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The Taliban who turned himself in

[ by Charles Cameron — a possible cultural parallel, also an entry for the pattern language of creativity, ourobouros ]



You’ve read about it in the news already:

U.S. officials couldn’t believe their luck last week when a suspected Taliban commander who heard there was a $100 reward for his whereabouts turned himself into authorities.

Perhaps misunderstanding the meaning of ‘wanted’, Mohammad Ashan sauntered up to police in Sar Howza, Paktika province, with a poster bearing his own face – and demanded the finder’s fee.

There are two things to note here — a parallel, and a pattern.


The parallel is with an incident I mentioned earlier on Zenpundit:

I was also struck by an anecdote Tom Ricks told Fareed Zakariah on the latter’s show recently. He recounted a story first told by John Masters in his book “Bugles and a Tiger”, the memoir of a British officer serving with the Gurkhas in Waziristan in the 1930s. At the end of the war, so the story goes, some Afghans approach the British soldier and ask, “Where are our medals?” “You were the enemy,” he replies. And here’s the punchline, the Afghan respose to that: “No, no. You gave medals to the Pashtuns on your side. We want our medals, too. You couldn’t have had a good war without us.”

Tom Ricks comments, “This is very much the Afghan attitude. This is a kind of sporting event for them in many ways.”

Food for thought.


The pattern is self-reference. Again,it’s something I’ve touched on here before, because it’s always of interest when it crops up:

there’s a special place in my analytic thinking for those representables which are self-referential – the category that gave rise to Douglas Hofstadter’s celebrated book, Gödel, Escher, Bach.

Indeed, I have a special glyph that I use in my games to notate ideas that are self-referential:

We don’t learn anything new about the particular instance of the Taliban walking in to claim his award for identifying himself by noting that it’s self-referential — but it intrigues us because it is, and that’s actually a sign that paradoxes of self-reference are significant at an unconscious level: that they’re a pattern worth watching for, and one that will play a role in the generation of aha! moments — whether they be analytic insights, creative breakthroughs, or (as in this case) just strange and amusing.

Kekulé von Stradonitz‘s basic insight into the structure of the benzene molecule was that it might be a serpent eating its own tail. That’s self-referential paradox at it’s finest — and a key aha! moment in the history of Chemistry.

It is also an archetypal image — the self-devouring serpent (ouroboros) crops up in alchemy (see image above) and in the Norse myth of Jörmungandr, the serpent who encircles Yggdrasil, the world tree.

Such images are important to the care and feeding of the creative mind.

5 Responses to “The Taliban who turned himself in”

  1. Doug Breitbart Says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. So the question of the hour is, did they pay him the reward; for, to not pay him would constitute a breach of contract and misrepresentation at least justifying his release, in service to leveling the Karmic scales. After all, there is the distinct possibility that he had no idea why he was wanted, but that the simple act of finding himself, and turning himself in existentially deserves a reward, don’t you think?

  2. SuzanneS Says:

    Um, what about Freuds theory of the uncanny? The doppelganger? Seems to have been operating in this case.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Please feel free to say more about this.
    As I understand it, there’s currently a $25 million bounty on Ayman al-Zawahiri — d’you think the US Govt would pay him if he turned himself in?  And can you imagine the furor in Congress if we did?
    Seriously, though — we  may never know what was passing through the man’s mind, or whether there’s more to the story…

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    My friend Bryan Alexander pointed me to a particular sentence in a piece that JM Berger published yesterday in Foreign Policy. JM and Bryan are both friends and sometime commenters on this blog.
    JM’s piece is titled Patriot Games: How the FBI spent a decade hunting white supremacists and missed Timothy McVeigh. In it, JM discusses the violent far-right racist criminal / terrorist organization known as “The Order” and what happened in the wake of its dissolution. At one point, he writes:

    To prevent the rise of a “Second Order,” FBI undercover agents would become it.

    As Bryan remarks, that’s a “nice little koan” — or alternatively, another example of the self-devouring serpent…
    In fact there’s an interesting echo here of another saying that has become canonical:

    It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

    JM’s article on McVeigh is a major piece, but he promises there’s more to come — related documents on his Intelwire blog, and his “detailed account of the PATCON program and its policy implications for the modern use of undercover agents and informants”, to be “featured in a forthcoming report from the New America Foundation.”
    Keep your eyes peeled.

  5. J.M. Berger Says:

    Or the hunter becomes the hunted becomes the hunter becomes the hunted becomes the…

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