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PostTerrorism, Ideology, and Identity Politics: a 2002 Talk (Timothy Brown, USA, 08/03/17 6:54 am)
I very much appreciate Luciano Dondero's thoughtful comments (although I hope he's not related to Mrs. Dondero, my high school algebra teacher, who gave me a D).
Luciano's comments carry me back to my opening comments during Opening Plenary Session II at the 2002 World Media Center meeting in Washington. Feel free not to read it since, in essence, my comments were directed at the challenge posed by the conflict between popularly believed public narratives and what that in fact we've actually been facing for decades. This has been very different from what we--or at least most of us--have been misled by the dominant popular dialogue to believe.
Since it may well be the longest quote ever posted by WAIS, if our esteemed coordinator chooses to include all of it, I'll forgive you for not reading it.
An Eye on Consequences: The Military and Security Threat
Thank you, Robert. I think I will begin by telling war stories instead of what I was thinking about discussing. Actually, there is a considerable continuity between being in the Marine Corps and being in the diplomatic corps, since they are the two premier instruments of US foreign policy. But in any case, what I would like each of you to do for a moment is to pretend you are a member of a tribe, because you are and don't know it. You are members of the media clan, of the globalization tribe, and we are here because our tribe is under attack by, among others, members of the anti-globalization tribe right across the river from us who are trying even as we speak to close down one of our capital cities. And I use that image deliberately because we are those who have benefited from globalization, all of us, myself among you. We may not think we have benefited as much as we should have. But we have all benefited while many others haven't, and that is one of the sources of the tensions we need to keep in mind when we talk about what we are doing here.
Once, sitting in a coffee shop of a very, very nice hotel in a Central American capital, I was talking to someone I'd come to know quite well after leaving the diplomatic service who had been the commander of a communist revolutionary army. I had been interviewing him, and had asked him, "How did you pay for your war?", an important question because such enterprises are much more expensive than the public thinks they are. He told me that a revolutionary effort is a very expensive proposition: "So we knew that we had to have a war chest even before we started our war, which ended up costing about $100 million a year for 14 or 15 years." As to how they paid for it, he explained, "We started out trying to rob banks but found out there were two problems with this. One, there wasn't enough money in the banks and two, they had guards who shot back, which wasn't what we had in mind." (I might add at this point that I have never met anyone quite as capitalist as some former communist revolutionaries.) So he said they decided to use a technique known as "revolutionary recuperations." For those of you who are familiar with the Mafia, this is a form of extortion, or protection racket. He said that this worked pretty well. For example: "Since we had sympathizers who were workers in factories we were able to threaten factory owners. Give us 10 percent of what you earn: You really don't want sugar in the gas tanks of your trucks." But that still didn't produce enough money.
Finally, he explained, since they were looking for ways to obtain money on their own and didn't want to go into the debt of the Russians or the Cubans early in the revolution, they decided to try some kidnappings. I asked him how well this worked for them. (As an aside, it needs to be understood that when talking with veterans of such movements it is important not to be judgmental.) He then explained that, as they were trying to decide how to get a kidnapping campaign started, they soon realized, after thinking about the idea for a while, that if you're going to kidnap someone there's no use kidnapping just anybody. It has to be someone who has money, or who has money in the family, in their company, or whatever. And that was not all. You also have to know their movements, their character, and something about their family. In other words, organizing a kidnapping involves a very major intelligence undertaking, especially for a small group.
Then I asked: "So what did you do?" He replied: "Well, I started out looking for someone and then made a recommendation. The others in the group looked at me and said, but that's your best friend. Well, yes, but I know the family well, I know they have money, I've had dinner at their house quite a few times and know they will probably pay up. So we kidnapped him and sent a ransom note to the family. But to my surprise the family didn't respond. Suddenly the question became: What do we do now? We have him and he knows who we are." Up to that point the whole thing had seemed almost a lark. But that very quickly changed. "Now, we had to convince them. But how? Another note, nothing; another note, nothing. Finally, we decided we had no choice. So we cut off one of his fingers, put it in an envelope and sent it to his mother. But still they didn't pay. Finally, out of desperation, we sat him in a chair and turned a video camera on him (actually a movie camera in those days) and began torturing him." They filmed what they were doing, complete with sound, and sent the film to his mother. At this point the family paid, but all they could do was deliver their victim's body to the family. They had not realized just how easy it is to kill a human being. In terms of money collected to pay for their revolution, that was their first big coup and became their main initial source of income. During their entire campaign of kidnapping, my friend estimated that they managed to collect about $187 million in 1960s dollars in ransom. I went on to ask him how he had felt about the incident and how he had justified it. I was not as emotional with him as I am with you now because my purpose was not to condemn but to understand his thinking at that time. He said: "Now I wish we hadn't done it. But you have to understand. In a war like ours, the end justifies the means and there is no such thing as an innocent civilian." In other words, and I won't say who I am echoing, "those who are not with us are against us."
