The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


What effect did meeting Trump have on Kim Jong Un?

Faces and body postures give information about emotions and social relationships that don’t necessarily come out in what words are spoken. Kim Jong Un looked distinctly different with his followers in North Korea than he did with Donald Trump in Singapore. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un leads all the action, down to facial expressions that everyone else imitates. In Singapore, the shoe was on the other foot. Trump set the tone and KJU imitated him, but in a more subdued manner. Trump took almost all the initiative, on the non-verbal level as well as verbally, and KJU passively followed.

When Trump returned from Singapore and declared that the US was now safe from nuclear attack, he was probably expressing his feeling that he had prevailed over Kim Jong Un personally. Was this so? Let’s look at the visual evidence.

Kim Jong Un and his terrified sycophants in North Korea

In a previous post, “Faces Around a Dictator,” I examined all available photographs of Kim Jong Un with other North Koreans.

Throughout, KJU sets the facial expression and body posture. His followers mirror him, but with a difference-- their expressions are over-the-top, trying really hard to show they agree with him. We see this in the strain lines in their faces, and their exaggerated body postures.

Their faces are also tinged with fear. Not surprisingly, given Kim’s record of ruthlessly eliminating potential opponents and any sign of opposition.

When KJU smiles, everyone smiles.

KJU uneasily confers with his father, Kim Jong Il. The man in the middle is KJU’s uncle.

Whatever the dictator’s mood, others imitate it.

On the left is Kim Jong Un’s uncle, once considered the power behind the throne, now (2013) on his way to prison and execution.

Kim Jong Un doesn’t so much threaten people to their face as dominate them emotionally. People around him are emotionally beaten down.

What happens to KJU’s emotional domination when he meets Trump face to face?

Kim Jong Un with Trump in Singapore

I examined all photos available on-line and in news media that show Kim Jong Un and Trump together.

12 photos show both men facing the camera, not looking at each other:

12 show Kim and Trump looking at each other face to face, in reciprocal face contact:

11 are asymmetrical: 10 in which Trump is looking at Kim Jong Un’s face, while Kim looks away:

Looked at in more detail, these photos show Trump setting the emotional mood with his face, while KJU mirrors him but less intensely. This contrasts sharply with what we see in North Korea, where KJU always takes the emotional lead. With Trump, KJU doesn’t look like one of his own sycophants, straining to out-do the leader’s expression; but he has gone from being extremely dominant emotionally, to looking at least mildly emotionally dominated.

1 photo shows Kim Jong Un looking at Trump while Trump looks away:

This is the scene where a North Korean general saluted Trump, and Trump returned the salute. No doubt it was Trump enjoying acting military. Kim Jong Un looks surprised, taken aback, a little intimidated. His feeling is probably something like, what the hell is he going to do next? KJU is doing the looking, but in this case his looking is reactive, while Trump is active, whipping up his arm.

Summing up, in one-third of the photos Trump has the initiative and the emotional dominance; in the other two-thirds, they are symmetrical, either looking at each other reciprocally, or both facing the camera. But if we examine all the photos for their facial expressions and body action, we find the following.

In 10 photos, Trump is more active-- either showing more body movement, or more forceful body posture.

In only 1 photo is Kim more active than Trump:

This is the photo where KJU puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as they are about to walk by themselves in the garden. Kim is momentarily being more active, but it is also the photo where  Kim most spontaneously expresses friendliness.

In 6 photos, Trump’s face is more expressive; there are zero photos where KJU shows the more expressive face.

Altogether, there is a lot of ceremonial ritual in the Singapore meeting, especially where Trump and KJU greet each other on a flag-covered stage and when they perform for the camera. But even here they are largely playing Trump’s game. The asymmetrical moments and the more informal interactions show Trump’s emotional domination.

Is all this a show put on for the Singapore summit? Are they just acting out a conventional script? Some comparisons to other situations will help.

Trump in hostile confrontation-- and others

Less than a week before the Singapore meeting, Trump had a major confrontation at the G-7 meeting over threatening tariffs.  The archetypal photo shows most of the other G-7 heads of state on one side of a table, Trump on the other. Angela Merkel, the most prominent politician in Europe, takes the lead in a stare-down with Trump. At her side, French President Macron (seen only in profile) joins in the stare-down. They are all collectively trying to stare down Trump, with the exception of Japanese PM Abe, who watches Merkel with a slightly embarrassed look. (I would read this as indicating Abe is more willing to break with the European leaders and to negotiate with Trump.)

How does Trump handle the pressure? He narrows his eyes, while continuing to meet the hostile stares.

This is a typical move in top-level international confrontations between leaders of mutually hostile states. We see it in 1959 when Fidel Castro, just having overthrown the government of Cuba, comes to the United Nations and has a handshake with Vice President Richard Nixon. Castro, the victorious revolutionary, aggressively stares, even slightly smiling, at Nixon, who responds with a grim face and narrowed eyes:

We see this also in 1960; Nixon is the more aggressive, pointing a finger at the Soviet leader Khrushchev, who refuses to turn his face away while narrowing his eyes to a slit:

In June 1961 in Vienna, it is Khrushchev who has the political advantage (the US-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs having failed ignominiously). President Kennedy does not meet his eyes, but the two have a wary handshake, looking down at each other’s hands:

Trump at the G-7  shows the typical international tough-guy look in a hostile confrontation. In his meeting with Kim Jong Un four days later, his demeanor is completely different. Ostensibly, the meeting could be as threatening as those between Khrushchev and American leaders at the height of the nuclear arms race. In previous months Trump and KJU had both threatened to use nuclear weapons against each other. Possibly Trump chose to show his hard face at the G-7, in order to intimidate KJU in advance, then showing up with his Mr-nice-guy effusiveness, we-can-get-along performance.

