An Unpopular Yet Highly Regarded Solution to Threats Against…Anybody (on Love, Crime, Nuclear Deterrence and Terrorist Threats)


First, I’m not promoting this as a viable solution, I’m only recognizing that it is a solution.
Second, it is a solution that has a long history in different societal segments, most recently in the crime world where it seems to work very well.
Third, the crime world is a psychologically unstable world. It also has roots in 20th century nuclear politics.

But I repeat myself.

Okay, so what’s the solution?

A very effective method of insuring that no harm is done against someone is to hold someone else as a ransom for good behavior.

Note, not as a hostage, only as a ransom.

For example, let’s say A and B are in conflict with each other. A wants to begin peace negotiations. A sends an emissary to B and part of the emissary’s commitment to the peace negotiations is to stay with B while B sends their own emissary back to A. When B’s emissary returns safely from A, A’s emissary is released safely from B. Such ransomings often go under the guise of “an act of good will”.

Of course, sometimes these ransomings aren’t quite on the level. Sometimes one of the emissaries isn’t all they’re cracked up to be. A king offers his son — hence the hereditary throne — as a ransom and sends an impostor instead of his son.

This happens a lot, too.

Crime has evolved the concept of ransoming to a “real future threat”.

Here’s how real future threats work: A is being attacked but doesn’t know exactly who is doing the attacking (perhaps the attacks are terrorist or guerilla in nature. There may be groups claiming credit and A doesn’t know if their claim is accurate or opportunistic, and A doesn’t want to punish the stupid, only the guilty.

So we know already that A is thoughtful, not vengeful.

This is also where it starts to get tricky.

A doesn’t know who’s doing the attacking but A does know that B knows who is doing the attacking. This is important, B isn’t doing the attacking, B only knows who is doing the attacking.

Or B has a really (really, really,) good idea.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Modern Crime Offers a Solution to Modern Global ThreatsEnter the modern ransoming: A says to B “I will destroy you if you do not stop the attacks. I will give you what ever support you require to stop the attacks. However, if the attacks do not stop, I will destroy you.”

There are some conditions to this working properly:

  • A must be recognizably more powerful than B
  • B must be recognizably more powerful than whoever’s doing the attacking
  • B, whoever’s doing the attacking and anybody else even remotely involved must know for a fact that A will destroy B if B doesn’t act immediately to stop the attacks. Note that this will work anywhere and with any belief system. Even if person 1 is willing to be a martyr, chances are persons 2-5 aren’t so willing

Obviously, it is now in B’s interest to stop the attacks on A, or to provide A with whatever support it can to insure that the attacks stop.

But this is also where this wonderfully concise solution can fall apart. A hidden requirement is that A and B must be better organized than whoever’s doing the attacking.

Think of it this way…

…(and note that I’m not suggesting this): The US knew who claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. The lives of people everywhere were affected. Now imagine the US going to the countries known to harbor those claiming responsibility and saying,

“You can find out who they are and where they are faster than we can. You have twenty days to bring them to us. If you don’t bring them to us we start bombing your cities on day twenty-one.

“By the way, anything happens to us between now and day twenty-one, we start bombing your cities within twelve hours of whatever happens.”

The key is not caringI’m told it works better if you say this unemotionally, a calm beyond calm, as it were. The best example of this is from Get Shorty where John Travolta’s Chili Palmer character tells Danny Devito’s Martin Weir character the Weir is just a number in a book and Chili has no feelings one way or the other.

This solution, by the way, isn’t taking into account whether or not Americans and America’s allies would be willing to forgo oil for…umm…justice. In the case of 9/11.

So anyway…

…B is now extremely vested in bringing the attackers to A. Also, if B brings the incorrect attackers, A starts bombing. If B brings the correct attackers but others stand up and claim “No, B didn’t bring you the right people. We’re the right people and we’re still out here,” then A attacks because, after all, A can’t be sure.

Now the vested interest quickly spreads. Either B and all sorts of attackers have to unify against A or B and anybody who looks remotely like B or the attackers is going to be bombed.

Solution History

This type of solution is an extreme tit-for-tat that I learned while interviewing career criminals for some research. It’s most familiar examples in popular culture are in The Godfather, Part 1 and in the 1987 film The Untouchables.

In The Godfather, Part 1, Al Pacino’s newly donned Don Corleone orders the killing of all mob bosses who had anything to do with…well, anything. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone tells Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness that when Capone comes at you with a fist, you go at him with a knife, when he comes at you with a club, you go at him with a gun…or something like that.

