitute weather
   forecaster on TV has more influence than any of us. Well, it's not
   true of course. Excuse me, but Noam Chomsky is quite a bit more than a
   distinguished linguist. Our critics are up in arms against us because
   we do have a degree of influence. But our own "defenders" are reduced
   to saying, "Well, leave the poor things alone, they're quite obscure
   anyway. "

   Look, I have nothing in common with Bill Maher, whom I had never heard
   of before. And I don't agree with Noam Chomsky, whom I am very
   familiar with. My position is decidedly not the Chomsky position

   How do you differ from Chomsky?

   First of all, I'll take the American empire any day over the empire of
   what my pal Chris Hitchens calls "Islamic fascism." I'm not against
   fighting this enemy -- it is an enemy and I'm not a pacifist.

   I think what happened on Sept. 11 was an appalling crime, and I'm
   astonished that I even have to say that, to reassure people that I
   feel that way. But I do feel that the Gulf War revisited is not the
   way to fight this enemy.

   There was a very confident, orotund piece by Stanley Hoffman in the
   New York Review of Books -- he's a very senior wise man in the George
   Kennan mold, certainly no radical. And I felt I could agree with every
   word he was saying. He was saying bombing Afghanistan is not the
   solution. We have to understand what's going on in the Middle East, we
   have to rethink what's going on, our foreign policy. In fact, since
   Sept. 11, we're already seeing the most radical realignment of

   Bill Maher has abjectly apologized for his remarks --but you don't
   seem to be getting any more docile in the fact of this storm of
   criticism. Why not?

   Well, I'm not an institution, and I don't have a job to lose. I just
   get lots of very nasty letters and read lots of very nasty things in
   the press.

   What do the letters say?

   That I'm a traitor. The New York Post, or so I've been told, has
   called for me to be drawn and quartered. And then there was this Ted
   Koppel show -- the producer invited me onto the show a week ago. It's
   not my thing, but I did it. And they got someone from the Heritage
   Foundation [Todd Gaziano], who practically foamed at the mouth, and
   said at one point, "Susan Sontag should not be permitted to speak in
   honorable intellectual circles ever again." And then Koppel said,
   "Whoa, you really mean she shouldn't be allowed to speak?" And he
   said, well maybe not silenced, but disgraced and "properly discounted
   for her crazy views."

   So there's a serious attempt to stifle debate. But, of course, God
   bless the Net. I keep getting more articles of various dissenting
   opinions e-mailed to me; naturally, some of them are crazy and some I
   don't agree with at all. But you can't shut everyone up. The big media
   have been very intimidated, but not the Web.

   I don't want to get defensive, but of course I am a little defensive
   because I'm still so stunned by the way my remarks were viewed. What I
   published in the New Yorker was written literally 48 hours after the
   Sept. 11 attacks. I was in Berlin at the time, and I was watching CNN
   for 48 hours straight. You might say that I had overdosed on CNN. And
   what I wrote was a howl of dismay at all the nonsense that I was
   hearing. That people were in a state of great pain and bewilderment
   and fear I certainly understood. But I thought, "Uh-oh, here comes a
   sort of revival of Cold War rhetoric and something utterly
   sanctimonious that is going to make it very hard for us to figure out
   how best to deal with this." And I have to say that my fears have been
   borne out.

   What do you think of the Bush administration's efforts to control the
   media, in particular its requests that the TV networks not show bin
   Laden and al-Qaida's video statements?

   Excuse me, but does anyone over the age of 6 really think that the way
   Osama bin Laden has to communicate with his agents abroad is by posing
   in that Flintstone set of his and pulling on his left earlobe instead
   of his right to send secret signals? Now, I don't believe that
   Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the administration really think that.
   At least I hope to hell they don't. I assume they have another reason
   for trying to stop the TV networks from showing bin Laden's
   videotapes, which is they just don't want people to see his message,
   whatever it is. They think, Why should we give him free publicity?
   Something very primitive like that. Which is ridiculous, because of
   course anyone online can see these tapes for themselves. Although I
   see the BBC, our British cousins who are of course ever servile, are
   discussing whether to broadcast the tapes. We can always count on the
   Brits to fall in line.

