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The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment

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.

24 Responses to “The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment”

  1. joey Says:

    Great post, needed to be said.

    The militarization of the Police began before Islamic terrorism was a domestic issue,  and it looks set to continue long after.
    As long as the general population has access too, and by extension the criminal fraternity, mil spec weaponry, the police will need body Armour and G36’s AR’s or whatever.  This is a natural escalation of force.  In Boston we got to see them get a chance to wear it all at once.
    For the same reason the revolver was phased out of use among police forces, the high capacity semi will be augmented by assault rifles.  It is a price we are paying for liberal gun laws in a violent society.

    Part of the problem is that the Police don’t want to leave them selves open to charges of not doing enough.
    Its the precautionary principle.

    Realistically, what would you think would happen if a serious terrorist attack happened in NY now,  with the lightly-hood of follow up attacks?

  2. Critt Jarvis Says:

    Oh, if you happen to be someone doing an after action case study, please report the hospital data on incidents of “friendly fire” (officer on officer) as well as how those incidents came to be.

  3. Gray Hat Says:

    All points in the OP are valid and important — but what if the reduction of the citizenry to passive dependency is not a bug, but a feature?  What if — to enough of the relevant decision-makers — the opportunity to increase the power of the state and its officers is in fact valued more highly than the security and prosperity of the nation? Then the behavior you describe is rational, though ruinous.

  4. Mr. X Says:

    Thank you for this Zen. Or we can be like the commenters  over at the thread about Alex Jones at National Review who don’t even appear to be Americans (Britspeech isms like ‘the lot’ etc) and admire how much money DHS is saving by buying ammo in bulk just to spite the tin foil hat wearing bitter clingers. How about just saying Jones may be wrong but DHS is insane?

  5. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    RE: “It is incredibly counterproductive in every sense and has overwhelmingly negative effects that only add significantly to the costs of terrorism.”

    It is theater.  These two were bumbling fools; other bumbling fools might be dissuaded from bumbling after seeing the response:  not the end of terrorism, of course, nor even of bumbling, but surely a disincentive.   The show was also for the populace, which might counteract somewhat the knee-jerk hysteria and fear that such terrorist acts require for their success.

    Also keep in mind that we did not know that these were two bumbling fools until after all of those resources had been deployed.  I’m more irritated when I see massive expenditures used against actors we already know are acting solo, like the manhunt for Christopher Dorner in California—there, you saw great numbers of law enforcement from many jurisdictions just milling about for hours on end.


    While I agree in general with your distinction between these two bombers and superempowerment, I also think that superempowerment is inherently a relative descriptor.  That’s from the “super-“.   Another aspect of “super-“—and where it gains some of its “power”—is the relative inequality of empowerment.  Adam Lanza was temporally superempowered vs. the 5- & 6-year-olds in that classroom.  Most Americans alive today are vastly superempowered compared to most Americans who lived 150 years ago, due to economic and technological empowerments.  While it may be true that definitions of superempowerment might seem to be diminished from such a relative application, I tend to think that dismissing the very central nature of the relativity implied by the term would be to turn too blind an eye to these issues.        

  6. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Most Americans today are vastly more underpowered than Americans who lived 150 years ago. They are vastly more underpowered than any Americans living before the eve of World War II.


    America’s original genius wasn’t rugged individualism or cheap land or some other contemporary mischaracterization or deceit. It was the American capacity to form ruggedized versions of Burke’s “little platoons”, effective local groups for the practical exercise of collective self-government (with or without the veneer of formal local institutions). That led them to be vastly stronger than most contemporary Americans can even imagine from the example of today’s milquetoast equivalents.


    On the positive side, this led to cooperative efforts like private charity. On the negative side, it led to lynch mobs. You incur the plusses and minuses of both when locals exercise real instead of nominal collective self-government. The long-term ambition of centralizing elites in this country since before its founding has been to suppress local collective self-government in favor of remote bureaucratic fiat. They’ve been able to piggyback realization of their agenda onto real and unfortunate local majority abuse of local minorities as well as a desire to “clean-up” and “professionalize” government through rule by dispassionate trained expertise instead of enthusiastic amateurism.


    In 1859, when John Brown and friends seized Harpers Ferry (a professionalized Federal military installation) from its sleepy night watchman, they were quickly attacked, first by sporadic gunfire from nearby shopkeepers and farmers and then by larger, more organized bodies of men as the local militia machinery kicked into gear. When Colonel Bobby Lee (who happened to be in town on personal business and wore his civilian clothes throughout) and a detachment of Marines (the only Federal troops available) reached Harpers Ferry the day after, their job was as much to protect Brown and his surviving men from the locals as it was to stop Brown himself.


    The citizens of Boston, organized, armed, and disciplined to operate as units in a well-regulated militia, would have been a far more effective force for suppressing Chechen separatism within the Greater Boston metropolitan area than the showy dispatch of regulars to roam the streets ineffectually while American citizens huddled like sheep (and potential hostages) in their homes as well as one more amenable to the spirit of the American republic. We can look on and wonder if “dispassionate” trained expertise proved any more reliable in this incident than enthusiastic “amateurism”.


    Unlike the French, the American commonwealth’s revolution wasn’t to innovate new liberties amidst an ancient miasma of despotism: it was founded to preserve rights and liberties that already existed and were already actively practiced and exercised.

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    L.C. Rees: You are simply incorrect.  You have failed to imagine modern Americans armed with AR-15s fighting 19th C. American militants using 19th C. weaponry; you have failed to imagine how any American today could a) research IEDs on the Internet, b) find necessary supplies within a short drive from home, c) have ample financial resources to buy those supplies, d) OR, travel overseas and back in a matter of days or weeks (depending on resources/training) rather than spend months one-way—and months coming back—making those connections.