Kim Jong Un’s face in Singapore, minus Trump

Is it just that Kim Jong Un is very new to international summit meetings? But we don’t see the same asymmetry and emotional domination in photos of KJU meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in; nor in his meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping; nor when greeting the Singapore PM a few hours before meeting Trump.

These photos show the usual symmetry in polite meetings at the top rank. KJU looks confident, holding his own easily.

Another clue comes from photos taken the evening after the Trump meetings, when KJU and his entourage went out to view the sights of Singapore. Here KJU is among his followers (mainly his stone-faced security guards, but also his sister and other guests, including basketball star Dennis Rodman):

Although he is back in safe company, KJU looks passive, a bit bewildered, not in control of the situation. Perhaps this is because he is impressed--- not to say dazzled-- by the bright lights and  postmodernist architecture of Singapore’s night scene. But he looks less like he is enjoying it, perhaps because he is thinking about Trump’s blandishments, offering to jump-start the modernization of North Korea in return for a nuclear disarmament deal. 

What next can we expect?

Kim Jong Un was at least temporarily dominated by Trump during and after their meeting. How long will that last?

The Singapore meeting so far has led to little specific agreement about practical steps to nuclear disarmament. But that may not be the most important thing. Even apart from the pace of negotiations and the extent that North Korea stops making nuclear weapons and rockets and disposes of the ones it has, nuclear war is prevented as long as the North Korean dictator feels no urge to use them.  Being emotionally dominated means being less self-confident, more passive, less likely to start something. We may get passive-aggressive foot-dragging, but that is better than hard-charging belligerence.

What will happen depends above all on the personal relationships between the two men. Having more face-to-face meetings would be well worth-while, if Trump can produce the same emotional result.

Inviting KJU to the White House might be politically unpopular, but in emotional relationships, it would be another step towards averting a nuclear war. It could further build up Kim’s confidence that he and his country would do better without nuclear weapons.

Major shifts in international diplomacy have hinged on the personal chemistry-- or lack thereof-- between world leaders. The out-of-control nuclear arms race in the mid-1980s turned to detente and arms reduction when Reagan and Gorbachev personally met at Reykjavik in 1988 and liked each other. The Munich meeting in 1938 between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler opened the door to Nazi aggression because Chamberlain was emotionally dominated by Hitler.

There a track record, as we know, of North Korea offering to negotiate a halt to their nuclear program, in return for economic aid. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, negotiated such an agreement with President Bill Clinton, resulting in only a temporary lull, and then renewed arming. Why won’t this happen again?

What this prognosis leaves out is the emotional element of social relationships. The photo below shows Kim Jong Il, with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright on a visit to North Korea in 2000. Kim Jong Il is jovial and at ease in the meeting (hardly his normal demeanor on his home turf, where he was usually dour and threatening). Albright looks strained. Between the two of them, it is Kim Jong Il that emotionally dominates the situation. This is more like the demeanors shown at the Munich agreement, where one side is getting suckered by the other.

This is not what the Trump/KJU summit looks like. Here, the US has the upper hand. And not just in sheer amount of nuclear destruction it can cause. Emotional relationships on the personal level is the ground zero of all international politics, the code that turns the rockets on, or off. At least for now, the emotional balance of power favors the US, and the cause of peace. Our aim should be to prolong this as much as possible.


For the technique of analyzing emotions from facial expressions and bodily gestures:

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


During the series of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, insurgents have used low-tech weapons against Western forces and their allies. Typical are suicide bombers who carry explosives right up to its target, and IEDs-- improvised explosive devices hidden in the roadway and set off by a mobile phone when a enemy vehicle passes. But these have acquired a high-tech component. Spotters who see a vehicle approach do not have to communicate directly with the trigger-man who sets off the bomb; both are connected to a coordinator in an Internet cafe in Brussels. We can trace the link but we can’t do anything about it. Ironically, this parallels the command structure of US high-tech military, where spotters can be Special Forces putting laser tags on enemy targets, or silent drones flying overhead, or satellites in space, all sending their information to a remote headquarters, like the Air Force base in Florida that controlled the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Long Trend: Dispersing the Battlefield

How did this situation come about, and what direction is it heading in the future? The pattern of military high-tech has been building up since the First World War. Weapons have gotten more lethal, and more accurate at increasingly longer distance. The digital revolution in the last 30 years has vastly increased targeting information, by aerial surveillance and satellites using an array of sensors that track vehicle movements and even individual humans by infra-red heat signature, radar,  and computer-enhanced photographic imagery (which can be compared over time to look for tell-tale changes). Enemy headquarters can be located by its buzz of electronic activity. Enemy rockets or artillery that use radar for their own targeting can be tracked by radar-seeking devices (similar to auto drivers locating a police radar trap) and fire back immediately to destroy the enemy weapon. Huge super-computers assemble the information into a composite picture of the battlefield, and remote computers increasingly control firing on enemy targets, whether from aircraft, ships or ground-based weapons.

What follows from this? Troops and their equipment cannot be bunched together, since this makes them too vulnerable a target. By 1916, machine guns made old-fashioned marching into battle suicidal. Soldiers split into small groups, taking cover where they could find it on the ground.  The trend has continued with every advance in weaponry. In World War II, the front was typically 5 km from one brigade to another; now it is 150 km. Forward Operating Bases, supplied by helicopter and communicating electronically, make a checker-board of mostly empty battlespace. If the enemy has similar weapons, even high-tech troops need to take advantage of natural cover, and hide their electronic and heat signatures as much as possible. World War II was the last such war between what the military calls “peer adversaries,” although US military are now planning for a mutually high-tech war with China.