   Why has the media been so willing to go along with the White House's
   censorship efforts?

   Well, when people like me are being lambasted and excoriated for
   saying very mild things, no wonder the media is cowed. Here's
   something no one has commented on that I continue to puzzle over: Who
   decided that no gruesome pictures of the World Trade Center site were
   to be published anywhere? Now I don't think there was single directive
   coming from anywhere. But I think there was an extraordinary
   consensus, a kind of self-censorship by media executives who concluded
   these images would be too demoralizing for the country. I think it's
   rather interesting that could happen. There apparently has been only
   one exception: one day the New York Daily News showed a severed hand.
   But the photo appeared in only one edition and it was immediately
   pulled. I think that degree of unanimity within the media is pretty

   What is your position on the war against terrorism? How should the
   U.S. fight back?

   My position is that I don't like throwing biscuits and peanut butter
   and jam and napkins, little snack packages produced in a small city in
   Texas, to Afghani citizens, so we can say, "Look, we're doing
   something humanitarian." These wretched packages of food that are
   grotesquely inadequate -- there's apparently enough food for a half
   day's rations. And then the people run out to get them, into these
   minefields. Afghanistan has more land mines per capita than any
   country in the world. I don't like the way that humanitarianism is
   once again being used in this unholy way as a pretext for war.

   As woman, of course, I've always been appalled by the Taliban regime
   and would dearly like to see them toppled. I was a public critic of
   the regime long before the war started. But I've been told that the
   Northern Alliance is absolutely no better when it comes to the issue
   of women. The crimes against women in Afghanistan are just
   unthinkable; there's never been anything like it in the history of the
   world. So of course I would love to see that government overthrown and
   something less appalling put in its place.

   Do I think bombing is the way to do it? Of course I don't. It's not
   for me to speculate on this, but there are all sorts of realpolitik
   outcomes that one can imagine. Afghanistan in the end could become a
   sort of dependency of Pakistan, which of course wouldn't please India
   and China. They'd probably like a little country to annex themselves.
   So how in the world you're going to dethrone the Taliban without
   causing further trouble in that part of the world is a very
   complicated question. And I'm sure bright and hard-nosed people in
   Washington are genuinely puzzled about how to do it.

   Do you really think it could be done without bombing?

   Absolutely. But it's a complicated and long process -- and the United
   States is not very experienced in these matters. The point is, as I
   said in my New Yorker piece, there's a great disconnect between
   reality and what people in government and the media are saying of the
   reality. I have no doubt that there are real debates among military
   and political leaders going on both here and elsewhere. But what is
   being peddled to the public is a fairy tale. And the atmosphere of
   intimidation is quite extraordinary.

   And I think our protectors have been incredibly inept. In any other
   country the top officials of the FBI would have resigned or been fired
   by now. I mean, [key hijacking suspect] Mohammad Atta was on the FBI
   surveillance list, but this was never communicated to the airlines.

   The authorities are now responding to the anthrax scare -- to what I
   think are 99 percent certain to be just domestic copycat crazies on
   their own war path -- by spreading more fear. We have Vice President
   Cheney saying, "Well, these people could be part of the same terrorist
   network that produced Sept. 11." Well, excuse me, but we have no
   reason to think that.

   As a result of these alarming statements from authorities, the public
   is terrified. I live in New York and the streets were empty after the
   FBI announced that another terrorist attack was imminent. You have
   these idiots in the FBI saying they have "credible evidence" -- I love
   that phrase -- that an attack this weekend is "possible." Which means
   absolutely nothing. I mean it's possible there's a pink elephant in my
   living room right now, as I'm talking to you from my kitchen. I
   haven't checked recently, but it's not very likely.

