Since the ruined ancient city of Palmyra was captured by ISIS jihadis a couple of weeks ago, reports of horror have spattered across the world’s headlines.  From gunning down prisoners and leaving them rotting in the street, to the imminent dynamiting of Roman monuments — the latter, notably, having got more attention abroad than the former — the usual pattern of war crimes persists.

Outrage abounds.  But what should be done as a result of outrage is often revealing in its assumptions.  Someone must act, or someone else must have their actions restricted, and so on.

Among comfortable circles of the moneyed, globally-minded, and professedly enlightened, ideas about what action might look like are quite clear.  Boris Johnson, London’s rather windy mayor, friend of the bankers, and possible future Conservative prime minister, penned an op-ed declaring “the urgency of doing something,” that “We must save Palmyra or the maniacs will raze civilization,” and ending with a call for air strikes.  On the equally comfortable and enlightened centre-left, the architecture critic for The Guardian, Rowan Moore, also opined that “Coalition air strikes should defend Palmyra — it belongs to the whole world.”

Viewed from the top of the world, action should come safely from the air.  But the centres of power would also enforce inaction on the part of others.  Last September, as ISIS gained ground, the UN Security Council rammed through Resolution 2178, restricting foreign fighters’ participation in the civil war in Syria and Iraq.  In élites’ vision of the world, warplanes would cross frontiers in the mission of the moment, while people should stay at home — particularly when they would go on a mission of which their home governments disapprove.  In the same vein, officialdom from Canada to Britain to Australia, and beyond, has begun conjuring up legal pretexts on which to withdraw the citizenship of cross-border jihadis and thus deny them the right to return from the battlefield.

Now at face value, such measures — from bombing the desert to stopping the flow of fighters or at least banishing them — might seem entirely sensible.  In this crisis of the moment, those who seem most likely to benefit from no air strikes, or from no restrictions on travel for volunteer fighters, are hardly a sympathetic bunch.  I, for one, share the prevailing view that ISIS’s wake of murder, torture, and demolition gives rise to a broad duty, where possible, for actors elsewhere to stop it. The more those fighting for ISIS catch bullets, the better.  And it seems a straightforward proposition that, after the dust settles, individual culprits should be hounded to the ends of the earth and called to account even fifty years hence.

That said, there is also good reason to wish the lines of action and inaction were drawn rather differently.  The inconsistency with which other wars have been regarded, when involvement by foreign states and their citizens becomes a live issue, is revealing.  The states now passing laws to keep would-be jihadis at home often benefited from foreign fighters taking up arms on those same states’ behalf in key moments of history, while their home governments frowned on them doing so.  The list is long: the American Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Battle of Britain, the Chinese Civil War, and so on.  Those who would corral their citizens today were happy to benefit from cosmopolitan energies in their past moments of need.

Double standards are no novelty.  And to be sure, as a moral question, not all sides, in all wars in which volunteers might fight, have equal standing.  But the fact that the chattering classes would unleash the latter-day centurions of the air so eagerly, while leashing ordinary people so cavalierly, should give pause to those of us suspicious of the modern state and jealous of society’s spaces.  As the philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel noted, too much of modern policymaking deals with desired outcomes rather than constraining principles: “The idea of result holds the entire field.”  What is convenient for the bureaucratic sensibility, and resonant with outraged opinion leaders, may still be inadvisable for deeper reasons.

To see where the crux of the problem lies, consider a proposition taken for granted by those now issuing edicts left and right.  They think it proper that a state may prohibit its citizens from fighting elsewhere.  If it finds their activities distasteful, it may terminate their membership in the national community and thus deny them access to its territory.  A person born and raised in France who takes up arms in Syria can be deprived of the right to return to France, for example.

Such a generous view of the state’s authority — both to punish its subjects abroad and to banish them from home — rests on a muddling of several different issues.  It links together political allegiance, extraterritorial jurisdiction, and the right of abode in a given territory.  At face value, such linking may seem unproblematic for many Porchers.  It looks like affirming the bonds of place and loyalty, and giving those who are psychologically unhinged, physically unmoored, and murderous their just deserts.  To question it may not make me very popular.  But the state’s overreach also smacks of a distinctly modern sort of hubris.  It has dark affinities.  It comes out of a trajectory of ideas and practices that run counter to what I sense most Porchers, in other contexts, consider a proper relation between place and power.

