On the anniversary of one great rebellion the commanders met secretly to advance their own rebellion.
For several years they had operated mostly in the far north, but now gathered in the capital city.
Just days before, their leader had taken direct — and highly symbolic — action against the regime. His shift from argument and example to economic boycott and violent protest surprised many.
Passwords were exchanged, introductions offered, preparations undertaken. The insurrectionists were fully aware it was risky to meet together. Most did not expect, however, that their inner circle had been compromised.
They gathered over dinner. The ancient rebellion was recalled and celebrated. As subversives will, they also quarreled. Around the table several motivations were represented: nationalists, religious extremists, idealists, some simply attracted by the charisma of their leader and a common cause. They disagreed more than they agreed.
The leader was skilled in forging an alloy of their differences. He served them. He warned them: They would betray him and each other. They would suffer. What they valued most would be destroyed. He had an uncanny ability to upend typical understandings of good and bad.
They would be separated from each other, attacked, oppressed, tortured and killed. Despite all, together they were creating a more just reality. The new reality’s lack of specific definition allowed each to project his particular preferences.
Sharing drink, food, and conversation reaffirmed the relationships around the table: tenuous surely, but tenacious as well. They found in each other a confidence that was much more elusive when alone.
There were many similarly subversive groups. Until quite recently this particular movement had not seemed much of a threat, more reformist than revolutionary. Some senior officials shared most of the reformist critique. Others had a grudging respect for the movement’s ability to generate popular support.
In retrospect even benign neglect would probably have produced a less dynamic outcome. But challenging a core economic engine surely required a deterrent response, just as a matter of due diligence. Then the good fortune of “turning” one of the movement’s inner circle was too good to pass up.
They might have rounded up the whole command-network. It was an elegant bit of restraint to choose instead a single decapitation. The remainder of the inner circle quickly dispersed, a demonstration that demoralized many long-time followers and disgusted recent converts.
The most sophisticated advocated for a long languishing imprisonment, the proven technique for facilitating a divided movement’s self-disintegration. The cowardly behavior of those insurrectionists left at-large argued the efficacy of such a plan.
But the most sophisticated had not anticipated the intensely personal antagonism that erupted when some of their superiors encountered the arrested leader face to face… or rather word for word. He was infuriating: self-righteous, obscure, and entirely unrepentant.
(We often feel the most innate conflict with those who remind us of our own most troublesome tendencies.)
The decision was made to put him to death. Behind closed doors the most sophisticated argued this was a mistake. Alive but imprisoned he would impede the emergence of a successor. Death opened an opportunity for someone more radical to arise. A public execution could transform one of many malcontents into a useful martyr for a wide range of discontent.
But at times events emerge and can take on a life of their own. The most sophisticated did not win the argument.