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Normalizing Blowback


“Blowback,” as the late Chalmers Johnson reminded us in his insightful book of the same title, was the CIA term for the unintended consequences of US foreign policies. More prosaically, Johnson translated this into reaping what one had sown. However, as he also acknowledged, most citizens of the United States were unable to discern the causal connections behind blowback, especially given their ignorance of the pervasive and malignant imperial matrix. As Johnson prophetically noted “only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us.”

Beyond remaining perplexed, most of the citizens of this country continue to remain oblivious to the imperial policies being perpetrated in their name even as they become further socialized into a repressive surveillance society. In the last decade, Washington has extended not only an imperial militarism that Johnson so brilliantly dissected in The Sorrows of Empire, but also expanded the military-industrial complex to include a security component. In effect, both the foreign and domestic policies of US Empire are normalizing blowback.

Such normalization derives from perpetual war abroad. These wars from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Yemen and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia do have economic connections to oil, natural gas, and where pipelines will be located and under whose aegis. In addition, the increasing privatization of the military also underscores the role of US transnational corporations, like Halliburton and Blackwater, who rely on what Naomi Klein has aptly labeled, “disaster capitalism.”

Yet, it is the Pentagon’s prosecution of these wars, both covert and overt, overseen by imperial presidents, that creates the inevitability of blowback. With Special Operations forces now operating in 75 countries around the world, is it any wonder that the seeds of blowback are being planted for future tragic harvests? With Generals like David Petraeus pursuing counter-insurgency tactics that inflame the local populations from Iraq to Afghanistan, these wars become both unwinnable and instigators of revenge. When the head of the US Central Command, Marine Corps General James Mattis brags about what “fun” it is to “shot some people,” the relatives, compatriots, and/or co-religionists of those people may want to find ways to harm the nation and its citizens that sponsors such military aggression.

While the flailing strategies of empire abroad incense millions, US citizens become even more entrapped and imprisoned in the military-industrial-security complex. Remembering, as William Appleman Williams asserted in Empire as a Way of Life, that empire “substitutes paranoid togetherness for community,” we see even more concerted efforts to institutionalize such paranoia. Hence, the most recent efforts by Homeland Security and the TSA to erode further any constitutional guarantees against unwarranted searches. It should come as no surprise that the present director of OSI, the parent company of Rapiscan, the corporation that makes the newly installed full body scanners, was previously a vice president at Lockheed Martin Marietta.

In addition to these institutional linkages between the military-industrial and expending security complex, there have been numerous stories on the business connections between the former Homeland Security head, Michael Chertoff, and Rapiscan. Certainly, there is massive financial incentive to manufacturing fear and paranoia in order to reap the rewards of exploiting blowback. However, what may be even more nefarious is the actual enabling of botched terror efforts in order to stampede the congress and a cowered electorate into adopting even more repressive security measures.

Consider what is still the unanswered question about how Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian crotch bomber, managed to get on a plane without a passport. According to key eyewitnesses, Kurt and Lori Haskell, Abdulmutallab was accompanied by an Indian-looking man at the Amsterdam airport who apparently expedited his passage on the plane to Detroit. With no real follow-up investigation of who this person was and with the Haskells receiving a threatening phone call to stop their public testimony about this incident, one may be excused for speculating about an OSI-Rapiscan connection. Given their financial stake in full-body scanners, it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that material interests may have had a hand in the badly executed plot.

If such speculation borders on a conspiracy theory, it behooves us to consider once again how corporate players like Halliburton and Blackwater have parlayed their associations with everyone from former VP Dick Cheney to the Pentagon to gain economic benefits from the Iraq War. Moreover, there have been numerous instances in the past where corporations, the military, and the political elite have manipulated policies to enhance their power. While a number of these instances were only proposed scenarios, such as the Joint Chiefs efforts to use manufactured incidents of domestic terror attributed to Fidel Castro; other instances, such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO to Nixon’s Plumbers, committed actual extra-legal terror.

As long as the strategies and tactics of those in power are either hidden behind the curtains of official secrecy or given additional credence by a complicit corporate media, most people in the US will be herded into a manufactured consent for war and repression. Invariably, normalizing blowback will continue until and unless there is continuous and massive resistance.

Francis Shor is the author of Dying Empire: US Imperialism and Global Resistance.  A website for the book can be found at


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