That is what we are up against, and I think that most of the people here have been much too optimistic about how easy this [the war on terrorism] is going to be. In the 16th century we had wars of conquest and plunder, and then we moved in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries into wars of conquest and colonization, and to maintaining control of colonies in order to exploit them. Many of you here today are from places that were subjugated by empires during that period and now live with the consequences of that era.
During the 20th century, which we luckily just escaped without being incinerated-I love the Spanish term for this, carbonizado, or turned to carbon-by nuclear weapons, there were three drives behind violence. One was ideology, the second was theology, and the third was identity, the latter mostly in terms of ethnicity and nationalism. During that century, an estimated 350 million persons died in politically motivated violence, a number equal to the entire population of modern Western Europe. The 20th century also saw the remaking of the world's map, particularly after the fall of the colonial empires, with identity the main drive behind the changes that took place. Identity was also one of the two major disabling anomalies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union-failure to handle the nationalities issue well. It was a problem they never did really come to grips with.
And if we're not very careful, the 21st century will prove to be much, much bloodier than the 20th. The reason I'm prepared to say this is that we have now peeled away the 20th century's top layer of ideological confrontations, which was, in all honesty, the thinnest of the three to begin with, not the thickest. We even managed to peel away, to a certain extent, the second layer of theological drives behind some of that century's armed violence, and I know that this claim runs contrary to a lot of what's been said here. But what's happened is that theology has come to be folded into identity, so that religion has become a source of self and identity that is increasingly wrapped up inside a core group identity. That's one of the main reasons why I think this century is exceptionally dangerous, because conflicts driven by identity are the deepest and most dangerous of all.
The second reason I'm prepared to say this century may well be bloodier than the last one is because of the availability of weapons of mass destruction in smaller and smaller packages with greater and greater potential to cause damage. As horrible as it is, nuclear war is not the most dangerous kind of weapon of mass destruction we face. Nor are chemical weapons. The most dangerous ones we face are biological weapons, and they have not even been mentioned here yet today. They can kill far more people far faster and can go quickly across national borders, all things the other forms of weapons cannot do. We may be able to vaccinate the American population against smallpox, but how do we keep smallpox from getting into Mexico? Or crossing the Atlantic? Or crossing the Pacific? So, even if we ourselves are safe, what happens to everybody else? Because once it's loose, it's like the gates of hell have been opened, as someone recently said.
What is this identity I'm talking about? We all have a variety of identities. But I would suggest that we each have a core identity as members of a group that we do not fully recognize until we think about it a bit. There are certain elements you can look for when you're looking for a core group identity. These make up what I consider to be a sort of a model for analysis. This model doesn't give specific answers to any specific questions, but it can be broadly applied when thinking about identity issues. First, your core group identity has a defined territory. This is usually geographic, although it can be theological or ideological, as we saw during the Cold War and now are seeing in the Islamic world, or in the Catholic world for that matter. There will be a common language, usually a mother tongue, or at least a common language of discourse, a shared way of talking to one another. As an example, the most powerful tribe in the world today is the international business community and they talk the same language, which nobody else can understand as well as they can. You will also find a shared history, a shared culture, usually a shared religion, and a shared belief in a value system. And, above all, you will find a shared sense of "us versus them." Identity is a little bit like pornography. It may be hard to define precisely, but you know it when you see it. Those who share an identity can readily tell the difference between "us" and "them" and, when conflicts arise, they almost invariably think not just in terms of "Us and Them" but in terms of "Us versus Them."
How does such an identity develop? And here I part company with much of the more accepted science. I think John Locke was wrong. We are not born tabula rasa, that is to say as blank slates on which life then writes. Instead we inherit much of our behavior from our ancestors. What does the number 32,768 mean to any of you, other than the fact that it's probably bigger than your annual salary? That's the number of your grandparents who were alive in 1702, about 300 years ago, and you are the product of genes of that many people just in the last three centuries, and what you are is a result of what they were. Then, once you're born into a family we all have mothers who become the main sources of our beliefs and values, our language, and most of our initial fund of basic knowledge. True, the father is also involved and does some of this as well, if he's around, and so do our siblings. But Mother comes first and, by the time you are eight or nine years old and ready to venture into the larger world beyond, your basic individual identity has already been formed. Collectively, this process also creates a group identity. It is only at this point that secondary communicators such as the media get their shot. And by then it's too late. All you of the media can do is do what the schools, or playmates, or workmates can also do, and that is to work on this already formed identity and attempt to sway it a bit one way or another. But in the long run you cannot permanently change it.
