In the aftermath of two men brutally slaughtering Lee Rigby in Woolwih, Jonathan Freedland wrote this column on responding to the motives of murderers:
… It seems we’re ready to listen when we have some sneaking sympathy, not for the act itself, but for the cause it seeks to highlight… But if it’s wrong for the right to seek vindication in acts of brutal violence, then it’s surely wrong for the left to do the same. Nor is it any good for the latter to say, “we’re not justifying, we’re simply explaining”: the right said the same about Breivik. Nor can they claim theirs is no more than a cold, analytical judgment, merely forecasting rather than endorsing the logical consequences of a current course of action. Their opponents could and did say the same about multiculturalism after Breivik.
Freedland perhaps goes too far in saying explanation is impossible, although he is almost certainly correct about the double standards at play. You can explain things without justifying them. The problem is, of course, that most people breeze by an empirically robust explanation, and do so before presenting uncomplicated justifications not of the killer’s motive per se, but how the action of the killer justifies a policy position they held prior to the incident. When this happens it often does, intentionally or not, help legitimate and further the killer’s object.
This leads into a larger problem, which is with the concept of blowback itself. Chalmers Johnson, who popularized the term, described blowback, in its usage of CIA analysis of the coup against Mossadegh, as “a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.” Of course, now blowback encompasses overt military operations as well as covert machinations, and now not simply to the actions of say, the aggrieved victims of a war, but sympathizers mobilized by it indirectly – to the point where a Christian of Nigerian descent, born and raised in London, could qualify as blowback. Blowback makes sense to many as an implicit moral narrative. The aggressor does something wrong, like invade Iraq or harass Muslims, and collects the bloody wages of its work. Of course, this is essentially a justification. So instead, it seems appealing to paint such events as the obvious and inevitable consequence of adopting such policies. One of the Woolwich killers argued, “The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers.” Yet privileging the public justification of an act as its explanation requires too much credulity and too little reflection.
It is entirely possible to make blowback arguments in a rigorous fashion, but establishing motivation, let alone actual causality, is very difficult, particularly when you are trying to extrapolate from what is very often the equivalent of a suicide note. Just as an explanation is not inherently a justification, a stated justification is not inherently an explanation. Simply because somebody says that “multiculturalism/Iraq/Islamic terrorism/the Zionist conspiracy made me decide to kill people” does not inherently tell us that whatever policy they are upset about exerted some kind of gravitational pull on their agency.
More than an accurate self-assessment of the forces of history upon our psyches, these kinds of justifications are narrative elements in how a person presents themselves to the world. People tell narratives to and about themselves because that renders our lives and the worlds comprehensible and meaningful, especially when they’re about to undertake an action that will alienate them from wider society and possibly result in their own death. But from a social science perspectives, we know the stories that people tell too and about themselves don’t necessarily reflect the underlying causal forces. The stuff that makes for good last words can help inform us about somebody’s ideology and beliefs, but to give credence to their grievances simply because of what they said just grants them that their ideology and beliefs accurately reflect how the world works.
This is not to say that understanding the political grievances of terrorists isn’t important, and Freedland likely goes too far in saying we should not ever try to understand motive. After all, just as it is erroneous to pretend that violent domestic backlash is some immutable law of policy to which our polities must remain in thrall, so too is to approach violence as some meaningless product of historical entropy. In reality these are human choices. It is folly to simplistically invoke the boogeyman of blowback when the vast majority of even radical objectors to government policies do not decide to hack people to death or gun down children at a youth camp. Yet it is also dangerous to be so dismiss the actions we often label blowback, even if we wish to delegate it as a problem to be managed rather than almost superstitiously avoided.
Understanding the moral justifications and narratives invoked in blowback arguments matter, just as studying any aspect of ideology would. We have to resist the temptation, however, of cherry-picking which parts of grievances we wish to use (the notion that blowback, radicalization, and the operationalization of preexisting grievances are not mutually exclusive).
