December 2008 Archives

Calling All Nations

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Several weeks ago I noticed new graffiti on street signs in the Melbourne suburb Northcote from an unknown group: the Saracen Soldiers.  A block away from the most prominent graffiti two houses displayed nationalist flags in their front windows.  It could have been coincidence or maybe a signalling game to establish psychological turf.

At the time I thought of the ominous graffiti in Philip K. Dick's posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth (1985).  The grafiti also reminded me of the wanna-be teenage mercenaries in Leo Berkeley's film Holidays on the River Yarra (1990), who are recruited by a racialist organisation to engage in graffiti, brawls and other low-level politically motivated violence.

Two nights ago police fatally shot 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy during a confrontation in Northcote's All Nations park.  Earlier that evening, Cassidy left home after a family argument then stole two knives from Northcote's Kmart store.  Four police were called to arrest Cassidy and Victoria Police will now investigate what happened next.  As Rosie X observes, several media outlets speculated about Cassidys membership in the nationalist group Southern Cross Soldiers (SCS) and posed a 'suicide by cop' explanation for Cassidy's death.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about blogosphere and media coverage.

Journalists described Cassidy's online life as "subterreanean" - a mix of Sherry Turkle's theories about online identity fused with cyberterrorist fears - yet did not link to Cassidy's MySpace page or mention the SCS sites above.  In contrast, Richard Metzger observed to me in 1998 that Disinformation had a different strategy: it would link to white supremacist groups such as Aryan Nations so that readers would understand their ideological worldview.  This got Metzger into trouble with several anti-racialist organisations who confused him with Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance.

Anarchist and anti-racialist bloggers knew SCS for months before Cassidy's death as a white supremacist gang or youth network. The SCS band has copied Rahowa's white separatist music as a recruitment strategy.  The social network Bebo has pages for SCS recruitment and the SCS bandJacques Ellul would be proud: SCS (and perhaps Cassidy unwittingly) use a blend of Australian historical imagery for in-group identity and integration propaganda ("Aussie pride", the Southern Cross flag, conflation of national identity with ethnicity) with agitation propaganda that is aimed at specific out-group enemies (Italians, Lebanese, anyone who does not meet SCS's criteria for being Australian).

Several questions: How many other pages are there?  Who has been monitoring them?  What if any threat assessments were made?  Will anyone get an opportunity to conduct a sociometry analysis of SCS's online social network before the pages are pulled (Marc Sageman established a benchmark with his study of Salafist cells that may have had weak ties to Al Qaeda).

Bloggers and journalists alike noted that police might have de-escalated the incident if they were armed with a Taser electroshock weapon.  The incident captures why there is a tactical role under specific circumstances for law enforcement personnel to use non-lethal or less-lethal weapons that could have saved Cassidy's life.  The four police will likely receive critical incident debriefs and stress counselling.

A few days after Cassidy's death Northcote remains largely subdued apart from occasional police sirens in the distance.  In contrast. Greece has faced a week of riots after the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos which may spread to Europe.  As a 'paired study' - SCS's street gang violence, the shootings of Grigoropoulos and Cassidy, and the divergent reactions - illustrate the late sociologist Charles Tilly's distinction between individual aggression (Cassidy), brawls (SCS) and scattered attacks (Greece) as different types of collective violence.

Tilly's urban sociology in the 1960s foresaw how today's social network sites may be used to coordinate street violence.  Perhaps police intelligence analysts would benefit from a few hours with Tilly's masterful study The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) to pre-empt any SCS revenge attacks for Cassidy's death.  SCS might then remain the purveyers of bad hip-hop/rock/metal hybrids (not exactly Australian), poorly designed web sites and street graffiti: the opportunist yet ineffectual extremists that Dick and Berkeley tried to warn us of . . . and that Greece and Europe may face again.
Australian comedian and raconteur Andrew Denton finishes his six-year running interview show Enough Rope.  Denton's production company Zapruder's Other Films announces Project Next for 2009: finding "the next bunch of original thinkers, movers, mischief-makers and cage-rattlers."

Who would you nominate and why?

Chinese Democracy

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Chinese Democracy looks set to be the most delayed and expensive album in history: a rumoured $US13 million recording budget, 5 guitarists, 14 studios and a horde of Pro Tools digital editors.  I'm not exactly a Guns n' Roses fan but I bought the album anyway for the CD booklet: a list of production credits for the massively overrun project.  For the project's background see Wikipedia's CD history page and Jeff Leeds' article "The Most Expensive Album Never Made" (New York Times, 6th March 2005).

Interesting that Axl Rose augmented the Best Buy-only release with a MySpace streaming strategy and that Amazon.com's top search today for "Chinese Democracy" is Metallica's Death Magnetic (Elektra, 2008) . . . Rose's CD is ninth on the search algorithm's list.

I'm saving most of my thoughts on Chinese Democracy for a journal article. 