Let me put forth a no doubt controversial claim.  When someone goes abroad to fight in a distant conflict, under the normal rules of war, for a group with political motives and command responsibility — and is not directly waging war against the home country — he should be allowed to do so.  From the standpoint of his country of citizenship, there should be no case to answer.  The convenience, or the foreign policy preferences, of a minister in a distant capital should count for nothing.

Chastening the state’s reach abroad is not about giving ISIS volunteers room to do as they wish.  Far from it.  For one thing, reining in the long arm of the state does not mean leaving unpunished inherently criminal acts, those called “malum in se” in legal philosophy.  Most of what ISIS fighters are doing to outrage the world’s conscience — from smashing cultural property to raping hostages to murdering innocents — could easily be dealt with as war crimes.  But the “what” should matter far more than the “who.”  Extradite and punish as necessary, but the citizenship of the perpetrator or the political entity in whose name the crimes were committed would make no difference.

More importantly, my reservations about states’ jurisdiction over their citizens abroad have more far-reaching implications for the relation between state and society in general, and, as I shall explain a bit further along, with creating room for combatting the likes of ISIS.

To unbundle the state’s authority would draw a salutary line between the sorts of war crimes taking place in places like Palmyra, and the more run-of-the-mill, even heroic, struggles that foreign volunteers have waged in some other times and places.  It would also be more in line with a traditional understanding of allegiance.  When mediæval and early modern laws on treason took shape, the core idea was that loyalty was owed to a ruler in exchange for protection.  In less legalistic language, historian Charles Tilly has described the formation of modern states as a sophisticated “protection racket.”  The warlords who out-competed their rivals and survived became kings, legitimised by the passage of time.  Either way, allegiance was tightly bound to keeping the peace on a given territory.  Traitors threatened that peace by open revolt or stirring up doubt over the monopoly on power.  Beyond the territory — short of attacking it directly from outside — actions were largely irrelevant to the protection racket and thus beyond its notice.  That the king’s magistrate might hang you for disturbing the king’s peace was taken for granted.  For him to issue an order stopping you from landing at Dover, based on what side you took in a German principality’s internal strife, would have been preposterous.

When legal scholars today write about allegiance, they tend to shift the terms.  The core of citizenship used to be allegiance in exchange for protection.  Recently it has been seen as allegiance in exchange for the right of abode in a given country.  This right acquired meaning only as borders closed with the First World War.  Then gaps of fortune widened into global apartheid over the last century.  Citizenship in a wealthy country can mean the difference between comfort and destitution, or even between life and death.  Benefits attach to spaces — big, impersonal, bureaucratised, national spaces — more than they did a century ago.  As Hannah Arendt once put it, politics in the postwar years largely turned into “national housekeeping.”  And nice houses have locked doors.

As the modern state’s pockets have deepened and its grasp has tightened at home, it has also become more beadily farsighted abroad.  Back in January, when Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, called for taking citizenship away from jihadis, he framed it in a revealing way.  “I think the mood has decisively shifted in favour of people saying, ‘This country will give all of us our education for free, it will give all of us our health for free, but don’t expect to go off and fight against this country’s interests and expect to swan back in.’”  Generosity from above binds more tightly to the state.  In sinister parallels, East Germany during the Cold War invented a new crime with which to tar escapees across the Wall: Republikflucht, or flight from the republic.  Those who moved westward betrayed the state that had coddled them up to that point.

When a multimillionaire finance minister adopts the logic of the East German Politburo to justify the state’s overreach, the problem runs deeply into the texture of modern ideas about power.  This is not just the usual temptation of politicians to play to the gallery and lash out at the enemy of the moment (though it is that, too).  Beyond paying the bills to call the tune, this expansive view of state authority also reflects a change in who staffs the state and shapes the public conversation about how to respond to ISIS-style outrages.  The temptations of power and the suffocating of initiative in society have to do with the rise of what sociologists Milovan Djilas and Alvin W Gouldner called “the new class.”  The state’s overreach since the second half of the twentieth century has been presided over by secular professionals and bureaucrats ambitious about remaking society in their own image.  They have had little regard for any spheres of life, including family, faith, or locality, as beyond the reach of politics.  This outlook usually manifests within each country, as bureaucracies tighten their oversight of society.  But it does not stop at the border, especially when officialdom in different countries links up to close the gaps of regulation.