    You have failed to consider the mobility of modern Americans, whether this is traveling cross-county in horseless carriages or airplanes—as, across national borders—or whether this “mobility” includes the ability to move and set up shop (or bases, or homes) largely unnoticed amid a crowd of other strangers.  The ability to job-hop is another modern empowerment related to this mobility.
    You have failed to consider the empowerment of a 40-hr workweek:  Time, free time.  I suppose you could even include welfare programs into this category; plus, the generally vastly improved economic empowerment of modern Americans (less time working to survive means being empowered to do other things with that time; less time working to position for acquisition of supplies and resources, also.)


    Just because this empowerment may be “wasted” or unused —unleveraged—doesn’t mean it does not exist.  Additionally, since this empowerment in modern America is more broadly dispersed among the population, intranational superempowerment in modern America may seem less likely than the 19th C. Americans’ ability to form lynch mobs at the drop of a hat.    You shouldn’t be fooled by the illusion however. [And besides which, I was comparing modern Americans to 19th C. Americans—I was not comparing (Modern Americans vs Modern Americans) to (19th Americans vs 19th Americans). ]  

  8. Lynn C. Rees Says:



    The positive features of modern Americans “super-empowerment” you enumerate derive from lingering cultural habitus rooted in social capital built-up by the efforts of 300 years worth of Americans and 1500 years worth of Britons before them. Social capital that many, lacking the practical arts of social ecology, crudely clearcut and strip mine with a robber baron abandon many of them would loudly condemn if it was done to physical ecosystems.


    Modern Americans are being reduced by deleterious ideologies of both left and right to feeble atomized individuals. They are expected to act on demand as conveniences for elite factions, whether as fodder for labor commoditization, loyal clients of a therapeutic bureaucracy, or receptive consumer of commercial products. In all cases, they are expected to be docile “human resources” that can be frictionlessly repackaged, sold, and gamed as economic rents for elite fun and profit.


    You can characterize this condition in many ways. You can leave it a desert and call it liberty. You can bombard American society with such super-empowerment until its fabric is so flattened that the only thing you do bounce the pebbles. A few more doses of such super-empowerment and we are undone.


    You call this “individual empowerment”, even super-empowerment. I call it divit et impera: divide and rule. When the texture of society is rich, creamy, and smooth, it’s easier for aspiring powers that be to swallow it whole. When its lumpy, packed with fiber and roughage, even laced with clumps of who knows what with lots of sharp, pointy edges, it’s far more difficult.


    40-hour workweeks? It, and other, often less obvious innovations of the late 19C-early 2OC like old-age pensions (Social Security in America), unemployment insurance, the single breadwinner wage, the replacement of piece work with regular wages, or removal of women and children from routinized labor were products of a much more lumpy and engaged society populated with grassroots organizations, labor unions, and other non-state actors. And today elite agendas are seeking to roll back even those.


    These days households often work 80-hour workweeks, if you include both parents, if you’re lucky to have both parents still in the household. My Mom had no ambition to work outside the home. With the traditional family under a two-front attack by activist government social policy and resentful corporate interests intent on rollback, she found herself a single mother with six kids without a single breadwinner wage and the need for not only one empowering job but two and sometimes three.


    I know plenty of people in the same boat, fully empowered with 15 hours a days worth of not particularly rewarding employment. Their time is consumed by the increasing effort necessary to keep from falling into the (rich by world standards) poverty I only know from my grandparent’s stories of life before World War II. Everyone is so super-empowered and yet everyone wonders where all their time gets to.


    Given how every digital network attached device manufactured today has a unique Media Access Controller (MAC) address with a standard IEEE issued manufacturers prefix generally coupled with an Internet Protocol (IPv4) address issued in blocks to specific organizations and usually geographically concentrated, tyranny in the Internet Age has been smoothed using the same sorts of technological means used in the past: people are usually happy to surrender liberty in exchange for baubles or a bit of ribbon.


    Why embed GPS tracking devices in roads like some conspiracy-addled acquaintances of mine once feared? Package that same GPS tracking device, make it capable of acquiring an IPv4 address for its MAC address, and sell it as a status differentiator. Once it has a unique MAC address and geographically differentiated IP address, you have a surveillance device that previously only existed in the most fevered of secret policeman’s dreams.


    There has been a digital honeymoon period while the mechanisms of the state figured out how to deal with this problem one of its own research institutes created. Assuming that honeymoon period is destined to last would be foolish. Declaring it a sea change that guaranteed permanent liberty for all time as the DotCom era preached is idiotic. Looking at the mundane reality of the networked future, made of bendy but breakable fiber optic cables and jammable EM signals, of patch panels and data centers concentrated in particular areas for energy efficiency, the digital leg of your individual empowerment looks wobbly.


    Habeus corpus: Latin: “may you have body”. This captures the reality of the state’s preponderance of violence: no matter where your packets or IED plans or mobile individual go, the individual can always be reduced to a water sack filled with interesting carbon molecules and data has to come to rest on real physical storage stuff, whether rust or silicon. The state may be befuddled by networked digital communications at the moment but it has millennia of experience having the body and having the body’s stuff and nothing in the nature of today’s transient institutional or technological arrangements has negated that experience.


    The ideological logjam that dominates Western polities while their incumbent factions tussle over what dwindling rents can still be wrung from the sweat of a citizenry rapidly dissolving into subjecthood and that makes the state seem secularly crippled forever is not in fact an intrinsic and universal sea change in human nature or activity but merely the excited froth of a narrow and passing moment of time.


