Belmont Club

The Dense Pack Defense

News that the Boko Haram, yet another brand name of “militant”, attacked a Nigerian college dormitory to massacre at least 50 students in their sleep may still outrage some, but not to the degree you would expect. For it was only last week that the Shabaabs attacked a mall in Kenya. And even more recently some militants” blew up a church in Peshawar, Pakistan killing 85 Christians.

Most of the students killed in Nigeria were actually Muslims, “as is the majority of the college’s student body”. Their crime was attending the agricultural college. جماعة اهل السنة للدعوة والجهاد  or “Boko Haram” literally means “Western education is forbidden.”

I guess learning to grow spuds and bananas is a Western education.

We have left out the bombings in Iraq or the ongoing killings in Syria, or the burning of Zamboanga. No mention need be made of the threats against the Miss World beauty contest in Indonesia. We leave out those tedious details lest we should be here half the night enumerating them.  At this rate no one will pay much attention to any subsequent attacks — even if they happen at a little league game in Minnesota or a retiree’s bingo party in Florida or the burning of a hospital or two in France.

For outrage news will by then have been so common as to fall into the category of “dog bites man”. Ironically the more people the “militants” kill the less we will notice. This is the effect of attention fratricide.  One headline drives out the other, a process we call the “news cycle”. Since low information voters can only hold one thing in their mental register at a time, one hundred massacres will just blur into a single blob.

This can be called the ‘dense pack’ effect,  after the “strategy was developed under the Reagan administration as a means of safeguarding America’s inventory of MX missiles”. It worked on the idea that Soviet ICBMs would run into each other if they tried to hit MX silos too closely grouped together.

The rationale for this thinking went like this: As the first inbound warhead detonates over its target silo, it would throw a large cloud of debris over the entire missile field. Every other warhead targeted on that missile field would have to travel through that debris cloud to reach its target, and it was theorized that the act of traveling through that debris cloud would “trash” the warhead before it could detonate. Every successful explosion over the missile field would throw more debris up into the air, increasing the chances that each successive warhead would be destroyed before it could trigger.

If you have too much of a bad thing you lose track of one woe with the arrival of the next since the mind can only cope with so much. Crazy as this idea sounds it apparently works. Consider the perception of murder in the city of Chicago. We don’t notice it any more. Kill a 10 kids in a white suburban community and its national news. Shoot a dozen people in Chicago and “so what?”

The same fratricidal effect can be observed in the way we remember — or don’t even recollect — the war in the Congo. It is by far the “the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II”, having killed almost 6 million people if you stop the count in year 2008. It’s was bigger than Korea and Vietnam put together and multiplied by nearly 60. By comparison the 100,000 people who have died in Syria are loose change.

Who doesn’t know about the Six Day War (16,000 dead), yet who the hell has heard about the war in the Congo? Where is the Congo?  Wherever it is it can’t be important or it would have been featured on Oprah. The reason the Congo is forgotten is dense pack. It’s information fratricide.

Overload makes it easier for apologists to keep “militants” invisible or depict their depredations as the work of a few misguided individuals. If there were only a few attacks we would remember them more vividly, they way we never forget Timothy McVeigh. But fortunately there are so many that it is perfectly possible for President Obama to say that the world is more stable than it was 5 years ago.  Few if any of the low information voters will challenge him on that score because by some trick of the human mind we remember tragedies on a human, personal scale more vividly than the slaughter of millions.

This curious psychological fact has been understood for some time. Stalin was supposed to have observed that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” It was a fact he exploited when he proceeded to kill more people than Hitler, which is probably why he and not Hitler is remembered fondly by many to this day.

For the well of tears runs dry. Can one really say, “I’m sorry to hear that that students in Nigeria were slaughtered in their sleep?” when just a few days ago John Kerry was offering his heartfelt condolences for the mall attack in Kenya?  How much heartfelt sorrow does John Kerry have? Soon, if not already, dead Nigerians will be just another day, another Nigerian naira.

“Militants” do more than kill individual people; more, even, than simply murder multitudes. What a truly malignant movement achieves by unending, numbing slaughter is putting to death the very taboos that uphold civilization. We become used to barbarism. We accustom ourselves to regard it as normal. The “militants” destroy our former expectation of decency to the point where we ourselves understand — and accept — that we now only pay lip service to those former norms.

By stages we become transported to the militant’s own world, ostensibly against our will but really by our inaction. We submit, perhaps not consciously but nevertheless we submit to the insistence of savagery until it imposes its will on us by unending harassment. Step by step, headline by diminishing headline we accept and lose interest till we are manifestly prepared to live with the unspeakble in a kind of uneasy coexistence in the same way a man who’s bartered his soul to the devil accepts the growing shadow at the far end of the room.

Boko Haram is not beyond the pale. Jake Tapper asked two months ago why the State Department had not designed the Boko Haram a terrorist organization even after Nigerian Christians petitioned them to do so, and even in the aftermath of an attack on a school dormitory — it was a different school dormitory which we’ve already forgotten.

(CNN) – At least 20 students were killed in northern Nigeria last week when Islamic militants razed their boarding school, prompting British authorities to label the group thought to be responsible, Boko Haram, a terrorist organization.

But the Obama administration has not done the same. …

Possible explanations for reluctance to label the group can be found in a 2012 letter to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Nigeria experts, including John Campbell, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria under President George Bush.

The letter claims that the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation would limit the State Department’s ability to shape “long-term” strategy and encourage the Nigerian government to use military action rather than diplomacy.

“We believe that an FTO designation for Boko Haram would limit American policy options to those least likely to work, and would undermine the domestic political conditions necessary in Nigeria for an enduring solution,” said the group in the letter.

The phrase in the letter which claims that the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation would limit the State Department’s ability to shape “long-term” strategy and encourage the Nigerian government to use military action rather than diplomacy summarizes the core of the problem. The Boko Haram aren’t terrorists. We’ve accepted them already at a deep, doctrinal level. They are our “partners for peace”.

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