‘Blowback’ and the Rhetoric of Revenge

July 12, 2013 6:35 am 3 comments
Michael Adebolajo

Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby, murder weapon in hand.

Terror apologia begins by denying the very meaning of the word terrorism, but slyly redirects the charge at the Western nations that use the word. Anticipating the counter charge of apologia itself, apologists attempt to preempt the charge by proclaiming the obvious moral wrong of terrorist acts and then focusing their attention on a purported intent not to excuse, but to explain them. This distinction, for all its admirable fineness of intellectual purpose, nonetheless becomes the basis for abiding rhetorical confusion: somehow, those of less acute, or perhaps, truly, sharper vision persist in detecting the polemic of activists when they are instructed repeatedly to read no more than the account of historians.

This proverbially fine line between explanation and excuse is discoverable, to begin, in just the matter of attention. We direct it to where we think the greatest substance lies, and in the matter of “explanation,” we attend to causes. What, we ask, were the causes of the French Revolution? The true historian may not sum too facilely from all its particulars the general rottenness of the Ancien regime, but there is little doubt where the lusty censure of the reader will go. Causation, philosophers and most historians and political scientists will readily acknowledge, is a complex and often obscure web of acts, conditions, and relations. For the contemporary terror apologist, however, it is a simple matter of “blowback.”

The term “blowback” gained currency from the late political scientist Chalmers Johnson’s 2000 book Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire, the first in his series on the nature and consequences of America’s post Cold War “empire” of military bases and interests. It is a largely compelling argument that unsurprisingly drew much greater attention immediately after 9/11.

Johnson adopted the term blowback from the intelligence field, in which, as a cold warrior, he had worked. Though its reference to American policy is broader now, its use among intelligence operatives was more specific.

The concept “blowback” does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes – as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 – the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.

Events of a kind most easily identifiable as generators of the blowback to which Johnson and many others refer are now well-known CIA missteps that also violated American values: the overthrow, for instance, in the ostensible service of anticommunism, of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala in 1953 and 1954. In each instance, too, the United States was protecting economic markets from nationalization and land redistribution programs. One cannot understand Iranian attitudes toward the United States without knowledge of this history, or understand, beyond current personalities, why Venezuela or Ecuador or the indigenous-led Bolivia would not mind tweaking the American nose over Edward Snowden – that, as only a single example, the 1954 Guatemalan coup provoked decades more of plutocratic rule and a genocidal civil war in the 1980s against the indigenous  Mayan population – instrumentally aided by the United States – that was playing out still in the genocide trial of ex-president Efrain Rios-Montt just this past May.

Consequences, then – actions and policies produces consequences, to be sure. Causes and effects.

Historians and political scientists, as best they can truly scientize their fields, analyze cause and effect, actions and their consequences, as close to materially as is possible in any field of activity that includes humans. Blowback as a concept, as it is rhetoricized by the critics of American policy, is something about kin but far from kind to consequence. Blowback, as critics wield the term, is something kind of like an ideologue’s version of karma.

We can trace the consequences of American misdeeds in Guatemala, but it was not the United States, rather a European nation, Spain, that genocidally conquered the indigenous populations of Central America, and their Spanish descendents who have dominated and oppressed the remaining indigenous populations since. It is convenient to a simplistic critique of both the West and the United States to conflate European colonialism with Western Hemispheric North-South politics, but it is far from correct. The United States may have wronged Iran in 1953, but neither Persian history nor Islam began in that year. There were chains of causation already seeking newer links even before the U.S. helped overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh, and Ayatollah Khomeini was both anti-secularist and opposed to Western liberalism independent of the 1953 coup.

Johnson offered the explanation of blowback above in his follow up book, Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic. Immediately after 9/11, however, between the publications of Blowback and Nemesis, he reintroduced the notion in an essay for the Nation.

The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not “attack America,” as our political leaders and the news media like to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy. Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders who then became enemies only because they had already become victims. Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable.

Here, in the first case-specific application of the term, by the man who first introduced it into popular political argumentation, we already see its tendentious simplification. Did Johnson really deeply consider any meaningful distinction between attacking “America” or “American foreign policy” or even “Americans”? Unlike, the French, let’s say, Americans had not much particular or personal reason to be the enemy of Germany in World War I, much less of Germans. Americans, at war, simply killed Germans. It made not much difference that it wasn’t personal.

