TCS Daily


Another Kind of Blowback

By Jon Haber - September 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Terrorists choose as their soft target a school containing dozens of children. After demonstrating that they mean business by killing a security guard and murdering several students, they proceed to hold the rest of the school hostage. In the midst of negotiations, a rescue mission manages to kill all of the terrorists, but only after the hostage takers shoot dead many of their young captives.

The year is 1974 and the place is Maalot in northern Israel. If this historic event has a grisly resonance after last week's massacre in Beslan Russia, it also provides a lesson on the potential for political and moral "blowback" in today's Age of Terror.

Blowback (technically the phenomenon of unspent gunpowder being ejected backwards towards the shooter after firing a gun), has taken on new life as a term describing the unintended consequences of political action. Most frequently (as in Chalmers Johnson's "Blowback": The Cost and Consequences of American Empire), the word is reserved for the unexpected results of American covert activity, such as our arming of Muslim warlords during the Afghan-Soviet war leading to postwar catastrophe in Afghanistan. While a useful lens in which to view the long-term effects of controversial political decisions, blowback has also become a shorthand way of jumping to unsupported (and often pre-decided) conclusions such as America having "created" Bin Laden and even Saddam Hussein.

Despite its misuse, the concept of blowback provides insight into not just the recent atrocity in Russia, but also the dark path that led us to our present state of political and moral affairs.

Nineteen seventy four, the year in which 21 students were butchered by their Palestinian captors, was also the year in which Yassir Arafat was brought to the United Nations as the first non head of state to formally address the General Assembly. Indeed, as the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent Arab oil embargo enriched the Middle East, that power was used to put the PLO at center stage of world affairs. Ironically, 1974 was also the year that the Soviet Union forged close ties with Arafat, inaugurating a Moscow office for the PLO that remains open today just a few hundred miles from the site of Russia's recent Maalot.

While participation in a schoolyard massacre should have put a political movement beyond the pale of human affairs, Maalot and the subsequent aggrandizement of the PLO demonstrates that the world was ready to reward handsomely, rather than punish, such behavior. It was a lesson well learned in the Middle East and elsewhere where political power and influence was the reward to those who demonstrated the greatest level of depravity.

In the thirty years since Maalot, the Arab-Israeli conflict has become a test lab for a concept the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan described as "defining deviancy down." While the late senator used the phrase to show the path to decay of American moral culture, the notion is even more apt in summing up the road to the current nihilism traveling under the guise of religious and political action commonly termed "jihad."

As Israel became the proving ground for new techniques such as butchering schoolchildren, hijacking planes and suicide bombing, those methods instantly became tolerable (or at least impossible to condemn without significant qualification) since, by definition, the Palestinian cause was considered just, so any action taken, no matter how vile, must be justified as an act of "desperation" or "despair." As the ratcheting up of political thuggery led to one reward after another for the Palestinians, tyrants and would-be tyrants looked on and took careful notes.

As Daniel Pipes recently pointed out, the framework of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has robbed the media of the ability to describe even a slaughter as horrific as Beslan as a "terrorist" attack. Indeed, the blowback of the world's moral failing to call the Arab onslaught against Israeli civilians by its proper name and take appropriate action has provided a host of unintended consequences, from the charred ruins of a Bali discotheque, to hundreds of dead schoolchildren in Beslan, to the hole in the ground in downtown New York where America learned first hand that the genie was out of the bottle.

Jon Haber is a frequent TCS contributor who recently wrote about the return of the exploitation flick.


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