Sic semper tyrannis

The phrase “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” is at once apt, correct, and yet often oversimplified to the point of disingenuousness. The word “terrorist” itself describes its goal. To instill fear in the heart of the enemy. In the past, the target would have been the king, the dictator, the ruling class, and those who served them and upheld their rule. Politicians, officials, solders and policemen. Today, terrorists indiscriminately target whole societies. Irish bombers blasted communities of the rival faith, murdered shoppers, office workers, and pub patrons, as well as soldiers and policemen. Palestinian suicide bombers hit malls and pizza bars in city centres. ISIS, al Qa’ida and the Taliban detonate cars in busy city streets and publicly execute prisoners in callous and calculating “lectures in flesh” (the phrase is civil rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson’s, from his chilling account of the trials and execution of King Charles I of England and those who sentenced him, The Tyrannicide Brief.).

But targeted and random terrorism has a long historical pedigree. For centuries, it has been the desperate and nihilistic weapon of last resort of resistance and rebellion against perceived oppression and injustice, and against invaders and occupiers.

In the second century BCE Palestine, the Maccabees used assassination in their resistance to the Seleucid Greeks, and a century later, the Jewish zealots, the Sicarii, named for the easily concealed small daggers, paid the Romans in like coin, and ultimately in an insurrection that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE and the scattering of the Jewish race (giving history the emotive and symbolic last exit that was Masada). In an etymological irony that Mark Twain would have been proud of, the present unrest in Jerusalem, a large number of young Palestinians have perished in attempting to stab jewish soldiers and civilians. Their jaquerie is called the “Intifada Sakni-in”, the ‘Knife Uprising – an echo of those long-dead Sicarii “dagger men”.

Nowadays, one would be excused for thinking that “terrorism” and “terrorist” are synonymous with Arabs and Muslims. And a historical precedent reinforces this erroneous assumption. The Hashishan or “Assassins” of Middle East fame (yes, that is where that noxious noun originated) were Muslim men and boys mesmerized and mentored by Rashid ad Din as Sina-n, the “Old Man of the Mountain” (and all this, before Osama in the caves of Tora Bora), and were Twelfth Century  hit-men contracted out to rival Muslim princes in the internecine conflicts that plagued the Levant in the wake of the Crusades and the demise of the great Arab Caliphates.

But the assassin’s knife (and in modern times, the gun and bomb, and latterly cars and trucks) predates these medieval hoods and links the Hebrew rebels of old to the Irgun and Stern Gang who encouraged Britain and the UN to abandon Palestine in 1948, bequeathing most of it to the new state of Israel, and triggering the Palestinian diaspora. European anarchists and Irish rebels and loyalists were adept at shootings and ambushes. In Algeria, during the ‘fifties, the nationalist FLN and the “colon” OAS shot and bombed each other and those unfortunates caught in the crossfire. The IRA perfected the improvised explosive device that today has crippled thousands of American, Canadian, and Australian soldiers in Iraq abd in Afghanistan. Hindu Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka introduced the suicide bomber, an economical and efficient weapon against soft (civilian, that is) targets, deployed today by Islamist killers in the streets of London and Lahore, Damascus and Dar es Salaam, Jerusalem and Jakarta. Whilst Arabs – and particularly Palestinians may have given the world the hijacking of aircraft – a tactic that fell into disuse due to diminishing political returns and rapid response forces – other Arabs showed us how to fly them into public buildings as the whole world watched in horror and disbelief. The shockwaves of this one are still reverberating through the deserts of the east and the capitals of the western world.

In going up up against their occupiers, the Palestinians have an old heritage. In my old country, Boudicca and Caractacus fought a losing battle against the Romans in Britain during the First CE. The Roman historian Tacitus ascribed to a vanquished chieftain the memorable words  “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” – they make a desert and they call it peace. After the battle of Hastings in 1066, the defeated Saxons pushed back against the Normans and brought the genocidal wrath of William the Conqueror down on their heads with the devastating “Harrying of the North”. The Green Man and Robin Hood legends are said to be a retrospective and romanticised remembering of the Saxon resistance. Warrior fugitives from that failed guerilla war fled as far as Constantinple, where many joined the Emperor’s acclaimed Varangarian Guard, (see When Harald Went A Viking) 

In the streets and the countryside of Ireland, my parents’ birthplace, the United Irishmen, Fenians, Free Staters, IRA and Unionists fought against the redcoats, tommies, and black and tans of the British Army. Fought amongst themselves, fought against each other, and killed and were killed in their centuries long war of liberation. And in my adopted country, indigenous Australians fought a futile frontier war against settlers and soldiers just as native Americans did, albeit on a much smaller scale, and paid the price in hangings, massacres, poisoned wells, dispossession, marginalization, and “stolen children”. The legacy of those times lingers still – see The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness.

