The Lesson of Blowback and 9/11

While the death count still seemed like it might number in the tens of thousands, a few people remembered to warn against a disproportionate reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Perhaps the oddest thing about these events which provoked two wars and a constant drone presence in myriad countries, is that even on that day – that week, that month – a few people rose above the terrified, vengeful fray. We have made one disastrous foreign policy decision after another since September 11. Yet many people in the US, particularly our leaders and pundits, still seem comfortable with the spirit of Richard Kagan’s 9/11 suggestion that "Congress, in fact, should immediately declare war. It does not have to name a country."

In many ways, in spite of the catastrophically late officially acceptable opinion that War in Iraq equals bad, and the unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, we’re still in that mindset. We (barring you, perhaps, Antiwar reader) still don’t quite buy that people in other countries are real and worthy of life. Not when the US is feeling persecuted, at least.

On September 12, published a piece by the late Harry Browne, writer and candidate for president with the Libertarian Party. It’s still a revelation to read, especially with that date. With none of the necessary coyness of of the mainstream politician or pundit, Browne noted that the victims of 9/11 were innocent, that the perpetrators were guilty, but that the crime should shock nobody. Browne asked: "When will we learn that we can’t allow our politicians to bully the world without someone bullying back eventually?" After that, Browne listed the interventions by the last several US presidents. Clinton with Sudan, Serbia, and Iraq, George H.W. Bush with Panama and Iraq, Reagan with Grenada and Libya.

By using the exact same word ("bullying") to allude to the US government’s crimes and that of the 9/11 hijackers, Browne was saying something you still can’t say – 9/11 was exactly as unacceptable as what the US has done to other nations. Not because these other nations, leaders, or even people are angels, as a warhawk might strawman. Not because you believe only the US can do bad. But because when you arrogantly intrude in other nations, and cause real people real, irreversible harm, they notice it. As Brown writes, "Did we think the people who lost their families and friends and property in all that destruction would love America for what happened?"

Blowback. The word that can never quite creep into mainstream discussions of war, and certainly not of 9/11. Brilliantly, hawks still keep up the facade that to say the US government helped to give us 9/11 is to somehow disrespect the victims of that tragedy. Why wouldn’t they? The biggest peacenik in the world cannot prove what the world might resemble if the US was noninterventionist. But the sensible dove need only point to what terrorists and their leaders actually say is the reason for their violence – need only know what human beings do when they are hurt by other human beings, no matter how religion or a dislike of women in bikinis is mixed in. All a dove, or a sensible person like Browne needs to know is that people are people all over the world; that they have their own resentments, no matter how much the US wishes that pretty philosophical founding documents and calling campaigns "Operation Iraqi Freedom" makes all the difference.

Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) plugged away in the background of national politics for many years before he clashed with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2007. "America’s mayor" grandstanding feebly in the face of Paul’s real, honest assessment of why 9/11 happened, and why people in the Middle East dislike America enough to attack it made the congressman into a cult figure.

Paul had been saying it for years, however. YouTube videos with breathless titles like "Ron Paul predicted 9/11 in 1998!" confirm this. He didn’t predict anything. He’s not a seer. He simply understood then, as he does now, that people in the Middle East are not clay figures to be shaped by the US, and may react angrily to being treated as such. He understood it on September 12, 2001, as well, when he suggested that letter of marque and reprisal against the terrorists be issued, because "we must be certain that only the guilty be punished."

There were a few others. My friend Jesse Walker, then and now an editor at Reason magazine, remembered to express caution and restraint on the day of 9/11, and to warn against an "unfocused war that would kill more innocent people. Walker, like Paul, suggested that "expert police work" was preferable to war. Again, this wild and crazy notion that a horrible thing like 9/11 should mean the perpetrators – and that is all – be punished.

Last week I wrote that we should not be too relaxed about the return of Dick Cheney (with mini Cheney in tow) to the political scene. Cheney’s alarming honesty about his desire for war may be unpopular at the moment. His ilk are not doing well. Thankfully, former UN Ambassador John Bolton is not running for president, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is barely a blip on presidential polls. But when one type of warmongering goes out of favor, another, subtler version creeps in. We think we learned from 9/11. We mostly didn’t. Blowback is an offensive concept to Republicans, and an ignored one to Democrats. The best we can hope for in a new president is constant drone war instead of a fresh invasion of Iran or somewhere similar.

Because in all our foreign affairs, from drone wars to failed negotiations with Iran, we still fail to realize that people in other nations – regardless of their alien culture or religion – are resentful and distrusting of America for good reason. That we would be angry if they did to us what we do to them.

We could have stopped our madness on September 12. Iran would still be wary of us. There’d still be a century of invasions, bombing campaigns, and CIA-assisted military coups that any would-be terrorist could point to as a motivation for their violence. But that could have been the day we said we will not make any new terrorists based on new foreign policy choices. The world would not have become perfect and peaceful based on that decision, but it would still have been the first step towards admitting a fact of human life the US denies daily: actions have consequences, coups lead to theocratic revolts, bombs lead to hijackings, and no matter how good we believe we are for the world, words don’t speak as loudly as war.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.