Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 19, 2015

Naming the enemy

Filed under: Radicalization,Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on November 19, 2015

Karen Armstrong and others have argued that great religions and ethical systems — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, classical Greek philosophy and more — arose in the Axial Age as universalist efforts to contain increasingly deadly tribal conflict. The goal was to extend common values across tribal boundaries. Christianity, Islam, and others have emerged from similar need.

The Westphalian Consensus might be summarized as European elites deciding their wars of religion — outbreaks of tribalism within a universalist construct — were entirely too costly.  An increasingly fractured universal claim was succeeded by cults of dynastic and/or national sovereignty. Confessional diversity and various tribal identities would be tolerated if subordinated to the State. While never entirely successful, the risks seemed manageable until 1914-1945, when the mitigation process dramatically failed.

Emerging from this failure, two large post-Westphalian States competed to offer alternate visions of universalist ascendance: capitalism or communism.  (Each offer complicated — occasionally enhanced — by tribal particularities of the USA and USSR.)

Since the end of the Cold War, various kinds of capitalism — rarely pure, sometimes state-sponsored, usually mixed — have made their bid for universal influence. It is typically a creed of consumption, near-term gratification, supply chain efficiency, creative destruction, constant change, the next new thing. Many have benefited.  Millions have been pulled out of poverty.  But costs, both direct and indirect, are steep and are accumulating.

I am a Capitalist and an alleged Christian. I am an active citizen of a post-Westphalian nation-state that has proudly (at times earnestly) aspired to be post-tribal. Universalism is my cultural and personal comparative advantage.  But from time to time, even I feel the litany and logic of universalism to be manipulative, inhumane, and vulgar. Others, for whom tribe is source of identity and sustenance, — and those with no meaningful identity — often find my universalist values unnatural and frightening.

Some have credibly demonstrated our species emerged no less than 60,000 years ago and can be traced even further back.  For at least two-thousand generations tribe has been hearth, health, and all that is holy; universalism a very recent, comparatively abstract addition. Tribal relationships continue to enrich. A drought of tribal connections and continuity leaves many thirsty.

ISIS, al-Qaeda and similar movements — Islamic and not — attempt to fuse the promise of tribal roots and universal relationship. Despite the stonings, beheadings, bombings and mayhem their ultimate goal is said to be comprehensive peace and fraternity, within reassuring boundaries of their own tribal traditions.

Rather than atomistic consumers competing for the greatest new thing, they promise a global community of loving faithful no longer tempted by Satanic notions of self-indulgent, ephemeral, and empty consumption. With the wholeness of creation re-formed, peace will characterize the inner and outer lives of all, they promise.

In the specific case of ISIS, members of the cult are self-persuaded that Jews and Christians — and hypocritically modern Muslims — destroy and defile traditional truths and obscure the path of Ultimate Reality with gross materialism and a pernicious tolerance of evil.  To overcome this challenge ISIS has been explicit regarding a strategy to unify Muslims by causing the West to exclude and abuse them.  The Paris attack was designed specifically to prompt such responses.  The National Front and others — including governors of several of these United States — are ready to oblige.

ISIS has also communicated it desires to battle the Crusader nations, especially the United States, France, and Britain, in Northern Syria specifically at Dabiq.  Many in the ISIS leadership understand that this military encounter will initially bring it considerable success, followed by enormous losses, but in any case will inaugurate the end-days, the second-coming of Jesus, and divinity’s direct rule.  Once again several, including Senators Sanders, Graham and Cruz and President Hollande, seem ready to make a date for Dabiq.

ISIS, like al-Qaeda before it, is expert in manipulating tribal tendencies to its particular notion of strategic advantage.

The attacks in Paris were horrific. As we have seen in Mumbai and now again, a small team very modestly organized can do terrible harm. I expect we will see similar attacks in other cities: Rome, Istanbul, and London are at the top of my list.  ISIS has apparently called out Washington DC and New York as targets.

These sort of attacks do not reflect an existential threat to a great nation. But it is very difficult to imagine any government so disciplined and stoical as to make this argument.  A more robust military response, one way or another, eventually will come.

Despite the Dabiq prophecy, I expect a coalition of regional and Western forces will “destroy” the current Raqqa regime.  Given their threats, demonstrated capability, and bloody ambition this probably will now happen sooner than later. Given what we have heard from inside the self-styled Caliphate, maybe this time victorious troops will actually be greeted as liberators. (Probably not.)

But what then?