Guerrillas and terrorists disperse even more

Most wars in the last 50 years have been asymmetrical, a high-tech military versus a low-tech insurgency.  The resource-poor side of an asymmetrical war has responded by dispersing its forces even more, and making hit-and-run attacks on isolated enemy bases and the supply lines between them. This was called guerrilla war, as long as it attacked military targets; it became “terrorism” when it concentrated on civilian targets, since these are softer, less-protected than military targets. Guerrilla war slides over into terrorism, because guerrillas between attacks hide in the civilian population. 

Terrorists generally are civilians, and they live among other civilians, especially in cities, since these provide the most cover against high-tech weapons. Urban sight-lines are poor; it is difficult to distinguish the heat-signatures of civilians from combatants; and high-tech surveillance is evaded by hiding in the electronic clutter of normal life-- even in poor countries, cell phones and other consumer electronics are the features of modernity that diffuse the fastest. 

The biggest problem in fighting urban guerrillas is political: they use other civilians as shields; and they welcome civilian casualties because these turn the local population against the outside enemy. Atrocities are the major recruiting tool for militant terrorists and revenge-seeking suicide attackers.

Terrorism has grown in symbiosis with high-tech weapons and communications, because the weaker side cannot win on conventional battlefields. Politically, an insurgency does not have to win battles or take territory, but only to resist pacification by an outside enemy. Islamic State made the mistake in Iraq and Syria of taking territory, setting up a state structure and using more conventional military tactics, which transformed ISIS into the weaker side of a somewhat more symmetrical war. Similarly, the Taliban in Afghanistan became an easy target when they were a government, but hard to eradicate as guerrillas.

Terrorism is media-dependent war

Small numbers of insurgents can keep a war going. Their main resource is advertising their presence by spectacular attacks, even if they are bloody atrocities of their own. As long as their actions are  well-publicized, they demonstrate a will to continue the fight. They expect to prevail over time, if only because occupying forces lose the political will to persist. 

On the high-tech side, a modern military is surrounded by news networks as well as its own communications media, so it cannot avoid having its own atrocities publicized world-wide. It doesn't matter if civilian casualties are accidents, or emotional reactions by occupying troops embittered by fighting an enemy who hides and disguises themselves as civilians. The cell-phone photos of American soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners at Abu Grahib are typical of the ubiquitous Western media redounding to their own political disadvantage.

The growth of world-wide high-tech is shifting the crucial balance of military power to communications, above all because contemporary war is primarily political statements. The irony here is that global communications-- both for consumers, and as a major component of the post-industrial economy-- means that every innovation by the rich capitalist countries creates a military opportunity for insurgents. It is not so much that they imitate our weapons (although they can capture or buy them, especially from the West’s so-called local allies), but they can share in digital communications because they are marketed world-wide.

Many of the most advanced surveillance systems are umbrellas covering everything within their range, friend and enemy alike. In Iraq, insurgent fires were coordinated via Internet cafes in Belgium, just as US soldiers could link to Internet cafes or any other sites in the world for private communications with family and friends.  Cell phones are used to trigger IEDs, but shutting down the local cell phone network was not feasible, since US commanders themselves use them as a more-reliable alternative to centralized military communication channels. GPS coordinates, pin-pointed by a network of satellites around the earth, are used both by allied targeting and by insurgents targeting us. The terrorist attack on Mumbai luxury hotels in 2008 was run by the ISI from Karachi, Pakistan.

Terrorist fighters might be killed in action, but the main principle of modern military doctrine-- to decapitate the enemy by knocking out its headquarters command-and-control and thus destroying it as a functioning organization-- has become impossible. There is no command post “in theatre,” but on ostensibly neutral foreign soil; and there need not be any clandestine network on the spot to uproot (as the French attempted during the Algerian war). Commands and targeting information are sent out by one-way messages, on the open Internet-- its source lost in the morass of ordinary communications.  In the Russian semi-proxy war in the eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military used the same satellites as the Russians (since they were the same country not long ago), so neither side could disrupt the other’s targeting without disrupting their own.

Cyber-war has been growing as a cheap resource for insurgents, because they operate inside the same global communications umbrella as their resource-rich enemies. The US does not have an advantage in cyber-space. By concentrating on digital high-tech, the West is playing in an arena where its advantage in other kinds of military resources do not count.  Cyber-war can also be practiced by wealthy states, but it is above all a weapon of the weak. Its physical tools are easily available commercially; skill at hacking requires no great organizational coordination, and is easily acquired by alienated youth all over the world.  Fighting a cyber-war is exactly the wrong place for the wealthy states to fight.

Unthinkable counter-measures

So what can or will be done about the Great Powers’ loss of military advantage in a cyber-linked world? Here we come to an unthinkable solution that the military is actually thinking about: shutting down the Internet in time of war. This is a short-hand way of referring to all the communications devices under the modern world-umbrella that are shared with our adversaries: mobile phones, GPS  coordinates, networked computers.

But how could these be shut down, without enormous damage to our own economy, and our contemporary way of life?  Air travel (and increasingly ground travel) are coordinated by digital networks; so are power grids, hospitals, and police forces; so are most financial transactions, from international banking to personal salaries and bill-paying; so are the now-huge business of on-line shopping and delivery.  In fact, one of the most devastating forms of cyber-war now being worried about is a cyber-attack, not from isolated mischief-making hackers or from thieves, but from an enemy government (or an insurgency), aimed at shutting down the economy of one of the rich capitalist nations. More primitive economies would be safer from such attack, being less reliant on digital coordination. 

