Dirty Bombs, Blowback, and Imperial Projections

by Fran Shor

June 12, 2002



In an effort to maintain its media blitz to scare US citizens into accepting a developing police state and to bury all the emerging evidence of its own criminal negligence in 9/11, the Bush Administration has unveiled an alleged al-Qaeda agent who plotted to unleash a “dirty bomb” on US soil. Although arrested on May 8 on his return to Chicago from Pakistan, an American citizen, Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah al-Mujahir, is now languishing as an “enemy combatant” in a military prison in South Carolina. While the allegations about Padilla/al-Mujahir’s connections to al-Qaeda and the “dirty bomb” plot are yet to be proved, the timing and story about the plot and the plotter raise important questions about the present motivations of the Bush Administration and US government’s policies in the past and future.


This is not the first time that the Bush Administration has made allegations about al-Qaeda’s dirty bombs. All during the campaign in Afghanistan, there were periodic announcements about finding plans and materials stored away in al-Qaeda caves that could be preparations for radiological weapons. Of course, at the same time that the US military was making its subterranean searches, it was launching its own radiological weapons against these underground bunkers. In turn, the Bush Administration was pushing ahead with plans to develop low-yield nuclear “bunker busters.”


To better locate the actual deployment of such dirty radiological weapons, one should go back to the first Bush Administration (the elected one). During the Gulf War, the Pentagon unleashed massive amounts of depleted uranium (DU). According to Professor Doug Rokke, ex-director of the Pentagon’s Depleted-Uranium Project, “numerous US Department of Defense reports have stated that the consequences of DU were unknown. That is a lie. They were told. They were warned.” Furthermore, Rokke’s assessment of the consequences of DU, consequences that are part of the astronomical increase in varieties of cancers among Iraqi children, provides chilling evidence of the lethal impact of depleted uranium: “DU is the stuff of nightmares. It is toxic, radioactive and pollutes for 4500 million years. It causes lymphoma, neuro-psychotic disorders and short-term memory damage. In semen, it causes birth defects and trashes the immune system.”


Now, against this dire diagnosis of the effects of real radiological weapons used time and again by the Pentagon, we have the fantasies of a possible plot of maybe one “dirty bomb” in one US city. If this fantastic and paranoid projection of an al-Qaeda bomb plot doesn’t sound like John Ashcroft’s attempt to capitalize on the cinematic success of another paranoid projection - “The Sum of All Fears” - then we’re not paying attention to how life imitates art. Or, in this case, how imperial policies produce imperial projections and paranoia.


Just as there has been a concerted effort to cover-up the use and effects of the Pentagon’s radiological “dirty bombs,” so there is a denial of the “blowback” of US imperial policies, from the early CIA support of bin Laden to the continuing tragedies visited upon the Afghani people. It is such continuing tragedies involving civilians deaths that were reported in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times. One Afghani who had lost his wife, mother, and seven children in a US bombing run of his village, lamented: “I put a curse on the Americans who did this. I pray they will have the tragedy in their lives that I have had in mine.” What more poignant and bitter reminder that blowback is, in the words of Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, “another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows. Although people usually know what they have sown, our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much of what the managers of the American empire have sown has been kept secret (17).”


Of course, keeping secrets is what is essential to the Bush Administration in its prosecution of unending war and rampant repression. Undoubtedly, the management of the American empire under the Bush Administration has taken on a more sinister tone and global arrogance and unilateralism than preceding Administrations. On the other hand, there has been an imperial thread throughout the history of the nation. One can cite evidence for this imperial operation from the 19th century Mexican-American war to US intervention in the Philippines at the turn of the century through all of the CIA interventions in the cold war period from Iran to Guatemala. It is no coincidence that in the proposal for the creation of a Homeland Security Department Bush would recall the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 and the establishment of the CIA.


Just as the CIA’s task was to preempt through dirty tricks and political machinations any possible “threat” to the economic and political hegemony of the US empire, so now the Bush Administration is seeking ways to launch a renewed lethal CIA and military for preemptive strikes against the shadowy traces of al-Qaeda and any projection fostered by blowback. The deliberate creation, thus, of fear and insecurity is as central to this Administration as it was during the McCarthy era. As incisively noted by Mansour Farhang in his book on US Imperialism: From the Spanish-American War to the Iranian Revolution: “It seems to be in the nature of imperialism to fear everything that is not subject to its influence. This fear, which has always been present in the imperialist countries, has a functional value for the state. Without continuing insecurity and fear in the public, imperialism as a form of government cannot be maintained and rationalized (69).”


So, we return to the threats of an al-Qaeda “dirty bomb,” produced by a former Latino gang member converted to Islamic fundamentalism in prison. Is this not a form of domestic blowback: the neglect and continuing disrespect of the poor in America’s inner cities, especially among people of color? Are they not a time bomb waiting to explode after further deprivations and outrages, whether in the form of police brutality or “benign neglect”?


And what of all scare tactics surrounding the launching of a possible dirty bomb in a US city? Again, in the face of the real devastation of the Pentagon’s use of radiological weapons, we have the paranoid projections of the “dirty bomb.” While not beyond the murderous intent of al-Qaeda operatives, the whole operation is blown way out of proportion. Even the potential massive damage of such an al-Qaeda dirty bomb is dismissed by Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control: “I think the risk of a radiological bomb (ala al-Qaeda) is vastly overestimated. It’s a problem of physics and you have to work back from the condition you are trying to produce, which is to contaminate a substantial area with high radioactive doses.”


What is evident from the fallout of the dirty bomb plot is that the Bush Administration’s own self-serving imperial projections are continuing to contaminate the landscape at home and abroad. As the Bush managers of the US empire plot to use more of their own dirty bombs in Iraq and any number of 60 countries that are now part of potential hit list, they need to raise the fear and paranoia level to match their own grandiose schemes. We need to be alert to such political and psychological manipulation from such a sick mindset. Perhaps it is best to remember the diagnosis by psychologist Joel Kovel in his book, Against the State of Nuclear Terror: “Paranoia creates enemies out of inner need. Its suspiciousness provides an omnipresent climate of vulnerability. Sensing hatred everywhere, it sees the world as a constant threat. At the same time, grandiosity reaches into the world, sure of its invulnerability, and materializes the threat in order to destroy it. This is not true defense against a real aggressor. It is paranoid defense against an aggressor once must create, because responsibility for history cannot be faced (82-3).”


Fran Shor teaches at Wayne State University. He is an anti-war activist and member of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. Email: f.shor@wayne.edu