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ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

Intellectuals and their Romance with Political Barbarism

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Martin Heidegger, Eric Hobsbawm and Ezra Pound

A  meandering post inspired by Reason Magazine and Charles Cameron.

Reason.com is best known for giving a scrappy libertarian take on current events, crime, technology and pop culture, but recently, an article by Charles Paul Freund touched a deeper, darker vein of twentieth century history and, in my view, a problematic recurring pattern in intellectual life:

Hunger for Fascism

Al Pacino has withdrawn from a Danish stage version of Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, after learning that the Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author had been an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany. The move dismayed some of Hamsun’s defenders, but it’s also a reminder of the appalling state of intellectual life during the rise of fascism. So many writers and thinkers embraced fascism in those years that they constituted what came to be called a “fascist foreign legion.”

Hunger (1890) is considered a classic of psychological literature, and Hamsun himself is regarded by many critics and writers as one of the fathers of literary Modernism, and an important influence on such writers as Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and many others. In a 1987 introduction to Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

[….] Hamsun’s fascism was hardly a byproduct of hardening of the arteries. He lived for a time in the 1880s in the U.S., and came to dislike the country for its egalitarian principles, and because it had a large black population (even though that population wasn’t benefitting much from the egalitarianism). His 1918 novel, Growth of the Soil, is a pretty good example of “blood and soil” lit. John Carey, a British critic, cites a passage from Hamsun’s Kareno trilogy of dramas, written in the 1890s, as indicative of his outlook:

“I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses. I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.”

Hamsun, who gave his Nobel to Hitler as a mark of his esteem, remained faithful to the fascist cause to the bitter end. Hamsun’s most-often quoted words come from the brief eulogy for Hitler that he published in a collaborationist newspaper in May 1945, a week after the Fuehrer died.

[….] George Orwell wrote in 1946 that, “The relationship between fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and [William Butler] Yeats might well be the starting point.” Such investigations have since been written, of course, and they include the expected chapters on Yeats as well as others on D.H. Lawrence (The Plumed Serpent may be the clearest example of Lawrence’s fascism), T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis (who at this point is probably as well known for his fascism as for anything else he did).

What was the appeal of fascism to such people? It wasn’t just that many of them were racists and/or anti-Semites (though that didn’t hurt); plenty of authors have been racists without embracing totalitarian systems. The underlying issue for many of these figures, according to investigations by John R. Harrison and by John Carey, was an antipathy to democracy.

“Many twentieth-century writers,” wrote John R. Harrison in The Reactionaries: A study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia (1966), “have decided that culture has been sacrificed to democracy; the spread of culture has meant that the level of the masses is raised, but that the level of the elite is lowered.” As for writers like Pound, Yeats, and others, “they realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes.”[….]

Read the whole thing here.

The dark romance of intellectuals with Fascism died in 1945. Their bloody affair with Communism has dwindled significantly, but lingers in some quarters still.

Why though was 20th century totalitarianism so attractive to the West’s leading thinkers, artists and writers? After all, once you got past the snazzy uniforms, the trains running on time and land for the peasants, the overt reveling in barbarism and cruelty by Fascists and Communists was hard to miss – and if you missed it, the Nazis gave choreographed tours of concentration camps and the Soviets held show trials right in the face of world media. Very little of the bloodbath was hidden, except to the willingly blind, who tended to most often be well educated and otherwise thoughtful people yet found ways to morally rationalize collaboration and fellow traveling.

There are, in my view, a number of reasons. These tended to differ somewhat depending on whether the intellectual in question gravitated more to fascism or communism, but even here there is a significant, muddling, psychological, overlap between the two. So much so, that Fascism’s creator cut his political teeth as a firey socialist agitator and as thuggish a Nazi leader as Ernst Rohm could boast of his admiration for his Communist enemies’ “idealism” and street fighting courage. Indeed, in training his stormtroopers, Rohm remarked that ex-communists made the best SA men.

The first person to offer a coherent explanation of the individuals drawn to fascism was the German-Jewish journalist Konrad Heiden. In Der Fuehrer,  Heiden’s groundbreaking 1944 political biography of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement, referred to two categories of potential adherents : “Armed Bohemians” and the “Armed Intellectuals”.  The former were the freebooting roughnecks and men of habitual violence who were always restless and ill at ease in civilized society. Men like Ernst Rohm, who found in totalitarian movements a political cause to justify themselves. These men do not concern us here.