   And meanwhile our ridiculous president is telling us to shop and go to
   the theater and lead normal lives. Normal? I could go 50 blocks, from
   one end of Manhattan to another, in five minutes because there was no
   one in the streets, no one in the restaurants, nobody in cars. You
   can't scare people and tell them to behave normally.

   We also seem to be getting contradictory messages about Muslims in the
   U.S. We're told that not all Islamic people are our enemy, but at the
   same time there's a fairly wide dragnet, which some civil liberties
   defenders have criticized as indiscriminate, aimed at rounding up
   Islamic suspects.

   Well, people are very scared and Americans are not used to being
   scared. There's an American exceptionalism; we're supposed to be
   exempt from the calamities and terrors and anxieties that beset other
   countries. But now people here are scared and it's interesting how
   fast they are moving in another direction. The feeling is, and I've
   heard this from people, about Islamic taxi drivers and shopkeepers and
   other people -- we really ought to deport all the Muslims. Sure
   they're not all terrorists and some of it will be unfair, but after
   all we have to protect ourselves. Racial and ethnic profiling is now
   seen as common sense itself. I mean how could you not want that if
   you're going to take an airplane and you don't want a fellow in a
   turban and a beard to sit next to you?

   What I live in fear of is there will be another terror attack -- not a
   sick joke like the powder in the envelope, but something real that
   takes more lives, that has the stamp of something more professional
   and thought out. It could be another symbolically targeted building --
   maybe not in New York this time, but in Chicago or some other
   heartland city that scares the rest of the country. And then you could
   get something like martial law here. Many Americans, who as I say are
   so used to not being afraid, would willingly accede to great
   abridgements of freedom. Because they're afraid.

   You called the president "robotic" in your New Yorker essay. But the
   New York Times, among other media observers, has editorialized that
   Bush has shown a new "gravitas" since Sept. 11. Do you think the
   president has grown more commanding since the terror attacks?

   I saw that in the Times -- I love that, gravitas. Has Bush grown into
   his role of president? No, I think he's acquired legitimacy since
   Sept. 11, that's all -- I don't call that "growing" at all. I think
   what we obviously have in Washington is some kind of regency, run
   presumably by Cheney and Rumsfeld and maybe Powell, although Powell is
   much more of an organization man than a real leader. It's all very
   veiled. And Cheney has not been much seen lately -- is this because he
   is ill? It's all very mysterious. I hate to see everything become so

   It seems important to the Times and other major media to shore up the
   president's image these days.

   Yes, I just don't understand why debate equals dissent, and dissent
   equals lack of patriotism now. I mean, look, I cry every morning real
   tears, I mean down the cheek tears, when I read those small obituaries
   that the New York Times publishes of the people who died in the World
   Trade Center. I read them faithfully, every last one of them, and I
   cry. I live near a firehouse that lost a lot of men, and I've brought
   them things. And I'm genuinely and profoundly, exactly like everyone
   else, really moved, really wounded, and really in mourning. I didn't
   know anyone personally who died. But my son [journalist David Rieff]
   had a former classmate who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald who died. A
   number of people I know lost friends or loved ones.

   I want to make one thing very clear, because I've been accused of this
   by some critics. I do not feel that the Sept. 11 attacks were the
   pursuit of legitimate grievances by illegitimate means. I think that's
   the position of some people, but not me. It may even be the position
   of Chomsky, although it's not for me to say. But it's certainly not my

   Speaking of your son, he seems to favor a tougher military response to
   Islamic terrorism than you do.

   Well, I don't want to go deeply into it, but clearly we don't see it
   exactly the same way. Whatever David thinks is tremendously important
   to me, but we do start from a different point of view. I feel that
   it's just a difference of emphasis, but without speaking for him, he
   feels it's deeper than that. But he's still the love of my life, so I
   won't criticize him.

