How Al Qaeda Reinvented Modern Terrorism

It’s easy to forget that until 1993, until the World Trade Center was a target [by Ramzi Yousef, terrorism and assassination and guerrilla warfare stood in direct antithesis to slaughter on an industrial scale. The specificity of the target had been at the heart of political murder for nearly a millennium. The original assassins were Ismaili Muslims, who killed rulers rather than armies. The capitalists and fascists and imperialists led subservient masses into meaningless death; the terrorists knew whom they killed. The essential nature of the propaganda of the deed was that it waged war against those responsible for the system rather than those who suffered under it. Russian anarchists believed that insurrectionary acts against the ruling classes would bring about revolution, but their targets were, as a rule, individuals. (There were exceptions, such as the bombing of the Liceu Theater in Barcelona in 1893, but they were rare.) Carlos the Jackal targeted OPEC leaders and the people who ran Zionist organizations. The forces of guerrilla warfare attached a strategic as well as a symbolic value to individual life. Their smaller numbers meant they could not waste themselves except at a high price.

Yousef saw that the World Trade Center’s brute scale, its sheer bulk, expressed better than any other building the banal dominance of modernity. His letter to the New York Times after the 1993 bombing explicitly described it as an attack from “the fifth battalion in the Liberation Army,” and the political movement to which he was an inheritor belonged to the Russian anarchists, Lawrence of Arabia, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, the June 2 movement in Germany, and Carlos the Jackal. It is essential to understand the necessary framework for guerrilla informational war: To wage diathetics, you have to belong to the culture you hope to distort, and you have to hate that culture at the same time. Diathetics can only be waged both inside and outside a culture; to know what effects a spectacle will have, you have to comprehend the context into which it will be received. Lawrence was a prime example of an inside-outside man and so was Yousef. Yousef was not a good Muslim: He drank, womanized, never prayed, and never fasted. Almost everyone involved in the 9/11 conspiracy was stuck between the West and Islam. On Sept. 10, 2001, Mohammad Atta checked out of his hotel in Boston, rented a car, and drove with one of his co-conspirators, Abdul Aziz al-Omari, to Portland, Maine, where they shopped at Walmart and ate at Pizza Hut. No one knows why. Like salesmen in town on business, the Saudis left in Boston tried to call for prostitutes but didn’t end up hiring any because the prices were too high. Al Qaeda’s ideology was Islamist, but its techniques and ideas were Western.

After the 1993 attack, the symbolism of the World Trade Center took on a significance far beyond itself. Various dreams of its explosion scattered like a billion dark seeds over the global soil. “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade,” Biggie Smalls rapped. Because it had survived, the center became a point of pride for U.S. counterterrorism officials. After his capture, when Yousef was transferred on an FBI helicopter to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan for trial, the SWAT team took off his blindfold as they were flying down the Hudson River. “You see, it’s still standing,” one SWAT member said, indicating the World Trade Center.

“It wouldn’t be if we had had more money,” Yousef answered, shrugging.

— Stephen Marche, Al Qaeda Won, Foreign Policy Magazine

The Birth of Solidarity

On this day in 1980, Solidarity, a Polish trade union, was founded as the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country. It gave rise to a larger nonviolent and anti-authoritarian social movement that claimed over nine million members and ultimately contributed to the fall of regimes across the Soviet bloc.

Though Poland’s government attempted to destroy Solidarity instituting martial law in 1981, followed by several years of political repression, it was forced into negotiation by the sheer weight of union’s influence and popularity. The subsequent talks resulted in semi-free elections in 1989—the closest Poland came to democracy since the 1930s. Continue reading

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

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Wikimedia Commons

 

The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading

The Nuremberg Laws

On this day in 1935, Nazi Germany passed two radically discriminatory laws—the “Reich Citizenship Law” and the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor”— better known as the Nuremberg Laws, after the German town where the Nazi Party held a special meeting promulgating them. Together these laws laid the legal groundwork for the persecution of Jewish people, Romanies (Gypsies), and other undesirables during the Holocaust and World War II.

These laws declared Jews—and in later amendments Romanies and Africans—as “enemies of the race-based state,” and forbade any marriage or intercourse with them. German women under the age of 45 were banned from working in Jewish households. Only those of German or Germanic blood were eligible to be citizens of the Reich—the remainder were classified as “state subjects” deprived of citizenship rights. Those violating the marriage laws were imprisoned, and after completing their sentence were rearrested and sent to concentration camps.

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1935 chart shows racial classifications under the Nuremberg Laws: German, Mischlinge, (mixed or “mongrel”) and Jew. Wikimmedia Commons.

