Christopher Hitchens and his pet retort: Both losers

[Final five paragraphs revised 10-15-07. Thanks be to OCD.]

How Hitchens Loves to Dismiss the Terror Blowback Effect

In crude terms, the “blowback” effect of U.S. policy describes how our more heavy-handed interventions abroad unintentionally create new state enemies and new, often retaliatory violence. Since 9/11, it has been suggested that our policies in the Middle East have “blown back” in the form of the very “terror” we are presently “war[ring]” against. In turn, and increasingly since the London bombings of 2007, the War on Terror (WOT) is cited as a cause of increased anti-Western terrorism around the world.

Left apostate Christopher Hitchens likes to dismiss this type of suggestion by saying it incorrectly “assumes that the root cause of terrorism is the resistance to it.” (This is something of a pet phrase for Hitchens; I heard him give it first on the Lara Ingraham radio show in 2005, in connection with the London bombings, and twice since. (A quick Google search yielded two more references: Ron Reagan show and Scarborough Country)). However, it is far from deserving of the air he gives it.


On the one hand, Hitchens’ dismissal carries the rhetorical force of a tautology: It appears to merely point out that effects follow causes and not the reverse. When Hitchens says this, then, the implication is that his opponent has stupidly violated this elementary logical principle—as though he has alleged something akin to “the cause of my lunch is the eating of it.” Of course, “resisting” a particular terrorist activity or current could never “cause terrorism” in the sense of going back in time and creating the very current to which it is a response. Such an idea is clearly absurd—but just as clearly not what Hitchens’ targets could be intending.

Barring this insane, “time-warp” interpretation, Hitchens’ retort could only be saying that resistance to terrorism could not possibly proceed in such a way as to create future instances of terror additional to the ones being responded to.

But clearly, this is either (1) false or (2) pointless:

(1) It is hardly a crazy idea to assume that one could resist a thing in ways that created more of that thing. Many people have died “resisting” kitchen fires by dousing them with oil, thereby accelerating the blaze. Would Hitchens dismiss the fire marshal’s warnings against this practice as foolishly “assum[ing] the cause of the blaze is the resisting of it”?

The example illustrates the failure of Hitchens’ pet phrase to distinguish between effective and ineffective forms of “resistance,” implying that just any old response to terrorism will be OK. But methods don’t magically become effective just because a person performs them in response to terrorism; that is, just because someone calls it “resistance” doesn’t mean it actually, effectively “resists” anything.

(2) The only way Hitchen’s point could be valid (and escape the insane, hyper-idealist implication that whatever we call things is what they are) is if he is defining “resistance” as “acts which successfully curb terror.” On this interpretation, Hitchens would be correct that “resisting terrorism” could never be the cause of (more) terrorism. But he gets this at the expense that his criticism becomes trivially true, true merely by definition, saying in essence: “Acts which succeed in curbing terror succeed in curbing terror.” (Well, duh.)

But defining “resistance” in positive terms, and identifying this with WOT, prevents Hitchens from having to actually catalogue and defend those alleged ways in which WOT curbs terror. That it curbs terror is just assumed by calling it “resistance” in the first place. In logician’s talk, Hitchens is begging the very question at issue.

Contra Hitchens: The War is Clearly Increasing Terror

But what about this question, then? Our chosen way of “resisting terrorism”—not the fact that we are resisting it, mind you, but this particular way of going about it, i.e., waging invasions and occupations of whole countries—is indeed multiplying terror:

(i) Terrorist attacks world-wide have spiked since Bush declared war on them. Our government admits this: According to the State Department’s Annual Terrorism Report, the total number of attacks in 2003 hit a 20-year high. This figure increased by more than another 300 per cent in 2004, going from 175 to 651 and killing 1,109 people. (The jump embarrassed the State Department into announcing it would no longer publish such stats in its annual report—when the data was needed more than ever.) The newest State Dept. report records a whopping 11,111 terrorist attacks in 2005, rising to 14,000 in 2006. These figures reflect the full-blown resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq, where nearly half of the incidents have occurred. (Attacks on coalition soldiers are excluded from the count.)

Just three days before the London subway attacks, the Sunday Times (UK) covered a British Home Office/Foreign Office report titled, Young Muslims and Extremism which—contrary to Blair’s public statements—identifies the Iraq war and foreign policy of Western nations toward Muslim ones “as a key cause of young Britons’ turning to terrorism.” Around the same time, no less than three additional studies emerged with parallel conclusions—a second from Britain (ex-military and -intel folks), one from the Saudi government, and one by an Israeli think tank. The last two confirm that some 95% of mujahideen captured or killed in Iraq are post-war recruits who had “never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq.” (The Pentagon predicted this trend as early as 2004 in a report, commissioned by Rumsfeld, declaring the war has increased support for al-Qaeda-like groups.) The latest National Intelligence Estimate details “the rejuvenating effect the Iraq war has had on al-Quaeda” and the increased likelihood of a major attack on the “homeland.”

Recall, pre-war Iraq was the only place in the region where the threat of Islamist terror was completely pacified. Saddam viewed fundamentalism as competition and had long before 9/11 crushed anyone who gave these beliefs political expression. The invasion dismantled and reversed this scenario.

(ii) The Afghanistan war plays its part as well: Nine months after the invasion, the New York Times reported, “Classified investigations of the al-Qaeda threat now underway at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States.” Rather, the war has “complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area.” The diaspora allowed mid-level al-Qaeda operatives to forge bonds with other Islamist groups in the region. These groups, hitherto focused on domestic political matters, were drawn into the world of terrorist networks opposing the United States—thus dramatically increasing the pool from which future terrorists would be drawn. According to one official, “Al-Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps. What we’re seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come.”

