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9/11 Plus 10

9/11 Plus 10




The anniversary is about to end on the East coast, and my desire to avoid op-eds, other news stories,  even my carefully-pruned RSS feeds has begun to subside (though only for the latter, really). From the traffic and timestamps it would appear some of my favorite authors share that sentiment.

In doing my part to reduce the orgiastic blovation-quotient, I’ll instead merely link to a few of the finest this evening:
There’s nothing really anniversary-specific here, but I’ll always recommend the writing at Opinio Juris and Lawfare, as it appears that the legal ramifications of International Relations are no longer the sole domain of the most wonky, and on occasion it’s useful to hear from people who know what they’re talking about.

UPDATE: actually, it appears that on Lawfare there’s a sort of memorial “to the towers themselves”, wherein he cites Philipe Petit’s truly singular act of walking a tightrope surreptitiously strung between the towers, with a scene from Man on Wire.


Abu Muqawama’s (Andrew Exum) wonderful Q&A with Thomas Hegghammer on contemporary jihad.

The Long War Journal on a similar topic.

Since 9/11, there has been no other al Qaeda attack on US soil or
any other al Qaeda attack of a similar magnitude anywhere. Osama bin
Laden is dead, and most of al-Qaeda’s ‘legacy leaders’ have been
killed and replaced… Some officials have declared all of this a
“victory,” but lessons from the Philippines show that the next defeat
can come from the jaws of victory.

Paul Miller’s FP post, again, on a similar topic:

…9/11 was the declaration of a war that is not yet over. We cannot
mark this day until we know how this war ultimately ends. The public
meaning of 9/11 will be profoundly different depending on whether we
can look back with pride or with shame at the war that followed. That
means the global war against al Qaeda and, importantly, the war in

Resilience and Closure
Spencer Ackerman says:

When Barack Obama ran for president, his national security team told
me, in an extensive series of interviews, that a major focus of his
presidency would be to confront what they called the “politics of
fear” — the national-security freakout that led to counterproductive
post-9/11 moves like invading Iraq. But since coming to power, Obama
has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s
confronted it.

He’s allowed widespread surveillance of American Muslims. He was
reluctant to fight Congress over closing Guantanamo Bay. He backed
down on holding criminal trials for the 9/11 conspirators.

Obama deserves credit for ordering the raid that killed bin Laden. But
presidents don’t ever give up their power without a fight.

Only when citizens make it acceptable for politicians to recognize
that the threat of terrorism isn’t so significant can the country
finally get what it really needs, 10 years later: closure.

This puts me in mind of a prior Gestaltist post on strategic failure where I
quoted Stephen Flynn on resilience. It’s worth quoting again:

There were no federal air marshals aboard the aircraft. The North
American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, could not intercept it;
it did not even know that the plane had been hijacked. Yet United 93
was stopped 140 miles from its likely destination—the U.S. Capitol or
the White House—because of the actions of the passengers who stormed
the cockpit… Americans should celebrate — and ponder — the reality
that the legislative and executive centers of the U.S. federal
government, whose constitutional duty is to “provide for the common
defense,” were themselves defended that day by one thing alone: an
alert and heroic citizenry.

The Contours of Catastrophe
The twin towers have, unfortunately, become an iconic image of disaster. As dreadful as it is, the image of the standing unscathed, smoking, or collapsing twin towers have become incredibly evocative to say the least. Even the void left by the towers has a semiotic power. Constantin Boym modified the original, more pristine, twin towers (during the first attack) to a revised pair bearing the marks of the two planes.

A few of Boym's Buildings of Disaster: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the WTC

A decade has passed and bin Laden is dead. The original charter of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad–Zawahiri’s original home–which suggested that the Egyptian regime would have to be violently overthrown, has been quite fantastically disproven. In considering of 9/11 and the wars that followed I remember passage XXI of the Tao Te Ching:

When great numbers of people are killed, one should weep over them
with sorrow. When victorious in war, one should observe the rites of

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The Contours of Catastrophe: The Villain II

The Contours of Catastrophe: The Villain II


Good Guys Wear Masks, Too
The mask is not, of course, solely a furnishing of villains; good guys need them too–for them anonymity allows them to function free of social entanglement. In Pixar’s The Incredibles (itself a melange of reference, meta reference, and meta-meta reference), while capes may be a point of contention,  the mask is obligatory and ubiquitous. Mrs. Parr (whose marital status is an essential point of conflict, a fulcrum between the quotidian and the spectacular, as is post-super weight gain), when cutting the family loose as superheros, gives the mask over to her daughter like a royal scepter with a speech about the preciousness of her anonymity.