The problem is, blowback emerged as a description after the fact, and made its way into policy arguments as more of a moral piety than as a concept with strong empirical content. Blowback now basically describes the malign consequences, overt or covert, of U.S. foreign policy, and in the sense described above, its violent ones.
Unfortunately, while illustrating history as Hosea 8:7 is useful rhetorically, understanding the mechanisms of blowback beyond the morally intuitive narrative is more difficult. Some enterprising scholars have made attempts to understand the mechanisms by which violence provokes counterproductive effects. As Jason Lyall pointed out in his unsettling study of Russian shelling of Chechen populations, even indiscriminate violence can result in suppression of violence from insurgent groups, with weak or negative correlations with casualties and property damage. There are naturally other examples. Despite a massive global Tamil diaspora and a long history of conflict, the massive, bloody Sri Lankan assault on Tamil Tiger strongholds in the 2000s saw the routine application of horrific force among and against civilian populations. However squalid a victory it might seem, and however strong the Tamil diaspora which contributed logistically to the fight, local and international blowback seems insignificant in comparison to the strength of Tamil militancy prior. This is not to say Sri Lanka’s victory was a flawless success for the implementing elite – but the validity of blowback as a disincentive depends, at least, on the reaction to violence invalidating the cost of implementing it.
When Kocher, Pepinsky, and Kalyvas followed up with their methodologically exacting, hamlet-level study of U.S. bombing in South Vietnam, they concluded that such brutal tactics did not always work, but offered an important potential explanation as to why selective targeting of civilians might work much better compared to indiscriminate targeting:
The critical distinction is that individuals cannot defect alone: in order reliably to protect themselves, they must overcome barriers to collective action in order to defeat the rebels who dominate their community or they require channels of influence that can be used to persuade insurgents to change tactics. If these requirements are met, indiscriminate violence may be an effective counterinsurgent method. Differences in the capacity for local collective action vis-`a-vis insurgents may help to account for the divergence of findings between our study and Lyall’s (2009) comparable and extremely careful microcomparative analysis of indiscriminate shelling by artillery in Chechnya, which he finds suppressed attacks by Chechen insurgents.
Understanding the social process by which communities and individuals respond to, and seek to inflict, violence is vital to understanding how conflict actually occurs. Not merely because there are important exceptions to the conventional wisdom that “indiscriminate force always begets more violence” (with differences in how much state violence qualifies for the threshold between many critics the advocates of population-centric COIN) that magnify our inability to understand conflicts where actors don’t behave according to our humanitarian preferences, but also to better understand conflict dynamics generally.
Take the example of Iraq at the height of its civil war. Although U.S. forces during the surge, whether as part of the forces focusing on what became the all-hailed model for counterinsurgency or the “industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine” at JSOC, certainly played a role, the role they played in forcing a somewhat viable settlement, let alone the degree of violence they inflicted, pales in comparison to the Sunni and Shia Iraqi combatants. As Douglas Ollivant and Stephen Melton argued, Sunnis reached a “threshold of casualties which convinces one side in a conflict that it has lost and that suing for peace is the only means of ensuring group survival.”
Just as indiscriminate or brutal selective violence can play into the aims of groups and individuals well-prepared and organized to exploit the effects of indiscriminate violence, it can shatter the ability or will of combatants to fight or of civilian populations to harbor and support them. To emphasize this is not to endorse the ugliest aspects of Iraq’s sectarian conflicts, but to recognize precisely why many key models of Iraq might prove insufficient or even counterproductive elsewhere. Many components of the Iraq Surge narrative, such as massively increasing troop levels, attempting to turn local militias, or unleashing high-tempo special operations raiding, have proven ineffectual or disastrous in other contexts. While counterinsurgency adages that pay heed to blowback do matter, to note when such a reaction does not occur (or significantly reduces, particularly when the scale and indiscriminate nature of the violence is so much more grave) forces us to reckon with the true costs of even seemingly successful operations.