We can transfer, try to proactively avoid, and reduce the risk posed by ISIS.  But we live in an era when, I suggest, the risk itself will persist. The underlying threat will not be destroyed. Whether the West and/or modern Muslims wage war or peace, the perceived divide is too great to be reconciled any time soon. Given global proximity, even intimacy, the conflict will continue and probably escalate… regardless of what we do or don’t.

The risk cannot be destroyed and must be ruefully accepted because ISIS is merely the most recent reflection of a 2500 year plus contention between forces of tribalism and universalism.  Across all these centuries and most of our cultures there has been a recurring effort to contain the deadly pride of tribe versus tribe.  In many times and places universalism has claimed the cultural high ground.  But tribal insurgencies have always retained the emotional commitment of many.

Tuesday I complained that our current threat had been reduced to an indefinite plural pronoun.  I have heard many insist that we must be explicit regarding the proper noun.  But most of the names offered have been those of a weaker progeny of a primordial power that the best men and women of our species — some would claim an authority even greater than this — have failed to destroy and seldom enough contained.

What then, shall we do?

I have just exceeded my thousand word limit, so I will conclude with three questions that may be worth regularly asking:

  • Does my (our, this nation’s, this culture’s) action inflame or contain tribe-vs-tribe tendencies?
  • Is my action coherent with some version of the other-as-self ethic of reciprocity?
  • Will my action increase or decrease the likelihood of future pain and suffering, for me and for most others as well?
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10 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 19, 2015 @ 3:14 am

Great post and great questions. As to your questions probable answer NO at least for now but do ask from time to time.

Comment by Claire Rubin

November 19, 2015 @ 5:53 am

Very thought provoking. Thanks.

How did the U.S. get included among the crusader nations when it did not even exist at the time?

Comment by Citizen Joe

November 19, 2015 @ 7:29 am

It is stated within and maybe in fact very realistically:

“We can transfer, try to proactively avoid, and reduce the risk posed by ISIS. But we live in an era when, I suggest, the risk itself will persist. The underlying threat will not be destroyed. Whether the West and/or modern Muslims wage war or peace, the perceived divide is too great to be reconciled any time soon. Given global proximity, even intimacy, the conflict will continue and probably escalate… regardless of what we do or don’t.

The risk cannot be destroyed and must be ruefully accepted because ISIS is merely the most recent reflection of a 2500 year plus contention between forces of tribalism and universalism” –

Like myself, most Muslims and Christians who understand these two religions have been head to head for centuries to impose their values and to control Jerusalem, a city which is God’s city and none other….

The reply is NO!

No that peace loving Christians and Muslims will accept for themselves and their children a 21st century world and beyond Blessed with innovation and technology to enhance so much of human Life and the reply, NO that folks everywhere demand that the political corruption of “entrusted” politicians with their obviously tainted and self-serving agenda and their lust in power and money and position are ended and folks everywhere, Blue Green, Black, White, Muslim, Christian, Hebrew, Hindu all rally together and as a global alliance say NO to such violence. The closeness in communication can be utilized in another way, to voice solidarity and say NO!

We are all God’s children and no one has the Right to kill another and make judgement on another…God has not given another the Right to harm or kill another human being. Our six feet of DNA points to the many more similarities we share and surely we are each distinct and truly a Blessing and while we need not embrace one another and surely we have difference in opinion, all should be able to practice their religious choice,m Islam, Christianity and so forth and no one should impose their values on another – it is the lust for greed in power and money which has duped everyone for generations and it is time to stop those so hell bent on corruption and practices to hurt another, to kill innocents human beings….

God Bless us all and if this is to continue as suggested, then what a pity in a world of people – all cultures and all religious choices who are so Blessed in this 21st century –

God Bless us all!

Enough of this charade – enough — killing and harming others….

Comment by Citizen Joe

November 19, 2015 @ 8:58 am

Oops! a needed correction from my previous comment….(thank you)

NO to such dastardly deeds by those who seek to destroy civilization so Blessed and YES to peace loving Christians and Muslims who do very much accept and diligently strive to educate themselves and to work together to accept the Blessings bestowed upon all, themselves and children in this 21st century world and beyond Blessed with innovation and technology to enhance human Life….

A report this morning came over the wires that some experts believe that chemical weapons will someday be used in such attacks, how appalling and how contrary to the Blessings God has bestowed upon each of us with Life! Anyone considering such act is not a Christian, Muslim or any other, mot even a human being who would even consider any such and is filled with the devil!

The world must rally now together and get beyond the fundamentalists of these religions and we must repent and respect one another and our Religious choices and freedom and such oppression and vile acts must be thwarted by the far many more good people of all cultures and religious faiths than these soldiers of Lucifer!

