Nine-eleven was an act of cruelty as was the setting up of Guantanamo Bay torture centre. These recent acts of human cruelty are part of a long history of man’s inhumanity to man. The massacres, looting and capturing of slaves by forces led by Attila the Hun in 5th century eastern Europe; the unrestricted bombing of civilians living in cities like Gunernica during the Spanish civil war; the starvation, brutal treatment and extermination of Jews, and other victims of persecution in the Nazi concentration camps.
Human cruelty of course goes on all the time perhaps in less dramatic ways and in a much smaller scale than these. Malicious gossip can destroy a personal reputation; spiteful actions can result in huge distress; nasty comments within close relationships can cause longstanding wounds. Why do people feel so full of contempt, or want revenge to act out their feelings in such cruel ways?
Ratko Mladic was the key player and commander of the Bosnian Serb forces that tried to eliminate Muslims from large parts of Bosnia. His forces massacred eight thousand Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, and the brutal siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995 resulted in the death of 10,000 people. His capture and trial for war crimes reminds us of the torture, mass rape, arson and genocide that formed part of this ‘ethnic cleansing’. How does one explain these evil crimes against humanity? Are standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice and that the very word ‘evil’ is an outmoded concept no longer fit for purpose.
by Hans Fallada (Translated by Michael Hofmann) Penguin Modern Classics.
The author of this absorbing novel has created a story about a decent character, Otto Quangel, who with his wife lives in Berlin during the second-world war. Working in a factory and living amongst a people whose private misgivings and criticisms of their political leaders are silenced by fear, Otto, also has a daily horror of the possibility of being reported to the authorities for having a wrong political attitude or for having committed some minor misdeed against the state. Such accusations could well result in arrest and torture or even a death camp. Yet he is prepared to communicate his criticism of the government’s oppression and unjust social policies as well as their military conquests abroad. For the regime in seizing absolute power, have destroyed any vestiges of democracy.
I wonder how we would react in similar circumstances? Thank goodness I do not have to face such a test. But many people in the world today who live under dictatorship have to find some way of accommodating themselves to corruption in their society while maintaining their self-respect.