"The dreamers of the day are dangerous men" - dreamers down from the mountains - part v
“I will open my mouth with a parable, I will utter enigmas hidden from the beginning - stories that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have handed down to us.”
“History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.”
- Mark Twain
Robert Stethem’s body slapped against the pebbled macadam of Beirut’s International Airport as the engines of TWA Flight 847 were brought to a whirring stop by the dark Mediterranean air. Stethem, a diver in the United States Navy, had been a passenger on the Boeing 727 when it was hijacked en route from Athens to Rome by two terrorists tied to some of the various factions within Lebanon.
Stethem was already in bad shape when Flight 847 landed in Beirut. Earlier during a refueling stop his hands were bound with bungee cords and he was dragged from the airplane for a beating by his ski-masked captors severe enough to break every one of his ribs, a successful attempt to persuade the authorities to refuel the terrorist-controlled plane.
After Stethem’s beating the authorities caved, allowed the plane to be refueled, and it proceeded to skip around the Middle East and North Africa before finally coasting to a stop around two in the morning on one of Beirut International Airport’s runways. At this point the terrorists demanded that reinforcements be allowed to board the plane, but Lebanese officials balked. To prove that they were serious about getting their reinforcements, one of the terrorists pulled Stethem from his seat near the front of the airplane. Moaning from the agony caused by his shattered ribcage being dragged across the floor to an open door on the aircraft, Stethem was shot in the back of his head and tossed onto the tarmac waiting below.
The brutal public disposal of his executed body was enough to convince Lebanese authorities to allow the reinforcements to board the idling Boeing 727. A dozen men got on the plane, but of the twelve bearded borders - only one really bears mentioning.
Imad Mugniyah, who’d been instrumental in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks not even two miles away, pulled off his ski-mask and ordered the seven passengers who’d been identified by their IDs as members of the American military to be shanghaied out the back of the plane into trucks along with four more who had Jewish-sounding names. The trucks slipped into the Beirut suburbs, TWA Flight 847 slipped into the early-morning light, and Robert Stethem’s life slipped into memoriam - mostly forgotten victim of the cataclysmic wave of modern fundamentalist terrorism that seemed prepared to engulf the modern world throughout the 1980s and into our modern era.
Although terrorism is generally regarded as a tool of the weak, resorted to when a fair fight is not an option. But this is an incomplete characterization, so it is far more telling to examine terrorism as a tool of the resourceful, the sly, and the inventive.
And, perhaps most importantly, as the little brother of warfare.
It is no coincidence that Winston Churchill classified the Allied commandos deployed deep inside occupied Europe as “specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts.” These commandos were able to harness various forms of asymmetric warfare and stir up the insurgency that helped tip occupied Western Europe in the Allies’ favor.
When these commando operations began, the Allied forces in Europe were demoralized and nearly defeated. They had been pushed back to the coasts and were at risk of being overrun. But when the Allied commando actions ended, it was the Axis powers who were in full retreat, and the war was all but over.
The asymmetric is synonymous with the unconventional: Any means of violence that somehow steps outside the box of traditional conflict, or incinerates the box entirely. Commandos, then, are military men who use asymmetric means to drastically magnify the perceived potential of the forces they’re allied with. Sometimes they use subterfuge, sometimes sabotage, sometimes assassination – but always using dissimulation and always coming at the enemy from an angle left unprotected and unguarded. And they always seek to stoke fear and unease within the groups they target.
So where does the commando begin and the terrorist end?
It is always a matter of context and perception – not one of morality. The line between the terrorist and the commando will never be stark, but always blurred and shifting depending on your angle of perception. The Allied fire-bombing of Dresden is often cited as an example of a state acting as a terrorist, since those attacks intentionally targeted civilian areas and killed untold thousands of German citizens. Modern warfare is replete with examples of “systematic large bombings of civilian populations,” attacks which are always “explicitly intended to spread fear among the targeted populations.”
However little objective insight into the machinations and inner workings of terrorism can be revealed by comparing that attack with an event like 9/11, so subjective ideas of morality – although important to debate and consider on their own – only work to confuse this discussion, after all: Innocents and innocence alike are lost in the stench of terror’s breath. And over the millennia, this moral ambiguity around the necessity of different sorts of violence has always been interwoven with another great testament to moral ambiguity: Organized religion, humanity’s first flavor of social and eventually political control, and often the driving force behind acts of terrorism.