But although this is an extremely dangerous prospect, it is not the most dangerous event that could happen. Since an ultra-modern military is so heavily organized around electronic command and control,  the worst threat to its existence would be if an enemy could hack into its links to disable its weapons, its mobility and its logistics-- in effect an electronic giant rendered blind, deaf, and paralyzed. (This is the scenario envisioned in P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, where Chinese-made components in American electronics are programmed to put the entire US military out of operation during a surprise attack.) There is even one nightmare step beyond this scenario: enemy hackers leave the operational system of our military intact, but take over controls of our weapons so that our rockets and aircraft are turned about to fire on ourselves. There have  been some steps in this direction, as Iranians and others have been able to capture some US-made drones by diverting their remote controls.

If the US military’s digital control system were seriously threatened by an enemy, the response now being considered is to shut down the entire digital umbrella. (This is based on discussions with high-ranking US and UK military commanders who were active in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) There are two ways this could happen: either the enemy themselves shuts down our digital network or attacks it to the extent that it becomes useless; or we shut it down pre-emptively to keep our enemies from using it.

Probably there would be several levels of shut-down: smallest would be to shut down all mobile phone and Internet activity in a given area (e.g. battlegrounds in Iraq or Syria), by shutting down cell phone towers and servers. Or the Internet and/or mobile phones could be put on one-way broadcast mode; messages going out from a central source (as in some emergency warning systems) but otherwise clearing the network of traffic.

Another choice would be to shut down crucial targeting infrastructure, such as GPS; since this is a satellite-based system, it would affect the entire world. Such plans are being seriously contemplated; the Chinese reportedly are building their own GPS system (based on their own satellites) that would be inaccessible to others. 

This seems unthinkable, since GPS is included in all sorts of devices, including ordinary smart phones. But GPS was originally created as a secret project by the US military (as a way of preventing aerial collisions and other blue-on-blue attacks); and was opened up to commercial use in the 1990s. In the same way, the Internet originated as the DARPANET: Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration. There is precedent for returning GPS  to government control; and it may become a matter of military necessity-- or what is presented to the public as such. We should not expect that history has one continuous trajectory, and that technologies and social customs surrounding them become impervious to removal once they become widespread. The Chinese government’s use of super-computers, complete with facial recognition systems for tracking every move of every citizen, shows what kinds of things are technically possible, although they may be politically repugnant in some countries and not in others. (In fact, Chinese citizens in the future might well benefit from some kind of emergency that caused the shut-down of its central government computers.)

Backing up to non-digital backup

But how would the military operate under this unthinkable contingency, shutting down the electronic networks that have become the core of its organization? Planning on this point is proceeding. The essential pattern is to build back-up procedures-- how to run a war without the Internet, computer links, GPS, or mobile phones.  In fact, there is discussion about how over-reliance on digital networks even now is reducing military efficiency; and how weaning ourselves away from it can be done.

We tend to forget that the ultra-computerized military is a relatively recent thing. Big mainframe computers were developed in the military from World War II onwards; it is the dispersed, omnipresent commercial and private networks and its devices that have become widespread so rapidly since the 1990s and early 2000s. Military officers have commented on the huge increase in computerization since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. A company (about 200 soldiers) then had 5 computers, operated by the Executive Officer and First Sergeant. Now all officers have computers, so much so that they spend 75% of their time reporting to headquarters. A US general commented: “Network has become more problem than solution.” On Navy ships, the traditional system was a single wireless link under authority of the ship’s captain; now with all sailors in possession of personal computers or smart phones, official channels are surrounded by links used for personal reasons. All news gets out, even if confidential. Officers have become risk-averse, since even minor mishaps are scrutinized; junior officers lose initiative and feel they must clear every decision with higher command.

Similarly with the profusion of information from battle sites, gathered by electronic sensors and relayed to all levels of the command network. The term has developed, “Predator pawns”-- as if Predator drones are pawns in a chess game. Since high-ranking officers as well as drone operators can watch the video feed from the drone; the result is a strong temptation to micro-manage.  This is a general problem for all military organization. Wars have become increasingly political, in the sense that counter-insurgency is largely a fight “for hearts and minds.” A major recruiting device for guerrillas and terrorists are their dramatic or even gruesome attacks, such as videos of bass beheadings circulated on the social media. The same dialectic encompasses the Western forces, through periodic scandals of civilian atrocities that are more or less inevitable given that civilian presence is exactly where insurgents choose their battlefield.

There are many channels for war stories to leak out; politicians are under pressure to achieve results, but also highly vulnerable to criticism for mishaps. All this increases the tendency for politicians to intervene, even at the smallest tactical level. A US commander gave the example of how much time he had to spend going back-and-forth with a high official in Washington about whether a load of small arms could be dropped to a local ally in Syria. Multi-national forces are considered politically desirable, but US advisors describe the resulting organizational chart as “a wiring diagram”-- and US commanders spend much of their time clearing requests for resources with the National Security Council and Iraqi politicians. “I spent a year in Iraq and all I fought was the IJC” -- a sardonic remark about the tangled authorities of the International Joint Command.

The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as “we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.”  Thus military planners see some advantages to going back to older forms of command and control-- cutting off reliance on cyber, going back to local radio links to coordinate troops. Computers, especially when centralized and taking inputs from a vast area, make it hard to quickly change course. Old-fashioned communications allow for more flexibility and more rapid reaction to emergencies and sudden opportunities. Historians point out that just this kind of flexibility by aggressive front-line officers were the key to the blitzkreig successes of World War II.

