Blowback, Boston, and the Lessons Learned for US Drone Strikes

While there are many elements of the response to the Boston Marathon bombing worth highlighting in relation to this blog’s ongoing coverage of drones and mainstream drone discourse, I would like to focus today on the UN rapporteur Richard Falk’s remarks about “blowback” and the subsequent response to his commentary.

Falk wrote an article on his blog a few days after the Boston Marathon bombing in which he challenged the “dominant reactions” found in mainstream political discourse. In particular, Falk was weary of the sort of reaction easily observed in the wake of 9/11, which he described as “holy wars fevers” in full embrace of Islamophobia. Instead, Falk strongly encouraged a meditative moment of self-scrutinizing in response to the bombing – for which he found hopeful signs in the immediate aftermath:

Listening to a PBS program hours after the Boston event, I was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers to the radio station: “it is horrible, but we in this country should not be too surprised, given our drone attacks that have killed women and children attending weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another caller asked “is this not a kind of retribution for torture inflicted by American security forces acting under the authority of the government, and verified for the world by pictures of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib?” And another asked, “in light of the authoritative reports of officially sanctioned torture as detailed in the 577 page report of a task force chaired by two former senators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, and containing senior military and security officials, has not the time come to apply the law to the wrongdoers during the Bush presidency”?

The Boston Marathon bombings were a fitting departure point for the rest of Falk’s discussion, as he then segued into a very general assessment of US foreign policy. Falk spoke of the “American global domination project” without much specifics – with the exception of US complicity in the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories [not surprising given his work at the UN on that topic]. Falk concluded his commentary with a remark that has since been adduced as evidence of his ostensible point that the US government is ultimately responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings: “We should be asking ourselves at this moment, how many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?”

Falk’s article has since generated a remarkable outpouring of hostility towards his rather common-sense observations. Admittedly, much of this hostility has to do with unforgivable misinterpretations of his commentary. For instance, in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, the Israeli defense group UN Watch accuses Falk of “justifying” the Boston Marathon bombings on the basis of US foreign policy and then “blaming the Boston bombings on the Jewish state.” It doesn’t take much more than a sober reading of Falk’s article to find that he makes no such assertions anywhere in the piece. For her part, Rice tweeted:

Falk has also drawn the ire of at least one Congressional representative – Mike Kelly (R-PA) – who has since circulated a letter to Moon and to Obama condemning Falk for his “despicable comments blaming the U.S. and Israel for the horrific Boston Marathon terrorist bombings.” The letter continues:

We condemn Falk for his offensive belief that the Boston attack was justified because “[t]he American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post- colonial world” and his suggestion that the U.S. may “experience worse blowbacks” if it does not “rethink [its] relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East.”

What’s remarkable in all of this, besides the fact that Falk never so much as hinted at these arguments, is that the surviving Tsarnaev brother, when confessing to his role in the bombing, made explicitly clear his motivations:

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has specifically cited the U.S. war in Iraq, which ended in December 2011 with the removal of the last American forces, and the war in Afghanistan, where President Obama plans to end combat operations by the end of 2014.

[Notice how desperately WaPo is trying to downplay these two horrendous events by describing them in terms of when they end(ed). A more realistic approach may be to describe the wars in terms of the tens of thousands of individuals killed or maimed, the millions of lives displaced and destroyed, and the total destruction of two nations.]

In light of this, what might account for this visceral rejection of the idea of blowback – itself a term coined by the CIA to describe the potential unintended consequences of their overthrow of elected Iranian prime minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh? What is it about US politicians and pundits that makes the idea of American culpability so anathema to our mainstream discourse? In his analysis of the “demonization” of Falk, Jeremy R. Hammond opines:

One is just not supposed to tell the public that U.S. foreign policy results in what intelligence analysts call “blowback”. This is a forbidden truth, reminiscent of the 2007 presidential debate when Rudy Giuliani condemned Ron Paul for making the completely uncontroversial statement that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” for U.S. foreign policy, to which Dr. Paul replied by standing firm and repeating the uncomfortable truth before the audience. It is a point that Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, Alec Station, has also made in a commentary on the Boston bombings published at Foreign Policy Journalin which he remarks that “it is blatantly obvious from the evidence the authorities have presented to date that the attackers were motivated by what the U.S. government does in the Muslim world”.

To add my own observations, I would contend that the fear of self-criticism stems from a deeply rooted insecurity about the truth of American policy as it pertains to the rest of the world. Politicians and their sycophantic cheerleaders in the mainstream media do whatever they can do maintain the illusion that America is a benevolent, graceful superpower policing the world and stopping injustice anywhere it can. It’s missteps and its blunders are always excusable as well-intentioned slip-ups. Meanwhile, the world at large is generally an unsafe place in which jealous enemies attack us because they are fundamentally evil and “hate our freedoms,” which in turn justifies the aforementioned global policing. Social psychologists define this as a fundamental attribution error – one which (coincidentally) serves the holders of power in this country remarkably well, and establishes an illusion that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It isn’t much of a leap to see how this argument relates to drones. Just last week, a Yemeni by the name of Farea al-Muslimi testified in front of Congress that whenever his friends and neighbours think of the US “they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads. What the violent militants had failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.” And in January, US General Stanley McChrystal and former top commander in Afghanistan told Reuters

“The resentment created [by drone strikes] is much greater than the average American appreciates…[drones add to] the perception of American arrogance that says, ‘We can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.”

If we cannot appreciate the candour of our critics, and insist on clinging blindly to self-delusions about the decent nature of the American state and its policies, what hope do our hapless victims in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have?

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