The banality of the blowback ‘explanation’

May 24, 2013 at 7:31 am (Afghanistan, Clive Bradley, From the archives, Galloway, Guardian, iraq war, islamism, Jim D, Lindsey German, murder, national liberation, palestine, religion, Stop The War, SWP, terror)

Above: the explanation?

All too predicatably, the usual suspects have rushed to explain the Woolwich killing by means of the so-called ‘blowback‘ argument (utilised with varying degrees of obvious gloating). Comrade Clive dealt with this back in the immediate  aftermath of the 2005 7/7 bombings. Obviously, the 7/7 attacks were somewhat different to what happened in Woolwich (though it seems likely that the Woolwich perpetrators intended to commit ‘suicide by police’), but I think Clive’s essential case remains incontrovertible  – JD:

‘Blowback’: a banal non-explanation

Just a note on the ‘blowback’ argument, which is put a bit less crudely in today’s Guardian by Gary Younge. Whereas the SWP/Galloway version of this just ritually nods at condemnation of the bombings, Younge seems more sincere, ‘to explain is not to condone’, etc. And, of course, presented with a ‘war on terror’ which is supposed to reduce terrorist attacks against us, it is not unreasonable to point out that, so far, this has not succeeded (I think, logically, this argument only runs so far, since nobody has suggested that the ‘war on terror’ will prevent terrorism until it is actually won; but there is some rhetorical force to this point).

And of course, if you think of the Beslan massacre, for example: you simply cannot account for the background to these events without explaining about Russian action in Chechnya. Clearly, Chechen Islamists did not materialise from nowhere, and there is a context to their existence. The same is true of Islamists elsewhere. Or to put this another way: of course if there were no real grievances to which Islamists could point, they would not be able to recruit anybody. Hamas would not be able to recruit young people and tell them to tie explosives to their chests and climb aboard buses, if the Palestinians were not actually oppressed and suffering grave injustices at the hands of the Israeli state.

But if this is all that is being said, surely it is banal. I suppose there may be some right wing crazies who think Hamas has grown among Palestinians purely because Arabs are bloodthirsty masochists or somesuch nonsense. But obviously, Hamas refers to real things in the real world to build its base, or it wouldn’t have one.

And the observation that there are actual grievances to which Islamists point as a way to recruit (or even, conceivably, that it is these grievances which motivate particular individuals to carry out atrocities) tells you absolutely nothing about the political character of the movement to which they are being recruited.

Of course it’s true, up to a point, that that the London bombs are connected to the British presence in Iraq. But this in itself is not an explanation for them. So if the ambition is to ‘explain but not condone’, you need to explain why people are recruited to these organisations – ones that want to blow up ordinary people on their way to work – rather than other ones. That bombs have dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan (or Jenin, or wherever) simply is not an explanation.

It would not be an explanation even if the organisations in question were identifiably nationalist, as opposed to salafi-jihadist. There have been plenty of colonial situations in the past which have produced armed struggle but not bombings of this kind.

But in any case they are not nationalist in the old sense, but something different – something whose political programme is not concerned with this or that grievance (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) but with restoring the Caliphate, instituting sharia law, punishing apostates, and so on. Moreover – and this seems to me very important indeed – as far as the most extreme of these groups go, like the one presumably responsible for 7/7 – they are what can reasonably be called death cults. If the aim is explanation, then you need to tell us why this backward-looking death cult has prevailed over the old-style nationalists (not to mention more leftist movements – just to type the words tells you the fall of Stalinism has something to do with it), and so on.

And once you have identified the political character of these movements – what do you propose to do about it? We can withdraw from Iraq. But if you think withdrawal from Iraq will mean the jihadists will disappear from the Iraqi political landscape, I think you are deceiving yourself. There are much deeper social grievances which animate the militant Islamist movements, to do with the exclusion of the middle class from economic and political power, the decline of the old social classes, etc. Those social questions need to be addressed. And they need to be addressed by radical, democratic movements in those societies.

And, of course, Islamists – of all types – are the militant enemies of democratic movements and of democracy itself. Either you recognise the need to fight alongside democratic movements against the militant Islamists, in Iraq and elsewhere (including within Muslim communities here, of course) or…what? Even the more sophisticated blowback argument of the Gary Younge variety gives no sense of identifying the militant Islamists as our enemy – the enemy of socialists, of democrats, of feminists, of women in general, of lesbians and gay men, of trade unionists, and so on, both in the ‘Muslim world’ and on our doorstep. It criticises the method of fighting terror adopted by our governments, but as though there was simply no need to fight it at all.

Pt II: the inescapable logic is to ask you to have sympathy

I think the fact that it has turned out that the perpetrators (of 7/7 – JD) were British Asians throws a lot of this into very sharp relief.

