To me, it is impossible not to look at the horrors of the past few weeks as history. As soon as they happen, they join a long train of horrors stretching back to the beginning of recorded history.
It is said that there are two types of racist: those who recognize their racism and those who don’t. I think it is the same with barbarism: there are peoples who recognize the barbarities in their history and those who don’t. It’s hard; the very word, derived from the ancient Greek term for the Other, implies that we ourselves are not capable of it.
It is tempting to see Western Europe as a traditional champion of civilization and humanitarianism. Because I’ve been reading Colleen McCullough’s massive series on the last century of Republican Rome, let me mention that the Romans–founders of the Western world– were inordinately fond of crucifixion to execute individuals of lower rank, particularly slaves, including thousands of followers of Spartacus after the slave revolt was finally put down in 71 BC.
Like the Romans, our former colonial masters, the British, traditionally had what was regarded as a more dignified punishment for the nobility: beheading, as opposed to hanging. If you’ve seen the Wolf Hall series, you’ve seen Anne Boleyn waiting bravely for her noble end. Today, judicial decapitation, even by the supposedly humane guillotine, seems inhumane to the West and is regularly practiced only in Saudi Arabia, though beheading is regularly practiced by non-state actors in the Middle East. Capital punishment itself has been abandoned everywhere in the Western world except the United States.
Let’s skip the gory details, but the historically minded can think back to the Spanish inquisition (which originated in 13th-century France), the devastating Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years), the forced conversion or expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in the memorable year of 1492, Spanish exploitation and enslavement of Native Americans, many colonial powers importation of slaves, Belgian King Leopold II’s enslavement of the Congolese, the infamous atrocities of Hitler (invoked daily in our press and politics) and Stalin (read The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn), the final collapse of French colonialism in Algeria (see The Battle of Algiers), Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, and for almost a century a campaign of civil war in the partitioning of Ireland, including bombing campaigns in England in 1939-40 and again in the 1990’s. (Please remember, I am not exonerating anyone else, just dwelling on the European countries, since they seem to be on the receiving end right now.)
The French, to their honor, have always had a critical eye for abuse. In a famous passage of Voltaire (1759), the traveler Candide comes upon a black slave stretched out on the ground in the Dutch colony of Surinam.
“Good God,” said Candide in Dutch, “what dost thou here, friend, in this deplorable condition?”
“I am waiting for my master, Mynheer Vanderdendur, the famous trader,” answered the Negro.
“Was it Mynheer Vanderdendur that used you in this cruel manner?”
“Yes, sir,” said the Negro; “it is the custom here. They give a linen garment twice a year, and that is all our covering. When we labor in the sugar works, and the mill happens to snatch hold of a finger, they instantly chop off our hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off a leg. Both these cases have happened to me, and it is at this expense that you eat sugar in Europe….”
When the West points at atrocities in the Middle East, we cannot escape our own histories, but must recognize and try to at last rise above them. The Germans have been doing their best, and for all its issues, the European Union has succeeded in preventing the savage wars that regularly laid waste to Europe from antiquity through 1945.
Jordan Olmstead, “Five Keys to Understanding ISIS,” Pacific Standard, originally 12/29/14, points out that terrorists are not (much as they may seem so to us) crazy, but aim to subjugate populations by apparently unstoppable brutality.
The Islamic State is renowned for its ruthlessness…. But that doesn’t mean the group is driven purely by nihilistic sadism. Committing reprehensible acts of violence can be instrumentally rational for terrorist groups, meaning it can sometimes represent the best means for achieving a group’s ends.
ISIS proclaims that it is building an “Islamic caliphate” in the war-devastated areas of Iraq and Syria, while it rather contradictorily practices anarchistic attacks on other countries, including the Russian airliner bombing in Egypt and the horrendous attacks in Paris.
Anarchism or non-government, the age-old idea attributed to various 18th-century thinkers that “That state governs best that governs least,” moved into a violent phase in Europe in the decades before and after 1900 when, like terrorists, due to their lack of political and military strength many anarchists began to see violence as an effective means of asserting their influence and precipitating world-changing convulsions. Their victims included Tsar Alexander II, president Sadi-Carot of France, and rulers of Italy, Portugal, and Greece.
The most infamous example of anarchist influence was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian imperial throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914 by the Serbian terrorist group The Black Hand, whose goal of a united South Slavic country was achieved after the unimaginable sufferings unleashed in World War I.
In Spain, the Basque separatist group ETA, which beginning in 1959 killed over 800 people in an underground war against dictator Francisco Franco, struck a decisive blow when it assassinated Franco’s heir apparent, Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973. Although, farther south, Barcelona had been the locale of anarchist and related agitation, culminating in the burning of 90 churches and monasteries in 1909, today’s Catalan separatist movement has been, so far, peaceful.
Osama Bin Laden, who as a Wahhabi Sunni practitioner of jihadist violence inspired AQI, the original basis of ISIS, laid out his views in his 2002 “Letter to the American People.” It is a doleful and humbling experience to read the long train of abuses, decadence, and aggression that he imputes to our own country, followed by his ominous conclusion:
If the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to, then be aware that you will lose this Crusade Bush began, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen, fleeing to your home in great silence and disgrace. If the Americans do not respond, then their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.
This is our message to the Americans, as an answer to theirs. Do they now know why we fight them and over which form of ignorance, by the permission of Allah, we shall be victorious?
As Jordan Olmstead (above) says, it is a mistake to believe that terrorists are crazy. Rather, in order to combat them effectively, Western governments and societies need to understand terrorists’ goals; but trying to do so outside of a comparative historical analysis that include the West’s own brutalities and how they are slowly been overcome, has not proven successful.
And since history also shows a period of beneficial coexistence of religions under Islamic rule in Spain until 1492 and in much of the Middle East until 2001, perhaps history also offers grounds for some hope for the future.
Images above: 1) ISIS fighters, in Pacific Standard, 2014. 2) Teutonic crusaders approaching the Battle on the Ice as show in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film, celebrating Russian triumph over the Germanic invader, still from a rendition of Prokofief’s music to the film