This is the third in this series of articles. The other four may be found at these links:
This is part of an ongoing series about lessons learned in foreign countries concerning personal security and self-defense in an environment where police protection is not available or unreliable. Not all foreign techniques are appropriate to the US political, social and cultural environment. Nevertheless, by analyzing them, we may be able to discern trends and patterns that can be useful locally.
In the previous article, we looked at South Africa during the apartheid era, and how people had to cope with a government that didn’t care about them, and a biased, partisan police force. Today I’d like to look at the wider African experience with such problems, including the complete absence of any effective central authority, and how locals coped with the situation. I should add that this is proving to be a very, very difficult article to write. My memories of decades in Africa include some that are so drenched in blood that it’s still very hard for me to think about them. They come back in nightmares as I dredge up what I saw and learned. I can only hope that they help us to understand what’s going on around us right now.
In many nations in Africa, then and now, central governments are no more than a polite fiction. Real power outside the major cities is held by local militias, of whom the police are just one group among many. Bribery, corruption and nepotism consume most of the central budget, so that local cops and soldiers seldom if ever receive their salaries. Instead, most of them turn to extorting money from locals. There’s an accepted scale of bribes in many African countries, where locals expect to pay a given amount to a bureaucrat for any government service, or to a policeman or soldier at a road block to be permitted to travel from one place to another. Taxi drivers and other businessmen routinely pay bribes for the privilege of earning a living, to prevent their businesses being shut down, their property confiscated, and themselves arrested for “profiteering” or “corruption” or any of a number of more-or-less statutory offenses. If that happens to them, they’d better have a lot of bribe money handy to bail themselves out. If they don’t, they’ll be brutally treated, even killed, as an example to others of what happens if they don’t pay up promptly.
That sort of extortion is so routine it’s no longer considered out of the ordinary in Africa. However, it’s only feasible when there’s sufficient money in the economy to afford it. When that money runs out, or when conditions become so unstable that normal economic activity becomes impossible (for example, an epidemic such as Ebola, or a civil war, or external terrorism), then extortion worsens to a level that can only be described as internal terrorism. The extorters become warlords, and they take whatever they want, even if it means the impoverishment, oppression or even death of those from whom they steal. There’s no longer a pretense of providing a service (bureaucracy, police or military protection, etc.) in exchange for the bribes they demand. They take without giving anything in return. Examples I’ve witnessed in the flesh include several countries in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, parts of Nigeria), the Congo, Somalia, and Zimbabwe.
What do ordinary people like you and I do when the trappings and structures of civilization collapse around them? They turn to their clan, and in a wider structure, to their tribe (made up of anything from a few to dozens of clans). There is only security in numbers, and in mutual support. Absent that, individuals and families are prey, without hope of survival. Yes, it really is that bad.
I’d like to quote Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the subject at some length. She addresses the problems of tribalism, which are many. I agree with her that they’re real. However, there’s another, more positive side to tribalism, in the sense that under some circumstances, it’s necessary. I’ll speak about that after this excerpt.
Numerous studies support the hypothesis that American life — not just politics, but life in general — has become deeply polarized. The deeply divided society we now live in increasingly reminds me of clan or tribal behavior in Africa.
In Somalia, where I was born, my mother was blindly loyal to our clan. So much so that, apparently, she claimed she could detect the malicious intentions of an individual from a different clan just by the structure of his forehead. She would, for example, often warn my father that someone was trying to take advantage of him, purely by the way he frowned.
In “Culture and Conflict in the Middle East,” anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman recounts meeting tribesmen in Baluchistan. What, they had asked Salzman, would he do if he faced a real danger in his home country? Well, Salzman replied, he would call the police. The tribesmen roared with laughter, then looked at him pityingly: “Oh no, no, no, they said: only your ‘lineage mates’ will help you.”
In tribal communities, neutral institutions of civil society that Westerners take for granted — such as the police, impartial courts, and the rule of law — simply do not, and cannot, exist. In such societies, everything is tribalized, and the task of building civic institutions is laden with difficulties.
In Somalia, I was taught to be suspicious of anyone from a different clan, to always think harm was coming my way and to be guarded against anyone that was “other.” I come from the Darod clan, and was taught to constantly listen to accents, examine face shapes and overanalyze all non-verbal cues, searching for any indications of a different tribe. I can still identify a Somali (and usually their clan) from across a room.
We were captives of an echo chamber, hearing constantly of the evils of the neighboring Hawiye clan. We were taught from a young age that the Hawiye were coming to rape, rob, and destroy us. In response, we amassed weapons, hoarded food and exhorted young men (as young as 12) to join the military. The looming threat of the Hawiye was so great that my mother eventually sent my sister and me abroad.
In the end, because of such protracted tribal tensions, Somalia collapsed into civil war. Every attempt at mediation proved incapable of handling the deep-seated mistrust and hatred that accumulated by each clan over the years; tribal elders, reluctant to compromise, could not de-escalate the situation. With such high levels of distrust, the conflict spiraled into bloodshed.
While such violence has yet to seize America, all the tribalist ingredients are present. There is a blind commitment to one party or the other; emotions are running high; there is a lack of trust in civic institutions. If such tribalism isn’t overcome, it’s only a matter of time before the situation escalates.
Some of this has its absurd side: for instance, the strange ways that public health measures such as mask-wearing and vaccination have become politicized, to the point that I know of fully vaccinated people in California who say they will continue to wear masks for fear of being mistaken for Republicans. Bizarre? Of course. But it is also symptomatic of a dangerous trend toward tribalism.