In Central America, Juarez led the Mexicans against the French, and Sandino, Nicaraguans against US marines. Spaniards rose up against Napoleon’s forces, giving the world the word “guerilla”, or “little war”. Russian partisans ambushed the Grande Armé and the Wehrmacht. Throughout occupied Europe, the very term “resistance” became synonymous with the heroic unequal struggle against tyranny. In another of history’s ironies, muqa-wamat, Arabic word for resistance, unites sectarian rivals Hamas and Hizbollah against Israel.

And not just resistance to invasion and occupation, but also against oppression by one’s own rulers. Religious tracts tie themselves in knots reconciling the obligation to obey our rulers with the right to resist and overthrow those that rule badly. The unequal struggle against tyranny – or what is perceived by the perpetrators as tyranny – is the cause that inspires men and women to desperate acts.

The most celebrated in fact, film and fiction is the death of Julius Caesar at the hands of peers who feared that he intended to usurp the ostensibly democratic Republic (ostensible because democratic it was not) and institute one-man rule. That ended badly for the conspirators, and for Rome, as it precipitated years of civil war and ultimately, half a century of empire).

In 1880 the reforming Czar Alexander II of Russia, discovered the hard way that liberating the serfs did not inoculate himself against the bomb that took his legs and his life. His fearful and unimaginative successors hardened their hearts and closed their minds against further reform. setting in train the crackdown on dissent and democratic expression that led eventually to the storming of the Winter Palace on Petrograd in 1917. Narodnaya Volya, the killers called themselves – the People’s Will. And that is what terrorists do. They appeal and owe fealty to a higher court, a greater good, a savage God.

So it was when student and Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914 and ignited the spark that lit the conflagration of World War 1 which precipitated the demise of the old European empires.

So too when John Brown and his sons brought their broadswords to bear on slavers and their sympathizers and made a date with destiny at Harpers Ferry. Their famous raid may or may not have accelerated the downward slide to the secession and civil war that erupted the following year, but it provided a moral and symbolic prelude and also, the resonating battle hymn of the republic. John Wilkes Booth bookended this bloody era with his histrionic and public murder of Abraham Lincoln, shouting “sic semper tyrannis”, “thus always to tyrants,” attributed to Brutus at Caesar’s assassination – today, it’s the Virginia state motto. Brown and Booth were quite clear in their motives. As was were the segregationalist shooters who did for African Americans Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Less so were the killers of the Kennedy brothers in the sixties.

To conclude, sometimes that savage, rebel God is one of faith, sometimes, of blood and soil. In some instances, it is revenge for wrongs real and imagined – the reasons at times lost or forgotten through the passage of time and fading memories. And often, “the cause” is corrupted by the immoral economics of illicit commerce, including contraband, kidnapping, blackmail and extortion. Sometimes all merge in an incongruous hybrid of religious passion, ethic identity, libertarian or anarchistic fervour, and protection racket. As was the case in Northern Ireland, in Lebanon, in sub-Saharan Africa, and currently so in Syria and Iraq.

But most times, terror and turmoil is simply a political weapon planned, targeted and executed as a mechanism of regime change. Rebellion, revolt and revolution. Resisting, opposing, challenging, confronting and defeating the central authority. The seizing, holding, consolidation and keeping of political power.

And one thing is for sure. The outcome is unpredictable. History does not move in straight lines, but often follows a bitter and twisted path. Cliched as it is, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” is an apt one. And when,as Bob Dylan sang, “the line it is drawn, the curse it is cast”, there is no going back. To quote WB Yeats’ famous lines, “all is changed, changed utterly”.

Terrorism, then, can shift the course of history. If we were to stumble into the swamp of alternative histories, imagine what might of happened

If Caesar had walked home from the senate on the Ides of March
If Lincoln had been able to guide the Reconstruction
If the reforming Czar had introduced democratic government to Russia
If Gavril Princip’s shot had missed the archduke
If Kennedy had returned from Dallas
If John Lennon outlived George Harrison
If Yitzak Rabin had left the peace concert in Tel Aviv
If the Twin Towers stood still

To quote “Stairway to Heaven”, a curiously apposite title given the millenarian mindset of many terrorists, “Oh, it makes you wonder!”