But good news for us is, understanding the complex webs of coercive influence and institutional order that get woven in different ways around the totems and patterns of religion, politics, and violence by different human societies also opens the final cataract that guides this tale back through the Doorway to the Deep. Back to our collective beginnings as a species up on the Roof of the World - looking out together at the miasma of darkness uncoiling across the sky following the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera over two-million years ago.
And this final journey down through the deepest layers of our consciousness and all the nightmares of our past ties all of our ancient stories and fables to a city on a hill - to the fate of Jews, Christians, Muslims and everyone else alive today.
Because one ancient, troubled, warswept city - host to all three great Abrahamic monotheistic faiths - has come to contain touchstones for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. And its stones would be dreamed into a Wall, a Dome, and a Temple in a place that has delineated not just the wholeness of peace – but the oneness that intertwines our consciousness with violence – as no single city ever has.
To be able to follow the unbreaking line that can be drawn from our beginnings on the Roof of the World over two-million years ago all the way across Jerusalem’s timeless stones before finally describing the dynamics behind the emergence of modern fundamentalist terrorism and the dreams those attacks attempt to shake us awake from – we must hold our breaths and return back through the Doorway to the Deep, and into the rivers of bloodshed that have so often delineated our shared histories.
Back across the footsteps of the world’s most ancient revolutionaries and the first true assassin to the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where the history of violence has flowed in unison with time. Through the deepest canopied rainforests, over the bloodied sands of Africa, and into pedagogical explosions muffled at the turn of the century by weary Russian snow. Muffled, yet still echoing across the media every time we are gathered by horror together in front of our televisions.
Because it is only in the stories of our past that we can begin to find the answers to what is happening to us now, and understand why our civilizations always end up exactly where they began - starting with dreams of utopia but inevitably devolving into the continual revolutionary nightmares of violence and rebirth that have constrained our species from the start - often described as the work of terrorism in the modern era.
In the broadest sense, one thing that “sets terrorism apart from other acts of violence is that terrorism is carried out in a very dramatic way to attract attention and create an [illusion] of fear that goes far beyond the actual victims of the violence.” But there is much more to it than that, because after all: The unreal is more powerful than the real … But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.
“Terrorist” has been the label used for insurgents, rebels, ideologues, guerrillas, militants, extremists, heads of state, commandos, and anyone else who uses violence that is novel or unexpected and who is inspired by an idea that he holds more dear than his own life – or the lives of strangers. The word “terrorist” alone is a troublesome over-application, and so categorizing a terrorist’s actions both by the context they occur in and by the perceptions they create is imperative both to understanding and to defusing the threat they pose – increasingly important steps to be able to take.
Because the emergence of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other modern Islamic terrorists onto the world stage at the turn of the 21st century is symptomatic of a larger disorder: the metastasis of hopelessness across millions and millions of lives. And although this disease has primarily been spreading overseas for the past few generations, if you live in America or anywhere else in the West it’s becoming more and more apparent that it was only be a matter of time until it arrives on our shores.
The catabolic destruction beginning to unfurl across the face of the entire world isn’t anything new. It’s simply manifesting a zeitgeist that’s always summoned into existence by fear and violence, by hopelessness and inequity. By placing this zeitgeist into modern circumstances it gains a sheen of novelty. It shouldn’t. When forgotten precedents are brought into the present, the sinister mystery of what’s occurring now fades back into the past - you’ll be able to rub your eyes and awaken from that nightmare.
Tracing back to its beginnings as simple tyrannicide when killing one person would often collapse a society, as our societies evolved so too did the methods of the terrorist: Assassinating a king sends an unmistakable message, however as kings gave way to dictators repacking the message became necessary - and tyrannicide became reshaped as terrorism on the dusty streets of Jerusalem by the blades of the first zealots, which eventually gave way to modern more symbolic attacks on important military and economic targets.
And so in many ways all these attacks are simply echoes of violence long past, since along those same streets the exact same story was told many, many millennia ago.