Johnson was also then writing before it became the rhetorical ploy of his heirs to claim that the term “terrorism” has no useful meaning, so he went so far as to claim that “by definition” it “strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable.” But this is circular reasoning by way of tautologous definition. Are we to presuppose by the very commission of a terrorist act – no matter by whom against whom, on the basis of what blowback complaint – that the actor is necessarily thereby determined to have been wronged, and by whomever it is the victim was chosen to represent? And why would not so manifestly unrighteous an act (can there be one greater?) as to purposefully kill the innocent as symbolic strike against the true but “invulnerable” target – why would not so unjust an act reset the karmic wheel of blowback and justify a righteous response?

By definition, claimed Johnson, the innocent are sacrificed “in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable.” (Sins greater, we wonder again, than murdering the innocent as symbol and spectacle? What sins would those be?) This is a convenient formulation when applied to the United States, but what about if applied to the country that has been the most sustained and regular victim of terrorism for over four decades – Israel?

It is an analysis too convenient and shallow to be measured to cast Israel as “invulnerable.” For well-known reasons it is a nation far more powerful and effective militarily, now, than the wide swath and variety of its surrounding enemies, but this is a state in no way, like the U.S., geographically, naturally, economically, and historically a seeming matter of course. The combination of Israel’s assembled foes, well governed, culturally integrated, economically vibrant, and effectively coordinated might have been expected to swamp little Israel. To perpetrate terrorism against Israel, far from to strike as a last resort, symbolically, against an otherwise unreachable superpower is to opt instead, first, for the easiest, most murderous, least defensible of antagonisms. It offers the quick-hit satisfaction simply of death rather than the challenge of creating a thriving cultural force or national entity ready to risk its all for an all worthy of risk.

Johnson further argued,

This attempt to define difficult-to-grasp events as only a conflict over abstract values–as a “clash of civilizations,” in current post-cold war American jargon–is not only disingenuous but also a way of evading responsibility for the “blowback” that America’s imperial projects have generated.

The irony in Johnson’s invocation of “difficult-to-grasp events” arises out of his own simplistic reduction of Al Qaeda’s program and actions to mere blowback against American imperialism. Presumably Johnson knew nothing of Osama bin Laden’s Qutbism and general fundamentalist political and cultural illiberalism, of his anti-Semitism and of the sense of religious superiority that found an American presence on the Arabian Peninsula to fight Saddam Hussein not political imperialism but spiritual defilement. What Johnson offered in this essay was not the grasp of the difficult-to-grasp summed as “blowback,” but the reductionism of blowback leading away from any grasp of the difficult at all.

All around Johnson, at the time, blowback as simplistic karmic revenge, rather than causal analysis, was already a weed in bloom. Two weeks earlier in The Nation, Robert Fisk published “Terror in America,” sub-headed,

The attacks on the Twin Towers will be called ‘mindless terrorism,’ but the blowback the United States is experiencing is far from mindless.

Said Fisk,

And there will be, inevitably, and quite immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind the firestorms.

In The New Yorker, Susan Sontag asked,

Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

All throughout the American left, the “chickens coming home to roost” version of blowback was squawked with self-satisfaction, enough so that other voices on the left, such as Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin, and the editors of Dissent spoke out forcefully against it. Meanwhile, in England, it was the Guardian that was a primary locus of blowbackism. Just two days after 9/11, Seamus Milne wrote,

But any glimmer of recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process – or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world – seems almost entirely absent.

Three days after Milne, Charlotte Raven authored, “A Bully with a Bloody Nose Is Still a Bully.”

Elsewhere, the rhetorically playful Slavoj Zizek delivered with the relish of the title: “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.”

Jean Baudrillard nearly swooned with raptures in “The Spirit of Terrorism.”

That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree…

From the very beginning, claims that acts of terror are blowback – claims often introduced with pro forma condemnations of the terrorism – inevitably revealed their true message: the conviction that terrorist acts are a karmically engendered, if not even, too, a just revenge. Twelve years later the same half-hearted pretense prevails, and every new act of terror, no matter how small the scale, is reason for some sorrowful or angry political sage to inform us that whatever preceding act it was by the U.S., or Israel, or the West in general – and not the foul faith or ideology of the perpetrators – is where the historical causation and moral responsibility rests.

Blowback, as it was originally used in the intelligence community, was a sharp reminder of the cruel human physics of unintended consequences. As adopted by anti-Western lecturers, it is a cheap commission of the fallacy of false cause. A rhetorical trope pretending to explanatory acuity, it descends in effect to moralizing cliché.

It is the moralizing character of blowback that makes it neatly adaptable, so, as it points in its primary formulation backwards toward causes, it also has a chronologically forward formulation, in which it speaks to effects.