The limits of computerized warfare

As I mentioned earlier, the cyber-war expert P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, envisions the US being devastated by a Chinese cyber attack that incapacitates the US military. In the novel, the US makes a come-back by resuscitating an old moth-balled World War II fleet, unhackable because its controls are pre-digital; plus creating some advanced weapons that can’t be diverted from their targets since they carry no on-board mini-computer to be taken over. I have written my own thought-experiment, a novel about a hypothetical civil war, in which the American military divides and fights itself with exactly the same weapons on both sides. (Just as happened in the Civil War of 1861-65). The novel is called Civil War Two. The war begins with cyber attacks attempting to turn bombers against their own bases. The solution to the cyber hacking is to shut down the computerized system and build another control system. High-tech aircraft have enormous capacities for locating enemy targets and firing back at their electronic location; but since both sides can do this, the result is to destroy a large proportion of the most advanced aircraft on both sides.

Moreover, the most advanced aircraft are the most expensive, and take the longest time to build, as well as requiring assiduous maintenance between missions-- e.g. a B-2 stealth bomber costs over $1 billion dollars each, plus operating costs. Attrition of such weapons would inevitably result in older weapons being pressed into service. Even a battle between robots would be, most likely, not Hollywood's humanoid giants on two legs, but armored tanks containing no humans, like driverless cars firing at each other. The outcome of such a battle would depend, not on the superiority of one side’s robots over the other, but on the skill and energy of humans going out onto the battlefield to repair the damaged robots. My chief conclusion is that a war fought between two very advanced militaries would lead over time to mutual degradation, and a return to earlier forms of warfare.  

I have already suggested that remote computerized communications and control would be shut down early in such a war. If both sides have drones, armored helicopters, anti-missile missiles, and robot vehicles, the mutual attrition would eventually result in humans making the difference. 

High-tech stalemate will drive combat back to the human level. The idea that has prevailed for about a century-- that the state would win which created the next super-weapon before the other side did-- will probably not hold in the future. That is because the recent wave of digital technologies, whose initial thrust has come heavily from military inventions, has spread into the civilian economy and ordinary life; and warfare centered in the cyber sphere gives most advantage to the disrupters of the other side’s communications. This is true whether it be asymmetrical terrorist attacks against a military and economic behemoth; or symmetrical war between states with equally sophisticated equipment.

Our idea that history is moving in a straight line is wrong. What seems unthinkable now-- shutting down the Internet and all the other digital media-- in one degree or another is likely to happen. Where we come out on the other side of that crisis will probably become normal to people who live in it, just as the digital devices of the last 15 years have become so normal that we can’t imagine living without them.  If we continue to live, it will probably be because we have learned to get along without them.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

by Randall Collins

Giveaway ends May 24, 2018.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


P.W. Singer and August Cole.  Ghost Fleet. A Novel of the Next World War. Mariner Books. 2016.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Arguments about gun control have raged ever since the wave of school shootings and other rampage massacres started in the 1980s. The striking thing is that no one is convinced by the arguments of the opposing side.

Opponents of gun control rest their case on the Second Amendment:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The Constitution is not verbose, and this sentence can be read as saying, each state that makes up the United States needs a militia, and therefore... Or the clause can be taken alone: "...the rights of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."   These selective readings convince no one except those already on your side.

The same goes for other arguments.  Guns are justified because it is the constitutional right of Americans to possess guns;  because they are part of the American heritage of liberty, and a stand against the encroaching power of the government; because they are used for sport shooting and hunting; because they are weapons of defense against criminals, a bolster to the forces of good against the already well-armed forces of evil.

A sociologist does not take such arguments at face value. It is not a sociological explanation of behavior to quote the reasons people give, without asking: why do particular people hold their particular beliefs?  When and how did they get them?  Did they have these beliefs first and then decided they should acquire guns?  Or did they acquire the guns first-- as gifts, or by example of family and friends-- and then the verbal justifications?  Similarly, we know that persons join a religion, not because they start by agreeing with its beliefs and then decide to join, but typically because they know people who bring them to its religious services; if they like the group and the ritual, they take on the religious beliefs (but often disregard beliefs they don't care for). 

And if persons have vehement beliefs-- they fanatically defend them, and angrily dispute any statements and persons to the contrary-- we can expect a sociological pattern. Holders of the most vehement beliefs typically belong to a cult-- a religious group that shuts itself off from the outside world, spends a lot of time in its ceremonies, and generates a lot of emotion.  In the same way, political extremists belong to cult-like groups that meet constantly or even live together, are intensely suspicious of outsiders, and keep a high degree of emotional pressure on their members. It is the group activities that keeps the beliefs alive.

In this sense, militant gun advocates appear to be a gun cult. But as a sociologist, I am not going to jump to that conclusion, without looking for what kinds of social activities make a gun cult. As we will see in conclusion, not all people who have guns are gun cultists; but it is the ones who are more cult-like who carry on the public campaign for guns. And there are gun cultists who are downright dangerous: paramilitaries and gang members are cultish about their guns, and mass rampage shooters usually have a private gun cult of one's own.

Guns as symbols

In a gun cult, guns are symbols. They mean more than the practical things one can do with them. They are sacred objects, to be treated with respect, and to be defended against disrespect. Hence an attack on guns is not just a limitation on going hunting or shooting at a target range, but an attack on a way of life.  But symbols do not float on air. Symbols become pumped up with meaning when they are at the center of rituals.

