We are just a few days into an election campaign and already people are complaining about it. Politicians invade our screens, worry our doorsteps, fill the air with pleas and promises. Can’t they just go away?
Meanwhile, reports of fighting in Iraq and Syria barely catch our attention. It’s been some time since ISIS posted one of its horror videos – right now, perhaps, they are otherwise preoccupied. But it’s likely another will appear before too long, and then we’ll have a reminder of what happens when the politicians really do go away, or don’t turn up in the first place.
We tend to think of terrorists and gangsters – the professionally violent – as opponents of the state. In fact, they are alternatives to it. Like politicians, gangsters and terrorists are interested in governance.
The politician, the gangster, and the terrorist all want something from you, though each of them wants something different.
Federico Varese is a professor of sociology at Oxford University who specialises in the study of organised crime, which, as he pointed out to me, doesn’t simply mean crime that’s organised. A bank heist must be organised. What distinguishes the activity of groups like the Sicilian mafia or Japanese yakuza is that they seek to establish monopoly over a territory: “We’re the only guys who rob banks around here” (Cosa Nostra means “Our thing” – that’s to say, not your thing). Once you have established exclusive rights over, say, drug revenues in a territory, the inevitable next step is to intervene in the running of that territory in other ways: to govern it.
To do so, you first have to establish trust, which in the criminal underworld, is a very scarce resource. A gangster can hardly call the police if someone steals his property, or sue if someone welches on a deal. Yet he must nonetheless establish a basis for cooperation with others, since any criminal enterprise of scale requires it. The stakes could not be higher: everyone the gangster deals with may be an undercover agent, or informant, or about to put a bullet in his head.
Varese has studied one of the strategies gangsters use to build trust: the sharing of an act of violence. Instead of sending one or two men to carry out a murder, mafia bosses will send a whole group of assassins, all of whom are expected to fire at least one shot, even if the victim is already dead. One for all, and all for one.
The gangster also has to be trusted by civilians to do what he says, particularly when it comes to his willingness to employ violence. Once he becomes known for it, he is less likely to encounter resistance from those who wish to avoid it. One way to think about a protection racket, says Varese, is that the gangster is selling his reputation for violence to the business owner. The proprietor of a nightclub trusts that in return for his payments the gangster will use violence to defend him from competitors. But only if necessary. The more terrifying that gangster’s reputation, the less likely it is that competitors will dare to risk testing it. A gangster who wishes to establish his authority in a territory therefore has an incentive to engage in a theatrical and excessive act of violence. It pays to be seen as a little crazy.
ISIS’s terror videos work according to the same logic. Hassan Hassan, co-author of a gripping and authoritative new book on ISIS, explains that the group’s barbarism is not mindless or impulsive, but a strategic investment in reputation. ISIS requires its commanders to read a book called Management of Savagery, written by an anonymous jihadi ideologue. The book argues that violence must shock and awe: “He cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless the beginning state contains a stage of massacring the enemy and deterring him.”
When ISIS uploads videos of beheadings and immolations to YouTube, it is sending a message, not just to the West, but to those nearer home: don’t even think about it.
Diego Gambetta quotes a mafia boss, speaking in 1960, describing a typical day at the office: “Tomorrow, for instance, I’ve got to leave my threshing flail, the animals, all my things, and drive to Agrigento to put in a good word for someone so they will let him pass his exams.” This mafioso may have been omitting critical and somewhat less pastoral parts of his job description, but he probably really did make that trip.
Uncomfortable as it is to recognise, gangsters provide services that people value. The successful ones are not simply parasitical on a community – they give back. The business-owner pays his tithe to the mafia not just because he is terrified of what will happen if he doesn’t but because the mafia scares away his competition. The citizen knows that if somebody crashes into the back of her car she is more likely to get swift recompense by going to see the mafioso who lives at the end of her street than she is by going through official channels.
Of course, if politicians are doing a good job, the short-cuts provided by your neighbourhood gangster become less attractive. Organized crime takes root in places where the legitimate government is weak or corrupt. The mafia first emerged in Sicily in the late nineteenth century, because the new national government established in the north of Italy never managed to impose its authority on the south. Somebody had to regulate the spoils of a booming market for lemons.
Mafia boss Calogero Vizzini, speaking in 1958, expressed, in the kind of oblique terms characteristic of his tribe, his organization’s raison d’etre: “The fact is that in any society there must be category of persons who put things to rights again when they have become complicated.” Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than in the modern Middle East, where governments have failed and persecuted their own people for decades. The best way to understand the spread of ISIS among Syrians and Iraqis is think about the alternatives to it.
In 2014, ISIS was chased out of Minbij, a Syrian city of about two hundred thousand people, situated between Aleppo and the Turkish border, by local militias who had previously driven out the forces of the Assad government, which preyed on the Sunni population. Given the groups fearsome reputation, you might have imagined that the people of Minbij would have been glad to see the back of ISIS. Yet according to several residents who spoke to Hassan and Weiss, the opposite was true. “People did not see anything but good things from ISIS, even though they did not like its religious ideas,” said one. The rival anti-Assad militias engaged in theft and robbery, while blaming Assad for it, and their dishonesty, factionalism and incompetence had alienated people. A few months later, after gathering reinforcements, ISIS returned to Minbij and took back control.
