This post was re-published shortly after the news of a U.S. air strike, and a day after the attacks in Paris. I published the original piece in 2011.
Here are two quotes from the 1st/2nd May 2011:
“The world is a safer place, because of the death of Osama Bin Laden” President of the United States
“Is this the beginning of the end for the war on terror?” BBC News
…and one from 200 years ago:
“A sect cannot be destroyed by cannonballs” Napoleon Bonaparte
In nature and in business, the most common structure is for an organism or an organisation to be centralised. Spiders, and a traditional bank, are amongst the obvious examples. Centralised organisms and organisations feel the pain of attack on the main unit, for example, by the removal of food (in nature) or funding (in enterprise).
An alternative structure is one of decentralisation.
In these organisms and organisations, there is no main unit as the vital organs are distributed throughout the entire structure. Starfish are amongst the obvious examples in nature. Organisations such as Wikipedia, Craigslist and al Qaeda, are others.
Such decentralised structures handle attack in a totally different way from centralised ones. After all, if you chop off the head of a spider, it dies. Whereas if you chop off a leg of a starfish, it grows another leg – and the chopped leg grows into another starfish.
The news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, triggered me to refer to the work of Brafman and Beckstrom, authors of the vital transcript ‘The Starfish and the Spider’*. In this book, they allude to moments in history that exemplify centralised versus decentralised structures. One example starts with the Aztecs.
In 1519 an explorer named Hernando Cortes stared in disbelief at the Aztec metropolis Tenochtitlan. Expecting to see savages, instead he saw an organised and civilised community. Cortes witnessed a developed system of highways, ingeniously constructed aqueducts, spectacularly ornate temples, and mystically intriguing pyramids.
He also saw gold. Everywhere.
Cortes arranged a meeting with Montezuma II, the leader of the Aztecs. His conversation was not a friendly one – it was a monologue that could be summed up with “Give me your gold, or I will destroy you”.
Montezuma believed that Cortes might be a deity and decided to yield his vast resources. Shortly after that, Cortes repaid Montezuma’s trust and submission by killing him, placing the city under siege, and cutting off its food and water supplies. Within 80 days 240,000 were dead – within 2 years, the entire civilisation had collapsed.
Less than a decade later an explorer named Francisco Pizarro captured and killed the leader of the Incas, Atahuallpa. They, too, were plundered, and within two years the society became an historical footnote.
Over a century later the conquering Spanish headed to the deserts of modern day New Mexico to force a Christian conversion upon the natives there. They would make them Catholics – they would transform them from hunters into farmers.
The primitive people were the Apaches. The Apaches had nothing – except their way of life. No highway system. No permanent towns or cities. No pyramids. No gold. All that was valued was stored under their dark skin – in their immense souls.
For two centuries the Apache battled the Spanish tooth and nail. The wild people of the deserts persevered and prevailed against the Spanish. Why? Because every one of them fought from a spiritual compulsion, rather than the command-and-control coercion of officers and strategy.
The Apache had no appointed chief or army commander, but they did have the Nant’an.
A Nant’an was a spiritual leader who led by example – not by coercion. Warriors fearlessly followed the Nant’an. Nant’ans lived, fought, and died alongside those they led. When one was killed, another seemed to incarnate the spirit of the fallen and press the fight forward. Inspired. Courageous. They resisted. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
The Apache have no word or concept for the phrase “you should”.
Not one of those proud Native Americans had to follow their larger-than-life leaders. Neither Geronimo nor Cochise roared “you should”, “you must” or “follow me”.
Apaches were empowered to choose against whom, and if, they would make war.
When the Spanish killed a Nant’an, a new one would take his place. Like Agent Smith in The Matrix.**
When they burned a village, the Apache became nomadic.
The more they were attacked, the more decentralised and resilient the Apache became.
The Apaches won because of their decentralised structure, based on deep relationships, in the absence of leadership, hierarchy and rules. This deep affinity with one another was the primary tool of this insurgency.
Then it all went wrong…
The Americans (of European descent) entered the picture. They too found it impossible to defeat the Apaches. Until, that is, they decided to give them some land and a few cattle. Within a few years the Apache society had fallen apart.
You may question why land and cattle would trigger such destruction of something so decentralised and resilient. And rightly so. In fact, I attest that these lessons are critical to humanity, not just in a political sense of rulership, but also at a sociological level of understanding. Especially in the context of recent events.
It turns out, there are three ways of destroying decentralised structures.
1. Change the participants’ ideology by showing them another, better, way
2. Centralise them by giving them constructs in which greed is built
3. Decentralise yourself
This particular piece is not intended for a full exploration of how the above three points can take shape – but evidently, the Apaches were destroyed by the second method.
In light of the Osama Bin Laden events, and without attempting some political advisory role, or religious bias, I would say this:
1. It would be wise to view the horrific, terrorist acts as manifestations of decentralised, asymmetric warfare
2. It would not be as wise to view this horror as removable, nor reconcilable, by the murder of one man
3. It would be wise to rapidly strategise, distribute, and execute a counteractive plan that takes into extreme context, the very nature of the structural elements involved in the challenge
4. It would not be as wise to celebrate a temporary passing as outright victory, with all respect to lives lost forthwith
As a pacifist and humanitarian, my personal belief is that the demise of others is not an acceptable way of promoting a singular cause. Thus, I give this free advice based on bias toward a more harmonious world, rather than one of conflict.
Nevertheless, if a country, Government or movement is setting out to truly combat acts of terror, the infrastructure of the challenge should be considered in the highest regard.
* The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2008) http://www.starfishandspider.com/
** Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Smith
“You simply cannot end a war with fire-power. You either use too little or too much” ~ My son, 13 years old at the time.
Taken as an excerpt from ’28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/