Question: Terrorism and Open Societies

Here’s another one from the question box: I received a link to this article from a skeptical reader who questions how – or indeed if – the sort of open society I describe could possibly cope with this sort of lone-wolf, home-grown terrorism by individual extremists, needing few contacts and little equipment.

First, just because you have an open society that, by and large, is not interested in investing a lot of time into controlling what people do doesn’t necessarily mean that your security services suck. (Indeed, one could convincingly argue that they ought to be better, inasmuch as they can spend all their time concentrating on things that are actually mala in se rather than wasting a lot of time on authoritarian-moistening bullshit.)

Suffice it to say, canonically, while greatly restricted in what they can do to people who haven’t committed any sort of crime, the Watch Constabulary and the Fourth Directorate are nonetheless very good at what they do.

Second, of course, is that the Empire is rather picky about who can get citizen-shareholdership in the first place, and extends this particular pickiness even to people who were born there. You don’t get it for free just by accident of birth; it comes with responsibilities as well as rights, and if you cannot sit under an alethiometer and honestly declare that, yes, you do intend to honor the Contract and the Charter and all their implications (something that your homegrown radical could not any more than a would-be immigrant one), no citizen-shareholdership for you. And if you fail that test badly enough, well, here’s a ticket, now get the hell out.

(This is naturally decried as extremely culturalist, which it is; the standard response to such criticism is that no, it’s not prejudice, they have a perfectly valid postjudice against cultures that don’t respect the sophont rights of others, and in any case, the opinions of a of bunch of self-asserted advocates for thugs, thieves, slavers, defaulters, and other such degenerates will be filed in the appropriate receptacle.)

And thirdly, the Eupraxic Collegium does have a compelling interest of ensuring that the ungoverned, self-organizing public are, well, sane and rational, that being what permits a free society like this to exist in the first place, and are well equipped so to do.

But lastly, of course and for the major part, is the difference in attitude.

As has been mentioned before, I believe, the Imperial legal view of self-defense (or, rather, self-and-others defense) is somewhat different than ours, in that one is not, for example, obliged to wait until someone actualizes a threat in order to respond to it. You are entitled to take people at their word: if someone threatens you or someone else nearby, you can preempt their attack with your defense all you like. There is absolutely no duty to retreat: someone who attacks, or threatens to attack, is by definition, eo ipso, etc., in the wrong and invited the painful consequences that are about to ensue. And, for that matter, they think “proportional response” is the damn silliest idea they’ve ever heard of (with the possible exceptions of fighting fair and telling the enemy that you’re coming), so if you have to put someone down, you’re entitled to make sure that they don’t get back up.

The Imperial Rules of Civilized Warfare mirror this pretty much exactly on the group level, as you might expect.

In the above article, one quotation given is:

“Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict,” an Islamic State spokesman said in a September audio speech. “Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.”

…you can say that kind of thing relatively safely on Earth.

Hell, you could say that thing kind of safely to a lot of people in the Worlds who share similar attitudes to people on Earth.

But if you say that thing to or about the Empire, or Imperial citizen-shareholders, that’s a preemptive self-and-others-defense casus belli right there, and it’s probably even the kind that invokes the “we don’t need no steenkin’ central ruling, this is covered under ‘imminent threat that will not admit of delay'” clause that lets any local commander act on their own military authority.

There, you say that sort of thing from any sort of position of authority, and shit is going down. Hell, you just sent said shit a gild-edged, engraved, heavy-bond-paper invitation to come party at your place and bring all its implements of destruction.

And so, when it comes to another illustrative quote:

“They’ve realized, hey, if our intent is to scare the s–t out of people—to trigger heavy-handed responses by government, to force isolation of the Muslim community, pushing them to more radicalization—what do you have to do? Take two guys into a mall, shoot it up, and you’re done. You’ll be out of there in 15 minutes, and we’ll be talking about it for days and weeks and months.”

Well, it’s true that that would be an excellent way to trigger heavy-handed responses from the Imperial governance, yes. The problem, however, is that so far as opinion there is concerned, our idea of a heavy-handed response is so much self-harming (because tightening security inflicts pain upon many-n of your own people for every n bad guys it catches, even before you start counting false positives) theatrical bullshit.