When it takes over a city, ISIS mediates disputes and responds swiftly to complaints from locals. It confiscates weaponry from everyone who isn’t an ISIS member, establishing what Max Weber defined as the first condition of a state: a monopoly on violence. Its members are allocated different roles: dedicated fighters, security guards, medical administrators, bakery operators, lawyers. ISIS’s methods of justice, while horrifically brutal – beheadings in the town square – are consistently applied, and judgements are swiftly dispatched.
Organized violence is underpinned by mundanity. Historically, groups like the Yakuza and Cosa Nostra have spent a lot of time settling disputes over car accidents and bankruptcy. Political scientists Danielle Jung and Jacob Shapiro analysed a cache of financial and managerial documents captured from ISIS and its earlier incarnation, AQI. Personnel and revenue-flows are tracked in fastidiously kept spreadsheets. Expense claims have to be signed off by several officials before being processed. Close attention is paid to any signs of corruption: one administrator made notes in his payroll spreadsheet to investigate the possibility that an ISIS cell was collecting salaries of “ghost” fighters who existed only on paper.
This is crucial: ISIS allows nobody to live above its own laws. The group has executed many of its commanders for unlawful profiteering or abuses of power. ISIS says to people, in effect, here are the rules. You may not like them, but at least they are real rules. If your only other choice is chaos, that is a powerfully appealing proposition. This is why, when we in the West talk about winning the battle of ideas, we miss the point. It’s not a battle of ideas. It’s a battle of governance. Because when it comes to the most important ideas, everyone agrees. No matter where we’re from, who our parents are, or what we believe in, we all want a home that we feel safe in; we all want fair rules; we all want a measure of dignity.
In Minbij, kidnappings, murders, robberies and acts of extortion all but disappeared after ISIS returned. In Deir Ezzor, another Syrian town under ISIS control, an elderly resident told Hassan and Weiss, “We never felt this safe for twenty years.”
The politician, the gangster, and the terrorist all seek power, but they have different attitudes to morality.
The gangster is, essentially, amoral. He may well regard himself as a moral individual (Mafiosi are often sincere believers. Catania boss Nitto Santapaola was so devout that he had a little chapel constructed in his villa. He also once had four children garroted and thrown in a well.) But he doesn’t pretend his work is about anything other than self-interest.
Most politicians do the job with the hope of improving society, though there are always conflicts between their moral purpose and their self-interest. The reason Lyndon Johnson is so fascinating is that he operated at the extremes of both motivations at once: as his biographer Robert Caro has shown, Johnson was outrageously ruthless in the pursuit of power for its own sake and yet, when the time came to pass civil rights bills, he was able to draw on a deep well of empathy with the poor and oppressed.
Of the three, however, it is the terrorist who is most moral. After a terrorist atrocity, politicians describe it as senseless, as if the perpetrators live in a world where right and wrong have no purchase. Commentators reach for psychological explanations: brainwashing, empathy deficits, deindividuation. But terrorism is powered by an excess of morality, not an absence of it.
Alan Page Fiske, an anthropologist at UCLA, and Tage Rai, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, are the authors of a book called Virtuous Violence. They declare that “across cultures and history, there is generally one motive for hurting or killing: people are violent because it feels like the right thing to do. They feel morally obliged to do it.” The word obligation is crucial. People will commit violence even if they aren’t personally inclined to do so, because they feel bound by a code.
To take a relatively trivial example: most parents who smack their children don’t enjoy it, but they feel that if they don’t, they are failing in a moral duty: This is hurting me more than it’s hurting you. The same logic applies to the almost inconceivably heinous acts committed by Islamic terrorists in Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere. The moral code overwhelms the human being.
In the West, our relationship with politicians seems to be locked into what the Dutch political scientist Kees Brants calls “the spiral of cynicism”. We demand more from our politicians than they can deliver, which encourages them to over-promise. When it turns out that they can’t deliver on those promises, the media brands them liars, which makes voters despise them, which makes it even harder for politics to work.
The term ‘politician’ or ‘politique’ was first used in its modern sense in sixteenth century France as a term for officials who were attempting to mediate between warring Catholic and Protestant tribes. The true believers were killing each other in the name of God. The politiques were the only ones saying, in effect, that perhaps moral truth isn’t the most important thing here. Isn’t it more important that we find a way to live together? They were despised for it, of course.
The moralism of terrorists gives them a big advantage in the battle with politicians. They can clothe themselves in the glamour of righteousness. That means they can recruit people who will do literally anything, including ending their own lives, for the cause, and they can pay them less: one of the findings made by Jung and Shapiro is that ISIS fighters earn terrible salaries for an exceptionally dangerous job.
The politician, the gangster, and the terrorist all want something from you, though each of them wants something different. The politician wants your vote. The gangster wants your money. The terrorist wants your soul.