Former Gn'R co-founder Slash in his autobiography Slash (HarperEntertainment, New York, 2007), co-written with Anthony Bozza, has a prescient and interesting anecdote (p. 371) on Rose's decision to use Pro Tools in the recording studio:

There were rows and rows of Pro Tools servers and gear.  Which was a clear indication that Axl and I had very different ideas of how to do this record.  I was open to using Pro Tools, to trying new things--but everyone had to be on the same page and in the same room to explore new ideas.  The band managed to do a little bit of jamming and come up with some things.  A couple of the ideas I had come up with Axl apparently liked and they were recorded onto Pro Tools and stored for him to work on later.

We'd show up at different times every evening, but by eight p.m. generally everyone in the band would be there.  Then we'd wait for Axl, who, when he did come, arrived much, much later.  That was the norm; it was a dark, miserable atmosphere that lacked direction of any kind.  I hung out for a bit; but after a few days I chose to spend my evenings at the strip bar around the corner, with orders for the engineers to call me if Axl decided to arrive.
The Graeco-Russian philosopher George Gurdjieff argued in the early 20th century that humanity lives much of its life in a form of waking sleep.  This all sounds very theoretical --- Gurdjieff was the subject of one of my first four dossiers in 1998 for Disinformation and a 2001 undergraduate essay --- but the right circumstances can drive his point home with clarity.

This past weekend provides two examples apart from the Mumbai siege.  In the first, Jdimytai Damour an agency temp was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart sale in Long Island, New York, on Black Friday, 28th November 2008.  Associated Press coverage quotes Kimberly Cribbs that customers acted like "savages".  The New York Times blamed the media for creating unrealistic expectations about Black Friday sale bargains: the catalyst for a mania.  In the second, Sydney's Glebe Coroner's Court has held an inquest into Emma Hansen's death: Hansen was a pedestrian accidentally killed in 2007 by learner driver Rose Deng, who is still permitted to drive by Australian authorities.  Both incidents illustrate on a micro-scale Gurdjieff's Law of Accident or Law of Hazard ("when an event happens without the lines of the events we observe").

For two overviews of Gurdjieff's philosophy see Richard Smoley's introduction to Gnosis Magazine's special issue here and John Shirley's essay The Shadows of Ideas.  I also recommend Shirley's book Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Ideas (Tarcher, San Francisco, 2004) and his DVD commentary as co-scriptwriter for Alex Proyas' dark gothic masterpiece The Crow (1994), infamous for another Law of Accident case: Brandon Lee's accidental death during a film stunt.
Counterterrorism analysts search for answers as the official death toll from Mumbai's siege rises to 183 people.  We now enter Susan Moeller's second stage of post-terrorist attacks: the hunt for the perpetrators and seeking justice.  See my October 2001 analysis here on the September 11 aftermath and Henry Rollins' reaction in New York City.

Slate's Anne Applebaum observes that we don't yet know much about the group that carried out the attacks.  Applebaum's analysis echoes Walter Laqueur's 'new terrorism' thesis in the mid-to-late 1990s: attempts at mass casualty attacks, tactics from the guerrilla and insurgency playbook, an ideological mix, and groups that either do not claim credit or who are not on the radar of counterterrorism analysts.  Applebaum captures Gregory Treverton's distinction between solvable 'puzzles' and potentially unsolvable 'mysteries' in intelligence analysis.

"The particulars of the attacking group are unknown; the political-military equation from which the group has almost certainly arisen is not," notes The New Yorker's Steve Coll.  The most plausible hypotheses for Coll and other counterterrorism experts are: (1) Pakistan's intelligence services may have funded the group in a clandestine/proxy war with India; or (2) the group emerged as an autonomous cell that was ideologically motivated by the clandestine/proxy war.  Coll explains why at this early stage the Mumbai siege is closer to Treverton's 'mysteries':

If past investigations into such groups prove to be any guide, it may be difficult to find clear-cut evidence of direct involvement by Pakistani intelligence or army personnel. This is because Pakistan, knowing the stakes of getting caught red-handed, has increasingly pursued its clandestine proxy war against India in Kashmir and on the Indian mainland through layers and layers of self-managing and non-state groups. The Pakistani government and its domestic Islamist proxies, including nominally peaceful charities based in Pakistan but with operations in Kashmir, almost certainly pass through money and weapons on a large scale. They do so, however, in such a way that is very difficult to trace these supplies back to the government.

Applebaum highlights the epistemological challenges that counterterrorism analysts face; Coll offers some guidance on how to conduct an investigation on the basis of 'contingent' beliefs and alternative hypotheses.

Pakistan's government denies any role in the Mumbai attacks.  Perhaps forensic analysis of crime scene evidence will provide answers and shift the current speculation from Treverton's 'mystery' to 'puzzle'.  Or maybe not.

The next day Coll analyses India's claim that the group Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the Mumbai attack.

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