The Lessons of Blowback

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The Lessons of Blowback

Even carefully planned actions can have unintended consequences. Let's not do something that ultimately benefits terrorists.

From our archives... Common Dreams originally published this Chalmers Johnson article on September 30, 2001, just 3 weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Chalmers died last night at age 79. His voice will be missed.

One of the objectives of terrorism is to provoke the ruling elites of a target regime into disastrous overreaction. When it works, as it has in Israel over the past year, the results can be devastating for all sides. Who does this ultimately benefit? The terrorists.

Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian guerrilla leader whose writings influenced political terrorists in the 1960s and 1970s, explained why. If the government can be provoked into a military response to terrorism, he wrote, this will alienate the masses, causing them to "revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things."

The overreaction doesn't necessarily have to alienate only domestic "masses." If we inflict great misery on innocent people in the Middle East, there will almost certainly be what the CIA refers to as "blowback"--unintended negative consequences of our actions. Vacillating supporters of the terrorists might be drawn into committing terrorist acts. Moderate governments throughout the Islamic world, especially in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, would almost certainly face growing internal dissent and could even be overthrown. Perhaps the prime example of terrorism succeeding is the Philippeville massacre of Aug. 20, 1955, in which Algerian revolutionaries killed 123 French colonials. A conscious act of terrorism carried out by revolutionaries who until then had enjoyed only slight popular backing, the Philippeville massacre led to a massive and bloody retaliation by the French. It also converted a leading French reformer (Jacques Soustelle, then governor-general of Algeria) into an advocate of suppression. The French crackdown eliminated most of the moderates on the Muslim side and caused influential French citizens back home to turn against their country's policies. This chain of events ultimately provoked a French army mutiny, brought Gen. Charles de Gaulle back to power as the savior of the nation and caused a French withdrawal from Algeria. Franco-Algerian relations are still strained today.

No political cause can justify the killing on Sept. 11 of thousands of innocent people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But neither would our killing innocent people in retaliation be justifiable. Terrorists attack the vulnerable because their intended targets (the military might of a rich country) are inaccessible. By attacking the innocent, terrorists intend to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. Like the anarchism of the 19th century, terrorism is propaganda by deed.

The perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks are all dead. Now we must identify, apprehend and convict their accomplices. If it is discovered that a state harbored or backed them, then a declaration of war against that state would be appropriate. So far, the available evidence pointing to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization is circumstantial: Bin Laden has issued edicts calling on Muslims to kill Americans; one of the hijackers had ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, whose leader is a known associate of Bin Laden's; and U.S. and German intelligence officers have intercepted telephone conversations in which Al Qaeda groups were told of the attacks. But there has been no evidence linking the attackers to Afghanistan. Of the 19 hijackers, 11 have been identified by the FBI as probably Saudi Arabians, three others as, respectively, an Egyptian, a Lebanese and a citizen of the United Arab Emirates. The countries of origin of the others are unknown.

So far, the United States has reacted to the terrorist attacks with an almost classic repetition of the French blunders following Philippeville. From his first remarks to the nation on the evening of Sept. 11, President Bush has been pointlessly, even comically, belligerent (the U.S. wants Bin Laden "dead or alive," we must "smoke them out of their caves and get them running"). By initially calling his retaliation plan "Operation Infinite Justice," he gave it a needlessly religious and messianic coloration. He seems to lack insight or candor about what we actually face and the seriousness of the problem (we were attacked because we are a "beacon of freedom" and our attackers are without motives, merely "evil doers, those barbaric people"). The president has rebuffed calls from countries such as China and Iran that the U.S. obtain United Nations sanction for its retaliatory actions. Instead, his hyperbole has led thoughtful listeners to question what sort of actions he intends to pursue. "Our war on terror," Bush said to Congress and the nation on Sept. 20, "begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." Presumably, the words "global reach" were inserted to reassure listeners that he did not intend to bomb supporters of Irish terrorists in Boston or anti-Castro terrorists in Miami.

The gaffes of the United States and its leaders are not just verbal. On Sept. 15, Congress passed a joint resolution that gave President Bush more sweeping authority than has ever been given to a president. "The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001." The appropriate comparisons here are with Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which led to violent protests and court challenges, and to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of Aug. 7, 1964, which escalated the Vietnam War.

The resolution of Sept. 15 passed the Senate by a vote of 98-0 and the House by 420-1. Whereas two senators voted against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, this time only one member of Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), voted no. Now, nearly three weeks after the attacks, consequences of the congressional action have begun to emerge. President Bush has formed the largest air armada since World War II and brought it into position to bomb Afghanistan. He has assembled at least 630 U.S. military aircraft, three times as many as were deployed in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. An additional 280 aircraft are on board four U.S. aircraft carriers moving into position, as well as about 120 special forces.

If this armada is used against the hopeless and impoverished people of Afghanistan, there is no doubt that it will produce a general crisis throughout the Islamic world, probably affecting even moderate nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The end result will not be "victory" in a "war on terrorism" but a further cycle of terrorist attacks, American casualties and escalation.

What should we do instead? The answers seem obvious. We must recognize that the terrorism of Sept. 11 was not directed against America but against American foreign policy. We should listen to the grievances of the Islamic peoples, stop propping up repressive regimes in the area, protect Israel's security but denounce its apartheid practices in Palestinian areas and reform our "globalization" policies so that they no longer mean that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. If the United States' only response to terrorism is more terrorism, it will have discredited itself and can expect to be treated as the rogue state it will have become.

Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson was the author of Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006), and editor of Okinawa: Cold War Island (1999).  His final book was Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (2010). He died on November 20, 2010 at age 79.

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