The latter group are also ill at ease in established society. The armed intellectuals are the born critics, gadflies, dreamers, autodidacts, bar-room philosophers, self-styled poets and no small number of crackpots and cranks; what these quarrelsome eccentrics lacked in muscle or raw courage, they more than made up for in the blizzard of half-baked ideas and skill at words which they employed with maniacal zeal.  Heiden’s taxonomy was mirrored a few years later by Eric Hoffer in the groups Hoffer called “practical men of action” and the “fanatics” in his classic, The True Believer The armed intellectuals were seldom noteworthy as intellectual heavyweights – men like Alfred Rosenberg and Grigory Zinoviev were third-rate minds, or worse – but they excelled at propagating ideas and simplifying them in the fashion required to build and sustain a mass movement; ideas as war banners or flags of political tribalism rather than as part of a coherent system of thought.  Or as Ortega y Gasset wrote at the time of the fascists and radicals “….ideas are in effect, nothing more than appetites in words, something like musical romanzas.”

Yet, as Charles Paul Freund indicates, totalitarianism attracted as supporters and admirers not just intellectual crackpots like Gottfried Feder, Dietrich Eckhart or Trofim Lysenko, but genuinely substantive men of letters, art and science. Many of these did not officially become “party comrades”, though some like philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt did, most were content to wield their pens as admirers, fellow travelers, enthusiastic supporters and public apologists. Being intellectuals, they were of course entranced by ideas – on the Right, the totemic, mythic, reactionary idolatry and the volkisch ur-narratives of messianic nationalism (much of which was the mummery of fools). Neither Hitler nor Mussolini were innovators here; the bombastic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s grandiose adventurism in Fiume, for example, presaged much of Fascist Italy’s swaggering Il Duce and his bullying blackshirts. On the left, by the intoxicating prospect of revolutionary “justice” and being on the “right side of history”, which could allegedly be explained with “scientific laws” of dialectical materialism. It was all rubbish but it was politically potent rubbish.

There were also material rewards – the Third Reich and the Soviet Union liked to lavish medals, Stalin Prizes and various emoluments on its foreign sycophants, while intellectuals who were particularly active minions, like Heidegger and Maxim Gorky, were given public honors by their respective regimes. This did not always work out well, however. Unlike Heidegger, who outlived the destruction of his Reich in 1945 to embrace and be embraced by the deconstructionist and postmodernist European left, Gorky was likely murdered by his master, an age-old risk for courtiers of tyrants. While the rewards and awards were highly esteemed, see Paul Robeson’s  pathetic, groveling, gratitude for his Stalin Prize, the primary driver of slavish loyalty was always political. Too many intellectuals in that era were fascinated with totalitarian power, accepted cruelty as strength and despised liberal democracy and individualism, unless if it was individualism as heroic symbolism for some kind of impending vanguard  – square-jawed, blond SS men, muscular Stakhanovite workers brandishing sledgehammers and so on. The barbarism of these regimes the intellectuals either ignored, explained away or embraced.

This longwinded preface brings me to a question that Charles Cameron asked me in regard to the article in Reason:

“I notice that quote about how many early 20C intellectuals “realized there was no hope of a return to an earlier form of civilization, so they hoped for a stability provided by totalitarian regimes” and wonder how you see it corresponding with current thoughts which view the dismantling of the Gaddafi, Hussein, and Mubarak regimes as enabling the rise of AQI > ISIS > IS?”

This is a great question.

The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi shared some similarities, notably official secularism and modernization, but they also had some important ideological and structural differences. Saddam’s regime and Mubrak’s Egypt were rooted in pan-Arab nationalism, a regional anti-imperialist movement the built in fervor from the 20’s and peaked in the late fifties with the personality cult of Nasserism and a characteristic that was shared initially in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, who idolized Nasser and for a time, hoped to inherit his mantle. All of the regimes were secular, modernizing, anti-monarchical, anti-imperialist and “socialist” in a nationalist style more suggestive of Hitler and Mussolini than Marx and Lenin. Saddam’s Iraq, furthermore, was like Syria,  Baathist in its pan-Arabism and its founding generation of activists like Michel Aflaq, were directly influenced in by the European totalitarian parties of the 1930’s Left and Right and the extremist movements of the French Third Republic .

