Security checkpoints. Iraq. Culture of tribal authoritarianism.


Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority.

A long time ago I stood guard at the vehicle gate to a certain fairly well-known compound inside a military base. I had been told that only vehicles with a particular type of sticker was allowed to park inside that compound.

A well-dressed lady in an expensive SUV rolled up, didn't have the sticker, her ID didn't have the command mark on it - and she wanted to park inside.

"My husband is the XO." I.e, the Executive Officer - 2nd in command at that unit. I was a student, not even a member of the command.
"Sorry, Ma'am - you're gonna have to park up front and the people at the front desk can help you."
"But I just need to..."
"Sorry, Ma'am."
"You guys usually let me park inside. I'm only going in and out, it'll only be a few minutes. My husband said..."
"I can't let you in here with or without the vehicle, Ma'am. You can get a visitor's badge from the front desk and they'll escort you inside. I can't leave my post."

Five minutes later here comes the same lady walking towards me from the inside of the compound. The XO is walking next to her. OH SHIT WHY ME.

"Hey there, Petty Officer."
"Good morning, Sir and Ma'am."
"Were you the guy that didn't let my wife into the compound?"
"Sir, yes Sir."
"Good job. I should have gotten her a sticker for her car and ID a long time ago. Carry on."
"Yes, Sir."

In the unlikely event that anyone ever wants to confirm that story it happened either in late 1999, early 2000 or late 2001 at NSWC Coronado.

An even longer time ago, I spent a year working as a bodyguard for very rich and very powerful people in the 3rd world. India, Singapore mostly. Then I spent a decade back and forth in the Middle East and Asia in the military.

This is how it works in tribal, authoritarian-culture societies:

"Let me in! Don't you know I'm the Executive Assistant to Director Such-and-such??"
"Yessir, yessir - right this way, Sir!"


People in security uniforms with fake badges come up to the building checkpoint.
"Hey, what's up, we're here to see <Important Person>."
"Oh, okay."
"He'll be mad if we don't come in right now. Let us through."
"Oh, okay."

The truly powerful people with their entourage, assistants and secretaries don't even get challenged. They just sweep through.

"I am important and you must respect me and recognize my importance. You are not important and must learn that the rules only apply to the lesser people. Not people like me, can't you see that I'm important?? You must personally learn to tell the difference (you should already know!) between who is important and who is not. It's obvious. People like you have to stop at security checkpoints. People like I do not."

This creates a culture, an tribal-knowledge, unwritten, accepted way of doing things. The result:

Gunmen wearing suicide vests have stormed a provincial council building in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, killing at least 10 people, reports say. [Now up to ~20 dead.]
Dozens were reported to have been wounded in a co-ordinated series of attacks including a car bomb.
The attackers, who entered the building disguised in security uniforms, now control one of its floors, reports say.
Alternatively, you could have just bribed or intimidated the security personnel or threatened their families. They're low paid, unskilled with little training. In an environment and culture and system where their entire lives they've been conditioned to defer to authority figures. Tribal leaders. Elders. Important people. Social and business leaders.

I and my local contacts used to walk straight past security at Mumbai airport because we had an escort. The escort was the head of security. My local contact was the son of the secretary to the state governor. The state governor changed every four or five years. His secretary had had the same job for two decades. Who do you think knew everyone and everything in the state?

You have to be dressed well, or look like you're powerful and in charge. You have to have the uniform. You have to have a commanding air of authority. And as long as you don't hit someone who actually follows rules and regulations even when it's obviously not in their best career interest to do so, then you're as well as past the checkpoint already. The security guards don't make much money. They're scared of getting in trouble. They're not well educated like me and you. If you're reading this - then A) you know how to read, and B) you speak English. Congratulations - you just scored higher on the security guard aptitude test than 90% of the world's security guards and you probably have some sort of education.

You sit at a checkpoint and see the same people walk by every day. You check their IDs every day. The metal detector probably isn't working right. Every day the same damn thing. Boredom. People. Food. Boredom. Cigarette break. More boredom. Important person, look sharp! Boredom. Always the same people. Always at the same times. There's that one good-looking girl. You know their faces. You know who wears what clothes. You know who doesn't like standing in line waiting to show their security badge. You know who's easily irritated.

You don't want to inconvenience people. The equipment breaks down and now you have people waiting. You have to have a female guard on call for women who are veiled. People wear flowing robes that can hide anything underneath them. The metal detectors might beep but won't tell you there's a revolver in an ankle holster and your culture considers feet to be unclean so you don't check ankles or boots. Your supervisor waves people on through sometimes, so therefore it must be okay for you to do it, too.

Except you have no idea who just got fired and is now coming back in with an Uzi under their coat. You have no idea who's smuggling information in and out. You have no idea who's the insider that's gonna talk themselves and their up-to-no-good friend past you. The good guys have to get lucky to catch that one bad guy who tries to sneak in one day out of 365. The bad guys get to pick their target and when to strike, and they only need to get lucky that one single time. All it takes is a plastic knife, really. There's no metal needed to cause havoc, death and destruction, even.

Until you get rid of that tribal authoritarianism and the egotism that leads people who are "important" to feel that they have the right to walk right past checkpoints - you're gonna continue to have incidents like the 20 dead in Tikrit.

Enjoy the society growing pains. It sucks to grow up. It sucks to learn that your culture encourages things like this.

Quick tip:
Does your society vote or organize itself around religious or tribal or ethnic faultlines?
Or does your society vote according to each person's individual beliefs about conservative-liberal type issues, including for extreme liberal parties like the communists and extreme-environmental groups?

Depending on your answer to that, you know if your society has reached the point where it can reliably function fairly well without too high risk of civil war, sectarian violence and idiocies like religious fanatics taking over a government compound and killing a few dozen terrified office workers.

Good luck, Iraq. You're gonna need it. US soldiers can't change that culture. You're gonna have to do it. Of course, feel free to blame all your other problems on America. Some of those accusations may be true.

But that sectarian, authoritarianist, backwards tribal culture thing? That's on you, Iraqis. Good luck changing that - it'll take half a century or so. It took the USA and Western Europe hundreds of years.

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