Media treatment of the term ‘blowback’, the concept that foreign policy has consequences that rebound on its perpetrators, illustrates a fundamental hypocrisy in ‘the mainstream’. It is fine for approved journalists and commentators to use the word when discussing terrorist attacks, actual or feared, here in the West. But abuse and vitriol will be heaped upon the heads of peace activists who dare broach the subject. They are smeared as ‘victim-blaming’.
Consider a few examples of the ‘approved’ discussion of blowback. In the runup to the Parliamentary vote in favour of dropping British bombs on Syria (see previous alert), an editorial in the Independent warned:
‘First among the qualms felt by the public will be the risk of “blowback” against Britain in the form of terrorist attacks in this country.’
The former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, told the BBC that if air strikes went ahead (as indeed they did):
‘the inevitable blowback on our streets will be severe.’
Last month, Dominic Lawson, far from your archetypal Stop the War dissident, warned in the Sunday Times:
‘When, 14 months ago, parliament voted to approve RAF activities against Isis in Iraq alone, this column noted that such activity risked blowback against citizens on British streets without having much military logic’. (‘We are not “at war” with the idiots of Isis, but France calls and we must respond’, Sunday Times, November 21, 2015)
In August 2014, an ‘analysis’ piece on the BBC News website noted that:
‘People dismissed the idea that the UK could be a target – until bombs exploded in London on 7 July 2005.
‘If, as the graffiti reads, some Brits in Syria regard their mission as pushing the frontier forward [i.e. towards the UK] – security chiefs fear it will only be a matter of time before that threat comes home.’
It is also perfectly acceptable in ‘the mainstream’ to write openly about the foreign policy of enemy states inviting blowback. Thus, the Guardian’s Iran correspondent recently wrote of the dangers of Iran’s ‘military engagement’ in Syria:
‘From the very start of the Syrian crisis, Iranians have been saying that the militants are being funded by the Wahabi regimes, and that they are extremist in nature and this will lead to blowback.’
And, of course, it is de rigeur for Western journalists to point to Russia suffering blowback for its bomb strikes in Syria. A month before jihadists seemingly brought down a Russian Metrojet full of tourists, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus had written a piece asking whether ‘Russia’s brutally pragmatic approach to the Syrian crisis’ might lead to ‘blowback for Russia’. But we did not see any articles from Marcus asking whether America or Britain’s ‘brutally pragmatic approach to the Syrian crisis’ might lead to blowback.
After the Russian Metrojet airliner was bombed, a Telegraph article asserted:
‘The need in Russia was to limit the idea that ordinary holiday-makers could have suffered blowback from President Vladimir Putin’s adventures in Syria.’
And a Guardian comment piece noted:
‘Putin knows that he is facing the blowback for Russia’s assertive, active involvement in Syria and that there may be more to come.’
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, it was even permissible for commentators in the ‘respectable’ media to suggest France had just suffered an example of blowback. Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror, wrote that:
‘it would be foolish to ignore the tragic blowback of foreign policy on domestic events.’
A Sunday Times article observed:
‘Fears of another Charlie Hebdo style incident have grown as France carried out airstrikes against Isis in Syria and Iraq – some targeting French citizens who had enrolled in the jihadists’ ranks.
‘”It was not a question of whether but of when,” said Nathalie Goulet, a conservative senator. “We knew that France would be hit. The only thing we didn’t know was where and when. Our services had been expecting something like this for a long time.”‘ (Matthew Campbell, ‘ “It was not whether but when” ‘, Sunday Times, 15 November, 2015)
Thou Shalt Not Say ‘Reaping The Whirlwind’
So it is fine for politicians and commentators in ‘the mainstream’ to talk of blowback. But when Stop the War published an article by US journalist Chris Floyd on its website, arguing that the Paris attacks were blowback for Western violence inflicted on the Middle East, the organisation was subjected to heavy flak and it took down the article. Titled, ‘Age of Despair: Reaping the Whirlwind of Western Support for Extremist Violence’, the article presented a reasoned argument:
‘Without the American crime of aggressive war against Iraq — which, by the measurements used by Western governments themselves, left more than a million innocent people dead — there would be no ISIS, no “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Without the Saudi and Western funding and arming of an amalgam of extremist Sunni groups across the Middle East, used as proxies to strike at Iran and its allies, there would be no ISIS. Let’s go back further. Without the direct, extensive and deliberate creation by the United States and its Saudi ally of a world-wide movement of armed Sunni extremists during the Carter and Reagan administrations (in order to draw the Soviets into a quagmire in Afghanistan), there would have been no “War on Terror” — and no terrorist attacks in Paris tonight.’