Colonel Gaddafi, who came to power in a coup in 1969, was somewhat different ideologically and probably psychologically. Initially a pan-Arab Nasserite, Gaddafi soon went his own way, drifting toward Third World revolutionary terrorism, a muddled Islamic Libyan utopianism based on a personality cult and finally as a pan-African interventionist given to bizarre and unpredictable behavior. Fearing coups, Gaddafi deliberately weakened and hollowed out the Libyan state, including the military, weakening them institutionally, relying upon competing revolutionary committees, militias, secret police agencies and the like run by members of his extended family until the entire structure was more or less entirely dependent upon Gaddafi’s personal whims. By contrast, Nasser, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein were centralizers who built states centered on the military and security services and a government dominated economy that did not tolerate political rivals. Saddam in particular, took this tendency to an extreme in a conscious imitation of Stalin and Iraq had up until the first Gulf War, a complex bureaucratic state, albeit one dominated by a Baath Party run by the al-Tikriti clan (Saddam’s rule slid more toward Gaddafi’s in practice as postwar decay and sanctions eroded the efficiency of Iraq’s government and arbitrary terror and corruption increasingly were used to prop up the regime)

These dictators, whether hostile to the West (Saddam, Gaddafi) or friendly (Mubarak) lacked the advantage of having a western, fellow-traveling, amen chorus of influential intellectuals as the Fascist and Communist tyrants once enjoyed.  Serious intellectuals and public figures had made pilgrimages to Moscow, Berlin and Rome; no one was going to play John Reed to Muammar Gadaffi’s Lenin or Saddam and say their ramshackle future “worked”. So, when Western leaders, especially the American President, decided it might be good for these regimes to go, the only westerners to defend them in the court of public opinion were those already regarded as minor nuisances, political cranks and buffoons. Furthermore, rather than being viewed as linchpins of stability against radical Islamism, many western politicians and intellectuals of the neoconservative and liberal internationalist variety saw these dictatorships as a cause of radical Islam’s growth at best, or complicit with groups like al Qaida in promoting international terrorism at worst.  Unfortunately, while both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi had a long and bloody history of funding terrorism, mainly of the radical Palestinian nationalist variety, neither were much interested in helping al Qaida or radical Salafis; Gaddafi  in fact, was fairly busy imprisoning and torturing them on a regular basis, as did the more restrained military backed dictatorship of the Egyptians during most of its existence (the brief period of tolerating Islamism, under Anwar Sadat, resulted in Sadat being assassinated by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which later merged with al Qaida. The Egyptian military did not tolerate them again until coerced into it by the Arab Spring and pressure from the Obama administration).

These police state regimes of the Arab world also played an indirect role in the rise of AQIISIS in the sense that their savage repression of all other political alternatives, especially democratic and liberal ones, created a vacuum in civil society that radical Islamism in all its manifestations could fill. This was not unlike the dynamic of Indochina where Ho’s  Communists were greatly helped by the French first brutally suppressing the right wing Vietnamese nationalists in the 1930’s and then Diem’s regime wiping out all the other potential rivals to the Viet Cong in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, leaving the Communists as the voice of political opposition.  The security services of most Arab states, not just Saddam’s or Gaddafi’s, were efficient enough that no real political opposition existed anywhere outside of the mosque from Oman to Morocco, except on sufferance.  These states also played a passive theological role as foils in shaping decades of jihadi discourse at home, in prison, in exile and online regarding the ruler’s “apostasy”, their strategic priority as ” the Near Enemy” and the Islamic legitimacy of supporting or rejecting peaceful, democratic politics as a tool of struggle. During the course of the years of debates, as in secular revolutionary movements, there was a “ratcheting effect” in Islamist discourse towards progressively more radical, more militant and ever more takfirikhawairijte mythologizing tendencies that glorified barbaric violence, all of which was seen clearly in early 1990’s Algeria even before the rise of the Taliban [An important caveat: it is dubious that  liberal or democratic regimes would have changed the radicalization curve for Islamists much as these too would have been regarded as apostasy by Salafi militants, though there might have possibly been fewer of them, at least outside of Egypt].

With the Arab police states having cleared a space internally for Islamism to dominate underground political discourse the removal of the regimes themselves by American invasion, popular uprising abetted by foreign air support or foreign pressure did eventually enable the rise of ISIS. As much as the cruelty and corruption of the dictators drove their dissatisfied countrymen toward political Islam, they also had means to intimidate, contain or punish those who stepped too far out of line with great severity. No one doubted the ruthlessness of the Assads, Saddam’s willingness to employ terror or the Mad Colonel’s paranoid vindictiveness and when the surety of coercion and retribution disappeared, so too did the restraints on the freedom of action of Islamist radicals. American power was not a substitute for a fearsome native strongman. In the eyes of our enemies we were erratic and soft; capable of miraculous  military feats of devastation if sufficiently provoked, but usually culturally clueless where or when to use our power or against whom, often leaving allies in the lurch or ignoring them spitting in our faces. Instead of fearing the Americans the way they had feared Saddam, the worst jihadis like Zarqawi were emboldened to unleash the kind of medieval barbarism in Iraq that foreshadowed ISIS.