How would we know a gun ritual if we saw one?  The theory is already well-developed for religious rituals and symbols. Symbols are the most visible marker of belonging to a religion: the Bible, a crucifix, the Quran, a yarmulka, a prayer shawl, the image of a Buddha or a saint.  An object becomes a symbol when a group assembles around it, and collectively focuses their attention on it. Rituals can be stronger or weaker; stronger when its adherents gather frequently, when they build up a shared emotion and act together in rhythm. Physical activities carried out together have the strongest effects-- all prostrating themselves bodily on the ground facing towards Mecca; all kneeling and standing up at the right time; all chanting or singing together, especially while watching each other's faces on CCTV screens as in contemporary mega-churches. When rituals build up high intensity, they produce effects on their participants: a feeling of belonging together in a community and identity; a feeling of emotional strength; a belief in the symbols of the group.  How one behaves towards sacred symbols instantly marks one's attitude towards the group: showing respect and protecting the symbol makes one a good person; showing disrespect or attacking the symbol is the worst possible offense, and it gives rise to righteous anger to punish the offender.   

-- As noted, religious rituals vary from highly intense to low-key; fanatical and cultish groups are produced by intense rituals. At the other end of the continuum, low-intensity rituals (like church services one attends infrequently) give little attachment to symbols,  and a relaxed tolerance or indifference towards other groups and their symbols.

Where do different kinds of practices around guns fit on this continuum? What are low, moderate, and high-intensity gun rituals?

Gun rituals: what do people do with their guns?

Toward the low-intensity end is hunting. But this often has a social-ritual aspect. Typically, groups of men go hunting together, treating it as a special occasion, a break from ordinary life (as all rituals are breaks). They do a lot of drinking together, tell past hunting stories, engaging in traditionalistic male bonding. The concluding ritual is bringing home their kill, such as a deer draped over one's car, or having head or antlers mounted on the wall, a proud display of the hunter's identity. The popularity of hunting has declined, as animal-rights advocates (a different kind of cult whose rituals take the form of a social movement) embarrass hunters from displaying their trophy carcasses.

In the early 20th century and before, hunting among the upper classes was a full-scale ritual of potlatch proportions. Hunters on country estates in England or Europe were elite land-owners and their guests; they wore distinct costumes, assembled in shooting lines to fire at birds or beasts being driven from the brush by large numbers of beaters-- servants or farmhands who concentrated the game animals and made a kind of chorus for the stars of the show, the gunners. Fox-hunts on horseback, with their red coats, horns, and packs of hounds, were a variant ritual. In either case, hunts were big ritual gatherings of the upper class. Sometimes they killed hundreds of birds at a time-- trophies heaped up in large piles. These were less a gun cult than a elite show of orchestrating everyone's attention towards the animals killed. But in recent years the minor parts in the hunting orchestra-- the beaters and hounds-- have declined, leaving mainly the hunter and his guns.

Hunting ritual, Italy 1470  Uccello

Present-day ritualism about guns is more apparent in gun shows, gun shops and shooting ranges. Gun shows have a fair-like atmosphere, attracting large crowds. What do they see and do?  There are displays of many kinds of weapons-- different makes of pistols, rifles, automatic weapons, but also large displays of knives and even swords. Some of this has the atmosphere of a museum of war nostalgia: you can handle and buy weapons ranging from the World Wars to the Old West. Military camouflage outfits, helmets, goggles and other gear are laid out in rows of booths. It seems to be largely an occasion for entering a fantasy world of bygone times, kept alive in the present. Nazi and other memorabilia are on sale, probably less because attendees are Nazi sympathizers than because old enemies are part of the show. Conversations with dealers at gun shows often include griping about the onerous regulations on gun purchases imposed by the government.

Shooting ranges are often attached to gun shops. From my observation, there is a good deal of fantasy inside the range. You can purchase different kinds of targets: concentric circles with bulls-eye are the most neutral, and are generally used for shooting competitions. But most shooting range customers choose targets with the outline of a human head and torso. We can infer something about the accompanying fantasies from the kind of people one sees at the range:  husband-and-wife couples who look like they own small retail shops and are practicing shooting an intruder; young male-female couples who look like they are on a date, or just entertaining themselves by shooting at fantasy people. Clusters of young men of military age shooting together. Most gun ranges are in white areas, but a small percentage of the shooters are young males of minority ethnicities; they might be gang members, or may be thinking about using guns for defense in their own neighborhoods. In any case, everyone is on their good behavior at the gun range; it is neutral territory.

The ideology of the gun cult comes out most clearly in the way gun salesmen talk to customers. They bring up topics such as what kind of weapon you would need in a dangerous situation, what weapon would be adequate to take out a threatening challenger or an intruder in your house.  The talk that typically takes place in the gun shop invokes imaginary uses of guns in dramatic situations, which are rather far from the routines of the gun cult itself (the actual shooting on the range).  This dramatic content is a form of sales talk, but it is taken seriously by customers and perhaps salesmen themselves; in effect, it is the content of the fantasy they are buying.  Like buying pornography, buying a gun is chiefly buying an opportunity to fantasize.

There are other kinds of gun rituals, different because participants recognize them explicitly as fantasies and fun. Children for generations have played cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians with cap pistols and other toys; kids have fun with squirt guns, especially on hot days at a pool or in the back yard sprinkler. In the era of electronic games, most shooting is at icons on a screen, and lacks anything that feels like a real gun in one's hand. There is a debate about how much violent video games contribute to real-life violence. Bear in mind that the tens of millions of such gamers are hugely disproportionate to the tens of thousands who shoot other people with real guns; the fraction of gamers who go on to  real shooting is on the order of 1 in 10,000.  These may be gun rituals, but they are not very intense ones, and they have a self-conscious barrier between fun and real life. The same goes for participants in paint-ball gun parks; here the experience is more like real war (without all the logistics, the boredom, the officers giving orders and the bureaucracy) and without real wounds. Paint-ball fights extract the fun part of violence and makes it friendly shared fun rather than deadly fighting with enemies-- similar to water-splashing fights in pools.

