Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 18, 2015

Categorical confusion: “The musical note and knife are sharp”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 18, 2015

Early Thursday morning S.T. More (a provocative name, seeming to subtly signal St. Thomas More) asked an authentic question.  S/he wondered about my take on self-radicalization.  You can see the original exchange here.

Real questions are wonderful things.  Generous, beautiful, sometimes magical.  Certainly this question has been very good to me.

It prompted additional thinking and reading, especially Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind and some Aristotle.

Aristotle gave us a comparatively brief text now known as Categories.  Here Aristotle works through how we can accurately compare and contrast, how we can express meaningful characteristics, how we can think more accurately.  Aristotle compares the sharpness of music with that of a knife as an example of confusing substance for quality.

I was drawn to Ryle because of his ground-breaking work on category-mistakes, going well beyond Aristotle.  It occurred to me that with McVeigh, Breivik, the Tsarnaev’s, and others — including several in positions of great authority — we can perceive a recurring pattern of category mistakes.  It is a tendency that constantly challenges me. Anyone who is attracted to analogies will be regularly tempted to false analogies, often false because of some form of category-mistake.

Here is the note Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scrawled on the interior wall of the boat while hiding from search teams.  Many of the unintelligible (UI) words are the result of bullets fired during his capture.

I’m jealous of my brother who ha[s] [re]ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus (inshallah) before me. I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions. I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) to allow me to return to him and be among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven. He who Allah guides no one can misguide. A[llah Ak]bar!

The US Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a [UI] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all. Well at least that’s how muhhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be [for]ever, the ummah is beginning to rise/[UI] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it. Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [UI] it is allowed. All credit goes [UI]. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop. 

Where to begin…

Since this is just a blog, let’s try a simple exegesis:

Killing innocent people is evil

YOU are killing (“our”) innocent people

YOU must be punished, I will do so to deter YOU from further killing of innocent people. I will continue to punish YOU until YOU stop.

Fair enough?  Coherent with the original text?

If so, in these expressions, what are the characteristics of YOU?

Certainly you is other than the writer. An anticipated reader? The police?  Others?  Others as in those who do not kill innocents?  Well, give him credit, Dzhokhar recognizes he no longer belongs in the category of those who do not kill innocents.  Others as in non-Muslims?  Perhaps.  But clearly he recognizes non-Muslims can be innocent.  The text seems to be flailing about for some other category or set of categories.

In which category does the writer belong, innocent or evil? Within the claims of  the text, apparently both.  In which category does “you” belong?  Again, apparently both.  These are not yet useful categories.

This can — probably should — be continued.  But not here.

Here I will merely contrast the confusing categories that challenged Mr. Tsarnaev with the clarity that informed decisions made at the Cologne Cathedral on Friday. The memorial service at the cathedral was for those who died in the March 24 plane crash.  The memorial service was offered as a way to support those who had survived.  All those fitting the category descriptions were included.

Categorical clarity is possible.  There are several tools available to help.  One of the first steps will often involve sweeping away the dark cloud of self-righteousness.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 18, 2015 @ 7:45 am

So Phil which came first, the chicken or the egg? You killed US so we killed you?

What is the Quran equivalent if any to THOU SHALT NOT KILL?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 18, 2015 @ 7:56 am


In regard to the Quran, from past comments I perceive you have developed a considerable respect for Juan Cole. Here is a related blog-post where Cole outlines explicit Quranic injunctions against terrorism: http://www.juancole.com/2013/04/islamic-forbids-terrorism.html

In regard to your first two questions: It has seemed to me that forgiveness is a very pragmatic virtue and the logic of retributive justice is ultimately self-destructive.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 19, 2015 @ 9:23 am

Thanks Phil and J. Cole’s INFORMED COMMENT BLOG A GEM!

Comment by Vicki Campbell

April 19, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

I don’t think “categorical confusion” has anything to do with the logics involved. Instead, i think its called “the democratization of responsibility.” Although I abhor the tactics involved, sadly, I think its a concept that contains considerably less confusion, and considerably more logic as well as honesty than those generally employed by the western nations responsible for massively more innocent civilian deaths with considerably less justification in the Middle East (and well beyond). I think this is especially the case for us in the US.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 20, 2015 @ 4:09 am

Ms. Campbell: Many thanks. I would like to hear more about “the democratization of responsibility.” The argument is made that given popular sovereignty, the citizens of a democratic state are responsible for actions undertaken on their authority. If the state is engaged in war or pseudo-war this argument would move such citizens from a “non-combatant” category into some other category. Am I tracking?