Floyd made clear that he deplored ‘the depravity displayed by the murderers of innocents in Paris tonight’. But the biblical phrase ‘reaping the whirlwind’ was ripped from the article, losing the vital context in which it was embedded, and flung with anger and vitriol around the internet. One title of a Daily Mail article shrieked:
‘Corbyn condemned as an apologist for terrorists by LABOUR MPs in row over “shoot to kill” and cause of Paris atrocity’. (Matt Chorley, Daily Mail, November 17, 2015)
Ian Austin, Labour MP for Dudley North said that those who agreed with Stop the War were:
‘not just absolving the terrorists of responsibility; they risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment which can develop into extremism and terrorism’.
Tristram Hunt, the former shadow education secretary, told the BBC Andrew Marr Show that Stop the War had recently made ‘pretty ugly comments’ including ‘about how the French almost had it coming to them.’ Stop the War were, he added, ‘a really disreputable organisation’ and he called on Jeremy Corbyn to pull out of their Christmas fundraising event held last Friday (Corbyn went ahead and attended).
During a meeting with Tory MPs, Prime Minister David Cameron called Jeremy Corbyn and his allies ‘terrorist sympathisers’; an appalling remark for which he refused to apologise, despite being challenged numerous times to do so in the House of Commons.
Floyd subsequently wrote about being exploited as a ‘political football’ by warmongers. He stated that he has no assocation with Stop the War and his article was republished without his knowledge or permission (which he said he would have given, if asked). His piece was:
‘used by Labour Blairites and Tory twits to bash Corbyn for the “sickening” article, which showed what an ungodly radical he really was.’
Floyd’s words had been:
‘egregiously mischaracterized not only by the giants of statesmanship in Parliament but also by the founts of savvy wisdom throughout the UK press’.
Thus, an article pointing out uncomfortable truths about the consequences of Western policy in the Middle East had been cynically exploited by politicians and journalists who have themselves, in many cases, cheerled or even orchestrated one Western bloodbath after another. Needless to say, there have been no calls from politicians and commentators to take down earlier, far more outrageous articles – in the Guardian, Daily Mail, The Times, Telegraph and elsewhere – recklessly calling for illegal and disastrous wars, resulting in huge death tolls and mass suffering. (For the record, this would be an act of censorship and one we would not support).
Recall that a report earlier this year by an international team of physicians presented ‘a comprehensive account of the vast and continuing human toll of the various “Wars on Terror” conducted in the name of the American people since the events of September 11, 2001.’ The West’s terrorism, routinely sold as ‘humanitarian intervention’, has killed around one million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan. This total of 1.3 million deaths does not even include casualties of Western-supported violence in other war zones, such as Yemen. Indeed, the authors stress that the death toll is a ‘conservative estimate’. As for the financial cost of these wars, that has been at least three trillion dollars. One might think all of this would weigh heavily on the consciences of the laptop bombardiers promoting Perpetual War who appear far more troubled by articles published on a small website run by Stop The War.
More recently, a second article was published, then removed, from the Stop the War website. Matt Carr, a fine and courageous writer, had caused outrage with a piece criticising Hilary Benn’s pro-bombing speech, titled ‘Mr Benn Goes Bombing’. Like Floyd, Carr has no affiliation whatever with Stop the War whose website simply picked up his blog piece and republished it.