Our societies have always progressed cyclically, periods of stability and order inevitably lead to the formative anarchy of the masses. Communal human expression at its awful finest. Sometimes those involved in an uprising are described as revolutionaries or insurgents, at other times they’re called terrorists – but that distinction isn’t a matter of absolute truth so much as context and perception. Like the draconic ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake forever consuming its own tail, we are inextricably caught in the same gyre of destruction and renewal as our ancestors.
However figuring out exactly how the proverbial shit will go down isn’t just a matter of identifying the forces and concepts that were at work as past societies spiraled horribly towards entropy, we must also come to terms with our own shortcomings and mistakes. The bloody road we will travel on is one that has been well-taken before us, the road is not what’s different this time.
What’s different this time is us, the traveler.
And there’s just one last thing you need to ask yourself: Are you ready to take that first nibble, and dine on the skin of the Leviathan?
To answer the question of how warriors conquer “that most primordial of terrors, which resides in our very blood, as in all life, beasts as well as men,” it’s been offered that this is most reliably achieved through the fact that “fear conquers fear.”
We all like to tell ourselves that there exists a cause in this world that we would unflinchingly and heroically die for. But the reality isn’t that sexy. If we are willing to put our lives on the line, this eventuality is – perhaps more so than anyone likes to admit – highly dependent not so much on our own ideals and internal strength.
But on the strength of our ties to those around us.
Because it’s only through “counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear” that “dogs in a pack find courage to take on a lion.” That greater fear is the fear of dishonor. Of losing the love and respect of those around you. There’s a simple calculus for solving the problem of fear. “Each hound knows its place. He fears the dog ranked above and feeds off the fear of the dog below.” And humans have long shown they share this willingness to give up their lives for the greater social group when the fear of their death is trumped by the fear of other fates.
Such as exclusion from the pack.
Letting your buddies down and being extricated from the support and meaning their lives give you is understood to be a fate worse than death, and so we humans have spent our entire existence willingly sacrificing our lives for the communities we belong to, and for the ideals that hold our societies together.
And it’s far from a coincidence that no animal embodies this sense of duty to the people around us more than our dogs, another highly-social altruistic species that wants one thing more than anything else in the world: Simply to be by our sides for as long as they possibly can.
Our dogs will unthinkingly throw themselves at anything they perceive to be a threat, and if they have enough sense to realize they’re physically outmatched or that they’re unable to neutralize it - nothing can stop their barking if they think it’s protecting us. And so if nothing else, having dogs around functions as a very reliably biological alarm system. Humans and dogs effortlessly and immediately form packs together whenever they intersect, and often it is our pooches’ steady presence by our sides that keeps us going long after the humans in our lives have given up on us.
And so in recent decades a fair amount of scientific research has been dedicated to exploring the mutualism, the mutually beneficial ties, that must’ve existed between our canine companions and early humans - in our earliest days long before we managed to master agriculture and animal husbandry, and still felt like Nature was an ever-present threat, as it always was before civilization provided the walls and hearths that kept us safe and warm in our cities.
Since starvation was very much on the table before cities were really a thing, dogs would’ve provided invaluable assistance with tracking and bringing down prey, and then dragging it back home - even on primitive woven stretchers which were likely used before the invention of the wheel and wherever snow wasn’t available. And these stretchers could’ve been used for transporting wood and stone as well, providing tireless labor at a time when calories would’ve been at a premium.
But this obvious mutualistic interaction - which may have begun impromptu back in the time when massive cave-bears, dire-wolves, and saber-toothed nightmares would’ve been the real alpha predators, threatening both species’ existence and causing opportunistic cooperation long before any sort of formal domestication - is only scratching the surface of exactly how intertwined the canine and human fates have really been for these two-million years.
Because their domestication is generally dated to some point in the past few tens of thousands of years or so, the canine role in our story is assumed to be relatively recent and modern. However that assumption rests on the Neutral Theory’s broken clock that tries to explain the only heat-snakes in the world existing on two separate plateaus separated by half the globe as a matter of shared heritage instead of independent adaptation, and so maybe things go a bit farther back than we’ve been taught.