Can strategic sense be found in “senseless” violence?
This is the question I attempt to answer in a column I have out this week for Mosaic, tilted “The Extremist’s Gambit Helps Explain Why Hamas Attacked Now.” The piece was prompted by the many expressions of shock and puzzlement I read on social media when news of Hamas’ desert massacres spread across the internet. “There is a temptation to explain away heinous violence as a product of irrational emotions or beliefs,” I write. “Hamas terrorists, under this schema, murder Israeli children and partygoers under the influence of unquenchable ethnic hatreds, fanatical religious doctrines, or simply a perverse taste for cruelty itself.”1 All such explanations have an element of truth to them. Violence cannot be divorced from the primordial passions. But the more one studies violent action—both at the level of the state and at the level of the individual—the more instrumental it appears.2
Tanner Greer, “The Extremist’s Gambit Helps Explain Why Hamas Attacked Now,” Mosaic, 26 October.
The literature on this at the state level is overwhelming: the most insightful remains Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). For the individual level, see footnotes 3 and 4.
I sometimes think men who hail from settled societies are especially prone to the contrary misconception. Self mastery is prerequisite for success in all peaceable kingdoms. There society demands that men tame the fiery aspects of their nature. Men from these cultures thus associate peace with emotional restraint. Violence is assumed to come from lack of restraint. It is associated with wildness, madness, and libidinous release.
Men from the wilds know better. Wild men do not see violence as liberation or derangement. They see violence as a tool. They reliably identify violent action with cool calculation, not explosive emotion.3 Things could hardly be otherwise. Bloodshed raises the stakes of any dispute. When there is no leviathan to stay the arms of one’s enemies, blood is not drawn lightly. This is true even in the underbellies of settled societies. Most violent crime is not indiscriminate or angry but careful and targeted.4
William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), passim, but esp. 89-104
Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
So it is for Hamas. I argue that there are credible, if not morally defensible, reasons why Hamas might have chosen to begin their campaign with the wholesale slaughter of innocents. I do not know if these reasons match the actual logic employed by Hamas commanders, only that the reasoning I sketch out is common in human history, and that it has often been effective at securing the aims of those who employ it. I describe this strategy as the “extremist’s gambit.”
The extremist’s gambit will appeal to “any radical minority that fears that time is not on its side.” The extremist’s gambit “is a set of tactics designed to force a fearful or apathetic majority to see things the way the extremist does.” As I write:
To understand the strategic logic at play, imagine any two populations of human beings divided on a question of consequence. In this model, the various policy responses to the controversy might be ranked on a 100-point scale, with the most extreme responses possible occupying points 0 and 100. (To illustrate with a historical case study: armed pro-slavery secession from the United States might be at position 0; fostering slave revolts in the style of John Brown would fall somewhere near 100). There will always be motivated individuals who crowd towards the extremes, but only rarely do we find a majority there: most people simply want to live with as little political drama crowding in upon their lives as possible. This poses a terrible problem for the extremist. He knows that the man with views on the 45-mark will never gladly adopt the 10- or 15-mark solutions the radical is hawking. It does not really matter if this moderation is based in fear, greed, apathy, or genuine moral principle. What matters is that this willingness to tolerate the status quo places the moderate closer to the moderates of the other side than to the radicals of his own.
The world of the extremist is filled with such men—ostensible allies altogether too ready to equivocate, procrastinate, negotiate, or defer decision off to some later date. If the radical believes his position is eroding none of these are tenable solutions. To reverse the long slide of defeat things must change. The extremist must find some way to radicalize those otherwise inclined towards compromise.
But how to do this? In terms of our model, the extremist must find a way to change the politics of the situation from a 0-100 sliding scale into a binary choice between 0 and 1. In other words: Where thoughtful men once queried “what is your preferred policy outcome given the means at our disposal?” they now must demand “whose side are you on?” That political environment gives the extremist far greater room for maneuver.5
Greer, “The Extremists Gambit.”
Long term readers will recognize the model of extremist action I have laid out in this piece. In several past essays (especially “A Model of Extremist Politics” and “Islamic Terrorism in Context, part II“) I have discussed the logic of extremist action at length. In those pieces my case studies included al-Shabaab and ISIS terrorists, but also the American revolutionaries, the US Civil War’s confederate separatists, the 2010s Hong Kong protesters, and the civil rights groups of the 1960s. The juxtaposition of the heroes and villains of American history is intentional: the extremist’s gambit is a set of tactics that can be applied for good or for ill. Even violence is not necessary to pull this strategy off. Gratuitous violence is often effective at polarizing society along identity lines, but it is not the only effective way to do so. Indeed, if violence seems too far beyond the civilized pale it might backfire, forcing the moderates to flee all association with the extremist’s cause.
The key insight at the root of this entire series of essays is that polarization is intentional. Many see polarization as something of a downward spiral: social polarization causes crises that further polarize society. I will not disagree. But in many cases large, impersonal socio-political forces like “polarization” are not the locus of agency. Societies can, and often do, polarize because small groups of committed radicals believe it is in their interest to polarize their societies. Strategy is as important to these stories as sociology.
This is one reason why I have limited patience for all this recent clucking about friends and enemies. This bastardized Schmittian notion creeps into our political discourse as if the distinction between friends and enemies describes an elemental feature of all societies. But not all political disputes descend to bitter struggle between two arms of a binary. This is not the inherent end point of all politics. It is a chosen outcome. Political disputes exist on a sliding scale between binary contests and a thousand point frays. Political actors can influence where on the scale their disputes are decided. If those who talk of friend and enemies say otherwise, this is usually because they hope to naturalize death struggles that they will gladly choose to engage in if only they can convince the rest of us to play along.
I am not deeply read on Palestinian politics or Israeli history: there is a good chance the model I lay out does not apply as well to this conflict as my piece suggests. But before sounding off on that note, I encourage my readers to head over to Mosaic and read the entire thing. For Patreon supporters, we will discuss whether this model applies to the events of the last month in the Scholar’s Stage Digital Q&A for November. I encourage those unable to attend that meeting to leave their thoughts in the comments below.
Readers who found this post worth their time should subscribe to the Scholar’s Stage Substack mailing list to stay abreast of new essays. They may also find some of my other writing on the strategic logic of violent action to be worth reading: “A Brief Model of Extremist Politics,” “On Days of Disorder,” “Sparks Before the Prairie Fire,” and “Vengeance as Justice” are good starting points. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join also follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.