What alarms me regarding ISIS is that it is theologically a radical-apocalyptic Islamist movement blending insurgency, terrorism and conventional warfare that is also reviving the secular pageantry of Fascism with its grandiose mythmaking, blood rituals, compelling uniforms, Fuhrerprinzip and war-worship. It is an unholy combination that exudes a dark romanticism, a glamour of evil that rootless young Muslim men – a new generation of “armed bohemians” and “armed intellectuals” – find mesmerizing the way young Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Japanese did decades ago. Worse, while we may rightly laugh at the mummery of a dime store “Caliphate” and Islamists cribbing their P.R. style from Triumph of the Will, their success in manipulating deep cultural avatars as the key to power will inspire imitators in barbarism elsewhere that we can ill afford.

Fascism is dead – but it may not stay that way.


Pete Turner on “Collecting Instability”

Friday, June 12th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Collection Center Collects Instability

Pete Turner of The Break it Down Show had a powerful post that encapsulated what is wrong with the American approach to intervention in foreign societies, both in terms of our aid and development programs as well as COIN and military assistance of various kinds.

Collection Center Collects Instability 

….A good example of what we did involves things called Collection Centers, which our government built to afford Afghan farmers a place to showcase products to vendors. The Center is supposed to create greater revenue for farmers. Despite the best of intent, and a lot of hard work, the program was and remains an utter disaster.

Why has the program been such a flop?

We, the US, came in and established these centers without ever considering how the existing system worked. We never bothered to determine how changing the system might be accepted or rejected, or cause harm to those we intended to help. We didn’t consider if the Afghans even had a system (which, of course, they did).

Instead of defining the existing system and assessing whether or how our tool might address a need, we just came in and started changing things It didn’t work, and we barely cared that it didn’t; and we reported the opposite.-

An aside–the if you read the report, look for mentions of Afghan involvement in the process. You won’t find it.  

I spoke with an Army Major in charge of the program and asked him about the existing local market chain from grower to consumer. He admitted that he didn’t know about it. When I asked why he was trying to change it, I was met with silence.

We also never considered if we were creating a harmful situation for farmers, and that ignorance caused unexpected and undesirable outcomes. At the most basic level, Taliban fighters notice “western” influence. A farmer who uses (though they never actually did) the collection center is exposing his allegiance with the US and therefore putting his family and himself in jeopardy. Further, the farmer buyer relationship is established relationship. Changing the nature of their transaction is reckless in such a conservative, Taliban influenced place. What we can’t do is create a situation that is perceived to increase uncertainty for farmers.

We built these centers throughout Afghanistan. At every instance, covering multiple units, I observed the same poor US decision-making. We never bothered to involve our Afghan partners in the decisions and never allowed them to guide us on how to work within their system. We forced these centers upon the people of Afghanistan, and wasted more than money and resources in the process. We wasted opportunities to actually improve the lot of the farmer, which makes de-legitimizing the Taliban fighters more challenging.

Read the whole post here.

Turner wore many different hats in Iraq and Afghanistan but in one extended tour in Zabul, Pete worked closely with political science Professor Richard Ledet, who in addition to his scholarly expertise, was uncannily good at donning local attire and blending in with Afghan villagers.

Dr. Richard Ledet

Turner and his partner Jon, interviewed Ledet recently on their program:

What happens when an institution attempts to make changes intending to improve the lot of others? What if they ignore culture and fail to communicate with the people designed to receive a benefit from the change? We address these questions in ourepisode with Dr. Richard Ledet.

We are fans of Rich. He’s a warrior, professor, surfer, hunter, all-around brilliant, rugged dude. His current gig is working as a Poli Sci professor at Troy University in Troy Alabama. Rich and I worked together in Afghanistan studying how effective or “affective” our work was as US assets helping Afghans. It’s not common for Poli Sci professors to get so close to the ground truth, and then to be able to test our policy and strategic programs as they implemented at the lowest level. This experience, we believe, is fascinating and applies directly to the real world.

Listen to the interview here on The Break it Down Show.

