Facta non Verba: How to Own Your Enemies

Dead horse in your bed — Friendship via poisoned cake –Roman Emperors and U.S. presidents –A living enemy is worth ten dead ones

The best enemy is the one you own by putting skin in his game and letting him know the exact rules that come with it. You keep him alive, in the knowledge that he owes this to your benevolence. The notion that an enemy you own is better than a dead one was perfected by the order of the Assassins, so we will do some digging into the work of that secret society.

An offer very hard to refuse

There is this formidable scene in the Godfather when a Hollywood executive wakes up with the bloody severed head of a horse in his bed, his cherished race horse.

He had refused to hire a Sicilian American actor for reasons that appeared iniquitous, as while he knew the latter was the best for the role, he was resentful of the “olive oil voice” that charmed one of his past mistresses and fearful of its powers to seduce future ones. It turned out that the actor, who in real life was (possibly) Frank Sinatra, had friends and friends of friends, that type of thing; he was even the godson of a capo. A visit from the consigliere of the “family” neither succeeded to sway the executive, nor softened his Hollywood abrasiveness –the fellow failed to realize that by flying across the country to make the request, the high ranking mobster was not just providing the type of recommendation letter you mail to the personnel department of a state university. He had made him an offer that he could not refuse (the expression was popularized by that scene in the movie).

It was a threat, and not an empty threat.

As I am writing these lines, people discuss terrorism and terrorist groups while making a severe category mistakes; there are in fact two totally distinct varieties. The first are terrorists that are terrorists for about every person equipped with ability to discern and isn’t a resident of Saudi Arabia or works for a think tank funded by Sheikhs; the second are militia groups largely called terrorists by their enemies, and “resistance” or “freedom fighters” by those who don’t dislike them.

The first includes nonsoldiers who indiscriminately kill civilians for effect and don’t bother with military targets as their aim isn’t to make military gains, just to make a statement, harm some living humans, produce some noise and, for some, a low-error way to go to paradise. Most Sunni Jihadis, of the type to take incommensurable pleasure in blowing up civilians, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, the “moderate rebels” in Syria sponsored by former U.S. president Obama’s, are in that category. The second group is about strategic political assassination –the Irish Republican Army, most Shiite organizations, Algerian independence fighters against France, French resistance fighters during the German occupation, etc.

For Shiites and similar varieties in the Near and Middle East, the ancestry, methods, and rules originate in the order of the Assassins, itself following the modus of the Judean Sicarii during Roman times. The Sicarii are named after the daggers they used to kill Roman soldiers and, mostly their Judean collaborators, owing to what they perceived was the profanation of the Temple and the land.

I have the misfortune to know a bit about the subject as I am the only one of those “notable” former students listed on the Wikipedia page of the Lycée Franco-Libanais, my elementary and high school, whose notability doesn’t originate for having, like my classmates and childhood friends, having being the victim of a successful or attempted assassination.

The Assassins

Sanjar became in 1118 the sultan of the Seljuk Turkish Empire of Asia minor (that is, modern day Turkey), Iran, and parts of Afghanistan. Soon after his accession, he woke up one day with a dagger next to his bed, firmly planted in the ground. In one version of the legend, a letter informed him that the dagger thrusted in hard ground was preferable to the alternative, being plunged in his soft breast. It was a characteristic message of the Hashishins, a.k.a. Assassins, making him aware of the need to leave them alone, say send them birthday gifts, or hire their actors for his next movie. Sultan Sanjar had previously snubbed their peace negotiators; so they moved to phase two of a demonstrably well planned out process. They convinced him that his life was in their hands and that, crucially, he didn’t have to worry if he did the right thing –they had proven to him that they were both in control and reliable. Indeed Sanjar and the Assassins had a happy life ever-after.

You will note that no explicit verbal threat was issued. Verbal threats reveal nothing other than weakness and unreliability. Remember, once again, no verbal threats.

The Assassins were a 11th-14th C. sect related to Shiite Islam and was (and still is through its reincarnations) violently anti-Sunni. They were often associated with the Knight Templars as they fought frequently on the side of the crusaders –and if they seem to share some of the values of the Templars, in sparing the innocent and the weak, it is more likely because the former group transmitted some of their values to the latter. The chivalric code of honor has, for second clause: I shall respect and defend the weak, the sick, and the needy.

The Assassins supposedly send the same message to Saladin, informing him that the cake he was about to eat was poisoned… by them.

The ethical system of the Assassins is that political assassination help prevent war; threat of the dagger-by-your-bed variety are even better for bloodless control[1]. They supposedly aimed at sparing civilians and people who were not directly targeted. The methods focusing on precision meant to reduce what is now called civilian “collateral damage”.

Assassination as Marketing

Those readers who may have tried to get rid of pebbles in their shoes (that is, someone you bothers you and doesn’t get the hint) might know that “contracts” on ordinary citizens (that is, to trigger their funeral) are relatively easy to perform and inexpensive to buy. There is a relatively active underground market for these contracts. In general, you need to pay a bit more to “make it look like an accident”. However skilled historians and observers of martial history would recommend the exact opposite: in politics, you should have to pay more to make it look intentional.

In fact, what Captain Weisenborn, Pasquale Cirillo, and I discovered, when we tried doing a systematic study of violence (debunking a confabulatory thesis by the science writer Steven Pinker), was that war numbers have been historically inflated… by both sides. Both the Mongols and their panicky victims had an incentive to exaggerate, which acted as a deterrent. Mongols weren’t interested in killing everybody; they just wanted submission, which came cheaply though terror. Further, having spent some time perusing the genetic imprints of invaded populations, it is clear that if the warriors coming from the Eastern steppes left a cultural imprint, they certainly left their genes at home. Gene transfer between areas by happens by group migrations, inclement climate, unaccommodating soil rather than war.

More connected to recent events, I discovered that the Hama “massacre” of Syrian Jihadis by Assad senior was at least an order of magnitude lower than what was reported; the rest came from inflation –numbers swelling over time from 2,000 to close to 40,000 without significant information. Simply, Assad wanted, at the time, to intimidate and his enemies, the Islamist and their journalist sympathizers, former U.S. president Obama’s wanted to aggrandize the event.

Assassination as Democracy

Now, political life; if the democratic system doesn’t fully deliver governance –it patently doesn’t, owing to cronyisms and the Hillary Montanto-Malmaison style of covert legal corruption; if the system doesn’t fully deliver governance, we have known forever what does: an increased turnover at the top. Count Munster’s epigrammatic description of the Russian Constitution explains it: “Absolutism tempered by assassination”.

While today’s politicians have no skin in the game and do not have to worry so long as they play the game, thanks the increased life expectancy of modern times, they stay longer and longer on the job. France’s pseudo-socialist Francois Mitterrand reigned for fourteen years, longer than many French Kings; thanks to technology he had more power over the population than most French Kings. Even a United States President, the modern kind of Emperor (unlike Napoleon and the Tsars, Roman emperors before Diocletian were not absolutists) tends to last at least four years on the throne, while Rome had five emperors in a single year and four in another. The mechanism worked: consider that all the bad Emperors Caligula, Caracalla, Elagabalus, Nero ended their career either murdered by the Pretorian guard or, in the case of Nero, suicide in anticipation. In the first four hundred years of empire, only 20, that is less than a third, of emperors died a natural death, assuming these deaths were truly natural.

[1] It appears that what we read about the Assassins can be smear by their enemies (including the apocryphal accounts according to which their name comes from consumption of Hashish, Cannabis in Arabic, as they would get into a trance before their assassination).


Chapters from Skin in the Game

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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Chapters from Skin in the Game

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