The Lone Ranger wore a mask, so essential to the story as to be invisible, possibly more so than Silver, the William Tell Overture–certainly not Tanto. So much so that Clayton Moore (the actor who played the original TV Lone Ranger) refused to part with his when signing autographs at car shows or presiding over the openings of shopping malls. Litigation ensued; ultimately stripped of his mask Moore opted for a pair of Foster Grant sunglasses.

Zorro, Robin, Green Lantern, et al. While for good guys the mask is a component of the secret identity they guard so jealously, in the case of villains, the need for a disguise is more self-evident.

There are of course more elaborate disguises–such a Captain America’s striped cowl, or Batman’s–which include a pair of quasi-skeumorphic ears–or Spiderman’s total coverage. As noted in the prior installment, while a mask’s capacity to disguise seems to exceed its surface area, in Superman’s case it suffices to remove articles of clothing to disguise himself! Suspension of disbelief or confirmation bias?

The Everyday Villian
And there are famous non-disguised villains throughout history, among them Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth (who, though largely uncostumed, did have the long moustache of Snidely’s ilk, and of course, Lee Harvey Oswald.

As a disguised but still “regular guy”-bad guy, the bank robber is an exception, for a number of reasons: the fact that they might like to repeat the act, the ubiquity of electronic surveillance and eyewitnesses, and the likelihood that they won’t stray as far. Their disguises are nevertheless quotidian: a simple hardware store-balaclava will suffice. Or sunglasses. A surgical mask. The classic nylons. Or, almost nothing at all. Oh–in a pinch, a simple plastic bag will suffice.

The balaclava--de riguer for TV and real bank robbers alike...

The Villain Denuded
Dillinger (and other infamous “career” thiefs like Clyde Barrows) and Patty Hearst are exceptions to the necessity of disguise. In the case of the former, their notoriety had a sort of terrorist and cause célèbre effect–plenty of either cowed or supportive eyewitnesses and little in the way of electronic surveillance of course. In the case of the latter, evidence of a kidnapping victim’s co-optation may have been seen to lend some additional legitimacy to the SLA’s rather muddled cause .

(Wikimedia Commons)


The Identi-kit and (The) Unabom(ber)
For an older set, the broadest exposure we might get in a concentrated amount of time was a gallery of wanted posters in a post office. A great many of these would be only sketches–where a photograph wasn’t available, a sketch from verbal descriptions would be made. And when an official artist wasn’t available, the “Identi-kit” might have been employed. Before computer software versions of basically the sqme thing, the Identi-kit was a combinatorial system for constructing images based on a finite series of facial features–a more everyday version of the “props of evil” combinations cited above.

One of the classic (and, hung in a post office, a bit meta-) suspects to be presented via sketch was the Unabom(ber). Though it’d be his writing style that ultimately led to his conclusive ID and capture, the sketch is a classic, combining a number of quotidian Bad Guy elements cited above for bank robbers, particularly the hoodie and the sunglasses.

The Luddite and the Internet Wunderkammer
In a “final” irony, the U.S. Marshals auctioned off part of the evidence hoard online (including not only the manuscript of the manifesto, but most germane, a set of aviator-style sunglasses and a hoodie), and posted a Flickr set of the lots. At least from a spin perspective, the irony is deliberate:

We will use the technology that Kaczynski railed against in his
various manifestos to sell artifacts of his life. The proceeds will go
to his victims and, in a very small way, offset some of the hardships
they have suffered.

The photos have an evidentiary (with the requisite ruler–labeled “FBI” even) aspect that lends them a a curatorial beauty; virtually anything presented in this way is oddly engaging. The patina of time, the folds and wrinkles of use, the everyday presented without shadows or secrets gives even the most mundane objects a curious beauty.


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The Contours of Catastrophe:   The Villain I

The Contours of Catastrophe: The Villain I

Top hat, frock coat, pale skin, and a long curled moustache. His posture is hunched and he rubs his hands together (antes-hoc plotting) or palms are together, fingers pointing skyward (post-hoc plan success, a sort of malevolent namaste).