Thermidorian Thinking

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

‘Thermidorian’ refers to 9th Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar, when Robespierre, Danton and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention, resulting in their downfall and execution.

Grim travelers butt each other to establish dominance. One lot plays Danton to another’s Robespierre, with the moderate Manon Roland and her Girondins trampled underfoot in the melee. Robespierre destroys his erstwhile friends and slaughters thousands, precipitating the Jacobin meltdown as the ascetic and purist Marat is murdered in his bath. Robespierre and Saint-Just are guillotined by those who believe “the Terror” had gone too far.

I would argue that this “Thermidorian Reaction” – the ostensibly “better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln said that) reasserting themselves – is a rare bird indeed. Inevitably, things get worse, much worse, before they get better. As WH Auden observes in Age of Anxiety, “many have perished: more will”. 

Revolutions are unpredictable. They never run in straight lines. They reverberate, the shock-waves expanding and impacting on their vicinity,  and way beyond. The shots ricochet, like drive-bys and crossfires, and you never know who will be hit, where the bullets will come to rest, and who will be damaged or destroyed. Many people will be liberated, and many enslaved. Many peoples will prosper, and many, many will perish. As TS Elliot wrote, “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.”

Stalin seizing Lenin’s crown as the father of the revolution lay dying. Trotsky launching the Red Army against the sailors of Kronstadt whose guns had heralded the fall of the Romanovs, and who then fought to last man against their former comrades. Stalin and Trotsky wrestling for control of party and power as the old Bolsheviks disappeared into the gulags and the execution cells. Stalin’s long arm putting an ice pick through his rival’s skull in Mexico decades later. Trotsky knew a thing or two about “permanent revolution”!

Adolf Hitler making his move against the corrupt and sybaritic Rohm and his Brown Shirt bully boys, a threat to his control of party and state, in the “Night of the Long Knives”, and setting the course for a Germany’s slow spiral to damnation with the plausible deniability of the similarly dramatically named Kristalnacht. The German language has surely given the world ominous words of iron – Nacht und Nebel; Storm und Drang; Weltanschauung – none of them boding well for tyranny’s unwelcome attentions.

It is a zero-sum play book well thumbed by latter-day revolutionists like the Baathists Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad in their relentless and merciless accession to power in Iraq and Syria respectively, like the cruel and vengeful but infinitely pragmatic regime that has ruled Iran’s Islamic Republic for these past forty  years, and the kleptocratic dictators who Lord over much of South Saharan Africa. In the manner of revolutions past and present, each one has “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike.

The sad reality in so many countries is that when the going gets tough, the mild get going, and the hard men ride roughshod over their people.

Vengeful, vindictive. Merciless. Unforgiving and never forgetting. Do no deals. Take no prisoners. Give no quarter.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant

Why do countries like ours’ and those of Western Europe appear to have settled into peaceful political processes that manage a degree of continuity and stability, and others do not?

In countries where modern institutions are weak and poorly developed, and a democratic or participatory political culture based on consensus and power sharing has not had the time or the political, social and economic conditions to develop, older loyalties and obligations trump allegiance to the state and nation and respect for, or at least, acceptance of its institutions and processes. Countries like Syria and Iraq, and much of Africa, were in reality modern contrivances superimposed upon the wrecks of old empires. The cartographical design may have been determined by the presence of natural resources in such and such a place, or the location of a port or river, highway or mountain pass. And often, in wide tracts of desert or jungle, mountains or plains, lines were simply on drawn on maps from point to arbitrary point, sometimes with the agreement or collusion of a rival power or friendly local despot.

In lands such as these, loyalty and allegiance to family, clan, tribe, religious sect, and ethnic group held precedence over the fabricated state and its often transplanted institutions and processes. Patronage, nepotism, corruption, and a network of mutual favours and obligations smoothed the paths of people seeking or seizing benefits or appointments. Old ways were tried and true, compared to aspirations or pretensions to fair and open governance. Political parties which emerged on ostensibly western lines were no more than parochial political machines, whilst gerrymandering, branch-stacking, vote-rigging and even violence ensured electoral outcomes that favoured the powers that be.