Phineas Priesthood 2: The Tanakh

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — continuing exploration of the Phineas story as it leads to the recent Larry McQuilliams incident among others ]

Phineas vs Zimri & Cozbi


Paradise is depicted in many traditions as a garden — indeed the very word “paradise” (pardes) means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew. It is a place where the divine presence “walks with man in the cool of the day” — glorious phrase — a green and fruitful garden, rich in beauty and tranquility, where the purity of love is unsullied by despair or hatred.

In our scriptures, myths and rituals, we give expression to all that is noblest and most generous in our nature: the “peace that passeth all understanding” manages somehow to cross the great Cartesian divide between mind and body, promising us both inner peace of mind, and external relief from war and strife.

All is not well in this garden, however. Along with the refreshing breezes and the sounds of voices lifted in praise, our scriptures and religions also offer us reasons for killing and warfare, divinely sanctioned injunctions to the sword as well as to peace. One of the recorded sayings of Muhammad teaches that Paradise is found under the shade of swords.

Christ, too, is reported to have said he “came not to bring peace, but a sword”.

Like a perennial landmine in paradise garden, the story of Phineas (also spelled Phinehas or Pinchas) lies await in the Tanakh / Old Testament for some reader to take a wrong step and explode it once again.

Introducing this series in Phineas Priesthood I: Larry McQuilliams, I said:

Since I shall be discussing how the tale of Phineas / Pinchas / Phinehas has been used as offering divine scriptural sanction for acts of religiously-motivated killing, I shall chiefly focus on the negative implications of the tale .. Accordingly, I’d like to invite my friends in the Jewish and Christian scholarly communities, in particular, to assist me in the comments section by suggesting alternative ways of reading a story which in its most literal interpretation has been the cause of untimely and hateful deaths

That goes for the series as a whole. In later posts in this series I shall follow the trail of Phineas (the lone wolf) and touch on the Maccabees and Zealots (his “group” equivalents), first in the ancient world, and then more recently.


The story of Phineas is told in the book of Numbers / Bamidbar, chapter 25:

While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Every one of you slay his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord.

In all likelihood, I must have heard this passage read aloud at least once before the age of eighteen in the chapels of the British boarding schools I attended — yet I have no vivid childhood memory of a God who encourages mass hangings out in the open air. The God of my childhood and schooling was caring, loving, far-seeing (which I understood to be one of those divine omni-attributes, thus distinguishing him from my parents or teachers), and wise.

Thinking back on my time as a choir-boy, I imagine those sonorous phrases about the anger of the Lord, delivered in the splendid prose of the King James Version, must have rolled right over me, like Alan Bennett‘s reading of the text, “My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man” in his sermon in the satirical revue, On the Fringe — something along these lines:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” Here endeth the first lesson. Let us now sing Hymn five hundred and eighty seven, All Things Bright and Beatuiful.

God, however, has not finished with the Baal of Peor and those who worship it. But whereas in these first verses he had commanded Moses and the Judges of Israel to string some of his own chosen people up in the sun, the next episode describes an independent action taken by someone who knows His divine anger, knows His wishes, and does not need a direct command nor any official permission or sanction to act on that knowledge:

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation, and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the inner room, and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body. Thus the plague was stayed from the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

That’s a fairly graphic description of a double murder, particularly when one considers that the phrase “pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman, through her body” is generally taken to mean that Phinehas caught the pair of them in flagrante and speared them through their conjoined offending parts.

God, who according to other passages in scripture is Love, is distinctly pleased by this turn of events:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, `Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.”

Killing is killing, however, and it is only fitting that we should know the names of the victims. Our text continues:

The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, head of a fathers’ house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the head of the people of a fathers’ house in Midian.

Cozbi and Zimri: their names have not perished from memory.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Harass the Midianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”

From a counter-terrorist perspective, this is the incipit — chapter one in the still unfolding history of religio-political violence, and our first instance of the “lone wolf” operative.


As Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee notes in his article, Extremism and Zealotry: The Case of Pinchas, the story certainly appears to offer some sanction for religious violence.

At initial glance, this text appears to validate extremist ideology and behavior. An Israelite male and a Midianite female are engaged in publicly lewd behavior. God is angry and sends a plague. Moses appears to be incapacitated, possibly on account to his own marriage to a Midianite woman. So Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, decides to act on his own, grabs a spear, kills the offending couple, and the plague is stopped. Subsequently, God confers his “covenant of peace” upon Pinchas as a reward for his “zealotry.” Latter-day zealots in fact have modeled themselves upon the case of Pinchas.