    You can take your lonesome loser in the dark. You can take his or her anarchists cookbook, his or her unobserved grievances, and his or her ability to kill a few people, titillate a depleted and enervated audience, and provide fodder for political machinations of which he or she is profoundly unaware and call him or or her a super-anything more powerful than any 19C American could imagine. But they you would have failed to consider or imagine the super-empowerment of those who have both 19C American social cohesion and the real potency of 21st century cultural and technological accoutrements.


    I don’t need to consider or imagine it. I live it every day. In the meantime, I prefer to contain state power the old fashioned way: power counteracting power, interest checking interest, ambition frustrating ambition, and a social fabric so chunky and mined with sharp razors that any Leviathan that tries to swallow it will either choke to death or die of fatal internal bleeding. Nothing in the fine mist of your super-empowered moderns strikes me as an improved way of doing that compared with the proven track record of earlier models. Power may be more widely dispersed than 150 years ago but if that power is spread so thin on the ground that at no point it can effectively bring a concentration or preponderance of that power to bear at any point than it’s little more than vanity, vexation of spirit, and a striving after wind.

  9. larrydunbar Says:

    “L.C. Rees: You are simply incorrect.”

    I don’t think he is completely incorrect.

    I mean, the 2nd amendment has been watered down so much that all it really means is a licence for gun companies to sell their products.  Americans are being taught to shoot, but only 1% are being taught how to kill. Big difference. 

  10. joey Says:

    “I mean, the 2nd amendment has been watered down so much that all it really means is a licence for gun companies to sell their products.  Americans are being taught to shoot, but only 1% are being taught how to kill. Big difference. ”

    In the military soldiers are taught to kill through a mixture of Pavlovian and operant conditioning,  with one important cravat, they kill under military orders.  When the second amendment was drawn up they were not aware that conditioning was nessessary for the vast majority of normal people to become killers.  This is a post WW2 innovation.

    Expanding this conditioning to the civilian population without the constraint of military command  would have horrific results.  
    You can see this conditioning at play in the film Full Metal Jacket.  To my mind the best film showing how you take a normal man and bit by bit remove his innate, and human resistance to killing. 

  11. larrydunbar Says:

    Obviously you Curtis was taught how, but I have to wonder if Rees has.

    I mean, modern Americans with a AR-15 are useless, because they are not organize. You seem to believe they are Oriented towards some advantage. 

    The NRA is a corporate entity that demands a gun at every position, but that is about as far as the culture of the NRA goes. They are teaching their people how to shoot (buy), but little else. 

    Of course this is probably not true for the skinheads or anarchists, which I presume you are not oriented towards.  

  12. larrydunbar Says:

    ” with one important cravat, they kill under military orders. ”

    And, in the US military, they fight to protect the person standing next to them in battle, i.e., command and control.

    “When the second amendment was drawn up they were not aware that conditioning was nessessary for the vast majority of normal people to become killers.”

    Not killers, but an organization of militia to protect the homeland, much like the Shia in Iraq.

    Obviously, under the second amendment we don’t need a militia, just some fun at the firing range pulling the trigger on an AR-15, which we just bought over the internet, or have taken from our mothers, coooool.

  13. T. Greer Says:

    Strongly on Lynn’s side here. Heck, what he says is so on target that it deserves its own post.


    Alexis de Tocquville described the power of the “little platoons” of American society as thus:

    “Anyone living in the United States learns from birth that he must rely upon himself to combat the ills and obstacles of life; he looks across at the authority of his society with mistrust and anxiety, calling upon such authority only when he cannot do without it….

    [By way of example], should an obstacle appear on the public highway and the passage of traffic is halted, neighbors at once form a group to consider the matter; from this improvised assembly an executive authority appears to remedy the inconvenience before anyone has thought of the possibility of some other authority already in existence before the one they have just formed.”


    – Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin Books), p 220. 

    Tocqueville’s description highlights two aspects of the “Little Platoon” that allowed them to function so well: 1) social capital 2) independence. Both of these have been shorted in modern times.


    1) Social Capital. Depending on the context, social capital has been called many different things  – solidarity, social cohesion, asabiyah, collective power, etc. All of these terms try to describe or measure the way social networks unite individuals into something larger – something that can act. While institutions can be built around flows of social capital, they have more trouble creating these networks ex nihilo. Tocqueville’s highway dwellers didn’t just gather together to fix the problem because self interest drove them to do so – they gathered together because they were connected. It was not just that they had good enough relations with their neighbor they could ask him for help; they were united by a sense of cohesion. An American “taught to rely on himself” naturally worked with his neighbors and networks to solve his problems. That is what social capital does.

    That was in the 1830s. Two centuries later we are a world apart; social capital has been declining for 50 years. Baby Boomers started it; one generation has followed another since that point and things just keep getting worse. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is the book to read here. His work has been summarized many times elsewhere, so I won’t repeat things here. 

    2) Independence. Early Americans were independent. Or rather, they lived in independent communities. While they were certainly connected to the wider world, they were far less dependent on international, national, or even regional systems than their counterparts today. We have traded independence for productivity. As I argued in an earlier essay:

