pipe and dagger

“The notion that vast historical forces could be tipped by the right individuals exerting pressure in the right spots has always offered an attractive antidote to fatalism.”

-Robert D. Kaplan


Things used to be a whole lot simpler. Back in the day – before camera-phones, twenty-four hour Breaking News coverage of the fate of blonde white women, You-Tube, sound-bites, emails from desperate Nigerian princes, and viral ads – life was much easier to interpret and digest.

As it’s been widely argued before, modern society is best distinguished from ancient ones by the fecundity of mass communication. Alexander’s empire was limited by the speed of communication. The inventions that have most altered the scope of modern human society have been those of communication. First Gutenberg’s printing press. Then the telegraph, allowing the hasty industrialization of the American heartland, conquering a wilderness at an unprecedented rate, and serving as the foundation for the next-generation technologies that evolved in a natural and inexorable progression.

The telephone, fax machine, and the internet – the most current incarnation of conductive wire carrying an electrical impulse. When, not so much an invention as a conglomeration of scores of already established technologies, the world agreed that the Internet has been born sometime in the 1990s, humanity would be tied together by emails and by web pages to an extent never before seen. And when the television was brought into the average American home during the brunt of the 20th century, everything from Presidential debates to war crimes was given new meaning – and a new face.

The arguments of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond have brought to the discussion of invention and necessity an element of the chicken-egg argument – do we truly invent what we need, or is it that we grow dependant on our inventions? This has created competition for the conventional wisdom on the matter of whether invention begets necessity or vice-versa.

Regardless, the complexity of human societies has certainly increased exponentially in the past thousand years in terms of the technologies that wire us all together. And “the more wired a society, the more likely for a single tragedy to keep multiplying its impact.”1 All the same, bureaucracies still function under many of the same laws. The figures in power still hold court, only in different, more modern robes. And the established has a way of forgetting about just how effective an inventive angry minority can be. The net has grown wider and become woven together by different parts, the email instead of the penned missive, and the qualitative nature of the laws which govern it have begun to change. But what’s changed the most is how most of us see our place in it.

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A few thousand years ago, for the most part your religion was your political affiliation. And that affiliation couldn’t possibly be the matter of discussion, debate, or a book – because all it really meant was a sort of glorified tribal loyalty. There was no ideological or personal moral conflict in politics, they were simply a matter of serving the one discrete individual who happened to hold power at the time.

No one wrote papers or held Ivy League seminars to discussion the deeper meaning of your loyalties circa the eleventh century and before. Part of this was because the printing press hadn’t been invented yet and the Ivy Leagues were yet to be founded. But it was also because, to an extent that’s hard to appreciate now, individuals – men themselves – embodied the power and authority of an ideology or regime much more poignantly than today. A Caesar or a Pope ruled not by the power of a vast entrenched institutional backing, but by the powerful charisma of his personality and the potency of his will.

The death of one person, history often saw, could mean the death of an entire system of rule and coercion. Attila the Hun, Caesar Augustus, King Louis the XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte all embodied this reality. And so the earliest form of terrorism was tyrannicide – slaying a king, a czar, an individual. Offering up a sacrament that Seneca argued was the most pleasing to the gods: the blood of a tyrant.

As such, one man often symbolized – embodied to the most literal extent possible – an ideology or regime. Whereas today such abstract concepts such as the rule of law or a governmental regime are symbolized more by physical structures. Now the might of a country isn’t symbolized by any one person, but by the institutions and structures which that country has constructed to house the means of coercion and capital from which it draws its power. The United States Congress would be put much more under siege by blowing up Capitol Hill than by killing any one sitting Congressperson, or even an entire Congressional subcommittee. The American economy would be, and was, targeted not by wacking Alan Greenspan but by demolishing the buildings which most symbolized our economic capital.

On 9/11, had United 93 found its mark on the Capitol Building, the balance between Tactical Terror and Symbolic Terror would’ve swung wildly had the planes hit an empty building versus a packed session of Congress. No matter how much any one man embodies the power of an office, the institution and traditions around it means that it will continue on undaunted no matter what happens to him, or what stained legacy he leaves behind.

