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The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

My friend Dave Schuler who blogs at the excellent The Glittering Eye and on foreign policy at Dr. James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway , queried me as to what I thought of the Boston Bombers in light of the concept of the Superempowered Individual.

For those not familiar with the concept, the term “superempowered individual” originated in phrase coined by Thomas Friedman and quickly gained traction and evolved in the .mil/strategy/defense blogosphere and communities of interest after 9/11 turned everyone’s attention to the potential reach of catastrophic terrorism. Many people, including myself have written on the topic and while no single, agreed upon, definition of SEI exists, there is a consensus around an individual having the capacity to multiply the scale of the harm they can cause by leveraging or disrupting complex systems, be they mechanical, social, cyber or some combination. I defined SEI’s this way:

To qualify as a superempowered individual, the actor must be able to initiate a destructive event, fundamentally with their own resources, that cascades systemically on a national, regional or global scale. They must be able to credibly, “declare war on the world”.  

Using that definition, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are far from superempowered individuals. They were not “super” anything and rather than being masters of complexity, they ginned up some primitive IEDs  and blundered miserably after their attack on the Boston Marathon. The younger of the two accidentally ran over his own brother with a car, killing him, which gives some idea of the operational amateurism of these culprits. If Islamist terrorism has a Darwin Award, the Brothers Tsarnaev are contenders

Yet the cost of their attack, the Boston bombing, allegedly tops $330 million dollars? Why?

I would argue that the US is systematically “superdisempowering” itself by VASTLY multiplying the costs of any given act of terrorism with absurd and outrageous levels of costly security theater and glitzy paramilitarization of law enforcement that continue to cascade and accumulate long after sorry nitwits like Richard Reid, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or the amazingly incompetent Underwear Bomber have become obscure historical footnotes. It is incredibly counterproductive in every sense and has overwhelmingly negative effects that only add significantly to the costs of terrorism

Timothy McVeigh, in a much more heinous act of terrorism, blew up a Federal building and killed 168 people and injured 800 others with a massive truck bomb and America did not feel a need to dress our police officers like extras in Starship Troopers or it’s airport security like customs officials from a minor Fascist puppet regime. This is not a criticism of police officers who do a dangerous job with professionalism and bravery but of a national policy of paternalism and creeping authoritarianism that is slowly morphing them into asphalt soldiers.

The attacks on September 11 were thirty times worse and far more spectacular than McVeigh’s bombing, transfixing the attention of the whole world, but somehow we got along without President Bush declaring martial law and closing New York city and sending troops door to door to roust citizens in their homes without warrants or probable cause.

We need to take a healthy step back and put the brakes on our own policy and security responses to terrorism and dial them down to a rational minimum level required for investigative effectiveness. If not because these policies have become dangerously injurious to liberty and American democracy or because they are mostly wasteful government spending then we should do it because we have become so expert at making the costs of any act of terror extremely expensive by our own reaction that we are providing the enemy and itinerant crazies with a tremendous incentive to attack us more.


The only thing superempowered right now is own own lack of strategic sense.

On “Knowing How or Needing the Chance”

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Trying to catch up from the point when work swamped me last week.

My longtime amigo Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye voiced a disagreement with my post Ruminating on Strategic Thinking II. : Social Conditions which he set forth there, as well as in the comments section. Here’s Dave:

Knowing How or Needing the Chance? 

My blog friend Mark Safranski’s recent musings on the nature and sources of strategic thinking brought to mind an old politically incorrect joke whose punchline is “Know how; need chance.” He opens the post with a substantial list of strategic thinkers and then tries to find commonalities among them. I found his list of commonalities uncompelling. I don’t think these commonalities illuminate what strategic thinking is comprised of but rather what circumstances provide the greatest opportunity for strategic thinking.

For all we know the greatest strategic thinker of all time is sticking components onto a circuit board in Chengdu. We’ll never have the opportunity to see the results of her strategic thinking because she’s just struggling to make money to send to her parents back on the farm.

What “strategic thinking is composed of” – that is to say, the cognitive level behaviors – I speculated upon in part I – Ruminating on Strategic Thinking. I do not expect that I was successful in being comprehensive there, but I think that post is much closer to what Dave was alluding to above.

Part II was subtitled “Social Conditions”, which dealt with an informal case study of men “who had the chance”, the US leadership of WWII and the Cold War. Dave is correct that the human population of Earth or of a nation is statistically likely to yield a talent pool more able at strategic thinking than a subset of a  narrow elite groomed or self-selected for that purpose. However, the hypothetical potential of humanity at large does not provide me with case studies to examine they way that historical elites do, strategy often being intertwined with the holding and exercise of political power.