The culture of dependence and obligation that characterized pre-modern societies in the West is still the norm in much the world. And it is replicated throughout society, from the humble street-vendor to city hall. Need a license? A school scholarship? A better job? A party post? Want to avoid a traffic fine? A law suit? A jail sentence? Money changes hands. Deals are done. Debts are incurred. And social and political relationships are established. And thus, the creaking wheels of bureaucracy and governance turn, driven by patronage and payola, often greased with cash and the threat or actual use of violence encourages the emergence of and tolerance for the zaim, the strong leader. That leader develops a sense of identification with the country – not in the sense of service, but that of ownership. Family, clan, kinship and sect obligations and entitlements cement the zaim – literally “boss” – in place, whist patronage and brutal security forces beholden to the elite ensure that he is not challenged. Hence the mukhabarat (literally, intelligence) keep watch on dissent and protest.

Once in power, it can be difficult for the autocrat to vacate his seat. Family interests, party, sect and ethnic ties, and economic imperatives, and fear of retribution should the patriarch depart, render it dangerous for what amounts to a family business to relinquish the keys to the kingdom, and the levers of power. As they say, he who rides a a tiger never can dismount. Hence in countries as diverse culturally and geographically as Syria, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, the central Asian ‘stans of the former Soviet Union, and North Korea, the “dear leader” is strongly encouraged to hang in there by his nearest and dearest.

This is indeed how societies and polities evolved and developed during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages in the wake of the collapse of the western Roman Empire. When authority fails, its place is taken by force. Today, we see it in many places around the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where social order is under constant attack from paramilitary thugs and religious fanatics, and violence is endemic. Any large, diverse society includes individuals who do not conform to the law. And it is said that some 10% of us have the potential to become psychopaths. When that society is in a state of breakdown, violence and the resort to force become widespread, these come into into their own as chieftains, warlords, robber barons, and pirate kings rule their parochial roost, commanding mercenaries, militias, and private armies. As the Bard wrote, “Take but order away and hark what discord follows”. Violence breeds violence, requiring a corresponding use of force by the state to maintain order. And if the initial, brutal crackdown fails to stifle dissent and rebellion, to borrow from Shakespeare again, the dogs of civil war are let lose, and all hell breaks loose. The Bard of Avon had his Henry declaim “Cry Havoc”, this being an old English war cry that signaled no quarter, and ensuing rape and pillage.

On the marches of civil wars, the bleeding edges of nations and empires collapse in on themselves like stars to create black holes where roam robber bands, death squads, militias, and drugged and indoctrinated child soldiers deal out death and destruction whilst trading variously in oil, diamonds, heroin, grass, guns, and people, extorting dollars and gold from locals and from foreign donors. Quantrill’s Raiders and Jim Lane’s Red Legs cut a swathe through “bloody Kansas” and Missouri. And other times and places have seen their sad share of jaywalkers and bushwhackers. Swedish and German mercenaries marched back and forth across a devastated Mitteleuropa during the Thirty Years War, just as Reds and Whites ranged and ravaged through Byelorussia and Ukraine during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. The dying decades of the Twentieth Century saw this in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. And it prevails today in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Afghanistan and Africa.

And so, and as clear and present example, to suffering, sad Syria.

Following in Father's Footsteps, Following Dear Old Dad

Following in Father’s Footsteps, Following Dear Old Dad

Bashar al Assad inherited this patrimony from his father Hafez. He was a reluctant ruler, not expecting to take charge. The heir apparent was his brother, a fast-living hedonist who died in a car crash. He did endeavour to bring about gradualist change in Syria. I saw changes whenever I visited Damascus.

This was not to suggest that Syria was an Arab utopia. There was a large divide between town and country, exacerbated by a a long and ongoing drought that forced many rural folk to migrate to the rundown fringes of the major towns, adding to pressures on resources, housing and employment. Whilst in practice a secular, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, there was a cultural and spiritual divide between the conservative, Islamic rural communities and a more secular-minded urban middle class. The country was ruled for near on fifty years by a family and elite drawn from a particular, minority sect, which sat atop a pyramid of nepotism, patronage and corruption. And that rule was upheld by a cruel and efficient secret police and military special forces that kept a proactive watch on dissent. There was definitely an air of anxiety and caution amongst those who aspired to a more liberal Syria, with the midnight knock on the door, arbitrary arrest, and detention in one of the regime’s many political prisons being a fact of political life in this secular, socialist country.

