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The Geopolitical Stoic
And the appeal of small scale political murder.
One of the more difficult things to deal with for anyone is an acknowledgement of their limits. It’s like that question for the job interview, what are your strengths and weaknesses? We want to hack that, we want to figure a way to answer in a clever way to say we don’t have any while knowing we very well may. But I’m talking about harder limits. This is the limit that is broken when the consequences of an error places one in outside of the context of the game they thought they were in. Here is the famous clip of Joe Theismann getting tackled. His injury was less a football injury and more like one from a car wreck.
Whenever the question about performance enhancement drug use in sports comes up I think about such limits. When you push human performance and endurance to extreme limits and an error occurs, it’s no longer sports. There’s something instinctual in all of us that knows, it’s not funny any more. It’s not sexy, it’s perverse. It’s not just unfair, it’s evil. It’s not just weird, it’s psychopathic. We are exposed to a lot of violence, vulgarity, vice and pornography and still it manages to be dramatic entertainment but there’s a limit. A hard limit. Beyond that limit we are repulsed.
That limit, I suspect, will have a distribution like many other distributions of human capacity. But I’m pretty sure that limit will be in Mediocristan, not Extremistan. These are N. N. Taleb’s way of describing distributions that are bell shaped, and those that have fat tails that go beyond orders of magnitude. To briefly explain, if you have a stadium of 75,000 it’s likely to find an adult who it under 5 feet tall and another that is over 7 feet tall if only on the playing field. That’s Mediocristan. But you won’t have one that is 70 feet tall or 6 inches tall. One order of magnitude falls outside of that bell curve distribution of human height. On the other hand you will easily find someone with 1,000 followers in social media and another with 10,000 and likely one with 100,000. That’s Extremistan. What I’m sidling up to here is what is called the Depravity Standard and it is very important to crafting law.
Judges and juries both across the United States and in other countries who decide that a crime is “depraved,” “heinous,” or “horrible” can assign more severe sentences. Yet there is no standardized definition for such dramatic words that courts already use. And while we may all recognize that some crimes truly separate themselves from others, there is no standard, fair way to distinguish crimes that are the worst of the worst, or “evil.” To minimize the arbitrariness of how courts determine the worst of crimes, and to eliminate bias in sentencing, the Depravity Standard research aims to establish societal standards of what makes a crime depraved, and to develop a standardized instrument based on specific characteristics of a crime that must be proven in order to merit more severe sentences.
In California, and probably in your state, there are several classes of felony crimes. Here, the worst are known as Class 1 felonies. They go down to Class 6 so far as I can Google. As a judge in a superior criminal court, you probably get your share of homicide cases. Double? Triple? Serial killers? Pedophiles? Traffickers? Terrorists? How depraved do humans get? When do we individually or collectively lose our lunch upon discovery of such vile and destructive behavior? For now, with all moral tolerances in Mediocristan, it should be fairly easy to pin down, and yet we haven’t quite evolved our law to reconciled with something approaching an objectively means-tested standard. Every once in a while we talk about putting someone ‘under the jail’. Every once in a while we hear tell of a sentence of 300 years in prison. I’m old enough to remember the annual interviews with Rudolph Hess the Nazi war criminal who was the sole prisoner at Spandau. Something breaks in us when we can’t handle the truth. Something else breaks in us when we attempt to handle entirely too much.
That is what is brought to mind when I think of stories like the popular one about Jason Bourne, the fictional character written by Robert Ludlum. A spy with incredible skills who was psychologically reprogrammed to be a murderous psychopath under CIA control. He gets a head injury and suffers amnesia, we come to know him as he comes to know himself and his formidable skills. The spy world and the world of secrets and disinformation have long fascinated me. What happens to someone who sacrifices and is betrayed and then is sworn to secrecy?
