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The Irony of Blowback

The term “blowback” was originally used by intelligence services to describe violent, unintended consequences of covert operations. A big example of this was the CIA financing and training insurgents in Afghanistan to fight a guerrilla war against the USSR, who then turned around and joined al-Qaeda. Indeed, Osama bin Laden himself was one of those insurgents trained by the CIA.

But the term blowback is increasingly being used to describe any unintended consequences of political or social action, especially one that has the opposite of the intended effect. And right now, we have a number of interesting and downright counter-intuitive examples of this:

  • Torturing our enemies to gain information (to keep us safe) became one of the strongest recruiting tools of those same enemies, making us far less safe.
  • According to new research, as religious groups have become more socially and politically active, younger Americans have abandoned organized religion, because they view it as a source of intolerance, rigidity, and doctrinaire political views. So the drive to make religion more powerful has instead weakened it.
  • Media overreaction to the threat of the swine flu caused people to take precautions that were out of proportion to the actual threat (such as staying home from school or work, avoiding subways, airplanes, and sporting events, and wearing masks), which limited the spread of the flu. If we hadn’t overreacted, then it likely would have been much worse. But that doesn’t stop people from making fun of the people who overreacted.
  • In 2001, Portugal decriminalized personal possession of illicit drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. At the time, Portugal had some of the highest rates of hard drug use in Europe. Since then, drug use has dropped significantly and is now among the lowest in Europe. At the same time the US was instituting some of the harshest anti-drug laws in the world, and now has the highest usage rates in the world.
  • And my favorite is that having a strongly “pro-business” government that removes regulations and subsidizes big businesses, seems to actually hurt business, leading to business failures, deficits, and recessions. It seems like business needs some of that tough love to do well. Or maybe it is just that when everyone is looking out only for themselves, then everyone suffers.

I’m sure you can come up with other examples of this.



  1. Fractal wrote:

    It’s not that they ever wanted to “make us safe.”

    they just needed fodder for the military industrial complex… good fodder for the next 5 decades..

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  2. Daniel wrote:

    It is a great and grand and immortal law of the universe that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Comprehend it. Understand it. Believe it.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  3. Sammy wrote:

    I think most people did NOT overreact to the swine flu “epidemic”. I think the MEDIA overreacted. I think in the big picture, there were very few people who actually stayed home from work and/or school.

    But we do live in a 1440 minute news cycle, so I guess they had to talk about something every minute of the day.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  4. starluna wrote:

    Sammy is right. Most people are being very reasonable about the whole thing. The media went way overboard on the pandemic message. This swine flu is a pandemic by public health standards, but certainly not something that rose beyond some common sense precautions. Those of us who work in public health, and certainly my friends at the state lab, would have preferred that the media stick to the message that all people need to do is wash their hands frequently and stay home if they are sick.

    Unfortunately the few who are unreasonable are big headache. My best friend is an epidemiologist the state department of pubic health. At my house warming party this past Saturday, she spent the entire time in my office dealing with calls about swine flu. A couple of days ago, staff members from the state lab told me that they received calls from people demanding to know the names of people in their town who were diagnosed with the swine flu. These callers apparently argued that they have a “right” to know. This is a total overreaction caused entirely by the media’s framing of the problem.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Iron Knee wrote:

    You guys make good points. When I originally wrote that, I was thinking of the “overreaction” as mainly being in the media, but then I thought that it wasn’t just the media. But that was a big contributing factor, so I changed the text slightly to emphasize that.

    (You guys never give me a break!)

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 12:20 am | Permalink
  6. Iron Knee: you would want us to give you a break? đŸ˜‰

    Starluna, don’t get me started on hand-washing. When I was teaching (just quit the job less then a week ago), I would get sick with every stack of papers I received.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink
  7. starluna wrote:

    Thought dancer – I feel your pain. I think schools need to start showing those films that we all grew up with that showed people how to wash their hands. My husband who also teaches at a college keeps sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer with him at all times. I swear I caught a whiff of Lysol spray on the last batch of papers he was grading the other night.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Starluna. I feel his pain, and I wish him sanity and speed while grading. I just couldn’t take it any more.
    So here’s to the joys of being in the ranks of the newly unemployed (again).

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink