September 1, 2007

The Bigger Picture (Part V)

There's something about being in a hostile environment that brings out the best in people. In a physically hostile environment, either you do what is necessary to survive or you die. There's no middle ground. The same goes for an intellectually or spiritually hostile environment: when a person is forced to defend his or her beliefs (and usually this means acting upon them), the person either clings to them and is made stronger, or they "die" and aquiesce to their challengers.

We have in us a remarkable ability to adapt.

Last week I, half-seriously, wrote about how to kill Al Quaeda by paying them. While there is some psychological merit to the theory (but while I was mostly just goofing off),
Greg was correct to point out that what has already happened makes it impossible.

See, Al Quaeda already exists in a hostile environment. They are under threat constantly, by US and Coalition forces, by the other rival muslim terror groups, and by the natural environment of the middle east. Everybody is out to get them! And since they have, for six years (actually, longer), been forced to defend their beliefs, they have grown strong; it's the way people are.

If we had understood this about our enemy when the war began, I wonder if we would have used another strategy for the campaign, or if we would have even gone to war at all. Given the charged nature of the US after 9/11, I imagine war was still a certainty; obviously the majority of congress and of the senate felt that way, or else it couldn't have happened. It still might have been stupid.

But Al Quaeda has something else going for them that most of us couldn't have seen six years ago. I've been reading this remarkable little book called
The Starfish and the Spider, recommended to me by several friends (Greg, Alan). Our postmodern lenses have begun to allow us to see things that previous historians missed: some groups lack a centralized leadership. This doesn't mean that they lack leaders, or leadership in general, but it does mean that the way the groups are organized is quite different from what we're used to seeing. Al Quaeda is one of these sorts of organizations. Loose, cell-based, with leadership found spread across individual cells, the whole organization looks more like a starfish-type organism rather than a spider-type organism. It's as if the organization has a collective intelligence rather than a central intelligence.

The starfish is a remarkable little critter. It has no central nervous system, no brain, no heart, no discernable organs as we tend to think of them. Instead it is a neural net; the whole starfish is the brain, the circulatory system, etc. This means that if you cut off an arm, it just grows back.

And the other arm grows another starfish.

This is precisely what we see happening with Al Quaeda. Unlike the spider-like United States, with its centralized government (cut off the head - the government - and we become leaderless and fall apart), the Islamic terrorist organization is thriving in an environment of persecution. We spend a lot of time chasing Bin Laden, but what hasn't been understood is that, while we've made him a figurehead, he's just a cell leader who puts out the videos. Killing him doesn't make Al Quaeda go away.

However, starfish can still be killed. You just have to know how to do it.

First off, there's the decentralized nature of the organism. If you could somehow rearrange this and centralize it, you could then cut off the head. My friend
Alan points out this possibility, that if you could figure out how to get Al Quaeda to centralize, you could bury them in complacency and beurocracy.

For example, this has happened before to another decentralized organism: the church. Between the first and third centuries, the church was a loose-knit decentralized organic system. No one person had any more decision-making power than another, though there were apostles and deacons who represented that authority. But kill an apostle or kill a deacon and the church grew! Killing the heads didn't kill the organism like killing Caesar would have ended Rome. But around 300 CE, Constantine made the Christian religion a legitimate one, even making it the official religion of the Roman empire. And what happened? Centralization. No longer were Christians persecuted; it became easy to be a Christian, and suddenly committment became something lacking. Suddenly you had bishops, even a pope, and rules for how things had to be done. Christians became soft, quietly acquiescing to the host empire's rules and regulations, becoming tied up in only theology rather than both theology and praxis. Constantine effectively neutered Christianity by simply making it official and central.

But then the church decentralized again, many times. The Puritans, the Quakers, the Celts, and the early Methodists are all examples of the church returning to its roots and decentralizing again. And it all happened when the church fell under persecution.

Would this work for Al Quaeda? Perhaps, perhaps not. These things are hard to tell. For starters, the early Christians and Al Quaeda have a common link in decentralization, but that is where most similarities end. Ancient Christianity had its roots in a Jewish Rabbi who died for others, to make their lives that much better. He healed and taught about taking care of those around you. The early church was known for taking care of the poor, both Christian AND Roman. Love your enemies, the bible says, and they believed it to the point of taking care of their supposed enemies. Al Quaeda does none of these things; to make them official kills us before it can kill them. No, making them official is not the answer; perhaps centralizing them could work, if a method could be found, but making them official and legitimate simply kills others.

But there are also environmental factors to be considered. For one, starfish need water to live in. No water, no starfish. Basically this means that if you can get the entire organism out of its environment, it dies. Obviously with Al Quaeda, this isn't an option. We can't find them all, that's the problem. The other option is that you change the environment. Make the water too salty, or not salty enough; the starfish can't handle the pH or alkalinity and dies. So the trick is, what is alkalinity for Al Quaeda? What environmental factors do they thrive off? What are their ideals?

(to be continued)


Mike said...

I think that you can also kill starfish by boiling them, and this would most likely work for Al Qaeda. We just need a really big saucepan.

Dan said...

i've heard about the starfish/spiderweb book before- so would like to hear a response to it when finished with it. Good points on decentralized leadership. Can't wait for the sequel.