I liken the identity process to computers. Genetically we come into the world as little IBMs or Apples, and then our family makes us little Word Perfects or whatever, (Word Imperfect in my case.) It's not until after this has been done that you can download any serious software. Has anybody ever tried to load Mac software onto an IBM and seen just how spectacular the crash can be? So you can only pass along to individuals and groups with formed identities programs, or "software," that is compatible with the already existing identity systems of their culture. And if you don't respect this basic rule, you're guaranteed sooner or later to have it blow up in your face, as it did in the face of the Soviet revolution.
I almost subtitled this presentation, and pardon the vulgarity but I'm a former Marine sergeant: "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp." We have been talking about the alligators of terrorism today a lot more than about the swamp. But it is the swamp that spawns them, and when it comes to identity conflicts, I would argue that the higher the perceived threat to any element of an identity, and most especially if it is the identity itself that members of the group believe is being threatened, the more violent the potential reaction. It is when people feel threatened that they are most likely to respond violently, either to agitation by someone who knows how to exploit the reactions elicited by such a threat or because they themselves come to believe that either they must act or they will lose an important part of their identity. If a perceived challenge, or threat, is purely at the societal level, it's easier to handle than if it's at some deeper level. And identity is the deepest level of all. So if we are now in the middle of a clash of civilizations, in Huntington's words, we are in about as deeply as we can be. And I think that much of what we're talking about here is an identity clash between Islam-or certainly at least fundamentalist Islam-and the Western world and, frankly, especially its fundamentalist Christians, although the latter are much less prone to violence.
As to the organization of armed political groups to engage in violence and terrorism, let's imagine for the moment that we're launching a political process that may, in fact, eventually lead to the use of terror tactics. Initially, we probably have no intention of using such tactics. Our first step will probably be to organize a political movement with a political objective and try to attain those objectives without violence. If this fails, we may then begin to use organized civil violence-demonstrations, strikes, and so forth-to gain our goals. Then, if this also fails and we feel twice frustrated in our efforts to achieve our objectives, we may begin to use organized, armed violence. It is at this point in a political process that a revolutionary or guerrilla force comes into being. And normally, it is not until we become convinced that even this will not gain for us our political objectives that we will resort to terrorism. In other words, terrorism is usually a tactic of last, not first, resort.
Put another way, terrorism is an extreme political act taken for a political reason, not an act independent of politics. And, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is neither the act of just a few persons nor is it cheap. As I tell my students, the first thing you find out when you choose to engage in armed political violence, especially in terrorism, is that you need money, lots of money. If you think oil runs the Western economies, I can guarantee you that it is money, and lots of it, that fuels terrorist and other violent organizations. For the revolutionary movement of my friend, the $187 million war chest they built up was just seed capital. Over its lifetime, his revolutionary movement actually cost at least $600 million to run, and probably more than twice that amount. And even at that it was cheaper than a number of other revolutions that were going on in neighboring countries at the same time.
Another thing you quickly discover is that secrecy and security are absolutely vital. You must protect your secrets, just as it's your enemy's job to find out yours while protecting his own. I suspect that Bill Gertz will get into this and perhaps explain just how complicated this can be. You also find out you need safe havens, because nobody can stay in the field for 365 days a year under physical threat of destruction at any moment. The stress is just too great. You just have to get out once in a while and get some rest, some training, and recover from whatever parasites or wounds you might have. And I would argue in this regard that one of the real intents, if not a publicly stated one, of going after Iraq is to make of that country and its regime an object lesson: Henceforth anyone or any country that harbors terrorists risks being destroyed, or having its regime destroyed.
You will also find that to succeed you need sympathizers and active supporters and lots of them. The management model I use to describe the organization of an armed political group that uses terrorism as a tactic is that of a pyramid with levels I will run through quickly, except for one. The most important level is that of the soil on which it rests. In the case of any violent movement that uses terror tactics this means, at the very least, a layer of indifferent, unengaged, or intimidated general public. Public apathy is one of the best allies of people who are prepared to use violence. Then, at the bottom of the pyramid itself lies a group of political sympathizers who become the foundation on which the rest of the pyramid of terror will be built. Usually they are just sympathetic and little more. But it is from this group that the next level of the pyramid, a system of organized active supporters, is drawn and molded into a yet higher layer of this pyramid, a system of clandestine support cells, as has been discussed here by other participants before me.