But on the other hand, Syria was almost self-sufficient in food and oil products. It had well resourced and efficient health and secular education systems, and a flourishing arts scene. As a nation, Syrians were a tolerant and welcoming people, and within the bounds of religious propriety and political caution, freedom of worship, of expression, of lifestyle, and even of discreet gender preference were given. In the narrow streets of the Old City of Damascus, Thursday night, the eve of the Muslim holy day, was a fairy land of lights and laughter. Courting couples hand in hand, girls in hijab and uncovered alike; families promenading in their “Sunday best”; young goths with spiky hair and black makeup, short skirts and tight jeans. Busy stalls and sweetshops, crowded, street-side cafes – the famous Damascene maqha – or coffee shops.

Foreign observers, friendly and hostile, have noted how well-dressed and cashed-up the refugees flooding into Eastern Europe appear to be. The reality is that these are Syria’s middle class. By local metrics, they were comparatively well-off, and had a strong work ethic and a high wages to savings ratio. These were, and are Syria’s future.

Syrians were genuinely proud of their country, of its status as a centre of Arab culture and Arab nationalism, and of its history. And of its priceless archeological heritage. The Roman cities of Apamea, Palmyra, and Bosra; the Crusader castles of Krak de Chevaliers and Salah ud Din; the Byzantine monastery St.Simeon; the Umayyad mosques of Aleppo and Damascus; the Christian villages of Maaloula and Saidnaya where Aramaic is still spoken; the ancient suqs of Aleppo and Damascus. Syria was a historian’s idea of heaven.

When the revolution broke out, sympathetic commentators wondered whether Bashar would be “Hammersmith Man”, a reference to his former career as a ophthalmologist in London, where he lived for many years with his gorgeous, well connected, merchant banker wife and children, or “Hama Man”, recalling his father’s brutal crackdown on an Islamist revolt in that city in 1981 where in some thirty thousand souls perished at the hands of security forces. In the end, Junior was swept along by the elite’s blinkered but well-tried survival mechanism – force and fear.

Back in the heady days of the Arab Spring, Syrians from all ethic, religious and political groups hoped for a loosening of authoritarian controls. But the regime resorted to form and to repression. Sectarian militias murdered and mutilated initiating a cycle of bloody vengeance as a popular, peaceful and largely secular movement became militarized, polarized, in many areas, Islamized, and as internal and external interests with varying political, religious, and geopolitical motives became involved and embroiled against the regime, against the rebels, against each other. Regular forces, militias, warlords, village defense forces, Kurdish separatists, foreign fighters, mercenaries, foreign air forces, undercover operatives. A war of all against all, as Thomas Hobbes once said. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history might not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

And now, whilst most of the antagonists have been herded by their foreign patrons towards a crowded and reluctant negotiating table, it all seems like a terminal case of “too little too late”. Syria is in ruins, some half a million Syrian are dead, and countless more maimed.and it its population is scattered, weighing heavily on the consciences and economies of neighbours and of the European Union. Syria as a nation state may in fact be no more. There is talk of partition, and a redrawing of the map that emerged from the peace treaties of The Great War. And the odds are that with Russian military support, Bashar al Assad, bete noir, pariah, lame-duck to those governments who wished him gone, and his Iranian and Hizbollah allies, are going to win the civil war.

He may or may not succeed. Right now, his forces are pushing back the rebels, writing himself a pivotal part in the peace. Right now, the parties talk and walk whilst the killing continues, and the diaspora grows. International forums are but talking shops, stages for self-righteous and self-aggrandizing  posturing and stotting, acrimonious gatherings that appear to function in a time bubble that is remote from the brutal reality. If and when the guns fall silent, Bashar may or may not be able to put the country back together. He may or may not be able to recreate the multi-faith, modernizing, cosmopolitan society that existed before the war. He may or may not be able to disarm the hundreds of militias and private armies that have proliferated and even prospered during five years of chaos.

He will need billions of dollars and the help and goodwill of many nations to rebuild the towns and cities, and to restore the shattered archeological heritage. He will never bring back the dead, or the skilled and educated exiles who will chose to make new lives in foreign places of greater safety. Nor will he be able to repatriate the thousands of plundered artifacts and treasures that have disappeared into the international black market. He will not be able to heal the wounds, give solace to the bereaved, assuage the grief, counsel and treat the trauma, and divert the desire for vengeance into the promethean labour of reconstruction.

Putting his own words into the mouth of a conquered British chieftain, an old Roman once said, “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” –  they make a desert and they call it peace.

See also:

Syrian Streetscape

Syrian Streetscape

Zaatari Rrefugee Camp, Jordan

Zaatari Rrefugee Camp, Jordan