Friday, June 28, 2013

Chesterton and counter-terrorism

What does G.K. Chesterton have to do with anti-terrorist intercepts and surveillance, relevent even, perhaps, to the current controversy about the NSA? Philip Jenkins explains why a book published in 1908 turned out to be a favorite of intelligence agents:
Thirty years ago, a British newspaper took an unscientific survey of current and former intelligence agents, asking them which fictional work best captured the realities of their profession. Would it be John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum? To the amazement of most readers, the book that won easily was G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908.

This was so surprising because of the book's early date, but also its powerful mystical and Christian content: Chesterton subtitled it "a nightmare." ....

The book describes a Europe under threat from terrorists, from anarchists, dynamiters and assassins. To meet the threat, London's Metropolitan Police have formed an elite anti-anarchist squad, tasked to infiltrate the enemy. Following up a chance conversation, undercover detective Gabriel Syme attends a meeting of the General Council of the Anarchists of Europe, and is even elected to a vacancy in their leadership. This tight group has seven leaders, each of whom takes his codename from a day of the week. The mysterious overall boss is Sunday. Syme himself becomes Thursday. ....

Chesterton himself was a bookish man with no real-world experience of police or intelligence. He did however have the dubious blessing of living in the first golden age of European terrorism, when issues of revolutionary subversion and counter-terrorism regularly filled the headlines. Since the 1880s, anarchist and revolutionary movements had carried out many violent acts across Europe and especially Russia, assassinating public figures and bombing trains and public meeting places. ....

Then as now, governments realized that the only way to defeat revolutionary terror was to penetrate and infiltrate the active groups, to gain intelligence about forthcoming attacks. .... When an agent infiltrated Russia's anarchist or Bolshevik underground, he naturally had to prove his credentials, to prove he was not a detective. And how better to do that than to carry out a vicious attack, by planting a bomb in a public place, even if that really did kill innocent civilians? ....

Soon, even police agencies themselves had no idea whether a given attack was the work of real terrorists, or of agents and provocateurs notionally working for the regime. .... However fantastic The Man Who Was Thursday might appear, it was describing the stark realities of counter-subversion, with all their moral ambiguities. And that was what gave the book its appeal to latter day spooks. ....

Just how far should agencies go to prevent terrorism? Chesterton's book includes another theme that agonizes today's security forces, namely the dilemma of knowing when radical thought and speech will translate into criminal action in the real world. A detective tells Syme of some radical innovations in counter-subversion: "The work of the philosophical policeman," he says, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. ... The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime."

We might rephrase the problem in modern terms. If a bomb has been planted or a soldier murdered in the streets, then police agencies have failed in their duty, and should have intervened earlier. But does that mean that they should arrest or try someone for thoughts and writings that might someday lead to committing such actions? Or at least, should they keep potential subversives under surveillance? .... [more]
I have a copy of this book but haven't read it for decades. I think I need to read it again. A free electronic version of The Man Who Was Thursday can be downloaded here for Kindle or Nook.

More: "The NSA and the Man Who Was Shabbat"

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