Our intelligence agencies--the CIA and its rivals in the
Pentagon--have a history of creating neologisms to describe our world
that cover up more than they reveal. There have been lofty coinages like
"host-nation support," meaning foreign countries pay to base our troops
on their soil, and military jargon like "low-intensity warfare" that
repackages the most brutal strife in antiseptic language.
Every now and then, however, a useful new word emerges from the
labyrinth of our secret services. The American media recently started to
use the term "blowback." Central Intelligence Agency officials coined it
for internal use in the wake of decisions by the Carter and Reagan
administrations to plunge the agency deep into the civil war in
Afghanistan. It wasn't long before the CIA was secretly arming every
moujahedeen volunteer in sight, without considering who they were or what
their politics might be--all in the name of ensuring that the Soviet
Union had its own Vietnam-like experience.
Not so many years later, these "freedom fighters" began to turn up in
unexpected places. They bombed the World Trade Center in New York City,
murdered several CIA employees in Virginia and some American businessmen
in Pakistan and gave support to Osama bin Laden, a prime CIA "asset" back
when our national security advisors had no qualms about giving guns to
In this context, "blowback" came to be shorthand for the unintended
consequences of U.S. policies kept secret from the American people. In
fact, to CIA officials and an increasing number of American pundits,
blowback has become a term of art acknowledging that the unconstrained,
often illegal, secret acts of the United States in other countries can
result in retaliation against innocent American citizens. The dirty
tricks agencies are at pains never to draw the connection between what
they do and what sometimes happens to those who pay their salaries.
So we are supposed to believe that the bombings of American embassies
in East Africa in 1998, the proliferation of sophisticated weapons, not
to mention devices of mass murder, around the world, or the crack cocaine
epidemic in American cities are simply examples of terrorism, the work of
unscrupulous arms dealers, drug lords, ancient hatreds, rogue states;
anything unconnected to America's global policies.
Perhaps the term "blowback" can help us to re-link certain violent
acts against Americans to the policies from which they secretly--as far
as most Americans are concerned--sprang. From refugee flows across our
southern borders from countries where U.S.-supported repression has
created hopeless conditions, to U.S.-supported economic policies that
have led to unimaginable misery, blowback reintroduces us to a world of
cause and effect.
We also might consider widening the word's application to take in the
unintended consequences U.S. policies may have for others. For example,
even if the policies that our government fostered and that produced the
economic collapse of Indonesia in 1997 never blow back to the U.S., the
unintended consequences for Indonesians have been staggering. They
include poverty, serious ethnic violence and perhaps political
disintegration. Similarly, our "dirty hands" in overthrowing President
Salvador Allende in Chile and installing Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who
subsequently killed thousands of his own citizens, are just now coming
fully into the open. Even when blowback from our policies mainly strikes
other peoples, it has a corrosive effect on us, debasing political
discourse and making us feel duped when the news finally emerges.
The United States likes to think of itself as the winner of the Cold
War. In all probability, to those looking back at blowback a century
hence, neither side will appear to have won, particularly if the United
States maintains its present imperial course.