Carr rightly condemned Islamic State or Daesh, stating clearly that:
‘it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated… it feeds off weak, wrecked, and wartorn societies which have imploded as a result of some of the same wars that “anti-fascists” like Benn once supported.’
Then came the words at the core of the second controversy:
‘Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.’
This was undoubtedly an ill-judged remark. To suggest, however obliquely, that Daesh, an extremely violent, crazed and oppressive movement, is in ‘solidarity with oppressed Muslims’ was foolish. (Carr later reiterated that he was talking about ‘the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh’, not Daesh itself). Moreover, predictably, there was outrage among many readers at the perceived, or cynically posited, ‘moral equivalence’ between the international jihadist movement and the International Brigades who fought General Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War.
However, the ferocity and ugliness of the response from so many politicians and commentators, notably the usual mouthpieces of neocon militarism, to a single comment from a low-profile blogger who is not even part of Stop the War, was deeply cynical. The Daily Mail published a nasty piece; horribly ironic, given its fascist-supporting past. The extremist right-wing newspaper dishonestly attributed Carr’s views to the ‘hard left pressure group’ Stop the War, saying that:
‘Now Corbyn’s friends compare ISIS to heroes who fought Franco’.
As ever, an opportunity to smear the new leader of the Labour Party was not squandered.
Following the largely manufactured media and political storm, Carr published an apology. He made this vital point:
‘I inadvertently provided ammunition to those who are seeking to use the Stop the War movement to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the movement itself. Such people will always use whatever they can find, and they have played the hand I gave them well.’
‘Orwell was hailed a hero for fighting in Spain. Today he’d be guilty of terrorism’.
Monbiot gave the example of a British suicide bomber in Syria:
‘Last week a British man who called himself Abu Suleiman al-Britani drove a truck full of explosives into the gate of Halab prison in Aleppo. The explosion, in which he died, allowed rebel fighters to swarm into the jail and release 300 prisoners. Was it terrorism or was it heroism? Terrorism, according to many commentators.’
The suicide bomber had carried out his attack ‘in the name of the al-Nusra Front, which the British government treats as synonymous with al-Qaida. But can anyone claim that liberating the inmates of Syrian government prisons is not a good thing?’ Monbiot even asked:
‘should we not be celebrating this act of extraordinary courage? Had David Cameron not lost the  intervention vote, and had al-Britani been fighting for the British army, he might have been awared a posthumous Victoria Cross.’
With what turned out to be horrible irony, spokesmen for the al-Nusra Front expressed their support for last month’s terrorist atrocities in Paris. There was zero ‘mainstream’ outrage following Monbiot’s article, then or now. But, of course, this is entirely predictable given that Monbiot’s article did not provide an opportunity for the ruling media and political classes to denigrate an anti-war group associated with a Labour leader who is viewed by them as a terrible threat.
Author Michael Rosen, referring to a Twitter message sent by Stop the War linking to Chris Floyd’s ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece, summed up powerfully:
‘when all this is put together by historians, will they say the converse of that whirlwind tweet? Will they say there was no connection whatsoever, not even the tiniest connection? Will they say that these terrorist groups had no connection whatsoever to the wars and interventions of the last 50 years or so? Will the historians say that the only way to understand these terror groups is to examine the sacred texts of Islam? The answer to it all lies in the books? Will they say that the big mistake the western powers made was to not bomb and kill more and more and more?’
On November 17, just four days after the Paris attacks, Noam Chomsky was asked how Europe should react. As part of his response, he said:
‘So what were the immediate causes? Well, we don’t know a lot but about the only information we have is the explanation given by ISIS; not only for these acts, but for the blowing-up of the Russian airplane, killing a couple of hundred people in the Sinai. Now they say, “Look, if you bomb us we’ll attack you.” Well, that’s probably the reason.’