A really needs to know, and B really needs to know, and ultimately the real attackers really need to know that A, in the end, has the largest knife, gun or whatever available and is completely willing to use it.

Interviewing career criminals, I talked with one gentleman who had a very long and very successful career. To what did he attribute his success?

He looked at me, his head cocked to one side and slightly down so that his clear blue eyes watched me from under bushy, gray brows. His smile lifted his walrus mustache up on his deeply tanned face. There was a cherry kitchen table between us and he was dressed in navy blue sweats. Not designer sweats, more the kind you’d get at BJs or possibly WalMart.

He was, therefore, a regular guy. There was nothing glamourous or threatening about him. He was a trusted neighbor to many.

The kitchen where we met was in a comfortable suburban home. We each had a cup of coffee in front of us. There was an ashtray on his side although there were no ashes in it and no sign of anything smokable anywhere in the house. His tanned hands were on the table, between his coffee cup and the ashtray as we talked. In his left, he held a pack of common paper matches, no brand affiliation on them other than “Draw Skippy”, and he rotated the pack in strong, thick, laborer’s fingers, the pack held vertically between middle finger and thumb, his index finger rotating it as he spoke, tapping the pack’s edge on the table to emphasize points he was making. His only jewelry was a simple gold wedding band.

He looked at me under those bushy gray brows and asked in return, “What do you love?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You asked me the secret of my success. I asked you, ‘What do you love?'”

“My wife, definitely.”

“Too obvious. Something else.”

I was at a loss as to what he was after. “Animal, vegetable or mineral?”

“Doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it’s deeply important to you.”

“My children. The animals I feed in my backyard.”

He looked at the matches he was rotating. “Yeah…” He tapped them on the table. “Somebody showed me your Facebook page.” He paused, his eyes on the rotating, tapping matchbook in his fingers, then nodded, more to himself than to me. “We’ll use that. You don’t have any kids you care about, though. No grandkids. Grandchildren always work.”

I shook my head, not understanding.

“When someone caused me trouble, I would meet them somewhere they chose. I would tell them as I’m telling you, ‘You will never see your grandchildren again unless you do what I want.’ That was it. I never had to do it. Everybody knew I would, so I never had to. And I never had to leave a horse’s head anywhere, either. You see, you can’t actually kill anybody and show somebody the body because that means there’s closure and you don’t want to give anybody closure.”

“You always want them to hope but you want them to know there’s no hope. That’s how you get people to do things for you, or to leave you alone.”

Now he looked directly at me. He stopped rotating the matches. It seemed he stopped moving. He wasn’t even blinking. He was the most relaxed looking statue I’d ever seen and he said to me, “I will take those animals — something you love, something you’ve placed your energy into, something you’ve placed your passion into — and you will never see them again. Ever. You’ll never know what happened to them.”

He looked at me then said, “No, they don’t matter enough to you. We’ll go with your wife.”

He still didn’t move other than to speak. There was no emotion on his face. It was the ultimate blank slate. Just his clear, blue eyes, unblinking, staring into mine.

And I knew he would. I also felt myself knowing it. I could feel the blood leave my face, my hands go cold, my breathing go shallow.

“You’re a smart man, you know how people show you what they think. So I know I own you now, right?”

I nodded.

“But don’t worry. Don’t be concerned. I don’t do those things. And even if I ever did them, I wouldn’t do them now. Definitely not to a smart fellow like you.” His blank face warmed and broke into a smile as he spoke.

I returned the smile, but somehow I wasn’t comforted.

This practice, he told me later, was pretty common throughout the world. It was also highly effective when one had the necessary organization (both internal-wise and ability-wise).

As I wrote at the start of this post, these tactics are also in national policies. This particular method has been in use since Eisenhower’s SIOP, started in the 1960’s, and in SAC’s military theorizing ever since: “Anybody touches Europe, we’ll blow the hell out of all of you.”

But then again, Europe was never known for its oil reserves.

A Most Effective Game and a Return to the Playground

Such strategies and tactics are analyzed in the field of game theory. I wondered about other effective game theories and what gaming strategy would be most effective should a nation be under threat.

Imagine a schoolyard bully who is suddenly faced with the entire schoolyard mobilizing against that behavior. There is no retribution, no retaliation, only an offensive against the threat. “If you come after any one of us, all of us will come after you.”

Imagine some insurgency or terrorist organization that works worldwide and the countries that harbor them being put on notice by a world body (the UN, perhaps?), “If you come after any one of us, all of us will come after you…and you and you and you.”

As the career criminal said, it depends on internal and external organization.


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