God Bless humanity!

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 19, 2015 @ 10:17 am

How does any society control its sociopaths?

Comment by Vicki Campbell

November 23, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

Wow – and so it has always been, and thus will always be. I’m sorry Phil, but with all due respect, all this is, however lengthy or elaborately concocted, is just a wholly western philosophic and religious frame being offered up in response to its mirror image put forth by ISIS – seemingly constructed to erase the many and ongoing crimes and fundamental role of the west in general, and the U.S. in particular in the conflict in the Middle East and the rise of the threat of terrorism. It’s also a pretty good example of how wholly male violence, historically constituting only a comparative handful of men rather than any majority, gets universalized and normalized by a much larger group of male apologists for their much more violent male core, who’d seemingly rather reap all the privileges involved in offering even covert support, if only through silence and denial – than join with the rest of us in trying to stand up to it, and help the world to start learning how to develop beyond it.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

November 23, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

Bill: My response to your very good question is that I think that an even half well-functioning society itself is both the antidote to and natural suppressor of psychopaths – and that, as I’ve written previously on this blog, when you fracture key aspects of a society’s core social, political economic and cultural infrastructure, what most readily rises to the top of the chaos are the psychopaths – which TMM is certainly what’s happened in the Middle East. Even more problematic is that such fracturing inevitably involves a lot of injustices being committed – and what you end up with are psychopaths with a just cause, and I can think of few things more deadly or intractable.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 24, 2015 @ 4:51 am

Vicki, Not thus it will always be, but I am arguing it will be very tough to change. In regard to the problem’s (and my own) roots in Western civilization, guilty as charged. The post is meant as diagnosis, not prescription. If I’m tracking you, I mostly agree with your critique.

Perhaps you were thinking of a fun-house mirror, but my only difference may be in diagnosing this as a case of one Universalism versus another. Tribalism is, in my judgment, pervasive. It taints practically every permutation of human culture, including every putative Universal I have encountered. But in some non-tribal (anti-tribal) tendencies, there is an emerging (universal?) framework that rejects tribalism while embracing diversity (and creativity and other aspects) as a crucially shared value.

This is a very different sort of Universalism than the West has seriously engaged for at least 1500 years. I think there is a potential prescription here. But I don’t expect quick results.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

November 24, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

Ms. Rubin: I think you are right to be confused, because what’s going on isn’t TMM about the reignition of a conflict with crusader nations, regardless of ISIS’ rhetoric, which has been adopted much more for political purposes and presents a fundamentally more political reading of religious texts and doctrine than a religious one as I see it (and which actually constitutes a rereading as Romans, really).

Before 9/11, it was a regularly spoken given on both sides of the political isle that international (ie., Middle East) terrorism was obviously in response to Western aggression and intervention in the Middle East. In fact, Conservatives seemed to get this more than anyone, which was also probably why they were rattling the cage much more about the threat of it. But since 9/11, it has suddenly, mysteriously become about just about any and everything but that – even though to most of the planet, it’s still quite obviously about Western aggression and intervention in the Middle East – which has both directly and indirectly cause the death of millions of Muslims. They tell us all the time, in almost every video I’ve seen on TV, but many of us don’t listen, and instead choose to believe all the disingenuous,self-serving and often misleading if not inaccurate statements coming from our leaders, military and mainstream media (although the MSM has had a few people on to remind us of what’s really going on – but its so few that it makes you wonder if they weren’t mistakes). One of the finest journalists on the planet, Pulitzer winner Glenn Greenwald, was on CNN this weekend blasting the American media for quickly starting to sound like its being broadcast from the Pentagon was the war drums start beating.

2 of the most recent videos I’ve seen, both on CNN, stand out to me. The first was of one of the Paris terrorists where he was hanging out of the driver’s seat of a truck with the door open and he looks straight into the camera with more than a little hate and anger in his eyes, and voice, and says very, very pointedly something to the effect of “we know what you’ve done; our parents told us.” The other was when CNN was interviewing Muslins in some neighborhood in Belgium and they put a microphone in front of one older woman’s face and she immediately began with how people need to leave each others’ religions alone, and then she said very directly, and again, very angrily “stop killing Muslims, and the terrorism will stop.” And I don’t see why we have the slightest reason to doubt that.

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December 7, 2015 @ 5:24 am

[…] both self-generated and coordinated.  I have long been surprised there have not been more.  As previously outlined, I understand the threat to go well beyond ISIS.  Given the fundamental nature of the threat any […]

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