Okay, it wasn't George W. Bush himself, just his minions. Here's what happened (and by the way, this is the story I promised to tell in a previous post):
In the summer of 2005 a weird e-mail appeared in my inbox. It came from "Centra Technology," and it read, "The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center is seeking your help in the global war on terror.... We are asking innovative thinkers and leading experts like you to stretch our imagination by preparing a thought-provoking essay (<10 pages) on some aspect of analysis that advances counterterrorism knowledge/understanding/efforts…. It will be held very closely and distributed only among senior U.S. government analysts, IT professionals working on counterterrorism as well as other specialists from across the intelligence community."
It had to be a joke, or a case of mistaken identity. A Google search informed me that Centra is a defense contractor with offices in Massachusetts and Virginia. The National Counterterrorism Center is real, too; the Bush administration created it in 2004 to coordinate the efforts of the CIA and the U.S. Defense and Homeland Security departments, along with other agencies.
I called the number provided by Centra, and a woman named Debbie confirmed that the letter to me was legit. I told her that Centra must have confused me with another John Horgan, an Irish-born psychologist and authority on terrorism. (I learned about my doppelganger while self-googling, one of my favorite pastimes.)
No, Debbie assured me, they wanted me, the science-writing John Horgan; they were seeking "nonexperts" who would "think outside the box." I thought—but did not say—that if the Bushies were asking an ignoramus like me for advice, their "war on terror" must be in even worse shape than I had imagined. When Debbie told me that Centra would pay me, I swallowed my misgivings and accepted the gig.
I pitched five ideas: interviewing retired members of the Irish Republican Army for insights into how terrorists plan attacks; hiring volunteers to pretend to be members of terrorist "sleeper cells," again to gain insight into terrorist thinking; creating a Web site where anyone could anonymously submit plans for terrorist attacks; using artificial-intelligence programs to find patterns in past terrorist attacks and thereby predict future ones; and disseminating the writings of the political scientist Gene Sharp, an authority on nonviolent political activism, to fundamentalist Muslims and others who might be at risk of becoming terrorists.
Centra accepted all of my proposals except for the one about Sharp, which was "too political." Of course, the Sharp proposal was the only one I thought might actually reduce terrorism; all the others were just bullshit of the kind that I thought these military-industrial-intelligence-complex folks expected from a science geek like me.
Ironically, Sharp's first major work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Porter Sargent, 1973), was funded by the Pentagon via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which now supports research on robots and brain implants and other sci-fi stuff. After mentioning DARPA's support in his book's preface, Sharp stated that he "has been arguing for years that governments and defense departments—as well as other groups—should finance and conduct research into alternatives to violence."
DARPA's investment in Sharp was wise. Sharp has become the world's most influential promoter of nonviolent political activism. A profile in The Wall Street Journal credited Sharp with "helping to advance a global democratic awakening" and inspiring "movements that toppled governments in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan." His writings have also inspired activists in Russia, Burma, Palestine, Venezuela, Iran and elsewhere.
Unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Sharp is a secular figure who opposes violence on strictly practical rather than moral or spiritual grounds. He is a hard-headed pacifist. Actually, Sharp dislikes the term "pacifism" because it evokes "passive" as well as unrealistic exhortations to turn the other cheek or love your enemy. Many people in power deserve to be hated and deposed, Sharp says, and the best way to oppose them is through nonviolent action.
Because of his emphasis on pragmatism rather than morality, Sharp has been compared with cold-hearted political and military theorists such as Machiavelli and Clausewitz. Critics point out that Sharp's methods can promote insidious as well as noble ends. This complaint is dumb: If bad people and groups all restricted themselves to nonviolent methods, wouldn't that represent progress?
Sharp operates out of the Albert Einstein Institution, a Boston-based nonprofit he founded in 1983 "to advance the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action in conflict." The institution does research on nonviolent methods, disseminates information to the public and consults with groups around the world about how to apply nonviolence to achieve their goals.
Sharp's pamphlet "From Dictatorship to Democracy" (published by the institution), which has been translated into more than 20 languages, lists scores of nonviolent actions, including mass petitions, underground newspapers, skywriting, display of flags and banners, work strikes, student strikes, boycotts of goods, boycotts of sporting events, refusal to pay rent, withdrawal of bank savings, fasts, mock trials, occupation of government buildings, marches, rejection of government awards, mock funerals, teach-ins, pray-ins, ostracism of government collaborators, publication of collaborators' names, seeking imprisonment, formation of a parallel government and/or economy, and mass disrobing (!).
Sharp calls one method "Lysistratic nonaction." The reference is to a play by Aristophanes in which Greek women withhold sex from their men until the men stop fighting wars. Women involved in the U.S. civil rights movement reportedly employed this tactic—not against Southern racists but against their chauvinist activist husbands and boyfriends.
Sharp has been denounced by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Iranian officials, among other authoritarians. The Iranian government views Sharp's writings—which have circulated among opposition groups—as such a serious threat that it broadcast a bizarre animated video of John McCain, "Jewish tycoon" George Soros and "CIA agent" Sharp in the White House plotting the overthrow of Iran. Some lefty idiots have also accused Sharp of being a tool of the U.S. government, whereas others on the left have defended him.
Although DARPA helped him write his first book decades ago, Sharp has not received any federal support for a long time. But if he did get such support, so what? Does my taking moola from Centra five years ago make me a Pentagon lackey? (Answer: no.) What matters is that Sharp never took marching orders from the Pentagon or any other U.S. agency.
If the Feds give Sharp money now, their support may lend credence to absurd claims that he is promoting U.S. imperialism. But this downside is outweighed by the upside of promoting nonviolent activism among potentially violent groups, including anti-American ones. In an introduction to Politics of Nonviolent Action, the economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote that if Sharp's writings "begin to inform and enlighten our adversaries, we can be doubly thankful," because "one is better off confronting a skillful and effective recourse to nonviolent action than a savagely ineffectual resort to violence." Indeed.
Centra? National Counterrorism Center? Are you listening? Do something useful for a change! Give Gene Sharp some help!
Photo of Gene Sharp courtesy of The Albert Einstein Institution