Racism and imperialist wars, Fallujah and so on, of course must have played a part in what made these kids want to be suicide bombers. But since the vast, overwhelming, incalculably larger number of people who have been victims of racism or outraged by imperialist wars, have not chosen to become suicide bombers, it is surely an ‘explanation’ of their state of mind or their actions only in the most fantastically minimal sense. And that, surely, is another way of saying that it isn’t an explanation at all.

Yet these generalities are repeatedly presented in the liberal media – a stack of articles in the Guardian for instance – and by the SWP, George Galloway and all, as the explanation for what has happened. Moreover, anyone who questions this is ‘in denial’, as Gary Younge puts it, about the Iraq war. The ‘blowback’ argument is presented as if it’s the height of worldly sophistication, political courage, straight talking, and what have you. In fact it’s so simplistic as to verge on an insult to the intelligence.

Apart from that, its inescapable logic is to ask you to have sympathy with the bombers or their supposed cause, and to shift the blame to the government. I won’t repeat everything I’ve already said about that.

If you want an explanation about the first ever suicide bombers in the UK, you surely need to look at the ideology and MO of the type of organisations that recruited them, brainwashed them and sent them to their deaths. You need to look also, sadly, at the prevailing culture within (some) Muslim communities, the ‘narrative’ youth are being told, which might allow al-Qaeda-type groups to prey on them.

This is very uncomfortable, even to think about. But it seems to me it must be true that poisonous stuff has been coming out of some mosques, maybe not just the Abu Hamza-period Finsbury Park variety, but softer versions also.

And worse: the left is not only not in a state to do anything about this problem (ie: to fight al-Qaeda type groups and the softer versions of them), but has morphed into part of the problem. The left talks about these movements as if they didn’t need to be be fought and as if to fight them is ‘racist’, etc, etc, etc.


  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Firstly you have to put even the most horrific attacks in perspective.

    Contra the Guardian’s disgraceful front page headline we are still very safe – in statistical terms vastly more so than we were during the Northern Irish Troubles when bombs were set off in pubs, buses, crowded railway station concourses, parks etc and killed in even a relatively less bloody year more British people than the Islamists have slaughtered in the last 12 years.

    Idiot blowhard Fox anchor Sean Hannity immediately opined that the problem was that Brits being liberal pussies don’t all have guns – but of course in the US even counting the Oklahoma bombing and every other mainland US act of political mass murder as well the WTC the chance of one being shot or shooting oneself dead over the last 20 years or so due to their being more guns than people there is at least two orders of magnitude greater than their chance of dying from terrorism.

    And had these psychos not shouted Allahu Akbar and hung around afterwards to chat with bystanders, two young men stabbing another young man to death in a Woolwich Street would hardly have made the national papers at all – just as the 75 year old Pakistani murdered by presumably white racists a couple of weeks ago had no media impact,

    Indeed checking the dismal database of murders multiple young men have indeed been stabbed to death in that very area over the last 3 years without I would assume them making the national media at all.

    Secondly what is remarkable is that those ‘grievances’ are entirely abstract and in the strictest sense imaginary,

    Two young black men living in Britain have a great deal to be validly pissed off about but rather than the everyday racism and inequality they themselves experience are driven to murder by events in far away countries with which they have no link whatsoever other than the entirely imaginary one of having converted to the same religion as the inhabitants.

    Similarly two young Chechens living in exile have real Russian enemies who have killed many, many thousands of their fellows including in all probability members of their extended families – but rather than shooting a Russian diplomat or blowing up a consulate they kill random American civilians to revenge crimes committed in countries they likewise have no actual connection with,

    Islamists in France have murdered people in French provincial towns despite France having demonstratively played no part whatsoever in the liberation of Iraq (and done everything in its power to prevent it from happening at all) and despite the country having relatively cool relationships with Israel.

    And as for Palestine itself young men (and women) no longer blow themselves up in bus stations and discos and pizza restaurants because despite having very real and burning grievances that are not in the least imaginary they (or at least their political leaders) realise that this is no longer a cost-effective means of redressing them.

    So this is not (at least not now that there is no longer any real Dr Evil in a beard directing an actual global terror network) a real political phenomenon at all but a religiously induced psychosis affecting tiny numbers of young men in the West.

    Accordingly Islamist terror in the West should now be treated as a mental health problem and not a political one – the perpetrators are mad and evil and should be treated as such.

    I believe even naming and shaming (because nothing much else seems to happen to them) the odd fanatical Imam will make no real difference as the toxin which triggers that psychosis is already out there in books and on the internet.

    Islamism in those bleeding Huntingtonian frontier zones and in the Muslim world itself is another matter altogether and now al-Qaeda has been neutralised must be treated accordingly,

    • Hang on a minute... said,

      “And as for Palestine itself young men (and women) no longer blow themselves up in bus stations and discos and pizza restaurants because despite having very real and burning grievances that are not in the least imaginary they (or at least their political leaders) realise that this is no longer a cost-effective means of redressing them.”