The complexity of modern life has, in turn, increased the complexity of violence. When killing any one man might mean the end of an era, one death was both much simpler and much more potent. And so before the deaths that have begun to stain our modern streets can be understood, we must return to the clotted streets of a thousand years ago. Streets that were clotted with far fewer people but with just as much blood.

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Jews aren’t often thought of as an especially violent bunch, unless ruthlessness is being referenced in terms of investment banking or pitching a script to a Hollywood producer. But it was a group of Jews who, keeping with the historical trope, were being aggressively persecuted and subjugated by those in power who laid the first bit of groundwork for what’s now considered Political Terrorism.

It was the same Roman occupation of Palestine, a land known by the ruling occupation as the province Judea at the time, which precipitated Jesus’s place in the story of mankind that gave birth to what’s now accepted as the world’s nascent acts of terrorism. As BC turned into AD, the Roman occupation was attempting to smash the indigenous Jewish society under its collective imperial boot.

The Roman authorities had abolished a Jewish monarchy which could trace its roots back to King David, imposed their direct rule over the Jews of Palestine, and attacked the religion itself by desecrating Jewish religious symbols and arresting the community’s most prominent leaders. Both King Herod, who is notoriously responsible for trying to wack Baby Jesus, and Pontius Pilot, who finally condemned Jesus Christ to crucifixion, were puppets of these Roman authorities.

Because of this oppression the Jews began to stage unorganized acts of retaliation and protest, which just led to harsher crackdowns by the well-organized Roman occupation. As 66AD approached, the situation was grim for Palestine’s Jews. But one group of Jews found a novel way to combat the harsh persecution of the foreign occupation, and in the process founded a type of violence still mutating and feeding today.

It was the Sicarii, or dagger-men, who began a ruthless policy of surgically slashing off as much of Roman occupation’s head as they could. Their fervent commitment to doing what they saw as the religious duty of the larger group to which they belonged, the Zealots, resulted in the name of that broader group being preserved today as anyone who acts with illogical fervor for a cause. Because of the Sicarii we will always find zealots living and killing among us. What was important and novel about the way the Sicarii, named for the small sickle-like daggers they used in their attacks, operated was not who they were trying to kill. It was how they were doing it.

They adapted a strategy of “pure terror,” which involved not just stabbing a Roman official or a Jewish moderate who was abetting the Romans but doing so in broad daylight. While the target was surrounded by his entourage and bodyguard, and in full-view of every man, woman, and child of Palestine. Fittingly, it is the Sicarii who are widely credited in academic circles with carrying out history’s first instances of terrorism. Since the intention behind this method was “to demonstrate that no circumstance could provide immunity from attack,”2 to make sure that no representative of the Roman occupation and no one who colluded with it could ever feel safe while in the land now known as Israel and Palestine.

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Almost two-thousand years before the television camera was invented, the Sicarii sought to bring about the same effect that televised violence does now by simply killing their targets as openly and publicly as possible. This was a landmark achievement, “in an era long before CNN television news and the dramatic transmission of instantaneous live satellite images the Zealots’ dramatic, public acts of violence – precisely those of terrorists today – were designed to have psychological repercussions far beyond the immediate victim(s) of the terrorist attack and thereby send a powerful message to a wider, watching target audience.”3

The response to killing a Roman official in public daylight – vicious and extensive crackdowns by the Roman occupation against the native Jews – allowed the Sicarii to achieve a near-perfect balance of Symbolic and Tactical Terror, in a set of circumstance which allowed them to trigger the world’s first display of Political Terrorism. Because their targets both embodied Roman authority and were the actual arbiters of it, the Sicarii were able to strike both a Symbolic blow which rallied the disaffected Jewish masses to their cause and a Tactical one as the death of each official threatened the Roman occupation’s ability to effectively govern – or subjugate, depending on how you look at it – a foreign land.

The resulting situation, for the Romans or anyone allied with them, was one of “total uncertainty and… a sense of profound fear.”4 And so to combat this uncertainty they begun to carry out indiscriminate countermeasures against Palestine’s Jews, playing right into the Sicarii’s blades – from the start they’d deliberately sought to provoke the repression and reprisals which would rally complacent Jews to their side and to action.

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