Can we imagine any ‘mainstream’ journalist providing such a sane and rational analysis? Viewers would certainly never hear one of the correspondents on BBC News at Ten saying anything remotely like this; it is simply taboo. If corporate news media were capable of fair and impartial coverage, wouldn’t we hear such rational views from journalists at least some of the time? The silence is a shocking indicator of how the corporate media buries understanding, thus making future terrorist attacks more likely.
‘It Is The War Party That Has A Reputation Problem, Not Stop The War’
When Caroline Lucas, the Green MP and former leader of the party, resigned recently as a patron of Stop the War, it provided further media opportunities to heap pressure on the anti-war coalition. Her spokesperson said she was resigning because of her busy schedule and ‘in light of some recent StWC positions that she didn’t support’, adding:
‘Caroline was specifically troubled by some Stop the War Coalition statements after the Paris atrocities. Though the pieces were subsequently taken down she felt unable to associate herself with them.
‘She was also concerned that some Syrian voices were not given an opportunity to speak at a recent meeting organised by the StWC in Parliament.’
‘[email protected] Why on earth would you expect @STWuk to invite a pro-war group to speak at its meeting?’
Responding to the hostile media coverage about Syrians supposedly being denied an opportunity to speak at this meeting, Andrew Murray, chair of Stop the War, told the Guardian:
‘Well, in my opinion, a lot of this is just invented as a stick to beat Stop the War with. Of course Syrians have every right to a voice about what should happen in their country, including lobbying for our country to get involved. I don’t want to condemn any Syrian. But to have people on a platform, of whatever nationality, who are for bombing, when you’re trying to build a case against bombing, is really a bit counter-productive.’
It is certainly disappointing that Caroline Lucas has resigned her position at Stop the War, particularly at the present time when her support is so badly needed.
Meanwhile, prominent Greens Rupert Read and Darren Johnson were amongst signatories to a letter published in the Guardian attacking Stop the War for having ‘lost its moral compass and authority’ on Syria. Once again, it was effectively a call for more Western bombing in Syria.
As usual, the ‘impartial’ BBC didn’t disappoint. When BBC Newsnight discussed Stop the War on its December 8 programme, Newsnight political editor Allegra Stratton described Caroline Lucas as ‘a fellow traveller’ of Jeremy Corbyn – a pejorative term with overtones of McCarthyism that perfectly characterises the relentless media smearing of Stop the War. Lyndsey German, convenor of Stop the War, described the BBC programme as a ‘very feeble attack’ on the organisation.
Meanwhile, as some kind of pathetic jape, the Telegraph published a piece titled, ‘Who said it: Stop the War Coalition or Isil?’, introducing what was clearly meant as a fun quiz:
‘The anti-war campaign has been accused of being stridently anti-West. Can you tell its statements apart from those of murdering jihadis?’
We could have presented many more examples of anti-Stop the War and anti-Corbyn pieces in this media alert.
On December 9, Stop the War issued a strong 10-point response to the ongoing media and political attacks, saying that:
‘It is the war party that has a reputation problem, not Stop the War’,
‘This smear campaign is being pursued by MPs and journalists to discredit the anti-war case and champion the fourth war on a Muslim country in fourteen years.’
As Tariq Ali pointed out in an article in the Independent:
‘Since Corbyn is a founder member of Stop the War, the propaganda assault is essentially designed to weaken and destroy him.’
While this was welcome fare in the Independent, the supposedly progressive newspaper showed exactly where it stood when it published a ludicrous editorial titled, ‘Jeremy Corbyn should renounce the Stop the War Coalition’. It was riddled with appalling accusations: that Stop the War was now ‘extreme left’, that it was in ‘a de facto alliance with Bashar al-Assad’, and that it ‘has been evidently off kilter for some years now’.
‘Off kilter’? How so?
‘whether it be defending Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, or its annexation of Crimea, or its ongoing covert invasion of eastern Ukraine. Hard left is as hard left does; all too often that means support for Russian policy, never mind that the country is now run by a despot.’
The Independent’s editorial concluded that Corbyn has ‘good reason to step away from a group that has toxified the pacifist cause.’