The Perils of [Insert Damsel’s Name Here]
This is the villain, Snidely Whiplash edition. While we know him from Rocky and Bullwinkle, he’s a meta-child of numerous 19th and 20th century archetypes of villainy, paticularly In silent film. Snidely’s objectives appear to be more tactical and without broad ambitions: Nell Fenwick serves as a pawn to thwart the Dudley Do-Right’sdoing-right, Dudley’s benevolence is predicated on thwarting Whiplash’s efforts. Feedback ensues, and Nell’s adoration is maintained; in Jungian terms they’re a coniunctio oppositorum.

Snidely’s most infamous act consists of tying Nell to railroad tracks with enormous quantities of rope (really, just binding Nell in a cocoon of rope and laying her across the tracks), thus bringing a modicum of suspense to the story.

This post-industrial damsel in distress trope appears to have beginnings in a silent film called “The Perils of Pauline”. In a pre-industrial iteration of that trope, Pauline is tied to a log which is conveyed toward an enormous rotating saw (a variation of this appears most recently in Sherlock Holmes, where Sherlock rescues an erstwhile flame from conveyance to a band saw used for sectioning pigs). That’s merely the 20th century cinematic record; earlier versions appeared on stage and in printed fiction.

The Perils of Pauline


The Villain’s Wardrobe
The Moustache
The moustache is one key variable in the evil equation (though the value can be 0–take Blofeld again). Moustache >1 is most important when we’re depicting a villain of yore–contemporary bad guys completely unencumbered by past convention don’t rely on them to telegraph their villainy.

A few villains and their facial hair: (from left) Gangs of New York, Boris Badenov, V for Vendetta

The Hat
Snidely accompanies the frock coat and cape with a top hat–this version of the ensemble often includes a cane. In “Coming Out Party”, Snidely and Dudley trade hats and their roles come with the objects rather than inherent ethical motives–Dudley engages in villainous acts and Snidely works to thwart him (go to 12:52 if you prefer not to tolerate the whole thing; if you’ve read this far, I do recommend the Dudley Do-Right episode).

In the case of “Spy vs. Spy”, the morphological congruence is part of the joke, as only colors of their hats and coats (in this case, there’s no moral linkage between the “black hat” and the “white hat”) distinguish them. Indeed, even their actions (which is of necessity partial, the comic panel acts like a telescope with a narrow view) are undistinguished morally. The near-ubiquitousness of objects like the bomb only reinforces the repetitiveness of their relationship. They’re another instance of the coniunctio oppositorum.

The Monocle
Originally more of a symbol of wealth or sophistication (Monopoly, Charlie McCarthy, Mr. Peanut), once it’s common use as an essential eyepiece faded, it became a more niche item to be employed by a certain flavor of villain.

The monocle is so ubiquitous a trapping that a Homestar Runner (I carpooled with Strong Bad for a while, BTW) macro-Bad Guy goes by the name of “Baron Darin Diamonocle”. In fact he carries another character as a pet a la Blofeld.

The Mask
The mask is an essential accoutrement of a certain sort of villain. As a disguise disguise seems to have magical properties; the mere addition of the mask to an otherwise unaltered character seems to have a capacity to conceal far exceeding its surface area.

The mouth-mask is another variation sported by numerous cultural bad guys, and probably one of the oldest in the villainy wardrobe. My most recent exposure is G.I. Joe’s Cobra Commander (the face mask/goggles/helmet combo is a Cobra standard of course).

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The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

How did we get here? How did the referent of this icon most of us have never seen, held, or operated become the iconic “bomb”?

Bombs in the Looney-verse

Until some young age, most of my “understanding” of explosives derived from Looney Tunes (a questionable reference when it comes to the operation of weapons and deadly objects, to be sure). While even the most obsolete objects and interactions therein depicted became more familiar, one remained elusive longer than the others.

Though they were also essential explosive furniture in the cartoon lexicon, most others (the stick of dynamite, the time bomb–i.e., the cluster of sticks of dynamite with a clock and curly wires attached–and the plunger detonator) had some overlap with movies and TV: miners, bandits, hostage-takers. And of course, there’s the perennial variant: a ticking box (perhaps presented to the antagonist with a bow affixed), at once both innocuous and ominous from our usually omniscient perspective.

So for this young boy they were more clearly anchored in “reality”. But the cartoon bomb with that familiar form, like a small bowling ball with the protruding plug and dangling fuse, where did that come from? I barely saw it anywhere except in the hands of Bugs Bunny.