In writing these posts, I take the story of Phineas as emblematic of all the apparent sanctions for religious violence (the “landmines in the garden” of my title) buried in the world’s scriptures, rituals, histories and hagiographies. But the issue is not restricted to Judaism alone, or Judaism and Christianity, or indeed the three Abrahamic religions. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita gives sanction to Arjuna‘s battlefield violence, and even Buddhism has a prophecy of a righteous war between the Buddhists and Islam in the very same Kalachakra Tantra that HH the Dalai Lama teaches — though in that case, the violence is envisioned as taking place centuries hence.


Perhaps not surprisingly, given its place within the scriptures of two great religions, this story of Phineas, Cozbi and Zimri echoes down the centuries.

It is first retold in Psalm 106, and again, I probably sang these words to the glorious four-part harmonies of the English choral tradition (at the 6.27 mark in this Guildford Cathedral rendition) in my childhood:

Then stood up Phinees and prayed * and so the plague ceased.
And that was counted unto him for righteousness * among all posterities for evermore.

This might seem to add nothing to the account in Numbers, but in fact a subtle shift is already taking place. As Bayme puts it, the Psalmist “quietly transformed the word for Pinchas’s zeal into one connoting prayer.”

It is often the case that the normative teachings of a great religion strongly promote peace and are at pains to offer alternative interpretations of such passages as the Phineas story, while individuals or extreme groups within them still refer to these “landmine” passages for religious sanction.


In the next section of this post I shall follow the trail of Phineas / Pinchas through the deutero-canonical Books of the Maccabees, in New Testamental, Talmudic and Patristic writings, and perhaps up through Milton and Brigham Young.

A final post will deal with Hoskin‘s book Vigilantes of Christendom, its tie in with Louis Beam‘s theory of “leaderless resistance” and related events of the last half-century or so — and the happily failed attempt at a massacre in Austin these last few days.

I have a lot of work before me, as well as much already written: I look forward to your pointers, corrections and support.

The Perils of Surprise

Monday, December 8th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

….Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. . .

Indeed we have remembered. Remembered much yet learned little.

As the number of WWII veterans decreases with each year, we should recall the visceral anger most Americans felt toward Japan at the time. It was a white hot rage that caused previously powerful isolationist sentiment to vanish overnight. Only with patient difficulty did FDR, Marshall and other senior American leaders persuade an aroused public of the imperative strategic need for a “Germany First” policy. Nazi Germany was the foe Americans knew we must defeat but the Imperial Japanese were the ones we hated.

Racism is usually trotted out as the trite explanation. While it is true most white Americans of that generation harbored  racist assumptions about East Asians this prejudice hardly stood in the way of warmly embracing Chiang Kai-shek’s China, or later figures like Syngman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem and the countries they led. No, what galled Americans was that the Japanese had taken us by surprise! The Japanese had embarrassed America by catching us with our pants down, but more importantly that had done it by cheating! They had, you see, attacked us by surprise.

The US government probably should not have been surprised. Imperial Japan struck Tsarist Russia’s far eastern fleet in much the same way in the Russo-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Navy had used the question of a hypothetical attack on Pearl Harbor for thirty years in training officer cadets. We were economically squeezing Japan’s access to oil and iron in an effort to hobble their war machine and pressure them into settlement with China and regurgitating their foreign conquests, at least some of them. Conquests which in the quasi-autarkic world of managed trade and western monopolies in raw materials that Japanese militarists saw as crucial for the survival for their empire. Coupled with intelligence warnings, we might have at least been on our guard.

We were not. Japan however, paid dearly for their stupendous triumph at Pearl Harbor. They reaped the whirlwind. So too did Germany. While Joseph Stalin may have been the only person in the world who was surprised when Hitler unleashed the blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union, he was the one person who mattered most. In the long run, it meant Germany’s utter ruin. Tactical surprise is a great advantage but it is hard. Converting tactical surprise into strategic success is a lot harder. While both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are enthusiastic regarding the potential of surprise, it is mostly on the tactical level and only rarely, as Clausewitz admitted, is it parlayed in the “higher provinces of strategy”. Instead we can expect, too often as he cautioned, “a sound blow in return”.

Why is this?

The reason is that humans are adaptive. If the blow by surprise is not lethal enough to finish them off or convince them to accept terms, after the initial shock and confusion subsides a thirst for revenge may come to the fore. Perhaps even at the expense of rational interests or self-preservation. They may be willing to change forever from what they were to become what can win.

Surprise is perilous.

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