Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Disarming the perfect detonator

There is a character in Joseph Conrad's "Secret Agent", that of anarchist-arsonist Karl Yundt who, in addition to giving out, by his own account, as much explosive as anyone wants to anyone who wants it (so long as he has just a bit for himself), goes around with a flask of explosive in a coat pocket, connected with a tube winding through shirtsleeves to a small rubber ball in his fist. Describing the arrangement to an associate in a seedy London pub, Yundt complains of the 20-second delay between closing his fist on the ball and triggering the explosive. He boasts about a work-in-progress perfect detonator that would reduce that lag to zero.
"... a detonator that would adjust itself to all conditions of actions, and even to unexpected changes of conditions. A variable and yet perfectly precise mechanism. A really intelligent detonator."
 Yundt carries the device, a classic dead man's switch, knowing that the Metropolitan would never dare apprehend him while he retains the ability to wipe a small part of the city off the map. The bomb gives him freedom of movement and of action, or at least such actions as can be performed one-handed. It is not merely Yundt's ability to suicide-bomb (this was before that compound existed, mind), but his crystal intent to do so and at the slightest provocation; an intent he broadcasts candidly in a crowded London pub, and then again "by force of personality" to a police officer in an abandoned alleyway.
"I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people [the authorities] have in my will to use the means. That's their impression, it is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly."
The imperative for Yundt is not being himself an agent of destruction but in facilitating it and doing it in a manner that that flouts in plain sight the norms of civic society. His existence can be explained away as that of a lone loon lacking, luckily for London, the critical mass to make any meaningful impact. He is, at best, an eyesore for the authorities, a reminder that society, however civilized by large, is in the end imperfect.

Professor Yundt's ball of India rubber is not an offensive weapon, but merely a deterrent. Consider a different kind of anarchist, however, who, like Yundt, carries the means and intent to destroy, like Yundt, without regard for replacing the destroyed with an edifice of his own and without regard, unlike Yundt, for his own survival.

Twenty seconds could be all eternity if, as Conrad had a character point out, within the breast lurks a beating, bleeding human heart. Discard that last assumption and the animal thereby created is the perfect detonator. Allow such animals to multiply and the single aberrant organism personified in a milder -- yes, milder -- form by Yundt becomes a cancer, allow it to spread and there can be no safety anywhere for anyone. There is no room for debate or for compromise: How does one reason with something that has forsworn its own survival in order to preclude the survival of everything else?

The professor confesses he, like any individual, is fallible. He could be shot full of lead before he can react.
"But for that they would have to face their own institutions. Do you see? That requires uncommon grit. Grit of a special kind."
Of course, as Yundt likely knows, this special kind of grit would have the added effect, if relied upon often enough, of tearing down the very institutions society is built upon, therefore doing the anarchist's work for him.

At the same time, doing nothing, even for that noblest of reasons (not the restoration of the Republic): The preservation of a semblance of civic society (which is perhaps a little like the restoration of the Republic), relies on a high degree of optimism that society can outlast its assailants; that the supply of suicide bombers will run out long before targets, and that whatever battered remnants of society linger will be unmorphed by the schizophrenic bunker mentality of the assault, the memory of the assault; that whatever is saved will prove in light of a different, cynical morality to have been worth saving. Yet this optimism stems from a concern for semblances; the semblance of sacrosanct societal institutions, the semblance of concern for our assailants' semblance of humanity and the semblance of surviving the unsurvivable.

Ours then is a choice between a painful amputation that outdoes the one-armed-Yundts of our time and a baffling, baffled triage that leaves us open at every instant to bleeding out. Animals, and they are animals, cannot perhaps be civilized, but our Civilization behooves us to at least try, and not then by setting the same standards for their conduct and care as for our own -- Incitatus was madness in a time madder even than ours -- but with the realization of a responsibility to at least domesticate.

Feb. 14, 2012

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