On Bullshit - that British foreign policy causes terrorist attacks

The idea that British foreign policy somehow caused Salman Abedi to go and kill children in Manchester is so stupid that on one level it seems offensive to even discuss it.

Yet this idea is strongly present in our public life, promoted by Islamist organisations like CAGE and recycled by countless left-wingers, including – in diluted form – by Jeremy Corbyn in a speech he is to deliver today.

As Corbyn will put it, “That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions.”

It is a fair point to make that there is a difference between causation and blame. That basic distinction applies also to immigration, for which we can say runaway housing costs and pressure on public services are partly caused by increased numbers of people but this does not mean that incomers are in any way to blame.

The trouble is politically, whereby figures like Corbyn highlighting this link feeds into a widespread narrative that takes foreign policy is the cause, a single cause, rather than a contributing, motivating aspect (or excuse) in some cases. Coupling this with saying that attacks like Manchester are ‘nothing to do with Islam’, you end up with a situation in which terrorists’ religious justifications for doing what they do are discounted, except as a form of determinism, of provocation and response. Their agency is pushed to the margins in favour of an account of causation in which Britain or the West or non-Muslims always appear as subject while Muslims are objects simply doing what the subject causes them to do.

This explanation is a negation of morality and ethics. It also barely qualifies as a truth claim. Indeed, it seems to me that addressing the truth isn’t the point to it. The 'foreign policy' explanation not a lie so much as bullshit, intended to deceive and draw people towards a certain way of seeing the world. It is political.

As Harry Frankfurt put it in his wonderful little essay, ‘On Bullshit’,

“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of disinterested and austere discipline.”

He added, “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth - this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit . . . the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”

People using the ‘British foreign policy’ explanation are playing politics rather than attempting to tell a truth. With sometimes admirable motives, albeit in the process sacrificing concern with the truth, they are attempting to draw attention away from the religion and the religious group and towards something that treats both of those things as victims and as virtuous.

This is also what Islamist politics and Islamist organisations are trying to do of course, though with not such admirable political motives.

It is concerning the way that other major institutions, including large parts of the Labour Party, have fallen into recycling the same bullshit that they do.


  1. Dear Ben, I found your post interesting, mainly as I am trying myself to work out what the hell is going on. I know that many people fall into well worn grooves of reaction and opinion on many issues, I suppose this is something we all need to watch out for. Just to clarify.. do you think that 'British foreign policy' is one factor of many that are contributing to the violence we are seeing, or do you see British military involvement in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan etc as unrelated?

    1. I see it as an aspect, but not a factor or causation in the mathematical sense of the word. Many Muslims respond to these things in a negative sense, taking up opposition to them, feeling their group as being under attack and wanting to take revenge on what they see as the out-group which is inflicting victimhood on their group. Other groups (and indeed many Muslims) may not respond in the same way in similar circumstances.

  2. >This explanation is a negation of morality and ethics.
    No it isn't. You don't have to abandon ethics if you're a hard determinist/anti compatibilist. People still have moral agency in that the moral structure to which they adhere will alter their behaviour for better or for worse.

    Saying that destabilising the middle east through botched interventionism will lead to a greater threat of terrorism at home, DOES NOT take away the moral agency of the human filth that is a suicide bomber. And it is a commonly held belief of the likes of MI5, academics across the political spectrum and anti-terrorist experts that failed interventions such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lybia do indeed lead to an increase in the threat of terror attacks. That doesn't EXCUSE them. Or diminish the role that Salfist and fundementalist Islamist ideologies play in these terror attacks. Indeed I would argue that ideology is far and away the greatest motivator in these attacks on the individual level. But in the bigger picture, did Iraq, Lybia and Afghanistan make us or any other wester country *less* likely to be attacked by suicide bombers? Absolutely not. And I doubt even you would argue that point.

    There is room for nuance in this discussion without trying to make partisan political points. This is not a left-right issue. This is not a pacifist-interventionist debate. This is an adult discussion about ways to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks using all methods available to us. Sensible foreign policy IS one of those methods. If you disagree take it up with MI5.

    I have to ask, did you actually watch Corbyn's whole speech? It wasn't just full of platitudes and cynical political point scoring. He clearly wants to reduce the risk of these attacks from happening by any means necessary. it's disingenuous to claim he's doing this in favour of some sort of isolationist agenda, and I hope you can see that.

    1. You seem to be arguing against something other than this article, Unknown. For a start, I wrote it before Corbyn's speech and make that clear. Also, your brief discussion on morality and ethics is just assertion and makes no sense.

  3. I wasn't aware that Thailand, India, China, Burma, Kenya, Nigeria, Sweden, etc etc. had intervened militarily in the Middle East... They've all suffered with Islamic terrorism.


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