Moreover, the new class way of speaking about progress and common values — what Gouldner called “the culture of critical discourse” — also has come to dominate the public sphere in Western democracies.  In keeping with their predilections, they draw the national experience into a space with a lot of righteous chatter and very little restraint.  Whatever Whiggish consensus supposedly emerges must trump prepolitical ramparts in society.  In place of the older vertical protection racket of allegiance to a ruler, infused with deference to the bearers of status, we see a newer horizontal membership racket of allegiance to common values, infused with deference to the bearers of enlightenment.  Jihadis, with their unapologetic quasi-religious fervor, are guilty not only of violence but also of lèse-majesté, so to speak.

In this new class understanding, the state becomes the comprehensive spokesman of society.  The supposed wisdom of mass voters and educated functionaries creates a vortex of consensus about progress and enlightenment.  Other spheres in society surrender their distinctive character and their autonomy.  And at the end of the trajectory, we see the state “owning” the national territory.  Now it asserts the right not only to exclude outsiders from that sealed space, but also to define away part of its membership, by revoking that membership on political grounds.  From any traditional perspective — be it humanity’s common inheritance of the earth and the right to move across it, under natural law, or the simple givenness of ties to a country — such predominance of state over society would be unthinkable.

To chasten the modern state in its overreaching impulse, therefore, is not to give carte blanche to those of murderous impulses.  Nor is it to undermine place, loyalty, and any of the other goods that we appreciate on the Porch.  Rather, it is to affirm those goods as beyond the reach of the state.  For those who would treat their citizens abroad as property are, on closer scrutiny, also those who trample at home over more genuine attachments to place, on the part of decent folk quite unlike the jihadis.  I wrote last year on the meaning of pilgrimages and other sacred circuits beyond the reach of any polity of the moment.  In the same way, action across borders, by idealists who join one or another cause, is also a powerful counterweight to the hubris of officialdom.  To see much of today’s obsession with borders and sovereignty as illegitimate on these grounds has a different logic from the more individualistic approach of the left-liberal open borders crowd, though on some issues, odder bedfellows have been found.

But, in the end, where would this reasoning leave those indignant over what has happened in Palmyra and elsewhere?  Would this not amount to shrugging and letting more people with chips on their shoulders join ISIS and wreak havoc?  No.

For one thing, refocusing on prepolitical principles of justice, quite apart from the statutes and incapacities of one or another government, would highlight our duty to make common cause in tackling those guilty of atrocities, and holding them to account later and elsewhere.  Many of them should probably face the gallows, as Adolf Eichmann did.  I should not begrudge any fair court from Jamaica to Japan handling the legal formalities, if none closer proved willing and able to do so.

More immediately, an overlooked reality is that the long arm of the state has unintended consequences.  The kinds of people who are most confined by restrictions on foreign fighters are not the ISIS volunteers, who revel in breaking the law.  Rather, the law only applies, in effect, to those who have some respect for it.  I have in mind those who feel at home in the West and value their ability to return there without plausibly being clapped in irons.  That is why, by one reckoning, there are over 3000 Westerners fighting with ISIS and only 100 or so Westerners — mostly ex-military types loosely attached to the Kurdish militias — fighting against it.

In short, perhaps the best way to save Palmyra — and, more importantly, the innocents being slaughtered — is not to tighten up in the spirit of bureaucratic tidiness, but to open the floodgates.  By all means, wash official hands of niceties like diplomatic protection, and make clear that volunteers are on their own.  Then let the outraged flow where their sense of duty takes them.  I suspect the balance would more than even out, and probably tip the other way.  Some influx of volunteers driven by a sense of duty, rather than by one or another local, rival tribalism, might also change the temper of how the conflict is being waged and to what ends.

Why those who would never take up arms themselves find that bottom-up alternative so unnerving, and prefer unleashing the centurions of the air, is a question well worth asking.

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Adam K. Webb
Adam K. Webb grew up in England, Spain, and the United States. He is now Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, an overseas campus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has authored three books, including Beyond the Global Culture War (2006), A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow's Economy of Values (2009), and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation (2015). His interests range broadly across political thought, and efforts to recreate room for traditions and liberty on the emerging global landscape. He divides his time among urban China, rural England, and other corners of the world.


  1. The whole thing is simply none of our f-ing business. If we could figure that out, and act on it, the motivation for joining ISIS would go away. Sane people wouldn’t feel the need to fight our insanity if our insanity wasn’t constantly forced on that part of the world.

    But that assumes ISIS is spontaneous, which it isn’t. ISIS, like al-Qaeda, is our invention, developed to provide a reason for more profit to the military and contractors.

    And you have gone along with the scam, either intentionally or unknowingly. You are proposing more profit to the contractors.

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