This all has to do with geopolitical Stoicism as I find myself pointed towards the world rather than strictly towards American problems. America can play its vile and vulgar politics as a sort of sport. We pretend our vulgar domestic politics can produce the sort of public deliberation generative of solutions. These days, the January 6th Committee is in session. I have little faith that its pronouncements will generate solutions. Elsewhere on the planet when things get much more deadly.
The first book that has me in this frame of mind is The Perfect Kill: 21 Rules for Assassins written by Robert B Baer. It took me by surprise by adding a dimension to my understanding of deadly conflict. It might be summarized thusly:
Another thing the state sees in its interest is bringing to bear disproportional and irremediable force against any challenge to its authority and dignity. Cross one of its bright, shining lines, and a state will go out of its way to destroy you. You’ll spend the rest of your life either sleeping on a cold concrete slab or receive a fatal jolt of electricity. American prisons—the guard towers, razor wire, and slit windows—are architectural statements to the notion that the state won’t countenance slights to its authority or its dignity. The assassin, on the other hand, doesn’t have the leisure or resources to bother with ceremony or show. Political murder isn’t political theater. Nor is it a moment of public vengeance or symbolic jackbooted intimidation. The assassin’s not out to settle a grudge, right a historical wrong, or give someone a long-overdue public comeuppance. He banishes from his mind the notion of revenge, recognizing that it amounts to only an attempt to restore lost dignity. While the state is able to perform justice with the showmanship of a Super Bowl halftime show, the assassin has no choice but to cut to the chase. Efficiency and the preservation of force are always foremost in his mind.
The assassin, thusly approached, is the the most efficient, most certain and most accurate agent of achieving a geopolitical goal. This assumption may over rely on consideration of the ‘great man theory’ of history, granted. But I think we all have a good sense at this moment that Putin is much worse than Yeltsin could ever have been. We understand that despite all of the dynamics of geopolitics that life or death calculations on the heads of Franz Ferdinand, Adolph Hitler, Robert Kennedy, Anwar Sadat or Benazir Bhutto have made very significant differences in the world.
So I’ll say it.
I am convinced that in today’s multipolar world, the intelligence services would do us all a great favor by spending much more of our national security budget on developing the HUMINT and training required of strategic assassination.
Is our reaction against the ethics of assassination based upon something we assume about the moral superiority of an army by, for and of the people? If it is this matter of control that drives the direction of the ethical needle, we ought to seriously consider how to maintain our geopolitical wisdom in light of our domestic political vulgarity and madness.
Assassination would be much preferable to state on state action that puts arbitrary numbers of boots on foreign ground and arbitrary civilian lives at risk as collateral damage. In light of a new idea on the periphery of my thinking, infinite ethics, this is the logical geopolitical evolution. It is how I am looking forward on matters of international as well as domestic security. I have always been skeptical of America’s empire and this new framework gives me a new avenue of thinking.
Baer is remarkable in his admissions of everything Iraq and Afghanistan skeptics have been bleating about, but in a way that gets down to an operational look at organizations like Islamic Jihad. What is most clear is his take on asymmetry that defies the way I have previously interpreted it. “You cannot kill what you cannot see.” We could not see Osama bin Laden because we confused the GPS coordinates with the territory. By the time we did see him, he was out of the operational picture. The assassin, the geopolitical fulcrum, the eyes, ears, noses and throat cutters on the ground need to be within 24 hours of their target’s tracks. Then they should get ahead of them. That is the level of infiltration required, and it is what we refuse to re-organize to accomplish, because we are infatuated with our information technology.
Between 1919 and 1947, the British Royal Air Force relentlessly bombed Pakistan’s tribal belt in hopes of forcing the Pashtuns to submit. It was a strategy founded on nothing more than the untested hypothesis that a spectacle of force would do the job. The British would have accepted symbolic submission for the actual act, but they didn’t even get that. When they finally gave India its independence, the British left the Pashtuns as ungovernable as when they arrived.