The Nazis did not conceive of these laws on their own: they closely studied the United States, especially the “Jim Crow” laws of the American South, which they greatly admired for segregating racial undesirables from social, economic, and political life. They also borrowed the anti-miscegenation laws enacted in most U.S. states, which banned marriage and intercourse between whites and nonwhites (especially blacks). The Nazis were interested in how the U.S. designated Native Americans, Filipinos, and other groups as non-citizens despite living in the U.S. or its territories. These models influenced the citizenship portion of the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and classified them as lesser “nationals” without certain rights.

As for determining how to distinguish between Jews and Aryans, the Nazis looked to America’s “one-drop” rule, which stipulated that anyone with any black ancestry was legally black and could not marry a white person. Similar laws also defined what made a person Asian or Native American, to prevent these groups from marrying whites. (Interestingly, Virginia had a “Pocahontas Exception” for prominent white families who claimed to be descended from Pocahontas.) In this area, the Nuremberg Laws ultimately ended up being less harsh—though of course no less bigoted—than the U.S. “one-drop rule,” decreeing that a Jewish person was anyone who had three or more Jewish grandparents.

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A Nazi poster from the 1930s assuring Germans they “do not stand alone” with respect to racist eugenics laws. Note the flags. Wikimmedia Commons

Needless to say, the results of the Nuremberg Laws were swift: non-Jews gradually stopped socializing with Jews or shopping in Jewish-owned stores, leading to widespread economic deprivation. Jews were locked out of many forms of employment, forcing them to take menial jobs. Jews wishing to leave were required to pay a 90 percent tax on all their wealth; but 1938, it was almost impossible for Jews to find a country willing to take them, damning them to eventual extermination shortly after.

Unsurprisingly, the Nazis were initially not wholly condemned by Americans before the war. American eugenicists of all political stripes welcomed Nazi ideas about racial purity and even republished their propaganda. Famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and even received a swastika medal from him in 1938. Henry Ford’s The International Jew, a collection of pamphlets and booklets that described the insidious Jewish menace, was cited as an inspiration by Nazi leaders; in fact, Ford is the only American mentioned in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where he writes, “Every year makes [American Jews] more and more the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions; only a single great man, Ford, to their fury still maintains full independence.” (Ford also subsequently received a medal from the Nazis.)

Of course, once the U.S. entered the war, it took a decidedly anti-Nazi stance. But African American troops noticed the similarities between the two countries, and subsequently devised a “Double V Campaign“: victory abroad against the Axis powers, and victory at home against Jim Crow.

Source: History.com

As Rich as Croesus

The Iron Age Kingdom of Lydia, located in what is today western Turkey, is hardly a household name, especially compared to its neighboring Greek and Persian contemporaries. Yet as far as we know, the Lydians were the first and only people to invent money as we know it: a standard, universally-accepted medium of exchange whose value is backed by a recognized authority.

Invented sometime in the seventh or sixth centuries B.C.E., Lydian coins were of high quality and stamped with the sigil or image of their ruler, allowing even the illiterate to recognize them as legitimate legal tender. They facilitated commerce between strangers by allowing them to make transactions without needing to barter goods or weigh some commodity like gold. Coins also made it far easier to travel long distances to buy things, rather than lug around cattle, gold, wheat, or some other valuable commodity. Continue reading

The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

On this day in 1914, the passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the billions, became extinct when the last individual, Martha, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

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With a population between 3 and 5 billion, it was by far the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world; flocks were said to stretch on for miles and be thick enough to block out the sun. An account from naturalist John James Audubon claims that one flock was fifty-five miles in length and continued in “undiminished number” for three days. Continue reading

Schola Medica Salernitana

Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.

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A depiction of the medical school in one of Avicenna’s medical works, The Canon of Medicine (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading

The Kellogg–Briand Pact

On this day in 1928, the first three of over sixty nations signed the Kellogg–Briand Pact, in which states promised not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.”

Named after the U.S. Secretary of State and the French Foreign Minister, who together authored the proposal, it was ratified with overwhelming legislative support by both nations plus Germany; a year later, 62 countries — most of the world’s independent states at the time — signed it.

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Germany signing the Pact. Wikimmedia Commons.

To call the Pact a failure would be an understatement: barely a decade later, the bloodiest and most barbaric conflict in history would erupt, instigated by one of the earliest signatories (and involving most of the rest). Even before then, several bloody conflicts broke out, such as the Japanese invasion of China (1931) and the Italian-Ethiopian War (1935).

Subsequently, the Pact is considered irrelevant at best, and dangerously idealistic and moralistic at worst, yet another example of the failures of globalism. Though it failed to live up to its ambitious aims, the Pact did have some successes.

For starters, it laid the legal foundation for the concept of a “crime against peace“, for which the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals tried and executed the top leaders responsible for starting the Second World War. Its provisions were incorporated into the U.N. Charter and other treaties, and it set in motion the historically radical idea that war is a bad thing that nations should avoid. As it happens interstate warfare has been exceedingly rare since WWII, and is actually the lowest it has been for millennia.

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