Friday, August 22, 2014


(This is a selction from a text I wrote more than thirty years ago. Still relevant and today once more actual.)

Atrocities are what people are doing to people. Atrocities mean violence - unimaginable, unpredictable, unstoppable violence. Terror means wanton manipulation and assault, chase, rape, torture, inquisition, execution. It means being shot, slain, burned, slaughtered, drowned, or starved to death. It means horror, loneliness, impotence, madness, grief, guilt, shame, disgust, repugnance, rage, malice, rancor, hate, thirst, hunger, filth, cold. Above all, it means intense pain, fear and despair, until mind and body become unhinged. Terror is the breaking of body and spirit. Fear for our own life and limbs is often not the worst fear. Even more terrifying is fear of what may be done to our children, our parents, our family and our friends. Often, mental torture is added to physical torture. Where brutality reins freely, brutes grow smart and mean.

Terror occurs in mob violence and in lynch parties, in revenge, capture and abduction, in arrest, interrogation and internment, and in slavery. And in genocide, At large, terror occurs in repressive tyrannies and dictatorships and in occupied countries, especially when occupation forces encounter armed resistance. It occurs in revolutions, counterrevolutions, civil wars, especially religious and ideological wars.
Whatever the danger of ‘terrorists’, bands of political extremists using wanton violence to gain political attention and reach political ends, the larger challenge are terrorist regimes.
    Revolutions and civil wars, where the enemies are fellow citizens, usually breed more terror than do wars between countries. They destroy our feeling of a safe home-base among people to whom we belong. Religious and ideological wars are even more cruel and dangerous because they tend to destroy any remaining pragmatism and business sense.
Why are people cruel? Why do they torture? Why do they rape and kill and maim others, apart from just fighting? Many people like to watch violence and cruelty, blood and gore. Horror movies are entertainment. Victim behavior may trigger brutality in others. Masochism may trigger sadism, and sadism may trigger masochism. To explain violence we have to understand the tyrants, the butchers, the executioners, the brutes and the bullies. We also have to understand the perpetrators farther away: the pay masters, the bosses, the organizers, the people who rule or benefit.
    Perpetrators of cruelty and torture come in many types. Whatever the type of perpetrator, engaging in cruelty, torture and terror overcompensates for deep feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.
Cruelty, torture and terror constitute the ultimate lustful assertion, being unrestrained and all-present in the fear and horror and powerlessness of others. It transforms impotence in omnipotence, playing God or the Devil.  Just as an actor or musician basks in the attention and admiration of his audience, so a terrorist basks in the pain of his victims and the fear in spectators.
    Brutes see their descent into barbarism and sadism as courageous, hard, only for the strong. Brutes view others as sleepers, dreamers, sentimental squeakers, timid, afraid, soft and vulnerable. They view common folks as children of a lesser God.
What conditions turn people into brutes? The main breeding ground for brutes is intimidation and humiliation from an early age. Any continuous inhuman treatment of people sows the seeds of an inhuman response. Whenever people in authority treat others as small, insignificant or despicable, they create losers. In such losers, envy and hate may fester, and one day this hate may erupt. Brutality breeds brutes.
    The first brutes are born, not bred. ‘Psychopaths’ simply appear to lack conscience - or rather empathy. Their inhumanity is not an emotional reaction to being belittled, ignored, intimidated or rejected, but is rather a fact of life. Biological factors may play a role. As we analyze political terror here, physical factors are less important. But they do help to explain the beginnings.
We have to stop cruelty and terror, and we must do so without doubt, without hesitation, without undue consideration, and without becoming infected with what we try to eradicate. There are great differences between the surgeon who wields his knife, the butcher who wields his knife, and the sadist who wields his knife. Violence is usually is a butcher’s job. This job may become sadistic, but it must become surgical. A good cause does not need hate; it needs resolve. Surgeons don’t attack a cancer furiously with a kitchen knife. They concentrate on the job of cutting it out, calmly but definitely.
    Any timorous response to actual terrorism only strengthens it. Terrorism needs to be confronted squarely and strongly - without the responder becoming infected with the unholy triad of fear, hate and disgust. Even without indifference.
    Against fear, hate and disgust, we must mobilize wrath. Wrath is the kind of rage that is eye-opening instead of blinding. Wrath is adamant anger that makes us grow, not shrink. It makes us more human, not less human. Wrath is the unyielding strength of ‘Enough!’
    Sometimes terror for political reasons dies out gradually, just as some cancers spontaneously disappear. But no one in his right mind will count on this. Machiavelli already warned: malevolence is not vanquished by time, nor placated by gifts.
Tolerating terror is the penultimate political malpractice. The ultimate is to commit terror.    
If we want to fight terror, we need wrath and more: courage, common sense, and good organization. And preferably, those who fight terror are bachelors. If we speak or write about terror, we must spoil the sense of sport of the perpetrators. Contempt is good, if it is subdued and cool, and expressed without moral indignation. Indignation only entangles us in the mind web of the perpetrators, and when that happens their nostrils widen.
    The first root of political terror is extremism, the idea that the end justifies the means, that superhuman ends justify inhuman means. Extremism is the politics of fanaticism, while fanaticism is the psychology of extremism. The willingness to use extreme means for noble ends leads as surely to terror as indifferent or lecherous brutality does. Many fanatics at first abhor violence, but they start to accept its iron ‘necessity’. After all, all other methods have failed to convert the stubborn heathens and their chiefs and priests. The fanatics make themselves hard, unyielding servants of their higher purpose. Preaching fanatics are hot and acting fanatics are cold, but their henchmen are hot again.
    We have to see extremism for what it is: a sign of bigotry - and of incompetence. Competent people do not need either corruption or extremism. Ambition with incompetence breeds immorality. Hardness and extreme measures are indications of incompetence, just as a stainless steel condom would be a sign of impotence. If we really stand for something, we do not need to arm ourselves with extremist outcry.
    Other breeding grounds are poor areas filled with desperate people. Kids take to streets. Gangs offer compensation for inferiority feelings that lurk during adolescence, especially in boys. When we want to be somebody, but we are still nobody, our self-esteem is most easily corroded. Gangs offer protection, belonging, identity and self-worth.
    What else can we do? We should give more respect to feminine ideals in our society, ideals such as tenderness, intimacy, warmth. We can trade in our notions of macho for truer models of masculinity. (A real man fights other men and sleeps with women, a macho beats women and doesn’t dare to sleep with men.) Masculinity stands for courage, perseverance, honor, reliability - virtues that may be tempered and improved by feminine values. The ‘gentle man’ is one of the greatest inventions of civilization, in spite of the affectation, weakness and hypocrisy that may accompany it. By being gentlemen, men can have self-respect without being macho. Of course, we should know when to stop being gentle - and when to stop being violent.
Terror is the loss of reason, the loss of innocence, the loss of protection, the loss of hope, the loss of civilization. Cruelty, torture and terror constitute the ultimate pornography, the ultimate inhumanity. Large-scale atrocities are the deepest challenge, a black hole opening in society. No one wrote better about the opening of this black hole than Yeats in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction
While the worst are full of passionate intensity

The ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is being loosed again.

(From Chapter 3 in my book The Ten Global Challenges: How People Make the World, An essay on politics, civilization and humanity. At Also as e-book at

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