Neither a guerrilla force nor a guerrilla force that uses terror can survive and be effective without a large, organized, and active corps of unarmed but guilty civilians to support it. These civilians are indispensable to its success. They are the ones who collect the money; provide food, clothing, housing, and weapons; and help it with training, logistics, and intelligence activities. They also do most of the proselytizing and recruiting, provide the armed elements with early warning, run escape and evasion routes, in short do all the things that are essential to the survival and operations of any armed violent force. I have managed to get access to the internal documents of two guerrilla forces and found this laid out clearly. These documents clearly show that a system of clandestine support cells is not an accident of nature but the fruit of a very carefully thought-out organizational effort. While there are, of course, important variations from group to group, in every case I studied these cells were carefully compartmentalized from one another for reasons of security. It is on this layer of clandestine support system of compartmentalized cells that the structures above depend entirely.
Just above the clandestine support cells lies what is probably the most vulnerable layer in the organizational pyramid. In Latin America, those who are active at this level are called the correos. Elsewhere they may be called the liaisons or the runners. Regardless, they serve as the grease between the organized armed activists in the next layer above them and the essential support systems that sustain them from below. It is their role to insulate the cells below from the armed activists above by serving as the primary link between the cells of activists who are providing the support and those carrying guns. So, it is usually only above this layer of correos that you will find armed combatants. And if a movement decides to use terrorism as a tactic- and many don't because terrorism is a double-edged sword-those who engage in it will normally be drawn from the ranks of these combatants.
Just how many people may be involved in such a movement, or one of these pyramids of terror? I cannot speak from evidence as to al-Qaeda, or the Red Brigades, or other such groups. But, in terms of the three organized armed groups whose central archives I have been able to look at, for every soldier in the field they had about 20 to 30 active supporters in clandestine support cells, and for every active member of such a cell they had 15 to 20 sympathizers keeping their secrets, providing them with the essentials without which they could not have engaged effectively in violence, and making sure they had a sympathetic base population within which they could hide. This is, then, the nature and size of the seas in which, as Mao Zedong labeled them, guerrillas and revolutionaries swim.
So do the math. If there are 10,000 active al-Qaeda combatants, they probably have 200,000 to 250,000 supporters in clandestine cells and as many as 2 to 5 million sympathizers who help support them. These are not small organizations, and we are fooling ourselves if we try to pretend that they are. Let me go even further. As it is currently being fought, I believe we are going after the wrong target. In the longer run, killing or capturing terrorists one at a time is about as effective as pulling the tails off salamanders-the swamp of political activism that spawned them will just produce another one and, in any case, the terrorists themselves are merely a fraction of all those who are prepared to use violence and engage in extremist tactics. So, as long as the movement that produces them remains active and dedicated to its political objectives, it will simply produce more.
Therefore, in my view the most important target in the war on terrorism is not the terrorists themselves. The main mission must be to convince or neutralize their base of active sympathizers to stop supporting them. So there are several more important targets. The primary targets must be a terrorist organization's active support base of clandestine cells, its correos, or guides or liaison agents, and its non-terrorist combatants, because they are the ones who produce and support the terrorists. I will not try to go into detail here on how one can go about doing this. Obviously in 20 minutes that cannot be done. But there are historical cases where this has been accomplished and success has led to the ending of a particular armed, violent political movement that used terror tactics. So it is far from impossible.
But what I can and will argue here in the few moments I have left is that, unless we keep our eyes on the larger ball we have about as much chance of winning the war on terrorism as we do of winning the war on drugs. And that's a war we have already lost, as far as I can tell. So, our longer-term mission must be to drain the swamps from which the terrorist alligators emerge. True, in the short run we have no choice but to hold back the alligators. But if that's all we do, in the long run we are bound to fail.
JE comments: I read every word, and am struck by how current (prescient) Tim Brown was in 2002. Gosh, that's 15 years ago. That conflicts based on ideology have been completely replaced by "identity" clashes is now an indisputable fact. What role does ideology play in the current US-Russia relationship, or the US-China relationship for that matter? I can think of none. Further, Tim correctly predicted that the gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of globalization would drive societies apart. Just see what happened in 2016 in the UK and the US.
One of the two high schools in Royal Oak was named Dondero--perhaps George A. Dondero was another relative of Luciano? Some years back the two schools were consolidated into one, with the uninspired name of Royal Oak HS.
Two of Dondero's most famous alums: radical activist (and former Mr Jane Fonda) Tom Hayden, and Eagles frontman Glenn Frey. Both died last year (2016).