Looking back at the individual level of decision, however, we must acknowledge that while blowback arguments often stem from empathy, they ignore a wide variety of motives conditioning people to enter combat, particularly when blowback arguments so commonly focus on the weaker side of a conflict. Because blowback mechanisms frequently rely on the cohesion of a retaliatory actor to exploit it, insurgent violence can often help mobilize counter-insurgent action, while brutal violence can effectively destroy insurgent groups’ ability to mobilize, denying them the opportunity to capitalize on the ill will the counter-insurgents earn.
Vengeance, so often cited in blowback-style arguments, often plays as great or a greater role in motivating paramilitary recruits and practicioners of state terror than guerrilla members, as populations friendly or otherwise agnostic to rebellion engage in government-sponsored vigilante activity (the economic rewards to such behavior are often more significant, since state-sponsored entities can more freely engage draw on state resources or state-sanction for economic ventures). Additionally, the defection of former insurgents or insurgent sympathizers is often due to non-ideological disputes, especially fratricide.
On the other hand, dedicated motivation for joining a guerrilla or terrorist organization requires a degree of conducive social engagement and ideological mobilization to build the individual will and unit cohesion to respond to state violence. As Kalyvas points out, a vital reason we see people joining guerrilla groups in the face of indiscriminate violence is that it raises the relative risk to civilians versus guerrillas, and that competent guerrilla organizations can actually make it safer to be a combatant than a civilian. If a militant organization can’t provide that level of feasible protection, especially if it doesn’t also offer economic incentives or capitalize on already-established ideological commitments.
At the end of the day, though, talking about these insurgent groups, although many may use terrorist tactics or earn the terrorist label for their affiliations, is a quantitatively and qualitatively different issue than assessing terrorist groups, and those still different from assessing the risk of homegrown terror. It is relatively easy to understand why violence helped mobilize military and paramilitary groups in, say, the Balkans. But what do we make of people like Breivik who also claimed inspiration from the NATO-afflicted “crusader” Serbs, which he described as “the straw which broke the camel’s back?”
Aside from the fringes of Islamophobic white nationalists and the increasingly rare pro-Moscow far leftists, you rarely hear much concern about domestic terror “blowback” from American involvement in the Balkans, even though Breivik’s obsession with Serbia’s perceived heroism in defense of the West is hardly unique in white nationalist circles. Even frequent opponents or skeptics of new interventions, such as myself, would be loathe to hold the specter of white nationalist terror over the heads of liberal interventionists as a reason to avoid war in the Balkans.
At the end of the day, the number of individuals inclined, capable, and ultimately willing to conduct the mostly lonely and futile task of conducting a domestic terror attack in the name of a foreign policy decision is not necessarily statistically significant – in Britain or the U.S. That such attacks – ignoring the morality of whether we should hold our policy decisions hostage to the potential of the angry and potentially homicidal – occur so infrequently should, for the same reason so many criticize our overreaction to terror threats, probably dismiss them as significant concerns. We don’t have much evidence to suggest that the terror most directly attributable to vengeance for U.S. wars is, in an absolute or statistically significant way, more numerous or more dangerous than terror undertaken out of political and ideological conviction or rational strategic choice, so if comparing domestic terror deaths to uncovered outdoor pools is enough reason to dismiss it as a valid argument in a decision as momentous as that between war and peace, then so too should we be skeptical of blowback terror coming home in the same debates?
None of this is to dismiss entirely the concept of blowback – only to suggest we need a more sophisticated and less polemical way of thinking about it. At the scale of insurgencies, we have a lot of evidence to understand why and how violence can provoke more violence in retaliation. Yet we should also recognize the primary costs of this violence are usually borne by civilians, and often enough contributes to the defeat rather than the triumph of insurgent groups. If our goal is simply to highlight unintended consequences, blowback is often too narrow in what it helpfully describes or useful in what we can predict from the mechanisms offers. Certainly when a concept can describe everything from a murder in London to a coup in Iran is clever rhetorically, but woefully insufficient for the weight we often give it in debates about policy. Particularly as the U.S. increasingly delegates the majority of violent action to allies and partners, and decreases its involvement in foreign conflicts generally, rectifying perceptions of blowback rooted in the Cold War era is a worthy task for those seeking to understand and limit the violence afflicting international politics.