To underline the point of this comparison:  toy guns and make-believe guns aren't symbols of very much; whatever membership identity they have consists of little more than acting like kids. These pseudo-weapons are cheap and disposable, and not treated with ritual care. Serious gun cults, on the other hand, take themselves extremely seriously.

The same can be said of guns in the entertainment media. Guns in films and television often are the focus where the audience attention peaks.  When guns are used is typically a high point of the drama, where emotions are built up through a plot format of action-adventure or mystery/suspense.  There is considerable research on the extent of exposure of weapons on TV and its effect or non-effect on violence. But most of us (300 million Americans) have seen far too many gunshots in entertainment for it to have much statistical effect on the number of real shootings. Sociologically, watching a film or screen is a ritual of being an audience; it trains us to watch, to anticipate or be jaded, to gasp or laugh at an more-or-less expected experience that can't possibly touch you because you know you are not part of the show.

I will not repeat here what we have learned about people's performance in real-life situations where violence is threatened. But I will give the bottom line: using weapons against real people face-to-face is emotionally tense in a way that no experience of sitting on one's couch or in a theatre can possibly be. This tension I have called the barrier of confrontational tension/fear, because it makes most people unable to fire their weapons, or to do so accurately.  A small number of persons learn techniques for controlling their emotions and becoming competent at shooting humans; but these are only learned from real-life experience. Nothing you see on an entertainment screen gives you a hint of how to do it in reality.

For this reason, I would say that guns in entertainment media are a pseudo-cult of guns. More accurately, it is a cult of film-watching, similar to game-playing, in which the guns are just incidental devices for creating dramatic theatrical moments.

Serious gun cults take themselves extremely seriously.

Among the most intensely cultist of all are paramilitary groups and their war exercises.  Such groups have existed in the US since the 1970s and 80s, often holding paranoid ideologies about clandestine encroachment by the Federal government or international agencies. Paramilitaries are based in rural areas and small towns, places where farmers fell from being a considerable population to an embattled remnant, a decline reflected in their anti-modernist ideology.  But ideologies are intense only when a group assembles and carries out rituals enacting its shared identity. Paramilitaries in the US engage in military-style training, something like real military maneuvers although with small-scale weapons (despite the Second Amendment, people don't have tanks and anti-aircraft missiles). Thus it is small arms that are the symbol of this militant gun cult.

Another key feature is that they are "underground"-- they keep themselves in secrecy most of the time, except where they emerge for a march or protest demonstration (such as to protect monuments of Confederate generals).  The secrecy is crucial for keeping up an emotional atmosphere, the feeling that what one is doing is full of dramatic tension and excitement.  Beliefs about black helicopters spying on them overhead are an offshoot of clandestine paranoia-- at atmosphere deliberately cultivated by the group, its emotional life-line. A group that has nothing to do is going to disappear. Paramilitary cults (in the US, at any rate) rarely do much fighting with their supposed enemy, the government; to keep themselves going, they need the ritual of military exercises. In parts of the world with failed states, paramilitaries' rituals dramatize threatening their enemies, but mostly prey on vulnerable civilians.

Another gun cult is found in ethnic poverty ghettos. Guns are emblems of being seriously into the street code. True gang members (and free-lance tough guys) have guns, whether on their bodies or hidden in some convenient place (such as carried by their girlfriends). Since gangs are the local street elite, the on-the-spot upper class of a lower-class neighborhood, guns are central to one's personal identity. A study of a Chicano gang in Los Angeles found that the first thing gang members did in the morning was to check on their guns. They also play with their guns around each other, combined with the favorite ritual of making gang signs with their fingers. 

checking your gun before dressing

LA gang sign and gun

A shadowy but popular figure is the gun dealer-- in this case, a white man who drove up in a nondescript car, displaying his goods on the car seat. Although rival gangs threatened each other and sometimes shot it out, the gun dealer was above the fray-- holding right of secure passage from both sides. 

LA gun salesman

The larger number of ghetto residents who do not belong to gangs nevertheless may participate in the gun cult. This is most apparent among adolescents, who haven't decided yet which way they will go.   An interviewee in the Bronx recalls that his father had 3 handguns in the house, which his teenage sons borrowed and lent out to their friends  [Wilkinson 2003: 54]: 

INT:  And what was the reason they was borrowing these guns, they had beef?
JEROME:  No.  They just wanted to hold them.
INT:  And what happen?... they went out there doing stupid shit and they got caught up in the mix?
JEROME:  Yup.  And these is the people that we grew up with and stuff, the only friends we had, the only friends we knew.
INT:  And they all got killed.  How did that make you feel?
JEROME:  It had me fucked up 'cause even before we lent them the gun, it was cool.  And, um, it's like when, after we let them, when we let them hold it, it seemed like... They changed into they world. I was what, I was in the, um, we was in the seventh grade.  We used to mess with the eighth and ninth graders. It was like everybody was scared of us 'cause everybody knew we had guns."             

We should realize that even in a neighborhood where there are a lot of armed gang members, most of the time nobody gets shot. If we estimate half of all murders are done by gangs (an exaggeration), and compare total numbers of murders with numbers of gang members, only 1 out of 88 gang members commits a murder during the year.  If we add other kinds of non-lethal shootings, the proportion rises to about 3-4%. [Collins, Violence: 372-73]  And this is averaged over a year. Even the ones who do the shooting only shoot occasionally. If you are one of the violent elite who shoots someone once, what do you do the other 364 days of the year? You show off your guns, you talk tough, you hang out with your counterparts and keep an uneasy peace with your enemies. Here, at the heart of the violent gun-users, the gun cult consists more of dramatizing how tough you are, than actually firing guns.

