[ISN] Islands in the Clickstream. Do Terrorists Really Have More Fun? - September 26 2002

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Date: Sun Sep 29 2002 - 23:20:23 PDT

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    Islands in the Clickstream:
    Do Terrorists Really Have More Fun?
    Bruce Schneier, the author of Applied Cryptography and CTO of
    Counterpane Internet Security, told me that he can not walk through a
    department store without seeing security as a challenge. How, he asks
    himself, can he outwit the coded tags and markers, surveillance
    cameras, and guards? That's what gets his juices flowing.
    That mindset is shared by most professionals I know in computer
    security, intelligence, or other kinds of police work. Every "white
    hat" who is honest with themselves sooner or later looks into the
    mirror and thinks: "I don't know if I'm a cop pretending to be a
    criminal or a criminal pretending to be a cop."
    "You have to think like a criminal," Schneier said, "in order to be
    good at security."
    I think of a former CIA agent, recently honored by the agency for an
    astonishing piece of detective work, who once immersed herself in the
    world of prostitutes and crack cocaine for a research project - I
    think of a cop who said of the adrenalin rush in his work, the chase
    is always the best part, tackling the suspect is second best, and
    double locking the cuffs is a distant third.
    The shadow self animates and energizes our socially acceptable
    personas. The differences between people often come down to awareness
    of that fact, not whether it's true. Self-knowledge infuses our work
    with appropriate humility and when we forget who we are, it always
    The inner civil war is never over, so the challenge is to inflect its
    energies in the right direction, making it a source of power on behalf
    of the greater good.
    Clergy are like cops in this way too, energized by inner conflicts.
    Clergy self-select into the profession out of an intuitive awareness
    of the need for a training program to become more fully human. If
    we're lucky, the feedback loop from the people we serve, letting us
    calibrate our intentions with our behaviors, becomes a source of
    genuine spiritual growth.
    That shouldn't be surprising. This is true not only of cops and clergy
    but of all humankind. Civilization is a holding action against the
    threat of chaos.
    Enter the terrorist.
    Men and women who become terrorists, I imagine, are pretty bored.
    Terrorism is not about being poor or a victim of injustice. That's the
    narrative of selfjustification, but it's never the whole story.
    Terrorists come from all walks of life. They usually share low
    self-esteem, a hunger for stimulation and high risk, aggression and
    resentment. Resentment is the essence of spiritual maladjustment
    because it presumes we are owed something by others instead of owing
    everybody everything out of simple gratitude for being alive.
    Resentment scours the inner landscape of the self-obsessed like acid
    rain.  It's the precondition of payback as a way of life.
    Along comes someone offering an identity that makes sense of those
    demon energies, offering support and community, offering a reason to
    exist, a part to play in a cosmic drama. Instead of being nobody in
    particular, we are - somebody. We are soldiers in the armies of
    righteousness.  Our hunger for action finds an outlet.
    No longer boring, the world presents a challenge: How can I kill as
    many people as possible? How can I stick in my thumb and pull out a
    plum and say oh, what a big boy am I?
    It is much more fun to play that game than to walk the perimeter hour
    after hour in a dead patrol. The night watchman on his rounds does not
    have fun. The one hidden in the shadows waiting for him has a heart on
    When we watch escape movies, we identify with prisoners outwitting the
    system, not the guards. Goodness is boring. Plotting and blowing
    things up, that's exciting. Bloodshed is exciting. How can low-paid
    work in some obscure corner of the world compete with that rush?
    Enter the counter-terrorist.
    The men and women I know who wage war with the threat of chaos have
    many of those same traits, as I said, but turn their furies in a
    different direction.  They work out conflicts, expiate guilt, and
    alleviate shame by pursuing bad actors. The best of them know the
    world is gray, but stopping people from mass murder gets us out of
    gray areas in a hurry.
    Many of those same professionals also have a deep personal
    spirituality. I think of an intelligence professional who chuckles as
    he describes how to deflate the grandiose egos of terrorists with
    non-lethal weapons like stickum, slickum, and ultrasound. The sight of
    terrorists slipping all over the pavement or vomiting helplessly would
    puncture the false self, he says, undermining the terrorist's
    projection of power and invincibility.
    Why does he think that would work? Because his spiritual base includes
    periodic deflation of his own grandiose self in a disciplined way.  
    Spirituality for him means using traditional tools to keep himself in
    perspective. It means surrendering the right to be resentful and
    justifiably righteous in order to find common ground in the merely
    I don't know why at the crossroads of our lives some choose life and
    some choose death.  The reasons are a mystery which is a way of saying
    we know but don't know how to say what we know. Mystery is intuition
    rewarded with a clarity impossible to translate other than into the
    metaphorical language of dreams or poetry or the obscure native
    language of the soul.
    Evil is seductive but so is the chase, so is outwitting an enemy, so
    is an ordinary fall day, for that matter, an afternoon in the sun
    watching migrating geese fill the sky from horizon to horizon.
    Ordinary days are worth defending. Really, they're as much fun as
    killing millions. You just have to see the game in the right light,
    and besides, then you bequeath a legacy to the next generation of how
    to be fully human, good and evil mixed, and responsible for it at the
    same time.
    Islands in the Clickstream is an intermittent column written by
    Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions 
    of computer technology and the ultimate concerns of our lives.
    Comments are welcome.
    Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer
    focused on the human dimensions of technology, work and "life on the edge."
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