   This is one thing I do completely agree with David on: If tomorrow
   Israel announced a unilateral withdrawal of its forces from the West
   Bank and the Gaza strip -- which I am absolutely in favor of ---
   followed by the proclamation of a Palestinian state, I don't believe
   it would make a dent in the forces that are supporting bin Laden's
   al-Qaida. I think Israel is a pretext for these people.

   I do believe in the unilateral withdrawal of Israel from the
   Palestinian territories, which is of course the radical view held by a
   minority of Israeli citizens, but certainly not by the Sharon
   government. And it's a view I expressed when I received the Jerusalem
   Prize there in May, which created quite a storm. But just because I am
   a critic of Israeli policy -- and in particular the occupation, simply
   because it is untenable, it creates a border that cannot be defended
   -- that does not mean I believe the U.S. has brought this terrorism on
   itself because it supports Israel. I believe bin Laden and his
   supporters are using this as a pretext. If we were to change our
   support for Israel overnight, we would not stop these attacks.

   I don't think this is what it's really about. I think it truly is a
   jihad, I think there is such a thing. There are many levels to Islamic
   rage. But what we're dealing with here is a view of the U.S. as a
   secular, sinful society that must be humbled, and this has nothing to
   do with any particular aspect of American policy. So I don't think we
   have brought this upon ourselves, which is of course a view that has
   been attributed to me.

   Let me ask you about another part of your essay that has riled your
   critics. You said the hijackers displayed more courage than those,
   presumably in the U.S. military, who bomb their enemies from a safe

   No, I did not use the word "courage" -- I did use my words carefully.
   I said they were not to be called cowards. I believe that courage is
   morally neutral. I can well imagine wicked people being brave and good
   people being timid or afraid. I don't consider it a moral virtue.

   My feeling about this type of safe bombing goes back to the U.S. air
   campaign against the Serbs in Kosovo, which I strongly supported,
   though I was criticized by many of my friends on the left for being
   too bellicose. I did support the bombing of the Serb forces, because I
   had been in Sarajevo for three years during the siege and I wanted the
   Serbs checked and rebuked. I wanted them out of Kosovo as I had wanted
   them out of Bosnia.

   When the U.S. campaign in Kosovo began, I happened to be staying with
   a close friend in a town on the tip of Italy, the boot, about 40 miles
   across from Albania, and the Apache helicopters were literally passing
   over my head. They landed at the Tirana air base in Italy, but they
   never took off for Kosovo because it was calculated that they might be
   shot down and the crew killed. And the U.S. was unwilling to accept
   these casualties.

   But in order to bomb precisely, without hitting hospitals and other
   civilian targets, you have to fly low to the ground with aircraft like
   these. And you have to risk being brought down by antiaircraft fire.
   So I was dismayed by the loss of civilian life in that U.S. bombing
   campaign, which I had hoped would be very precise.

   And so thinking about this, as I was writing my essay for the New
   Yorker, I became very angry. And I wrote, if you're going to use the
   word "cowardly," let's talk about the people who bomb from so high up
   that they're out of the range of any retaliation and therefore cause
   more civilian casualties than they otherwise would, in what is
   supposedly a limited military bombing.

   What about those in the antiwar camp who see a moral equivalence
   between the destruction of the World Trade Center and the U.S. bombing
   of Afghanistan?

   Well, I don't share that view. I'm not a pacifist, but I am against
   bombing. And I do think that if you want to conduct a military
   operation, you have to be willing to take casualties. There are not,
   strictly speaking, very many military targets in Afghanistan. We're
   talking about one of the poorest countries in the world. What they can
   do is bomb the soldiers, the camps where the Taliban soldiers are
   based. And you can imagine who they are, it's a lot of kids. We can
   drop a lot of napalm, and uranium-tipped bombs, and kill many
   thousands of people. We haven't been doing a lot of that yet. That's
   next. And then we'll get these other awful people to come in, this
   Northern Alliance, and it will be horrible.

   David Talbot is the founder and editor in chief of Salon, where this
   article originally appeared. AlterNet

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