    The raison d’etre of survivalism is a subject much discussed on this blog: the proper balance between between resilience and efficiency. Robustness and facility are two virtues fundamentally at odds, and all complex systems, be they organismseconomies, or militaries, are subject to the trade off between them. While the relation between specialization and efficiency was noted by both Xenophon and Ibn Khaldun centuries earlier, widespread acceptance of the “drag” redundancy places on a system’s productivity did not come until publication of Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of NationsMr.Smith uses the example of a pin factory to teach the general principle….
    Mr. Smith does not present the primary drawback of this arrangement. With efficiency comes fragility. Ten men working by their lonesome produce a paltry number of pins, but the faults of one man do not destroy the efforts of another.  In contrast, if something happens to one of the ten factory men and; his equipment, no pins get made and the factory must shut down. One bad cog puts a stop to the entire machine..For the survivalist this is a problem pervading not only the pin factories, but all of modern society. Over the last century two trends have decidedly shifted society’s balance away from robustness and towards efficiency. Modern dependence on technology and the specialized knowledge needed to maintain it is the first of these trends; the second is the fusion of local communities with the global economy and larger political units. The day is past where a man is expected to know how to repair all that is on his property, grow his own food, or make and use his own fuel. In some cases this is simply the fruits of geographic isolation and economic specialization – the knowledge needed to raise livestock and plant crops is quite useless to the city dweller. Other cases reflect the ‘division of knowledge’ that inevitably comes with man’s growing understanding of and ability to manipulate the universe in which he dwells (e.g. few Americans know how to build a hard drive, much less a nuclear power plant). The rise of multinational conglomerates and global supply networks ensure that most of what we need is made far away; the eclipse of local civic and political institutions by national agencies erodes our communities’ capacity to solve problems without outside help. What we are left with is a culture of dependency, so ingrained as to be seen in our aesthetics….


    (Sorry about the colors and all that – no idea how to get rid of it with this blog comments feature. I encourage interested readers to read the whole thing, btw; the rest of the post’s content is relevant to the idea of super-empowered individuals.) 

    We have lost independence in two ways: 1) There is a general culture of dependence, closely linked with declining social capital. People have just forgotten how to do things on their own and are all too happy to let the distant state and businesses do it for them.  2) It has actually gotten quite a bit harder to do things “on one’s own” – few and far between are the communities who can claim that they eat what they harvest, use what they make, or fight with what is theirs. 


    19c America can be described as system of several hundred self sufficient groups who occasionally worked in concert at higher and higher levels of power. For all that rugged individualism stuff we see on TV, individuals rarely left the group – but groups often left the system. It was easy for whole villages and peoples to pick up and move West if they wanted to. They knew that they could provide for their own survival, needs, and defense if they did so. 21c America is so different. Here the individual has been given far greater power than any of his 19c fore-bearers – but only if he plugs into the giant international system that America now is. 


    Individualism has proved America’s greatest treasure and her most damning curse. In the name of empowering individuals (and I mean this in the traditional, social mobility, meritocracy sense) power was stripped from communities and networks and given straight to individuals – but power came at the price of dependence. And that really is not power at all.  

  14. Mr X Says:

    The debate between Mr Rees and Mr Dunbar resembles nothing so much as pitting a modern MSNBC host against William Jennings Bryan. At any rate the complaint seems to be that we have lots of guns but not the well organized militia part, and that muskets were not the assault weapons of their day (despite Bob Owens and other gun bloggers addressing this point by correctly stating that the Framers lived to see the cusp of the rifle age as well as primitive multi shot cannons or it machine guns).

    I would strongly tend toward Mr Rees outlook. Our forebears would’ve never tolerated the genital grope at the airport which for a growing number of ‘bitter clingers’ represents our culture’s ultimate act of yschosexusl submission to the Moloch state. Remember that May Day was an occult holiday before it became ‘Loyalty Day’ (and why pray tell Rachel Maddow do we need such a roclamation now anymore than we need hundreds of millions of undisputed rounds for DHS or a DoD threat to court martial would be proselytizes at the behest of neo Bolshevik weirdos complaints that discussing Jesus between soldiers constitutes rape and treason?)

  15. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:


    RE: “I don’t think he is completely incorrect.”


    I think L.C. Rees’s problems grasping these issues do no result from a failure to “learn how to kill” so much as a failure to create a dependable time machine.  His comments seem to reflect an inability to spend much time in the 19thC. before having to whisk back into modernity.  He did not have enough time to survey 19th C. Asian immigrants, Irish immigrants, African-Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, atheists, Catholics, and Mormons about their relative access to the levers of power—whether bolt-action levers or economic, political, and economic levers.


    This error manifests fatefully in, for instance, his apparent claim that modern business elites and the modern government have a terribly deleterious effect on modern Americans unlike 19th C. business elites and governments did not possess or exceed.  So he didn’t have time to interview those groups.  I would think that the 19th C. Mormons and Native Americans at least might have had something to say about governmental powers; or, really, anyone in the South — black or white — circa 1861, if you allow under the heading “governmental powers” both federal and state powers.


    To bring the discussion back to modern-day Boston and away from the narrower Rightist victimhood ideology that this thread has brought bubbling up to the surface, we might wonder if 19th C. immigrants like the Irish or Asians had access to resources or general empowerments equivalent to those accessed by the Tsarnaev brothers with relative ease.  This is an important consideration when contemplating the subject of superempowerment.  Rees’s apparent solution,

    “The citizens of Boston, organized, armed, and disciplined to operate as units in a well-regulated militia, would have been a far more effective force for suppressing Chechen separatism within the Greater Boston metropolitan area…”

    could be expressed metaphorically in 19th C. terms as, “The Irish should have stayed Irish!”  Or, perhaps a closer metaphor would be, “The Asians should have stayed Asians!”

    I am not at all certain that such an approach is viable today.  


    But I have already addressed somewhat the “backward-looking crab” orientation Rees exhibits in a blog post I recently posted, referencing Nietzsche.


