Great acts of cruelty have, sadly, been a constant in human history. The Romans, we all know, were cruel in their punishments. Not only did they practice crucifixion, something that they took over from the Etruscans, they also took great pleasure in gladiatorial contests. These sorts of punishments were reserved for non-citizens and slaves, but members of the elite did not fare much better: death by starvation was one way of getting rid of unwanted people. In those days punishment, frequently wreaked on the innocent, was meant to be cruel, one feels, meant to instil shock and fear.
Given that the Founder of Christianity was the victim of such monstrous cruelty, there has always been a supposition, to say the very least, in our religion, that kindness is the greatest of virtues. And the words of Jesus too constantly emphasis charity: acts of kindness, fellow-feeling, compassion, and the assuaging of physical suffering. Indeed, from a Christian point of view, to inflict needless suffering on anyone is wrong, and not to intervene to assuage suffering is wrong. To take pleasure in the suffering of others is not just wrong, it is perverted. It is perfectly true that the Byzantine Empire was not a notably kind regime, but at least it did not tolerate gladiatorial contests and the other worst excesses of the Romans.
Cruelty was something that the Enlightenment strongly disapproved of, thinking it to be barbaric, uncivilised and a throwback to a less civilised age. In this the Enlightenment was completely correct. One axiomatic example of this was the case of Damiens, a man from Artois who tried to assassinate Louis XV. He was punished with the most ferocious cruelty, which led to considerable backlash and the conviction that punishment should be reformed, and should always be humane. Hence the invention of the guillotine, which had the supreme example of being quick. (It had taken four hours to kill Damiens.) Despite this admirable desire not to inflict pain, the children of the Enlightenment then proceeded to do the exact opposite during the French Revolution, with the September Massacres, and then the Terror, which was masterminded by another man from Artois, Robespierre.
The French Revolution perhaps gives us the first and clearest example we need of how cruelty and terror can be made into instruments of political power. The Committee of Public Safety, lacking any other legitimacy, ruled through fear. Making a spectacle of public executions, specialising in executing the innocent, creating the dread that comes from the knowledge that no one is safe, all these gave them their hold on power. With the Committee that hold did not last too long; Robespierre was overthrown by more moderate people, and then executed himself, in a uniquely cruel way; but Stalin, whose Terror made the original one look like child’s play, died in his bed, as did Lenin.
In the land of the Islamic State (IS), terror is once again the order of the day. The filmed murders of numerous innocents, culminating with the murders of two American hostages, is calculated to inspire fear; the same goes for the mass expulsion of the Christian and Yazidi populations, and the other gross cruelties too numerous to be mentioned here. The message of those two awful videos seems to be that if you bomb us, we will continue to kill other innocents. This is an attempt to intimidate the West. It is not simply blackmail, though it bears blackmail some resemblance; it is worse than that: it is an attempt to terrorise the entire world, to make us all compliant. Just as the mobsters of America in their heyday would produce some spectacular act of cruelty, designed to keep people in line, this is the same. IS is seeking to bully the world. Something similar in type, though not in scale, happens in many prisons today: the gang leader demands obedience and compliance as a way of establishing his sway over the cowed inmates of the jail, and he does this by establishing his ability to inflict pain. Seeing the sufferings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, we comply, fearing if we do not, it will happen to us. Terror, to succeed, relies on the cowardice of the masses.
So what must be done? The only answer is to stand up to the bullies. That is the only answer there has ever been. In practical terms that means war with IS, and it probably means, though I am no military expert, boots on the ground. We need to show we are not afraid. We need to confront, too, and confront robustly, IS-apologists in the West, and not pussyfoot around them, using political correctness as an excuse
But there is something else at work here. The people behind IS, with their ideology of terror, are revealing to us what it is they really want. It is power pure and simple. They are not seeking power for a reason, but merely for the exercise of power, which, as they see it, is most purely done in inflicting pain. This was one of the discoveries, and an important one, made by George Orwell, in his dissection of Stalinist terror, 1984. IS live for cruelty, nothing more. They seek not to construct anything, but only to destroy. As such, needless to say, they are extremely dangerous.
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