By Dan Burstein*
There’s a big problem with President Obama’s retaliatory steps taken against the regime of Vladimir Putin over Russian hacking into the American electoral process. No, the problem isn’t that the Russians aren’t guilty or don’t deserve it—they are, in my opinion, very guilty and deserve all the steps Obama has taken and much more. The problem is that, in the administration’s commitment to openness, transparency, and decency, the American side telegraphed what we were going to do, laid out the rationale, and then did it. Sure, there will be more behind-the-scenes in the future, but as we come to understand the extent of the cyberhooks the Russians have already put into our economy and public and personal lives, the game of Spy vs. Spy may escalate dramatically.
Washington would be better served hiring the admittedly fictional Lisbeth Salander, the central character of Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Larsson started writing these novels in 2002-3 and died in 2004 just before they were published and became international sensations. But even 15 years ago, he already understood not only the malevolent nature of Russian power versus western democracies, but also the tricks of the trade of cyber-warfare.
Lisbeth—who I have called the global 21st-century successor to rogue characters in literature like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in the 19th century and J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in the 20th—has laser-like talents for understanding who is to blame and how to retaliate and punish evil-doers. But she always does so in a way that leaves her fingerprints off the end result.
In Larsson’s fiction, quite a few bad actors are killed because Lisbeth wants them dead, but none are ever killed by her own hand. (That interesting moral nuance seems lost or at least has been abandoned by David Lagercrantz, the writer who published The Girl in the Spider’s Web in 2015 and has taken over this series of books at Larsson’s Swedish publisher’s request—and much to the chagrin of Larsson’s surviving life partner, Eva Gabrielsson.)
Readers who race through Larsson’s trilogy frequently draw the conclusion that Lisbeth will stop at nothing to achieve her version of vengeance, retribution, and justice vis-a-vis bad guys. She is skilled at martial arts, has a super-heroine’s familiarity with the tools of the violence trade, and has a particularly well-tuned ability to inflict extreme pain on men who outweigh her by a factor of two or three without giving it a second thought. However, whenever possible, she intentionally and consciously stops short of murder. Larsson goes to a lot of trouble to show us not that she would never kill, but rather, that whenever she has a choice, she chooses not to.
Take the death of financial criminal Hans-Erik Wennerström in the original book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example. The authorities are looking for him after journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s exposé is published. Lisbeth, Blomkvist’s sometimes partner in the extra-legal side of investigative journalism, knows exactly where Wennerström is day by day, having hacked into all his computers and email. She plunders his bank account and transfers his money to her control. Then she watches him on the run for months.
After six months, she tires of tracking Wennerström. She thinks about calling the police but re-confirms her principle of not talking to them. She reminds herself that Wennerström did bad things to women, in addition to being a financial criminal of the highest order. Once she triggers the memory of Wennerström’s violence toward women, she makes her decision to eliminate him. But she is not going to do it herself. In a pattern we will see multiple times in Larsson’s books, she picks up the phone and calls an unnamed attorney in Miami. (We can infer this attorney works for some Colombian drug dealers whose debts have not been paid by Wennerström because Lisbeth has stolen the funds he needs to make good on what he owes.) She tells the attorney’s secretary where to find Wennerström in the Spanish resort city of Marbella. Four days later, Wennerström’s dead body is found in an apartment there. Lisbeth watches a TV news report on Wennerström’s demise for a few minutes, before switching off the TV and making herself coffee and a liver pâté and cucumber sandwich.
Of particular relevance to today, Lisbeth’s greatest enemy is her Russian-born father, Zala, who is still the keeper of all sorts of secrets dating from the Soviet era and the Russian penetration of Swedish officialdom. Meanwhile, Zala, whom she has been trying to kill since she was 12 years old, runs criminal operations and gangs in many cities of the world. Even in Putin’s earliest days as post-Soviet Russia’s leader, Stieg Larsson had no illusions about what kind of criminal kleptocracy he was running—and how much of that would rely on cyber-warfare. Lisbeth was born to fight this battle, cunningly, remotely, disguised, hidden—and with the super heroics and stinging efficiency of her code name, Wasp (an allusive tribute to one of the early female superheroines, The Wasp, from 1960s era Marvel comics).
The Lisbeth character provides an interesting twist to the growing debate in several branches of science and social science over the “Trolley Problem,” AKA, the “Fat Man Problem.” In this thought experiment (which is being debated in fields from Experimental Philosophy to the development of Artificial Intelligence algorithms for autonomous vehicle operations), a speeding, out-of-control trolley can only be stopped if you push a very heavy man standing near you in front of it. If you don’t do this, everyone will die. But if you do push him and stop the careening vehicle with his girth, you are guilty of murdering the Fat Man—even if it is for a good cause. Most people would never do this.
Larsson solves this problem for Lisbeth by never making her the one who pushes the Fat Man herself—she just sets up the circumstances where someone else does. Moreover, the Fat Man in Larsson’s world is not an innocent bystander who happens to weigh 300 lbs., he is a genuinely evil figure. Thus, the world is clearly a better place after Lisbeth has set in motion her controlled chain of events that leads to his elimination.
In the case of how to deal with Russian and other cyberhackers domestic and foreign, we have an additional problem: How much does American democracy compromise itself and its own democratic character by retaliating in kind? If, on top of having had to create a privacy-invading state apparatus to take on the physical violence of terrorists over the last 15 years since 9/11, we now have to create a vast cyber-hacking counterforce, at what point does the fabric of democracy and personal freedom become too frayed to be recognizable?
These are weighty questions. I’d like to outsource them to Lisbeth Salander.
Unfortunately, I still live in the real world, where truth still prevails. I haven’t accepted the cosmology of the post-truth era and don’t intend to. And therefore, I understand my own proposal is fictional, unworkable, impossible. We have to come up with our own real nuanced solutions to massive the new complications and challenges in our world.
*Dan Burstein is the author/coauthor of 14 nonfiction books on subjects from new technology to the future of China, Japan, and the European Union. He has written several guidebooks to pop culture novels, films, and TV shows, including his 2011 book with Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg, THE TATTOOED GIRL: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time, which was nominated for an Edgar Award.