    Another reference to Nietzsche might include his idea re: ressentiment.  I’m not going to drill down on that here, but I will allude to one of my contributions to the 5GW Handbook — don’t have it handy, but I think this is from that — and say that a relative equalization of powers might seem like a general weakening of all.  There I used the metaphor from the Pixar movie The Incredibles.  The young son laments, “But if everyone is special, then no one is special!” after his mother tells him that everyone is special in his or her own way.  You see, that kid wanted to use his superpowers because they made him feel special.  In a world of superheroes — or, of the superempowered — would any individual seem super-empowered?  Perhaps a general leveling of powers might make some feel especially weak.  Fortunately for 19th C. Americans, unequal access to empowerments allowed many to feel special; and, many in our modern American have a nostalgic longing for that.  [And those abroad who feel the creeping equalization also long for a return to feeling special.  Some of those act out accordingly.]



  16. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    [Sorry for the various typos and apparent haste in the above comment. I’m not at my native workstation.  I feel so weak.  Pity me.]

  17. Diente Negro Says:

    Hey Rees, as an Army Special Forces medic, I’ve seen many professionals commit common firearm mistakes (even a fellow green beret shoot himself in the foot). I don’t think it’s prudent to trust the average citizen without law enforcement or military level training with assault rifles. The Aurora colorado shooting or Boston marathon bombing would’ve seen a lot more collateral damage from people taking random pot shots if more people have been armed.

  18. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Diente Negro:


    I agree. Note the core of my comment above:


    organized, armed, and disciplined to operate as units in a well-regulated militia


    Its word selection deliberately echoes Article I Section II Clause 16 of the U.S. Constitution where the powers delegated to the United States Congress are outlined:


    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;


    My opinion is that martial competence needs to:


    1. Be widespread among the American people so there isn’t a dangerous concentration of such skills in any particular section or demographic.


    2. Be utilized in coherent enough groups that effective small and large unit tactics can be used.


    Such dispersal coupled with coherent locally raised units was a critical aspect of Amendment II to the U.S. Constitution and many of the Revolutionary-era state constitutions that inspired it. Many right-wing yahoos of my acquaintance seem to believe that their individual right to keep and bear arms is a sufficient check on centralizing forces within the United States, if worse ever came to worse. Apparently they figure they’ll be able to take their .22s, rush out on their own initiative, and shoot down the black helicopters or whatever tyranny from above they’ve glommed onto this week.


    I support an individual right to keep and bear arms but Amendment II combines two elements. These two elements, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” and “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” were often more clearly stated in pre-1787 state constitutions:


    (Thomas Jefferson) Draft Constitution for Virginia; June 1776




    No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands].


    Standing Armies


    There shall be no standing army but in time of actual war.


    The Constitution of Virginia; June 29, 1776


    SEC. 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.


    Constitution of Pennsylvania – September 28, 1776


    III. That the people of this State have the sole, exclusive and inherent right of governing and regulating the internal police of the same.



    VIII. That every member of society hath a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property, and therefore is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expence of that protection, and yield his personal service when necessary, or an equivalent thereto: But no part of a man’s property can be justly taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent, or that of his legal representatives: Nor can any man who is conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, be justly compelled thereto, if he will pay such equivalent, nor are the people bound by any laws, but such as they have in like manner assented to, for their common good.



    XIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.



    SECT. 5. The freemen of this commonwealth and their sons shall be trained and armed for its defence under such regulations, restrictions, and exceptions as the general assembly shall by law direct, preserving always to the people the right of choosing their colonels and all commissioned officers under that rank, in such manner and as often as by the said laws shall be directed.



    SECT. 43. The inhabitants of this state shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times on the lands they hold, and on all other lands therein not inclosed; and in like manner to fish in all boatable waters, and others not private property


    Constitution of Maryland – November 11, 1776


    XXV. That a well-regulated militia is the proper and natural defence of a free government.


    XXVI. That standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept up, without consent of the Legislature.


    XXVII. That in all cases, and at all times, the military ought to be under strict subordination to and control of the civil power.


    Constitution of North Carolina: December 18, 1776


    XVII. That the people have a right to bear arms, for the defence of the State; and, as standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.


    Constitution of Georgia; February 5, 1777


    ART. XXXV. Every county in this State that has, or hereafter may have, two hundred and fifty men, and upwards, liable to bear arms, shall be formed into a battalion; and when they become too numerous for one battalion, they shall be formed into more, by bill of the legislature; and those counties that have a less number than two hundred and fifty shall be formed into independent companies.


    The Constitution of New York : April 20, 1777


    XL. And whereas it is of the utmost importance to the safety of every State that it should always be in a condition of defence; and it is the duty of every man who enjoys the protection of society to be prepared and willing to defend it; this convention therefore, in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State, doth ordain, determine, and declare that the militia of this State, at all times hereafter, as well in peace as in war, shall be armed and disciplined, and in readiness for service. That all such of the inhabitants of this State being of the people called Quakers as, from scruples of conscience, may be averse to the bearing of arms, be therefrom excused by the legislature; and do pay to the State such sums of money, in lieu of their personal service, as the same; may, in the judgment of the legislature, be worth.(12) And that a proper magazine of warlike stores, proportionate to the number of inhabitants, be, forever hereafter, at the expense of this State, and by acts of the legislature, established, maintained, and continued in every county in this State.


    Constitution of Vermont – July 8, 1777


    IX. That every member of society hath a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty and property, and therefore, is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expense of that protection, and yield his personal service, when necessary, or an equivalent thereto; but no part of a man’s property can be justly taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent, or that of his legal representatives; nor can any man who is conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, be justly compelled thereto, if he will pay such equivalent; nor are the people bound by any law’ but such as they have, in like manner, assented to, for their common good.



    XV. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State; and, as standing armies, in the time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.