Outside of the Looney-verse, it was more often in the arsenal of a frock coat- and top hat-clad ne’er-do-well with a curling moustache (I’m not going to belabor the morphology of the villain; he’s further down in the Contours of Catastrophe hopper), though it could sometimes fall into the hands of a hapless innocent like Buster Keaton (speaking of silent movie stars and phony bombs, there’s actually a spot-on germane Harold Lloyd story on the topic.)

Then there are a few odd variations. This one has an embedded clock:


And it even features in one of the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons.

Consider both the pre-20th century grenade (and when I say “pre-“, I mean that one might go back as far as a millenium) and an 18th century mortar. Something like it could indeed be lit, and handled/thrown manually, or, in the case of the mortar, be dropped down a tube to be propelled in the direction of the enemy. With regard to the grenade, it’s long-since been superseded by the more familiar “pineapple” form factor, or, in the case of depictions of battle with Germans, the “stick grenade”.

This is probably a unique opportunity to mention the similarity of this device to the petard (as in “hoist by own…”):

Where, when and how did it embed itself in the collective unconscious?



Harper's Weekly, 1886

Those who’ve read the prior installment will be familiar with my assertions that the outline of the bin Laden compound, or the abortive vector of the Challenger, asserted themselves with their power and through the ubiquity of repetition, as well as the singular viewpoint. In the case of the “bomb” one source might be the accounts of the Haymarket event and subsequent trial, where images of similar bombs from the home of one of the conspirators were trotted out and printed repeatedly.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry’s assertion that Haymarket is one of the sources of the “bomb-throwing anarchist” (As well as the origin of May Day) sort of overlaps with this and the promised forthcoming “Contours…” post. Indeed, the “bomb-throwing anarchist” is a bit of a trope of its own, captured even in song:

In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and so mean

Oh, smell the pungent odor of nitro-glycerine.

They’re busy making fuses, and filling cans with nails

And the little Slavic children set up this mournful wail.

Oh, its Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb;

The last one it was thrown by Brother Thom.

Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copskys all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.

Other Explosives in the Looney-verse

Here, Foghorn Leghorn bequeaths an odd hybrid of the globular cartoon bomb and the time bomb:


The stick of dynamite is nearly ubiquitous. These are often somewhat helpfully labeled “TNT” (though they’re nitroglycerin sticks, at least the label indicates something analogous to “dangerous” to someone who can read and parse), especially in the Road Runner bits (Wile E. Coyote being an avid user of mail-order explosives), where everything seems to be labeled.

Here Bugs produces a rather unique IED in the form of poultry:


I was going to segue into the next bit by citing aerial explosives in cartoons, and the morphological similarities especially to the Little Boy bomb, but alas, I’ve run fresh out of YouTube-scouring gas.

“The Bomb”

The last Contours of Catastrophe entry referenced the Challenger disaster and the telltale shape of smoke, vapor, etc, especially when viewed and captured from a distance, which lends an archetypal sameness to the images and flatness of vantage point. In each case, the active agent (the shuttle, the bomb-dropping plane, the bomb itself) has been obliterated. The iconic image is that of a trace, a footprint, a “signature”. And the ultimate instance of this (along with the cross occupying nearly the apex) is the mushroom cloud. It’s an artifact of not only a singular destructive act but also a distinct physical process, yet when it comes to the identification and association of the image, neither seem to matter.

Look closely, and see a classic instance of the Mushroom Cloud Meme at work...

On the other end of the semiotic spectrum, and perhaps as a palate-cleanser, theres this bit from an Oppenheimer interview in 1965 (apologies for the brevity and sensational score):



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Rule of Law vs. Outlaw

Rule of Law vs. Outlaw

I’d thought this was far enough down in the weeds that I’d have a couple of days before posting on this; alas, Raffi Khatchadourian and The New Yorker blog flushed me out:

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, has criticized the White House for its public handling of the killing. He recently wrote on Twitter, “White House still hasn’t clarified: OBL ‘resisted’ but how did he pose lethal threat to US forces on scene? Need facts.” This may be a worthwhile thing to know for broader ethical or policy or tactical reasons, but it is not the most pertinent question when judging the action against our existing military laws. The key legal question is not whether bin Laden was armed before he was killed, or even whether or not he posed an immediate “lethal threat,” but whether he was “positively identified” before the trigger was pulled, and whether Holder is accurate when he says that “there was no indication” that bin Laden was actively attempting to surrender.