      It would be marvellous if that were to any extent true; however they no longer blow themselves up in discos and pizza restaurants for one reason and one reason only – the wall which stops them getting into Israel without a search.

      People can pretend this is an “apartheid” wall or whatever bit of PA propaganda they would like to parrot, but the wall was put there purely to prevent suicide bombings. it worked.

      • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        Note that I said ‘cost-effective’.

        The wall is not 100% effective or even complete and does not make it impossible to infiltrate would be suicide bombers and the stuff they need to make themselves go bang into Israel from Gaza and the Occupied West Bank – but it makes it sufficiently difficult and dangerous that even the most ultra of the Jihadi factions no longer consider it to be a worthwhile use of their limited resources.

        So yes the wall does work but only because the Palestinians have real grievances and real organisations that are occasionally capable of rational decision-making.

        My point being that if the Palestinians were just so many atomised individual deluded religious fanatics like the Woolwich butchers that wall would be not a barrier but a positive opportunity for instant martyrdom – literally all they need to do is stand around taking potshots at a machine gun tower and they’d be in paradise within minutes.

        And perhaps we should also give the mainstream Palestinian factions some credit for eventually recognizing that possibly blowing up discos and restaurants and buses and markets is not the optimum way to win the world’s sympathy and has undoubtedly vastly strengthened the Right’s hold on the Jewish Israeli electorate.

  2. daniel said,

    The only statement in the article that would seem to ring true as far as the perpetrators are concerned,is death by police, as they waited and taunted for their demise.

    Why, their actions,they made that crystal clear.Will their deed further their cause possibly.One thing is for sure, the white fright with the aid capitalisms imperialist aided media, will ensure that they pick up a few new members.

  3. Jim Denham said,

    Good piece on ‘blowback’ in (of all places) today’s Graun by Jonathan Freedland:

    I wonder if Freedland has his Graun colleague Seamas “They can’t see why they are hated” Milne in mind?

  4. Andrew Coates said,

    Clive’s piece is good, as are Roger’s comments.

    I was struck by one detail in Roger’s argument.

    On France. I hope nobody was indecent enough at the time of the Toulouse murders to argue that the killing of Jewish children was the result of French foreign policy.

    Hold on, I bet there were some.

    Anyway my article asks (by way of turning the tables on the StWC) why doesn’t the British left back the Arab democratic left.

  5. Sue R said,

    Roger si quite right; it is shocking the number of young black men who have been murdered in South East London and my own neck of the woods, Edmonton. All by other young black men and usually gang or drug related. However, can Roger not see the difference between stickign a blade between someone’s ribs and knocking them down in a car, dragging their body into the middle of the road and hacking of their head. I suppose you only die once and it may not matter an awful lot how you die, being decapitated is at least quick.

    Just read Chris Dillow’s site in which he asks why this murder is considered a terrorist one. I guess it’s because the perpetrators said it was. Or don’t black men know their own minds? Are they too stupid to form a political idea? The whole liberal media is out in damage limittion mode. To be honest, I don’t really know many ‘ordinary’ people but I imagine with what’s going on in the Middle East, people aren’t buying it.

    Another thing that riles me is that Muslims constantly say ‘I’m not my brother’s keeper’ when challenged about injustices in Islamic countries, and yet, they are the first to scream about percieved infringements of their God given rights.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      I didn’t say that it was young black men exclusively who get stabbed in that corner of SE London checking that dismal database of murders I llnked to you also get a 54 year old Asian stabbed to death leaving his business and one or two elderly victims of what sound like burglaries gone wrong.

      And my niece who goes to university in that neck of the woods tells me of several fellow students she knows of who have been stabbed non fatally just since October largely for mouthing off in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      Look at other areas with different ethnic breakdowns and you’ll see dead young white men predominate in the record of stupid and futile deaths from stabbings.

      There are quite simply areas of the country where young men of different races routinely carry around knives and use them in arguments where previously fists or whatever blunt objects might be around would have been used.

      And the media (and for that matter most of the left) have next to no interest in those incidents are they are poor-on-poor crimes.

  6. Sue R said,

    Interestingly, there is a connection with another infamous South London murder, tht of Damilola Taylor. Apparently Damilola’s father was mentoring the younger creature, Adebolowa, although he says that in the last few months there had been problems with drugs and gangs. Not surprised. Predators can always pick their prey. It’s how they survive.

  7. Rosie said,

    Good piece, Clive. As you say, the blowbackers move from “western foreign policy” to “act of terrorism” (even “understandable act of terrorism”) in one easy step without ever lingering on the ideology the terrorists are buying into. In fact, the blowbackers even seem to think there’s merit in a new map of the world which shows an area called “Muslim lands”. It’s a kind of amorphous nationalism and a gruesome parody of international socialism.