    SECTION V. The freemen of this Commonwealth, and their sons, shall be trained and armed for its defence, under such regulations, restrictions and exceptions, as the general assembly shall, by law, direct; preserving always to the people, the right of choosing their colonels of militia, and all commissioned officers under that rank, in such manner, and as often, as by the said laws shall be directed.



    SECTION XXXIX. That the inhabitants of this State, shall have liberty to hunt and fowl, in seasonable times, on the lands they hold, and on other lands (not enclosed;) and, in like manner, to fish in all beatable and other waters, not private property, under proper regulations, to be hereafter made and provided by the General Assembly.


    In many cases, this comes down to which is a more potent threat to the liberty of a republic: volunteer regulars or empaneled militia. Militia was deemed the less potent threat and that assumption is baked into our institutional arrangements on some level. However, the arrangement was not for yahoos with .22s stopping the UN (a favored right-wing conspiracy acolyte’s target) with ad-hoc creativity. It was for a “well-regulated”, meaning organized, armed, and disciplined, militia capable at least of controlling territory in times of rebellion and slowing down attacks from enemy regulars at least until American regulars were concentrated. While America militia has a mixed record against enemy regulars, it had strengths if properly trained and properly deployed (such as at Cowpens or New Orleans). Its real contribution during the Revolution was maintaining local order, securing their localities, and suppressing enemy irregulars (such as seen in the capture of Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s liaison with the British, by an American militia patrol, which frustrated Arnold’s plot to turn over West Point to the British).


    The ideal implementation would resemble that discussed in detail by ZP’s own J. Scott Shipman in his excellent review of America in Arms by Brig. Gen. John McCauley Palmer.

  19. T. Greer Says:

    I think we are missing something in this conversation. We’ve debated whether or not American society has super-empowered individuals. The real question is not if individuals have been super-empowered – it is what have individuals been super empowered to do?


    I am ready to concede that the random individual on the street in 21c America has a greater capacity for violence than the random individual in 19c America had. One lone nut can deal more death and cause more destruction today than his antebellum counter part could in his day. If that is all super-empowerment means, then sure, 21c wins.


    But violence does not happen in a vacuum. Most violence has an avowed political purpose. This is what is missing from this discussion. The question should not be: have we super-empowered individuals to create violence? But, have we super empowered individuals to create political change through violent means?


    I am far from convinced that the 21st century individual has been super-empowered in such a manner. He can only disrupt a system that he is utterly dependent upon. He can destroy himself – and perhaps once biotech matures he will be able to destroy everyone else as well – but that does not mean he can change the system or its structures. 

  20. Mr. X Says:

    Apologize for the typos in the slight rant above. This comment will be much more to the point:

    “Apparently they figure they’ll be able to take their .22s, rush out on their own initiative, and shoot down the black helicopters or whatever tyranny from above they’ve glommed onto this week.”

    This is a line I keep seeing all over the interweb comment streams, to the extent that I care to wade into the open sewer that is the Salon.com comment threads (or heck, these days, the National Review comment threads under the article about the Austin, Texas-based agit host Alex Jones which ‘oddly’ enough, seems dominated by liberal/progressives who may not even be Americans rather than NR’s alleged center-right readership). Even Chris Matthews asked Stewart Rhodes of Oath Keepers this question when he didn’t like discussing the ‘not on our watch’ and ‘we won’t just be following orders’ aspects of OKs, and needed to steer the conversation in the predictable MSNBC koolaid drinking direction. “How do you expect to stand up against the might of the U.S. military with your AR-15s?” Short answer Chris: nobody does. But it isn’t necessary. All that is necessary to spite a would be 1984 level tyranny in this country is merely for some resistance to EXIST somewhere until the tyrants collapse under their own weight and illegitimacy.

    The 3 percenters say they don’t have to fight the whole U.S. military at any time and never plan to do so (contra Harry Reid’s rant on the U.S. Senate floor a few weeks ago about ‘false flags’ and ‘black helicopters’). They only need fight those ‘elite’ (read: brainwashed) units willing to carry out unconstitutional or illegal orders to kill fellow Americans under extreme circumstances. Purely from ZP’s 4th Gen Warfare and theoretical perspectives you’d be surprised at the sophistication of the materials you find on just two of the leading 3 percenter websites, Sipsey Street Irregulars and Western Rifle Shooters just to name two. In particular, Mike Vanderbough (sp?) at SSI points out that in a full fledged mass gun confiscation scenario many military would likely defect to the ‘insurrectionist’ (aka Constitutional restorationist) side. That alone would make any mass martial law scenario a very tricky affair if the ‘rebels’ already have access to a few Javelins, or even their own jets or drones.

    The vast majority of the U.S. military if given fascist orders on a mass scale (read: not a select incident like Katrina or Boston, and given the awareness of the post-Katrina gun confiscation a Katrina nationwide scenario gets harder to implement with every ‘awake’ military member)…would probably just stand down. As Rhodes points out, like their counterparts in East Germany or the USSR in 1989-1990.

    A minority — perhaps sadly a growing dumbed down minority — might fight, to the cheers of the sickos that populate the Salon comment threads itching for a final solution to the bitter clinger problem. They’ll initially encounter nearly nil resistance until running into a buzzsaw once the word gets out that mass confiscations/arrests are underway. And then it would all come apart.

    No, that kind of tyranny can only be ‘pulled off’ if it is implemented gradually, and if a national security force that is ‘just as a large, just as strong, and just as well funded’ can be created alongside the military. Hence the massive interest in the DHS ammo/armored vehicles and select personnel buildup.