Solitary ritual in gun cults

Gun cults are social. They are created and sustained by groups carrying out some kind of gun ritual, which can include talking about them and fantasizing about situations when they would use their guns. This social activity can spill over into behavior while an individual is alone. This is parallel to religious rituals, which are learned and emotionally charged in group ceremonies, but individualized in activities like praying alone.
Solitary practice of a gun cult can consist in paying a lot of attention to one's guns. Some of the people one sees at gun shows are rather ordinary, harmless citizens who spend their time holding guns, taking them apart, cleaning and reassembling, looking at and admiring them.  Many individuals spend much of their leisure time reloading ammunition; much of the display at gun shows are equipment and supplies for reloading spent shells with live charges.  There is some utilitarian element in this, insofar as reloading one’s own ammunition is cheaper than buying it; but the long hours that gun cultists spend on reloading ammunition suggests that this is a ritualistic affirmation of their membership,  something like a member of a religious cult engaging in private prayer.

A solitary gun cult turns dangerously intense, when the individual becomes obsessed with guns and what he/she will do with it in some situation imagined in fantasy.  Which people's gun thoughts remain harmless flickers? and whose obsessive gun fantasies emerge into action? An extreme instance would be the brooding of the teenager who takes guns to school to avenge an insult, acting out the fantasies that he has repeated in the privacy of his own mind and bedroom.

The rampage shooter almost always has created a private gun cult and raised it to the  level of intensity where it takes over his life. Virtually all rampage shooters are over-armed; they carry more guns to the attack site than they actually use, they bring a range of military paraphernalia, and far more ammunition than they actually expend. They often dress themselves in quasi-military garb that provides a cocoon to shut out the world of ordinary people. They are acting out a costume drama that they have prepared by many imaginary rehearsals.  When their home lair is discovered after the shooting, it is usually full of weapons, scenarios, information about previous rampages, and plans for their own.

The most important feature is that this backstage world is kept in secrecy. This is the dividing line between the millions of people who own guns but do not obsess and brood over them, and the individual who goes off the deep end. A secret arsenal is an emotional home base, a comfort zone of living surrounded by weapons of great symbolic power, even if in action they almost always end up in a losing battle and oneself as either dead or the most hated member of society. Living a clandestine life gives a feeling of excitement, a sense of purpose in a life that may otherwise feel shameful or depressed.  "This was the only adventure I’ve ever had,” a 14-year-old boy said about the period leading up to shooting 8 students at his high school in Paducah, Kentucky. (Newman 2004: 26)  Just keeping one's parents, or other outsiders, from seeing how many weapons one has, stealing guns or keys to gun cabinets, gives a purposeful trajectory that makes one's life seem like high adventure. The weeks or months while an individual creates a symbol-filled clandestine secret life is the emotional launching platform that creates a mass shooting rampage.

And this gives us a practical take-away. The point where the rampage shooting can be headed off is also the place where the strongest clues are found that a rampage is coming.
Treating youths for bullying, low social esteem, or mental illness nets far too large a population; they may be in a weak statistical sense "at risk," but they comprise millions, whereas the number of rampage shooters is in the low double digits. Similarly, millions of people own guns harmlessly; but building a clandestine arsenal and obsessing about it is far more unusual. This is the big warning sign that merits active intervention.

The single most effective legal measure than can be taken now is to enable authorities to seize arms collections from individuals who are making threats and showing fantasies of violent action.

Gun cults, from weak to strong

At the weak end of the continuum are games with toy guns. Also in the atmosphere of explicit make-believe, not-for-real, are entertainment shows featuring guns for dramatic excitement.

Low-moderate gun cults include hunting, which is mostly about elite prestige (upper class hunting ritual) or male bonding (present-day hunting). But the hunting cult can ratchet up a few notches into a symbolic cult of guns, when hunters insist of their rights to carry automatic weapons and machine guns, which are too powerful to be suitable for hunting.

Moderate-to-strong gun cults are found at gun shows, gun shops and target ranges. Here the hardware feeds fantasies of historic violence as well as scenarios in which you, the gun owner, defend one's home and defeat the bad guys. Statistically more likely real-life scenarios seldom enter such conversations, such as accidentally shooting a family member, using the gun to commit suicide, having the gun stolen and enter the criminal gun market. Nor is the likelihood mentioned that in a real criminal threat (a robber, a rampage shooter) you will not actually perform like a movie star, but could quite likely miss your target or hit the wrong person. These realities have no place in the fantasy and ideology that fills the mind of gun cultists. --- Still, most of these people do no harm. Their guns stay in their cases or go to the range. Their effect on gun violence is largely indirect-- providing the ideological cover and the political vehemence of the gun lobby that protects gun-obsessed killers.

Extreme gun cultists include paramilitaries-- although as noted, they spend most of their time preparing for Armageddon rather than shooting real people. Sometimes it spills over into political violence.  The most violence is produced by gangs and street tough guys whose lives and identities as revolve around guns; even if they don't use them very effectively or very often, this is where the homicide numbers add up.  And at the apex of gun-cult obsession is the rampage shooter, collecting a clandestine arsenal and fantasizing scenarios for revenge over ethnic, religious, or social injuries that kill anonymous strangers in clumps. These last capture the public attention more than all the other gun cultists because this is where gun violence intrudes into our middle-class world.

If we can head off the worst gun cultists, we may also raise our consciousness about gun cults across the spectrum. One need not push for drastic measures, such as banning toy guns, violent films and games, or hunting and target shooting, in order to stop gun cults from overreaching.

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