    @ Roger – good comment but I do disagree with this point:-
    “Accordingly Islamist terror in the West should now be treated as a mental health problem and not a political one – the perpetrators are mad and evil and should be treated as such.”

    I don’t agree with that. Terroristic atrocities are called “mad” but it’s not as if the Woolwich guy heard voices in his head. During wars and revolutions atrocities are commonplace from people who are mentally sound. Anyone who has been on a protest will remember some guy who did something dangerous eg jumping in front of a Ministry of Defence lorry. You’d call it “mental” in slang terms, not suggesting that the guy actually needed treatment. Islamism or jihadism or whatever you call it has a more violent modus operandi than a CND demo. The banners they carry call for death and violence, so the person who is a bit more out of control will do something far more aggressive than a scuffling demonstrator.

    A young bloke who has got involved with a movement and is full of grandiose romantic impulses will do something showy eg spray a slogan on a motorway bridge. In jihadist terms, the best graffiti is someone’s blood.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Of course I overstated it somewhat because well having to react to people’s heads being sawn off in broad daylight is not hugely conducive to reasoned and nuanced argument.

      But actually in a sense those young men did hear a voice in their heads telling them to kill, kill and kill again and seem to have literally got down on their knees and engaged in lengthy conversations five times a day with the imaginary being from which they emanated.

      Now it would have been nice if they’d instead heard that Koranic verse (actually borrowed from the Talmud) about how killing a single person murders the whole world and all those other nice things that a large majority of their fellows believe.

      But any mass belief system – even and especially our own with all its Stalins and Maos and Berias – will attract murderous and hate-filled individuals as well as saintly or just ordinary ones.

      Thus my use of the term ‘religiously-induced psychosis’ as a specific condition that in a decent world (i.e. one we don’t and never will be allowed to live in) would be treated accordingly.

      I don’t know if I’ve recommended it down here before but you might enjoy Ken McLeod’s The Night Sessions which is a somewhat Rebus-like novel set in a near future Edinburgh where organised religion only exists under close police surveillance (by a God Squad no less) precisely due to its adherents finally going too far with the head choppings and suicide bombings and homophobia and misogyny.

      Of course that is the most utopian fantasy but does at at least name the real problem: fundamentalist religions whose followers are indeed mostly harmless (and often wonderful people filled with the milk of human kindness) but which by their very nature are also all too capable of turning any mere lost soul into a terrifying apparition standing in a London street with his hands literally red with blood ranting into someone else’s camera phone,

      And its not just Islamism which is the problem – at this moment there may be some yarmulked fanatic shouting abuse at protesters outside some West Bank settlement which his God told him was his land and not that of the people who’ve lived there for two thousand years, a dignified bearded Hasid hissing disapproval at a woman for being improperly dressed, a Westboro Baptist waving his God Hate Fags placard at some funeral or other, a Republican Congressman finding in his Bible yet another argument to make the rich richer and the rest of our lives more miserable and dangerous, a Sudanese or Egyptian or Somali woman (who are not all Muslim BTW the custom being as or more embedded in Coptic and animist communities) preparing to carve out her grand-daughters clitoris with a rusty knife, a Hindu Sadhu or Buddhist Bhikkhu preaching pogroms against Muslim and Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu) minorities….

      It goes on and on and on and will do so as long as fundamentalist religions are allowed to poison fragile and credulous minds.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    By the way, I see that over at the Graun’s ‘Comment Is Free’, no comments are allowed on Freedland’s piece, having been ” removed for legal reasons.” In fact, I’m fairly sure that comments on the piece were closed from the start. Has anyone any idea why this should be, and has it ever happened before at ‘CIF’?

    • Rosie said,

      My guess is that they might have to stick the word “alleged” in front of any mention of the perpetrators, who haven’t been convicted yet.

      Facetiously, they know there’s going to be so much moderation that the mods will be doing double shifts into the Bank Holiday, and will be demanding double time.

      Also, WordPress keeps swallowing my comments. Then when I repeat the comment, it tells me I’ve done a duplicate comment. I have to change my details and then go and edit as an administrator. Has anyone come across that? It’s very frustrating.

      • Rosie said,

        It didn’t do it this time. Anyone else had that problem though – of swallowed comments on WordPress?

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Nick Cohen’s piece today is also sans comments.

      Which is actually something of a relief.

  9. Jim Denham said,

    I wish I could help Rosie, but the inner workings of WordPress are a complete mystery to me.

  10. Rosie said,

    Re the comments being closed – have the guys even been charged as yet? Last time I heard the police were waiting until they had recovered to enough to have their rights read to them. So they’re not even “alleged” as yet, are they?

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