    All this talk from the likes of Reid about 2A being about fighting the military if a tyranny is attempted in this country is a distraction, a sideshow, and a red herring. The 2A exists as a DETERRENT, much like all those nukes sitting in silos during the Cold War. If Cyprus had had a 2A, would the EUrocrats have readily contemplated a mass confiscation of savers deposits there? There is all sorts of badness a power crazed psychopath may contemplate towards a population that becomes much dicier if there’s just one guy out there with a scoped rifle. Call it the lefty argument against gun control — do you really want the masters of the drone kill and their bankster overlords to face a completely disarmed and powerless civilian population?

  21. Mr. X Says:

    And last comment on this thread: after looking at the comments below Salon.com David Sirota’s latest act of SPLC or (perhaps) White House inspired trolling of the bitter clingers, I’ve come to the conclusion that some sort of pysop is underway to get as many Americans at each other’s throats as possible (fortunately we’re talking about addled minorities of minorities here as even the Fox or MSNBC watchers mostly are passive, hence I expect more sound and fury rather than actual violence from this provokatsey) and to piss off as many of the people our President once referred to as ‘bitterly clinging to guns and religion’ as possible.

    Consider in just the past week:

    1) The DoD has allegedly implemented a plan to court martial those who share their Christian faith in the ranks and hired a raving anti-Christian lunatic to advise on this plan (per Breitbart). So in order to get the white redneck Christians addled to get ‘your own people’ addled, poke them in the eye by creating a  fake DoD leak that a purge of the Bible thumpers from the ranks is underway.

    2) A major university just happens to release a survey in which 29% of respondents, including (supposedly) 44% of Repubs surveyed and even over 20% of Dems say armed revolt might be necessary in the U.S. in the next few years. Gee what a coincidence, so one can further convince the Salon and MSNBC koolaid drinkers that Americans are buying guns en masse to attack them for being gay or black or some similar nonsense.

    3) the AG of the US Eric Holder tells Kansas in a strongly worded letter that their act of nullification is unconstitutional. Well of course.

    and then add to these hysteria provoking acts previous mil exercises caught on YouTube in major cities, from Chicago to Miami to LA, DHS purchasing hundreds of millions of rounds per  year, 2700 mil MRAPs that could be transferred to DHS custody at a pen stroke, people already buying guns in massive amounts as soon as Obama was elected and then reelected, the school shootings which both were carried out by shooters either now dead or still too SSRI’d out of their minds to talk, and of course we have at least the appearance of a Civil War 2.0 buildup.

    My conclusion: somebody or some very nasty group of people somewhere are trying to get Americans to kill each other. We’re being played at so many levels it’s amazing.

  22. larrydunbar Says:

    ““The citizens of Boston, organized, armed, and disciplined to operate as units in a well-regulated militia, would have been a far more effective force for suppressing Chechen separatism within the Greater Boston metropolitan area…””

    I don’t think that is true, because the Chenchen were observing the same environment as the organized, armed and disciplined citizens of Boston were, to operate as units in a well-regulated militia.

    the citizens of Boston would have had to Orient themselves as Chechen separatists, before they could have extracted the advantage that Chechen separatist had in the environment Observed.

    In other words, I believe the Chechen separatist knew that a couple of young white kids running through the streets of Boston could throw their backpacks down anywhere, after the front-runners of the race finished, and not attract attention, because their home would have been where their packs occupied the space. 

    On the other hand, maybe they were just lucky.  

  23. Carl Says:

    Diente Negro:

    Your argument reminds me of things guys would say when we discussed the wisdom of telling the passengers the whole truth about flight delays. Guys who were agin’ it would say things like “They wouldn’t understand. What do you think they are, a bunch of rocket scientists?”. Then one day I was talking to a passenger while waiting out a flight delay and I asked him what he did. He said he worked at China Lake on air to air missiles. He was a rocket scientist. What the guys who didn’t want to level with the passengers failed realize was that the passengers were rocket scientists, combat vets, EMTs, ER docs, engineers, bronc riders, authors, cabbies and everything else. They can handle it.

    Same thing with civilians and any type of rifle. If you want really good training (short of special units), go to civilian firearms training school like Thunder Ranch. Only on rare occasions does police training match that. Judging by the number of times I’ve been flagged by weapons in various DFACs, military arms handling discipline is not impressive.

    It is a mistake to attribute a lesser capacity for good judgement to civilians just because they are civilians. Some of them are rocket scientists after all.

    One thing I’ve not seen commented upon often is that the militarized police pushing everybody around couldn’t find 1 skinny 19 year old. But when they let the citizens go free, a citizen found him within minutes. Something to be said for having hundreds of thousands out there looking.

    (Boy if you ever want to see a sight, watch the proprietor of a civilian firearms grainy school go off on somebody who violates a safety rule. It sticks with you.)

  24. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    A few additional thoughts on the topic.


    Purpose, Intent, Will


    T. Greer:  Some of us who have dabbled in the topic of super-empowerment have made a distinction between SEI and SEAM, with SEAMs representing only a segment of SEIs.  “Super-Empowered Angry Men” are those who use their empowerment destructively, as opposed to “Super-Empowered Individuals” who may or may not use empowerment destructively (they may be SEAMs…or not.)   So the question, “What have individuals been super-empowered to do?” can have multiple answers.  For instance, someone like Bill Gates might be said to be super-empowered relative to most Americans, but he hasn’t so far used his empowerment for violently destructive purposes.  Similarly, although most modern Americans have greater access to various empowerments than the majority of 19th C. Americans had, it does not therefore follow that moderns use their empowerment especially well, whether destructively or productively.


