2015-01-23

On "Blowback"

David Henderson has an interesting blog post at EconLog, in which he responds to another EconLog post, by Bryan Caplan. Henderson ties Caplan's point to a few other recent articles. Those articles, along with both EconLog posts, all grapple with the search for meaning in the Charlie Hebdo murders.

Henderson's post concludes as follows (emphasis added for clarity to distinguish embedded quotation):
Do I know that the Paris attacks were blowback? I do not. Nor do Ron Paul or Justin Raimondo. Does Shihka Dalmia know that they were not blowback? She does not. We simply don't have enough evidence. 
Bryan writes:
But the overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Serious thinkers don't base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow.
Each of those statements is correct. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't also ponder recent events and try to extract the information from them that we can.
I first encountered Caplan's point about "recent events" in the book Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I would not be surprised if that were a major influence on Caplan's point, as they are made in such similar ways.

I think one way to view "recent events" is to wait long enough to know whether the particular "recent event" in question will meaningfully shape history. Many years later, we now know that the 9/11 attacks were not merely "recent events," but cataclysmic ones. We do not yet know whether the Charlie Hebdo murders will have any impact on history. I already strongly doubt the Boston Marathon bombing will be remembered by those who were not there in a few years. Already the "shoe bomber" is less than a footnote in history, and I suspect in five years or less most people will not remember why we take our shoes off at airports.

Now, in hindsight, it is easy to make the point that 9/11 was an example of "blowback" from US foreign policy. However, it is virtually impossible to make a convincing case that the shoe bomber, specifically, is an example of blow-back. Only time can tell whether we can say the same about the Charlie Hebdo murders, but given the public's general amnesia about these things, I doubt it.

None of this means that "blowback" doesn't occur, of course.