The way you do a proper heavy-handed response to polity-encouraged terrorism is to send out Admiral Cluster Bomb to turn Mister-Likes-To-Make-Threats-And-Encourage-People into Mister-Ash-At-The-Bottom-Of-A-Glass-Lined-Crater, preferably before anyone actually has a chance to make good on any of said threats.

In short: what keeps terrorism out of the Empire’s open society is that, by and large, would-be terrorists’ sponsors and encouragers have much easier targets to pick on than the one that will murderize, tenderize, and vaporize you from orbit the moment after you open your mouth and then pat itself on the back, standin’ up for civilized values and all, for doing it, not a twinge of conscience needed.

And it’s not like this is a hidden or an inconsistent policy. They’re very open about this policy and they do it every time, and have been doing so for ever, which has the decided advantage of ensuring that it’s a very rare occasion when they have to do it at all.

Refuge Cities

In today’s random postage, something I just wrote on the worldbuilding mailing list, in response to the following:

Do your worlds have a Peace town [city of refuge], where people can go in order to avoid the law?

Not as such, or at least not officially. (Certainly people, like, say, the Imperial State Security Fourth Directorate – whose explicit mission is tracking down anyone who flees the law and introducing them to the stealth gyroc bullet of justice – wouldn’t bother complying with any such requirement even if there was one.)

If you need to flee from the law in the Worlds, your best chance of doing so is change your name, change your body, and head at once via a suitably circuitous route – changing them another couple of times on the way – to some appropriate wretched hive of scum and villainy like, say, Nepscia, where the locals all have enough dark secrets and dodgy business going on that they tend to look askance at anyone wandering around carrying alethiometers or mindprinting equipment even if they don’t actually look like The Law. Of course, while this can be fairly effective in hiding from even rather competent law enforcers (such as the aforementioned Fourth Directorate), the drawback to fleeing to Nepscia is that you subsequently have to live on Nepscia for the rest of your personal ever, which in many ways is its own punishment.

Depending on if you might have pleased or annoyed the right people, you might be able to find refuge somewhere else, too. If you got into trouble helping their fellows escape, for example, the liberated AIs of the Silicate Tree will offer you sanctuary, because they don’t give a bit for meat intelligences in general, but they do understand gratitude. Or if you can find some way of making yourself more useful to them than any trouble you might bring with you is troublesome, of course, although then you should understand clearly that your sanctuary will last precisely as long as your utility.

The Empire, of course, provides a comfortable retirement for all manner of smugglers, free-thinkers, authors, scientists, philosophers, and transsophontists who got into trouble with assorted restrictionist laws, and even some of the right kind of revolutionary (“the People’s Extropian Front”, “Technicians Against Unnecessary Work”, “Citizens United for Liberty and Immortality! Down with DEATH AND TAXES!”, that sort of thing), because of (a) their steadfast refusal to ever extradite anyone for something that isn’t against Imperial law, and (b) because the modal Imperial citizen-shareholder thinks annoying the sort of people responsible for the laws they got in trouble with is downright hilarious.

The Rim Free Zone also serves in this role quite a bit – after all, they’re actual anarchists, and so there’s no-one there you could ask to extradite someone even if you wanted to. Of course, since there’s also no-one who’s paid to prevent anyone else from turning up and dragging you off in chains, etc., you’d better be able to afford PPL coverage suitable to defend you against whoever wants you if you exercise this option, or at least to make yourself too expensive to come get. This should be unavailable to actual criminals, inasmuch as the Free Zone does hold to a sort of rough-and-ready version of natural rights that PPLs won’t defend you against other people if you violate ’em, but if you have enough money, you can probably find a slash-trading PPL that’s willing to do it anyway.

And, equally of course, you’d better be careful that you don’t commit your special crimes against people in the Free Zone once you get there. To steal a perfectly apposite quotation from Buck Godot – just because there is no law in the Rim Free Zone, that doesn’t mean there are no rules.