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 20, 2015 @ 7:38 am

Vicki and Phil thanks for comments and questions. TOTAL WAR IMO a suicidal theme for anyone involved in organization of violence.

Unfortunately, the US Armed Forces don’t real do nuance with the result that total destruction the prevail investment, training, and most favored operation concept.


And using former military in domestic policing is a bad concept unless they are totally retrained and given full psychological exams.

This problem may be solved in part because also IMO the next several decades will include rampant discrimination against the uniformed military and former uniformed military. EVEN FORMER FLAG RANKS BELIEVE THEIR SERVICE REWARDED BY DECEPTION AND IGNORANCE BY THE PRESIDENTS AND PEOPLE. Tri-care not what was promised them during their service.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

April 21, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

Thanks, Bill and Phil – sorry for the delayed response.

Phil, you are correct, but I would state it more as moving citizens from the category of innocents to consenting participants, so to speak. Bin Laden talked about this (although I doubt I’m using his terminology, but I can’t remember)….The point being that Americans keep electing leaders who implement the American foreign policies that have fairly directly killed and otherwise deeply harmed the lives of many, many, many innocent civilians (millions at this point), all over the globe – and Americans en masse have largely only offered up dead silence to our leaders in the face of it. This is especially true in the middle east, where we’ve blindly supported Israel’s atrocities for as long as I can remember, as well as the atrocities of a variety of brutal dictators throughout the region as long as they’re willing to do our bidding, which never has anything to do with peace or democracy – and which is to not even mention the demonization and overthrowing of legitimate democratic governments if they won’t serve as our puppets, etc. (such as we did in Iran, and are likely doing again, amongst many others). Yes, its true that many Americans (also in the millions) don’t agree with or approve of these policies and actions, certainly including myself – but given the weight on the scales, are we really doing enough in the face of al of the wrong-doing by our government, either here or around the world? I personally think that holding Americans collectively responsible for what is being done in our name is very reasonable and just. I just don’t think that’s a justification for terrorism, or that anybody should be summarily blowing anybody up over it, or much of anything else. There are simply better, more productive methods and responses. Call me silly, call me old-fashioned, but that’s what I think.

Also, just to try to bring another theme here forward. Given the juxtaposition of dates of terrorist events and perpetrators mentioned here recently, although understandable on the surface, I would have to say that I really think they’re if anything, at least as different as they are similar, if not decidedly more so – and lumping them all together and trying to have one conversation about their nature might obscure at least as much as it illuminates. It also has a tendency to reinforce the very western (and even more american) tendency to see everything as flowing solely from within the psychology of the individual, and excludes the many contextual social and political factors and forces always at play, as well as usually fairly active in most if not all of what is called terrorist activities. I also would like to note that, both historically and currently, we tend to take white, western terrorists stated motives on face value, while all but ignoring (or alternately going to desperate lengths to discredit) those of pretty much all other “terrorists.”

Comment by Vicki Campbell

April 21, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

Bill, I couldn’t agree with you more when you say “And using former military in domestic policing is a bad concept unless they are totally retrained and given full psychological exams.” I believe this is also true in relation to emergency management and humanitarian relief work, which since 9/11 seems to be more and more militarized to me as well, IMO.

A good example of this hyper-militaristic mindset, wherein there really isn’t a problem that doesn’t ultimately have a military-style solution, was in the news just today from the European Union (which has been dramatically infected with this mindset as well). They have declared the military targeting of migrant smugglers/traffickers as their top priority in responding to the horrific deaths of refugees fleeing africa across the Mediterranean – rather than addressing the real causes of the immense refugee crisis.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 22, 2015 @ 7:07 am

Vicki! The FEMA salary budget for CY 2015 ending October 1st funds 7,000 FTE in various forms including CORE. After a decline in veterans pre-9/11/01 REMA is now almost impossible for non-veterans to be employed.

Also FRONTLINE had an interesting show on the radicalization of an American!

Comment by Arnold Bogis

April 22, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

Vicki, you make some very interesting points that deserve some reflection.

And I would not have likely returned to this thread except for Bill’s comment that I couldn’t agree with more — I can say from personal experience that it is nearly impossible to get a job at FEMA if you’re not a veteran except at the highest political position levels. What does that mean for the agency in the long term?

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