Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 17, 2014

One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s…

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on April 17, 2014

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.┬áHis 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.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 12:56 am

Yes Phil Revolutions are chaotic and most fail! Would you argue the deprivation of the power of any single voter that cannot pay for political advertising a revolution or helping create pre-Revolutionary fever?

Several think tanks have now based on research officially adopted the view that yes we are a nation of oligarchs! Do you agree as I do?

And this finding alone undermines homeland security IMO!

Comment by Quin

April 17, 2014 @ 7:01 am

Totally off topic (kind of) but I can’t resist passing on this story this morning of how radically wrong our public perception of risk is. Apparently no one who works at the Portland Water Bureau ever worked as a life guard at a public pool.

The Lede: Teen pees in Oregon reservoir. Millions of gallons of drinking water wasted.


Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 8:57 am

Quin! And bird and animal droppings? Giardia?

All tasty!

Comment by Quin

April 17, 2014 @ 9:33 am


How did you know the draft blog entry I’m writing? :)

It currently references this cartoon:


Comment by Pilate

April 17, 2014 @ 9:50 am

What is truth?

It was not what you call a rhetorical question. In my tradition being rhetorical was a tool for engaging, trying to expose reality.

We were conversing in Greek and he claimed to be a personification of aletheia. You seem to translate this as “truth”. To the extent I understand your barbarian tongue, I prefer “reality.”

Reality is sufficiently difficult. Truth is beyond any of my ambitions.

We are typically deep into illusion. We choose and do less from reasonable intention than the flailing of a man drowning.

As a once-upon governor considering the various officials of your age, I don’t see that this has much changed.

What is real?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 11:17 am

Pilate! Perhaps a classical cynic would argue that “reality” is what most believe and is true!

But of course I believe in the aphorism “ONE MAN [OR WOMAN] RIGHT MAKES A MAJORITY!”

There seems to be a growing consensus among experts in American history that in 1776 over 60% of the population did not want a revolution. This percentage seems to have grown over time and I would expect more increases.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

And Phil! Just to distinguish between Freedom Fighters and Terrorists I have adopted my definition of a terrorist as one who conducts violence against innocents meaning innocent of in anyway being responsible or capable of impacting the terrorists freedom.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 17, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

Bill: Whether they are targeted or not, innocents — and perhaps innocence itself — may be casualties of both Freedom Fighters and Terrorists. I have not always been so innocent in my care of the innocent. Even where there is no intention, there can be consequence.

In my original post I was, among many other things, trying to suggest that most efforts to define (e.g. reformist, revolutionary, insurrectionist, subversive, extremist…) can be pretty treacherous. It requires a confidence requiring intention, causal action, and consequence that I think can be very slippery.

I am not advocating paralysis. But with Pilate, I am not sure my best decisions are all that good. And with considerable empathy, I extend this critique to others who have to make much more important decisions than those that typically emerge for me.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

Phil! Decisions and choices have good and bad results but they still need to be made to the best of our abilities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 7:15 pm

Socrates chose! Why?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 17, 2014 @ 9:23 pm

Don’t terrorists intend to harm innocents?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2014 @ 4:54 am

Bill: You are being unfair inserting Socrates into our discussion. It’s like I’m your kitten being introduced to catnip for the first time.

According to the Phaedo (Plato via Jowett):

Socrates smiled and said: O Simmias, how strange that is; I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I am unable to persuade you, and you will keep fancying that I am at all more troubled now than at any other time. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are. But men, because they are themselves afraid of death, slanderously affirm of the swans that they sing a lament at the last, not considering that no bird sings when cold, or hungry, or in pain, not even the nightingale, nor the swallow, nor yet the hoopoe; which are said indeed to tune a lay of sorrow, although I do not believe this to be true of them any more than of the swans. But because they are sacred to Apollo and have the gift of prophecy and anticipate the good things of another world, therefore they sing and rejoice in that day more than they ever did before. And I, too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God, and the fellow servant of the swans, and thinking that I have received from my master gifts of prophecy which are not inferior to theirs, would not go out of life less merrily than the swans. Cease to mind then about this, but speak and ask anything which you like, while the eleven magistrates of Athens allow.

Not a bad text for a Good Friday.

But despite his equanimity (or is this the source?) Socrates outlines several arguments for his conversationalists consideration. While he is ethically committed, he is intellectually engaged and, even at the edge of death, keen to examine the ambiguities that abound.

(From later in the Phaedo: A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true.)

Yes, I agree: We are called to decision. We do and fail to do, in either case spawning a future. I am suggesting we need not — ought not — insist that our decision is the only choice. We can vigorously defend, but even as we defend we should listen to our critics and, especially, our own doubts. We are better to remain open to the fuller reality that will always extend beyond our immediate perception.

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