Al Jazeera/AP

When video of UBL’s killing comes to light, a great deal of attention will be paid to his actions, gestures, and utterances before he was shot, and the question of just how one might indicate an intent to surrender, especially if they’re unarmed–or even what it means to be armed. And surrender is really about all he’d have going for him as far as legal grievances against the US might go.

I’m not sure what you might read/see/hear, but this was not an “assassination” (particularly not a political one) and therefore by no means covered by Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 (which basically reiterated Ford’s EO 11905 and Carter’s EO 12036). See this wonderful summary from the Congressional Research Service on EO 12333, where the narrowness of the proscription is detailed.

It is worth pointing out that this started with Ford’s EO, a response to the findings of the Church Commission (AKA “the family jewels”) on a host of previously-covert CIA activities the political ramifications of which are without question. And the Church Commission convened in an atmosphere of deep mistrust of the government, the CIA, and the FBI post-Watergate (particularly in response to a series of Seymour Hersh exposes showing that the CIA had engaged in domestic spying).


A summary of the family jewels–long kept from even FOIA-based release–by National Security Archive says:

The Central Intelligence Agency violated its charter for 25 years until revelations of illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance, assassination plots, and human experimentation led to official investigations and reforms in the 1970s.

At any rate, we aren’t dealing with assassination, so I digress.

Khatchadourian also quotes himself in an earlier article and explains how conventional Rules of Engagement (ROEs)–as we might think of them–don’t apply to UBL and his ilk, introducing “status-based” ROEs:

For many years, soldiers have also been permitted to kill people because of who they are, rather than what they are doing—such people are “status-based targets.” During the Second World War, an American infantryman could shoot an S.S. officer who was eating lunch in a French café without violating the Law of War, so long as he did not actively surrender. The officer’s uniform made it obvious that he was the enemy. In Iraq, the R.O.E. listed about two dozen “designated terrorist organizations,” including Al Qaeda, and, if it can be proved that someone is a member of one of these groups, that person can legally be killed. For a time, the R.O.E. designated as a status-based target any armed man wearing the uniform of the Mahdi Army—the militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. (After Sadr called a truce, in 2004, the militia was provisionally taken off the list.) But most insurgent groups in Iraq don’t wear uniforms, so their members must be “positively identified” by informants or other forms of intelligence before they can legally be killed. An insurgent is positively identified if there is “reasonable certainty” that he belongs to a declared hostile group.

Armed or not, UBL was a combatant, or target, under the status-based ROEs. Also, while the post-9/11 AUMF granted by Congress is sufficiently broad, the rules of Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) allow us to engage combatants across sovereign borders (NIAC is, perhaps obviously, distinguished from the laws of International Armed Conflict–IAC–which, for example in the instance of Israeli actions against Palestinians, are quite constraining). Israel cannot declare war against non-state actors and comply or expect compliance with laws under IAC. Again, this might seem a bit wonk-ish, recent events and questions of legality and territory in the Gaza Flotilla incident are a practical case study (how can Israel blockade or consider illegal–and attack–shipments bound for what is legally its own territory?)

I do always feel sorry for those IDF guys being attacked with plastic deck chairs...

BTW, references to diaries with operation details/plans and some video clips help buttress a case that bin Laden was still operationally active, increasing the legitimacy of targeting him as an NIAC combatant.

An active Navy JAG sums up–eloquently–the vox populi vs. the law:

In responses to articles and blog posts addressing the legality of the killing of bin Laden, there have been countless variations on the theme that it just doesn’t matter whether it was legal.  Illustrative of a large number of comments, one unhelpful commentator said: ”Who gives a shit?”  Another uninformed commenter suggested:  “Who cares – there’s no such thing as international law.”  And then there are the understandable comments by those who lost loved ones on 9/11 who simply agree with President Obama’s remark to the nation: “Justice has been done.”

To me, the question of legality is not a difficult one.  I accept the United States’ position that we are in an ongoing armed conflict with al Qaeda and therefore conclude Osama bin Laden was a lawful military target (regardless of whether he was armed or otherwise threatening to the SEAL’s who killed him) so long as he had not clearly expressed an intention to surrender or was not otherwise hors de combat.

BTW, I really can’t recommend some of the posting on topics of International Law at Opinio Juris highly enough. One of the main authors on IR law there, Kenneth Anderson, offers this quite decent and easy read on the topic.

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