Part III, assuming I can get to it in a reasonable time frame, will look at activities that build an individual’s capacity for strategic thought


Anonymous and Master Roger, a review

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

 by J. Scott Shipman


Anonymous and Master Roger, Anonymous, Notary of King Béla The Deeds of the Hungarians, Master Roger’s Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars

 Back in June Zen posted a couple of mini book reviews, and David Schuler posted this comment: 

 “For moderns inclined to romanticize war in antiquity may I recommend The Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars?  It became available in English translation fairly recently and constitutes a first-hand account of the Mongol invasion of Hungary.  The violence, not only against persons and property, but against the land itself is notable and eye-opening.”

The title was enough to pique my interest, and since I knew very little of this period I went to Amazon UK and purchased a copy (US versions are prohibitively expensive) . That said, I didn’t expect to get around to reading for some time, but if I don’t “buy” a book while it is still on my mind, I’ll likely forget as the pile continues, “without ceasing” (to wax Biblical) to grow. For an obscure text, the introduction drew me in and I was hooked enough to read a few pages a day.

The book has ample and informative introductions to each work. The stories are presented in Latin on one page and English on the facing page.

The narratives are very different, Anonymous was a Notary to King Béla (circa 1196), and he recounts the deeds of Hungarian royalty, and the behind the scenes machinations of the royal court. Anonymous’ account was laced with both biblical and classic texts and was quite tedious, predictably obsequious but while at the same time offering up little snippets here and there—and often in the notes. A note in the section titled 40. The Victory of Prince Árpád, Anonymous wrote: “…for thirty four days and in that place the prince and his noblemen ordered all the customary laws of the realm and all its rights.” The editors included the following footnote with respect to “rights.”

 “The translation of ius (in contrast to lex, “law”) is a problem that is not only linguistic. Translators of Roman legal texts often retain ius, as it implies law, justice, rights along with all their connotations. Modern English does not distinguish lex from ius, Gesetz from Recht, or loi from droit, which may explain the generally supine Anglo-Saxon attitude towards the law and authority in general…”

Schuler was right in his description of Master Roger’s first hand account of the Tartar invasion (1241/42); horrific comes to mind. There is no romance. The brutality and ruthlessness of the Tartars is awe-inspiring and fearful 900 years removed. The tactics of the Tartars are textbook examples of psychological warfare before the term was coined—and their ability to “get inside” their adversaries decision-making loop (OODA, anyone?) was remarkable.

The ancient Sorrowful Lament story was reassuring of the power and resilience of the human spirit. The deprivations experienced by the Hungarians were not unique in human history, but serve to illustrate how resilient a people can be when things truly go to hell in a hand basket. When their leaders failed, the Hungarians found way to live in spite of their feckless unprepared leaders, and in spite of a ruthless, blood and booty thirsty enemy.

Anonymous and Master Roger is recommended to anyone wanting to understand the human condition, whether royalty, peasant, bureaucrat, or barbarian. This is an important book…for a “sorrowful lament” has much to teach us about the human condition and how little man changes. This highly eclectic little title comes highly recommended and many thanks to Dave for sharing.

Postscript: One remarkable thing about this book, printed in Hungary, is the high quality construction using good paper and string.

There are no references to share for this volume, however if this volume is indicative of their work, Central European Medieval Texts are to be commended and followed.

BTW, Joey recommended Millenium by Tom Holland and I’m about half-way through—excellent thus far!

Perhaps We Can Call it “The Crony Capitalist Council”

Monday, January 24th, 2011

I was going to post on this subject but Dave beat me to it:

Theodore Vail’s America

….Among the greatest barriers to innovation are the industrial giants like GE which have shed jobs at an alarming rate over the last 30 years while wielding intellectual property laws and political clout to crush upstart competitors which are hiring. One way of spurring innovation would be to get dinosaurs like GE, grown huge through rent-seeking, the hell out of the way. I doubt we’ll see suggestions in that vein from Jeffrey Immelt.

The only jobs Immelt will create in America are for K Street lobbyists to secure yet more government contracts for GE. Expect a blizzard of proposed agency regs and executive orders this year as the Oligarchy tries to lock in as much of a permanent rentier economy as they can before the next election cycle.

OTB Radio

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Dr. James Joyner, Dave Schuler and Col. Pat Lang discuss the Apache video, COIN, ROE, war in an information age, Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Sys Admin-Leviathan split and Hamid Karzai at OTB Radio. A good discussion.

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