In the forward formulation, we are warned that military responses to terrorist acts will only serve to “create more terrorists.” Any new act of terrorism, perpetrated by a previously unknown actor is thus offered as evidence of this dictum. The terrorists unsurprisingly casting themselves as offended against and as avenging devils (surely not angels when their pride is “we love death as you love life”), the likes of Glenn Greenwald, currently the high priest of blowback bloviation, will accordingly in his first paragraph on the Woolwich murder uncritically inform us that one of Drummer Rigby’s killers cited “a desire to avenge and stop continuous UK violence against Muslims.”

Terror apologia is a rhetoric of logical reductionism, so it follows that a forceful act producing a forceful reaction will be cited as evidence that the earlier act was mistaken. However, what else is to be expected in conflict but that when one strikes at one’s foe, the foe will strike back? The Japanese and Germans did not simply cease hostilities when allied forces roused themselves to effective response. They fought back all the harder. Undoubtedly more citizens of allied nations died as a consequence of carrying the war to the enemy than if they had simply surrendered. But terror apologists regularly offer the committed efforts of terrorists, even when opposed, as evidence that forceful opposition to them is a grave error.

We should take from that message instruction about terror apologists instead.

It is probable that the definitive allied victory in World War II served to mislead a few generations about the nature of victory in war – that it is always, rather than rarely, so total and historically determinative. What kind of military action can end all combative response and what low-level of even domestic political violence is a continuing cost of democracy? Certainly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of German cities did not create more terrorists. Nor, so far, has Sri Lanka’s brutal and devastating elimination of its Tamil insurgency. How often, though, will free and decent peoples be able to summon the will and self-justification to inflict those levels of cataclysmic violence on other human beings?

Still, terror apologists will cite cleaver-wielding murderers and inept terrorist training camp graduates as sage voices for civilizations in the throws. And The Onion will headline a “New Bomb Capable Of Creating 1,500 New Terrorists In Single Blast.”

As a rhetorical expression of the fallacy of false cause, blowback has both its backward-cause and forward-effect formulations and what might be called a regression-to-first-cause ad absurdum formulation. The backward, blowback formulation isolates without warrant only one or one set of possible causes without due consideration of an alternative or broader range of possible causes. The forward formulation, to effects, will claim without any proper consideration that immediate or even mediate effects – a terrorist effort in response to a drone strike, for instance – are final and determinative effects.

In regression-to-first-cause ad absurdum, the effort is made to establish the original cause of longstanding, deep historical phenomena. There are several prominent manifestations of this argument, including that which rationalizes the modern genocide of indigenous populations as rooted in the developmental history of an originally brutal human race, but there is none so prominent today as the effort to delegitimize Israel and the Jewish claim to self-determination on historic land. In the argument against Israel’s legitimacy, in order to establish an unassailable ground for the blowback of contemporary “resistance” and terror, the argument to first cause extends to a depth of regression simply astonishing in the degree of its vengeful blame and denial.

It is generally understood that resolution of political conflict cannot follow from insistence upon establishing original fault. That is a program for continued conflict. Yet Palestinian and third parties claiming to promote peace and justice have regressed so far from the 1947 Arab rejection of partition and another Arab state, in Palestine, that they actually and actively seek to deny all of the historical, archeological, and continuous evidence of a multi-millennial Jewish presence in Israel, and to disprove the genetic authenticity of Ashkenazic Jewry.

This anti-Zionism is a concerted and sweepingly vengeful effort to find first fault, assign blame, and justify the effects referred to as blowback on a scale and at a level of causative regression that is simply unprecedented. Yet this is the character of blowback as a rhetorical usage, as it is of terror apologia more generally. They are arguments dressed in the rhetorical finery of objective historical analysis, and of postmodern and multicultural reordering of international relations; what they offer instead is a continued contest for power that employs the worst of the West’s failures as weapons against the greatest of its achievements, without the remotest worthy substitute in sight.


  • The alternative to blaming “blow-back” for violence against liberal western targets is to acknowledge that those groups whose historical inevitability the Left supports, whether Marxism-Leninism or the global caliphate, are acting from motivations that people in the West must regard as evil. By implication, if the parties they support are evil, what must follow about their devotees in the West?

  • An excellent, well argued case – as are all of Adler’s contributions. The problem usually begins when credence is given to the narrative of those driven by an ideology, religious or political, that is driven by hostility or aggression towards non-conforming or rejecting groups like Western democracies. The blood stained history of Islam is permeated by jihad driven groups whose ruthlessness and cruelty make US history look like a stroll in the park – as driven as it was by self serving interests from time to time.

  • A reasoned, intelligent, and thoughtful essay. Thank you for your insight.

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