We are, I fear, close to the precipice of serious destabilization. Many American cities are either militarized (Washington, DC), near a social boiling point (Minneapolis), or have capitulated to anarchist protests and pressures (Portland, Seattle). These tribal quirks run deep on both sides of the aisle. Many Republicans continue to dispute the legitimacy of the result of the last presidential election; while on the left, the woke are eroding the Democratic Party from the inside, as identity politics displace universalist aspirations. Some citizens are viewed as part of oppressive groups, some as part of oppressed groups. A person’s individual actions can generally do little to change the immutable characteristics of the tribe to which they belong.. . .
As “woke” politics strengthens its grasp on our institutions — extending beyond the educational system into the media and now many corporations — that accomplishment is being eroded. The presumption of innocence, the commitment to blind justice and the whole notion of due process are all falling victim to spurious notions of “equity” and “anti-racism” — both of which carry within them an implicit intention to discriminate on racial lines.
If we continue to slip down this path, the thirst for tribalism will be unquenchable.
There’s more at the link. I fully endorse Ms. Ali’s views.
However, there’s another side to tribalism. In the absence of normal social structures, with civilization, peace, the rule of law, etc. conspicuous by their absence, the clan and the tribe are the only structures that make sense. Throughout human history, those who’ve tried to “go it alone” have ended up becoming victims of organized groups; and small organized groups have all too often ended up as the victims of larger organized groups. Therefore, for security, for survival, it’s imperative for individuals to form together into clans, and for clans to form together into tribes, and for all concerned to work together.
I saw this at first hand in many parts of Africa. The clans and tribes there had been formed out of just such a need, many centuries before; and they’d survived because they were the only way to survive, in that environment. Even in the modern era, their influence persisted, because with every individual scurrying to succeed, and clans and tribes working against each other to ensure that their members did well at the expense of others, the group offered the only security available in an insecure world.
We’re already seeing this in action in the USA, not just with “imported” tribes, but with home-grown clans and tribes as well. We’ve always had them to some extent; consider clan conflicts such as the well-known Hatfield–McCoy feud or the Pleasant Valley War in Arizona. The struggles for land and resources between Native American tribes are also well-known. Many Native American tribes were decimated, even wiped out entirely, by other tribes, while others fled their home territories because the only alternative was their demise. The white community, too, has seen its own tribes conflict with each other. One need only mention the various cultural and ethnic communities in New York City – Irish, Italians, etc. – and the gang wars there during the 1800’s as a classic example.
However, in the situation we’re seeing right now, with political polarization so rampant and the police often deliberately choosing (or being ordered to choose) sides, it means that individuals simply can’t cope with the threats confronting them. The gang – BLM, Antifa, whatever – will always be stronger than an individual or a family. Therefore, the only hope of resistance is to band together with other individuals and families to form clans and tribes. These won’t be blood bonds (at least initially); they’ll be bonds of mutual interest and need. It can start as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” – i.e. you help watch our neighborhood, and alert our group to any potential problem, and we’ll do the same for you; you help us when we’re threatened, and we’ll help you the same way – but history shows us that such bonds rapidly develop into an exclusive bond; “it’s us against the world”.
This is sometimes very negative indeed. It’s all too easy for a clan to turn criminal, or trample on the rights of others in order to secure its own rights. Nevertheless, it’s probably inevitable, and it’s a very practical answer to the difficulty of defending oneself in a lawless society. I’m aware of such groups of friends and associates forming in many parts of the USA; indeed, I’m part of one myself, a loose coalition of a few friends and families who know and trust one another, and are willing to drop everything and help if the need should arise.
There’s also the question of what this means for law and order. The short answer is, if law and order is already threatened, even conspicuous by its absence, then it doesn’t matter what clans and tribes do to it. They’re responding to that absence, not creating it. There’s an old meme that says a friend may help you in time of need, but a real friend will help you bury the bodies if necessary. That’s what we’re heading for in these increasingly lawless times. We’re going to need real friends.
To take just one example, consider what happened in Plano, Texas last weekend. I won’t go into detail; you can read about it at the link, and also here in more detail. Basically, the police refused to shut down a blatantly illegal demonstration, that had already transgressed Texas law by blocking traffic. Furthermore, they took action against a law-abiding motorist who was demanding that they do their job. This is unconscionable and unacceptable, as the Attorney-General of Texas has made very clear. Even worse, the demonstrators brandished weapons in the absence of any threat to their lives or safety. This is also a clear violation of Texas law. If I saw demonstrators doing that in front of me, my reaction might well be to defend myself with my own firearm – and a Texas grand jury would be very unlikely to do more than applaud. That’s effectively what they did when they no-billed a man who defended himself against an armed BLM aggressor in Austin, TX last year, after all – and Austin is about as left-wing and progressive a city as you’ll find in this state.
When you’re dealing with suburbs invaded by rioting mobs, individuals impeded from their right to travel around, families threatened in their homes . . . it’s clear that you need help to deal with that. If we can no longer rely on the police to “protect and serve”, we’re going to have to take care of the protection part on our own. That means finding friends and allies where we can, testing each other so we know who can be relied on to stand with us in a pinch, and responding as a group, rather than individuals, to the threats confronting us. Given that those threats are also likely to be a group of people, the risk of bloodshed becomes exponentially greater.
The core of such clans and tribes are likely to be those with experience at dealing with lawless, chaotic situations. They may be current or former law enforcement officers; they may be veterans of military service, particularly combat veterans. In our small group, several of us fall into those categories, and know what it’s like to “see the elephant“. Such people will help to train and equip and organize others, and form the core of a “reaction squad”, for want of a better term, to deal with threats. They’re also likely to be more willing to act, if necessary. If you have a rioting mob coming down your street, the time for words is usually long gone.
Local clans and tribes will also have to deal with the authorities, such as they are. That may turn nasty as well. I’ll address the problem in the fourth article in this series, which will be coming shortly.