    So I still have questions of my own concerning the necessity of will for determining the definition of super-empowerment.  Average Americans have access to various empowerments which they either do not realize or refuse to use or have not yet figured out how to use.  With 300mil+ citizens who could just as easily buy IED components as the Tsarnaev bros. did and use freely available information describing how to make those IEDs, an extremely minute number will ever do so.  Are they still “super-empowered” even if they don’t utilize their personal empowerments, or are they not super-empowered until the moment that they leverage their potential for being super-empowered?  [The question will remain pertinent regardless of whether it’s a question of becoming a SEAM or simply SEI.]


    Additional, re: “have we super empowered individuals to create political change through violent means?”, if we consider the potential for super-empowered non-violent means, the answer might well be yes.  Consider the NRA’s propaganda, the Newtown parents, Breitbart, or any number of individuals and organizations who have learned how to leverage mainstream media and social media.  This same media by the way enables the violent 4GW-esque leverage.  Again though, the question of intent and will arises.  Your statement that, “Most violence has an avowed political purpose,” rang a warning bell for me when I considered all the gun violence that happens in the U.S., domestic abuse, etc.  (So I had a very loud, NO, in answer to your statement.)  I am still confident in making the distinction that super-empowerment is relative and may be temporal; that Adam Lanza was super-empowered vs. those 5-6 year olds and their teachers; that every similar instance of violence, whether 1 vs 1 in a domestic abuse murder or 1 vs 20 in a school shooting can be thought of in terms of super-empowerment—even if the purpose is not political.   Those violent criminals have the express purpose of a) making themselves super-empowered and b) exercising that super-empowerment over others.


    Furthermore, I am guessing that the pairing of intent with effect might often be less important than is commonly thought.  Long-term effects — second-order effects, third-order effects, and so on — are difficult-to-impossible to predict.  For instance, as of today I’m thinking that the long-term effects of what Adam Lanza did are probably more politically potent than what the Tsarnaev bros. did.  And I’m also guessing that Lanza’s intent was not at all political, at least not concretely political.  For that matter, I’m not sure the Tsarnaevs acted politically in the way that many foreign terrorist groups act, although they probably had a clearer idea of politics when they acted than Lanza had.


    The Drive to Level-Out Empowerment


    The issue of gun rights has taken over this thread.  What I find interesting is the fact that both the Left argument and the Right argument might be broadly stated as attempts or plans to level-out  empowerment.  The Right believes in making gun ownership more prevalent, easy, and so forth for private citizens in order to “raise” the average citizen up to the level of empowerment that criminals and the government may possess.  The Left believes that gun-control laws and law enforcement can help to limit the empowerment of criminals and thus enable citizens to live in an environment in which they can be equally empowered vs. those criminal elements—or, in which the incidence of super-empowered criminals is reduced.


    Funny enough, exactly the same type of leveling-out issue can be seen on the macro level.  Iran and N. Korea want nuclear weapons in order to become equally-empowered to the U.S. and U.S. allies.  But how did that work out for the Soviet Union?


    Types of Empowerment


    That last question was meant to raise the issue of various types of empowerment.  The Soviet Union had nukes, but their economic and structural empowerments were lacking vs. the U.S. and Western Europe.  (One might even say, their political and social empowerments as well.) The debate over 19th C. American vs modern American empowerments has also raised the issue of types of empowerment and their relative worth for determining a state of super-empowerment vs. others.  Modern Americans have vastly improved economic and technological empowerments, on the average, than 19th C. Americans; but, the question has been raised on whether some sort of communitarian social-cohesion empowerment once existed in America that no longer exists—furthermore, on whether that presumed 19th C. empowerment trumps all others.


    The broad subject of the relative worth of types of empowerment to becoming super-empowered probably deserve much more lengthy consideration than I want to give here.  However, I am skeptical that the “social-cohesion” theory as outlined by various commenters above has merit.


    For one, the various types of empowerment interact in complex ways; so, a sort of neo-tribalism has been enabled in the modern world by advancements in technology, such that individual who would never have had an ability to interact may now interact at great distances.    The group Anonymous might serve as an example here.  The Tsarnaev brothers might also serve as example, particularly the elder brother, assuming he received training while on his travels back home or otherwise through indoctrination and moral support from YouTube and various internet groups/contacts.  Note that his interactions with his local mosque were not as helpful, if we are to judge by the reporting we have received.  In 19th C. America, such long distance, almost ad-hoc interactions would have been much weaker:  One either found support locally or largely not at all.


    Additionally, the above commenters seem to have not given much thought to group dynamics.  Social cohesion for effective group action requires a) a relatively monolithic value system among the group members and/or b) relatively hierarchical command structures in the active community.  Some might disagree with my “b,” but just ask all the 19th C. women who were required to stay home cooking and cleaning and tending to children while their men were forming militias or lynch mobs.  Or ask any number of disenfranchised members of those communities:  were the militias willing to take orders from the few Native Americans or African-Americans  who lived among them?  Even supposing commonly-held value systems and ethnically monolithic communities, any number of other qualifiers existed, from age to family status to wealth status among them, which determined a perhaps unspoken but nonetheless active hierarchy.   You might have a community that could act contra the federal or state governments — in seeming independence — but members within that community were not equally empowered.  Consider again the political, social, and economic structures within the U.S. versus the Soviet Union, and whether communes are more effective than free enterprise and a fluid, mobile public.


    I would also hark back to the last heading:  the leveling-out of empowerments.  A great many of what are now called “social advancements” have been created since the 19th C. specifically intended to level-out various empowerments or at least access to empowerments, whether political or economic.  But I would concede the fact that elites still exist.  Elites have always existed; and, elites almost by definition are “super-empowered” vs. the majority.  Then again, we also know that in America a wealthy elite can spend hundreds of millions on a political campaign backing another very wealthy elite for president—and lose.  The whole question of empowerments of various types and the interactions of those various empowerments, their relative worth for effecting change, is fascinating.


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