(iii) Al-Qaeda’s tactics have explicitly changed due to WOT. In truth, this enemy has not always been frothing to kill “Americans.” “Soft” terror targets, though easier and often containing more people, were passed over in the pre-war years. Instead, U.S. embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, the World Trade Center (which was never expected to kill so many the second time) and the Pentagon were selected. These targets took more preparation and were more dangerous (even suicidal) for the attackers to execute, but each had the symbolic value of representing American power. The New York Times reports that senior al-Qaeda members, angered by the Afghanistan war, met in Thailand in January, 2002, where they “decided to turn from embassies [etc.], which were becoming better protected, to so called soft targets like resorts and schools.” They promptly bombed a nightclub in Bali—a target of no symbolic significance but stuffed to the gills with American tourists.

(vi) Finally, an escalation in the terror we are supposed to be “resisting” is what one would expect from our own intelligence: Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 62, issued in 1998, acknowledged that our military predominance, and our “flexing” it, leads enemies (actual or potential) to turn to “asymmetrical warfare,” or terror attacks, as opposed to the traditional toe-to-toe fighting at which they cannot hope to compete: “America’s unrivaled military superiority means that potential enemies—whether nations or terrorist groups—that choose to attack us will be more likely to resort to terror instead of conventional military assault.” A few months before 9/11, Rumsfeld repeated the basic point in his Quadrennial Defense Review report to Congress.

Contra Hitchens II: Why They Fight (And Why We Don’t Have To)

Saying that our chosen means of “resistance” to terror breeds more terror actually understates the causal connection—precisely because the terrorist activity which we are “resisting” is itself a response to phenomena of a character similar to this same “resistance.” Bin Laden, for instance, has long made clear his grievances in interviews with Robert Fisk. Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror summarizes nicely the main Islamist concerns; to paraphrase:

  • U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Muslim Palestine
  • U.S. and other Western troops in every state of the Arabian peninsula
  • U.S. support for Russia, India, China, Phillipines and Uzbekistan against their Muslim populations and militants
  • U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low
  • U.S. military and economic sanctions on Muslim nations (sometimes through the U.N.): Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Somalia
  • U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and despotic Muslim governments (often a vehicle for the above concerns)
  • And now, via the WOT: U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; incarceration without trial of thousands of Muslims suspected of being mujahideen; pressure on Muslim governments to track, control and limit Muslim’s donations to charitable organizations; pressure on these governments to tailor school curricula to give a more pro-Western brand of Islam

In his Ingraham interview, Hitchens admits a couple of these as “root causes” of Islamic terror. But he includes others, like pop music, having nothing to do with foreign policy. We might call these “cultural” factors. Along these lines we could add sexy themes and imagery in Western media and the pursuit of materialistic “creature comforts.” This type of thing is what Bush, et. al., have in mind when they suggest the terrorists are motivated by hatred of our “freedoms” or “way of life” rather than foreign policy.

Hitchens prefers to stress the “cultural” aspects of the war with Islamism because it paints the conflict he champions as inevitable: We can’t end trash TV or no-fault divorce, so we have to fight those who would, maybe forever. It is correct that Muslim militants—with much of the Muslim world—would express objection to these more “cultural” phenomena of the West. But according to all of the evidence we have, they aren’t the reasons they leave their families to fight and die. Bin laden, of course, turned his guns from the Soviets to the Americans only when the latter set up shop in Saudi Arabia and made clear they weren’t leaving. Recalling the post-London studies, captured Mujahideen are very vocal about their motivations, and they cite foreign policy concerns uniformly.

Finally, to view “cultural” differences as the “root” problem overlooks the fact that for decades, anti-Western militancy in the Muslim world had a left-secular-nationalist flavor which took scant notice of the decadence, materialism and “freedom” of the West. The U.S. basically squashed this current without changing the policies that fed it: It destabilized or overthrew “Arab socialism” in Syria, Nasser’s Egypt, and Mossadeq’s Iran; supported, with Israel, the fundamentalist Hamas as a counter-weight to the secular PLO in Palestine; and the CIA even gave Saddam lists of suspected “reds” to torture and kill in the 1980’s. These policies left a vacuum for popular Muslim discontent which was filled by today’s reactionary religious forms.

All of this suggests that, not only are the “cultural” gripes of Muslim militants causally anterior to more “tangible” military and economic realities, the former are the expression or reflection of the latter. For an imperfect analogy: Islamists will include cultural concerns in their rhetoric in the same way a white man who is not normally overtly racist will use racial epithets when a black man cuts him off in traffic—though the traffic, and not the guy’s race, is the immediate grievance. He may be a closet racist, but he’s not cursing any and every black person that rides by, just the one that cuts him off. If he stopped being racist, he wouldn’t stop complaining about being cut off in traffic; he would just express it in another way—just as he does now when white people cut him off in traffic. (Maybe he calls them fat, or dumb, or simply the bad drivers they are.) His concern with race just “piggybacks” upon his concern with traffic. By analogy, ending pop music or sexy images by itself would no more curb Islamist militancy than ending racism would stop the angry white guy from road raging.

Lucky for us, what is driving the militancy of “the terrorists” are quite reasonable, morally compelling and technically solvable complaints. On this count and so many others, Hitchens—seriously—would rather be cute than right.


One response to “Christopher Hitchens and his pet retort: Both losers

  1. Pingback: The flaw in “racial profiling” for terrorists « amerikanbeat

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