On Decapitation

Warsaw skyline, Saturday, April 3, 2010.

Sunday’s plane crash that wiped out much of the upper echelon of the Polish government was truly tragic, indeed. I hesitated to write this just because of the proximity of the accident, but I don’t think anyone will be too offended (and if you are, my apologies in advance).

The crash was a prime example of a decapitation strike. While those who perished are not exactly comparable to “Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Olympia Snowe, Christopher Dodd, Rahm Emanuel, [and] the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it’s awfully close (and that probably understates the breadth of the victims).

A better example might be Barack and Michelle Obama, Rahm Emanuel, James Jones, Ben Bernanke, Dick Durbin, Steny Hoyer, Admiral Mullen and the other Joint Chiefs, Tim Kaine, Jacob Lew, David Ferriero,  plus an incredible number of dignitaries, cultural icons, and legendary figures. I don’t think the United States has public citizens comparable to the epic Ryszard Kaczorowski or Anna Walentynowicz.

But the moral of the story is that essentially, the casualty list didn’t matter. The government continues to function; the Polish government’s continuity has continued unbroken. Luckily, that order is fairly simple. The Speaker of the lower House, Bronislow Konorowski, is acting president and must call elections, which will be held by the end of June. So far, everything is proceeding as it is supposed to.

This doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be such a smooth process if say, the Tu-154 had crashed due to Russian sabotage or terrorism. But with crazy accusations of Russian culpability being hurled around (thankfully, not by anyone in a position of power) and Poland still continuing to function like a normal country, it seems to point at a rational, calm transition of power even if a future accident was caused by something more sinister.

The continuity in the Polish government makes an article linked to from Abu Muqawama, Jenna Jordan’s “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation” (pdf) even more relevant. Her conclusion?

Decapitation is not ineffective merely against religious, old, or large groups, it is actually counterproductive for many of the terrorist groups currently being targeted. In many cases, targeting a group’s leadership actually lowers its rate of decline. Compared to a baseline rate of decline for certain terrorist groups, the marginal value of decapitation is negative. Moreover, going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.

I feel like the system most vulnerable to a decapitation strike is the particularly complex one of the United States, but perhaps the fact that it cannot really be planned for (or at least isn’t planned for) in any sort of detailed sense explains our current strategy: ensure the survival of the system.

So it probably wouldn’t work in the United States, either. It won’t work on sub-state actors.It won’t work on non-state actors. It won’t work on state actors. Isn’t it time to call decapitation strategy faulty and scrap it for something more productive?

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