I love watching an F-22 flyby as much as the next wanker. When I was a kid, my favorite jet was the F-104 Starfighter. They are both equally useless in our quest to leverage liberty around the world. They are wastes of time and money. I grant that air superiority means something, but on 9/11 it meant nothing. Murray Weiss knows that story.
The purpose of empire is to consolidate rules of law, rules of engagement, rules of finance and trade. It can be done coercively or in hegemonic fashion. But if we are not truly interested in the people and the territory, this is nothing that can be done via cyberspace. Everybody in the world doesn’t want to live in a cartoon universe and our Pentagon defenders don’t seem to recognize what’s faulty in their drone’s eye view of hostile territory or their algorithmic judgement. This is the entirety of the difference between outsourcing and partnership.
We are currently on the road to proving that we are institutionally incapable of fostering real human community. What’s going wrong? We’ll have to return to that big question.
The Aggregation of Incompetence
The US has not, in our lifetimes, been on any military adventures of the sort I think of with respect to empire. I have often considered the enticements of government granted parcels of Mexico in a war between our two nations that Mexico loses. It’s not nation building for Mexicans but for Americans. Imagine 2000 square foot $100,000 homes in spanking new developments in Ensenada. A cursory look at the development of land in California and Arizona over the past two decades are ample demonstration of American ability to convert desert to suburbs for better or worse. Of course real estate values are ridiculous in both states relative to their prices 14 years ago and even before the crash. It’s a safe bet to say that we know how to build infrastructure very well. Yet these same communities defy the term ‘community’ and are more accurately described as real-estate developments. Our human intelligence on the ground is lacking in our domestic as well as geopolitical affairs.
As a first priority, we need to understand the nature of our humanity, of our psychology and our capacities for virtue. This must be an operating praxis. How we become excellent individuals begins with being truthful. Around my neck is a pendant etched in brass “Esse Quam Videri” To be, rather than to seem. This is an ethos, ironically, that we consume gladly when it comes to stories of heroism, even of the gritty sort like that in the adventures of Jason Bourne. Unlike James Bond who springs from the head of Zeus, Bourne must be reborn. So he is emblematic of the search for the inner self and the discovery of great capacities which clarify his life. Bourne realizes he has been duped by an institution of professionals leveraged not so much by talent and individual capacity but by the mind-numbed proxy of aggregated political will. 72 million votes for Snoopy will erect the world’s largest doghouse and make pretend it’s a Sopwith Camel. Fantasy. The budget for SIGINT is similarly fantastic. The reality of social media is equally fantastic. The work of human intelligence is not being done.
You may remember that video of the father in the courtroom who could barely restrain himself against the gymnastics coach on trial for the rape of his daughter. We understand the defense of virtue in this and so many other ways. The wrong way to go is to aggregate political power and attempt to raise an army of millions to trample all enemies while accepting huge amounts of collateral damage. No. We knew, at least I did in that moment, that whatever that rapist had coming, dad could have dealt it out. I know we must not confuse justice with revenge, but if individuals are not competent in dealing justly with each other, what chance does a powerful institution full of such incompetents have?
I always say that there is no such thing as senseless violence. Football makes sense even when there are debilitating injuries. Automobile traffic makes sense, even when there are tragic accidents. Policing makes sense even when there are abusive errors. We humans all seem to make sense of war, ultimately. For those who study it, we should know about the asymmetry of forces and capabilities we face. As much as we hate to admit it, ISIS did build a nation. Afghanistan remains a nation. F-22s did not change the equation, nor did spy satellites. We need to understand our limits and what game we are playing.
America suffers something on the order of 17,000 murders per year. There are also about 45,000 suicides per year in this country. Individually, Americans are more dangerous to ourselves than we are to others. When we go to war, we are collectively much more dangerous to others than we are to ourselves. We could be smarter stoically and try not to control so much that is beyond our capacity. “Efficiency and the preservation of force.” There’s much to be said for that. Of course if you work for Lockheed Martin, hit me up in the comments.