In response to ugly attacks like this, the Stop the War Coalition published a clear rebuttal, in which they pointed out that:
‘The STWC has never supported the Assad regime. Just as we never supported the Taliban, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi. Only in the minds of “them or us” pretend patriots does the opposition to our own government’s wars mean support for dictators or terrorists. Our case has always been that war will worsen the problem and not solve it. We were right in that analysis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.’
Likewise, on December 12, John Rees, co-founder of Stop the War, demolished the arguments and smears made by Emma Reynolds, a pro-bombing Labour MP, in a BBC Radio 4 debate. It’s a must-listen clip.
Ending The Plague Of Terrorism
Last Saturday, the Guardian published a long interview with Stop the War chair Andrew Murray. This was, superficially at least, a more balanced challenge of the organisation in comparison to the Independent’s brazen attack (described above). But in classic Guardian fashion, similar charges were smuggled into the piece by its author, John Harris.
Without saying so explicitly, the group was cast as hard-left: it ‘draws most of its energy from elements well to the left of his [Corbyn’s] party’; and there were several mentions of the influence, and supposed early domination in Stop the War, of the ‘Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party’.
Harris described the two articles taken down from the Stop the War website – largely manufactured controversies, as we argued above – and then slipped in his own opinion that:
‘the whole episode highlighted one of the group’s apparent core beliefs: that such outrages [as the Paris attacks] can be wholly pinned to western foreign policy – and that if that policy changed, the threat from Isis and its ilk would recede to nothing… some people find that view crass, to say the least.’
That would indeed be crass, but Harris was attacking a strawman. The argument is not that blowback ‘can be wholly pinned to western foreign policy’; but that western foreign policy is clearly a significant factor. Confirmation of this comes, for example, from the statements about the invasion of Iraq made by the London bombers of July 7, 2005 – a point made by former London mayor Ken Livingstone, for which he has been vilified by right-wing media and politicians.
Chomsky provided a typically succinct and rational account of terrorism in a speech titled, ‘The Evil Scourge of Terrorism’, which he gave in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2010:
‘If we seriously want to end the plague of terrorism, we know how to do it. First, end our own role as perpetrators. That alone will have a substantial effect. Second, attend to the grievances that are typically in the background, and if they are legitimate, do something about them. Third, if an act of terror occurs, deal with it as a criminal act: identify and apprehend the suspects and carry out an honest judicial process. That actually works. In contrast, the techniques that are employed enhance the threat of terror.’
In the Guardian, Harris again laid bare his own interventionist leanings when he repeatedly called upon Murray to condemn Syria’s Assad:
‘I suggest that the Assad regime has to go, and ask Murray if he agrees. But he doesn’t directly answer the question. We bat the point around for a few minutes, before we arrive at the reason why: as a staunch anti-imperialist, he says it’s not his place to call for the toppling of regimes overseas: a strange position for an avowed internationalist, perhaps, but there we are.’
This is a classic trope underpinning the eternal case for war: a foreign regime is evil and it ‘has to go’; ‘something must be done’; ‘if you don’t condemn that regime’s crimes you are complicit in those crimes’; and on and on. Again, Chomsky provides a reasoned answer to such propaganda bullets. In a 2013 interview with the Financial Times, he told John McDermott:
‘ “Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.” He argues that any criticisms about, say, Chávez, will invariably get into the mainstream media, whereas those he makes about the US will go unreported. This unfair treatment is the dissident’s lot, according to Chomsky. Intellectuals like to think of themselves as iconoclasts, he says. “But you take a look through history and it’s the exact opposite. The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests.” ‘
It is more important than ever to counter the war-mongering rhetoric emanating from the usual state-corporate interests that demand Orwellian Perpetual War. In their increasingly desperate and cynical attacks on Stop the War and Jeremy Corbyn, elite hostility and panic are on clear public display.
DC and DE
If you decide to contact a journalist in response to our alert, please keep the tone civil. We do not condone abusive language.
Please forward any replies to us: