“The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture.” This particular picture appeared in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ on 12 Feb. 2019; I shared my reaction privately with some of my contacts including, as a courtesy, Colombo Telegraph Editor who suggested that I rework the material with the possibility of it being uploaded. Unsatisfactory health has hindered an earlier response. In philosophy, an ‘essential’ is a quality that something must have for it to be what it is while an ‘accidental’ is one that it happens to have but could lack. In what follows, that the men in uniform are Sinhalese and the prisoners Tamil is accidental. In other words, what I attempt here is a modest, general investigation and reflection.
Looking at the picture (rather than cursorily glancing at it) what draws immediate attention is the young woman or girl because (a) she happens to be almost at the centre of the picture and (b) is the only female. The naked man on the right seems to stare at her with concern, apparently resigned to his nakedness, and indifferent to the fact that a soldier behind him is, presumably, tightening the rope that binds him. Did he know her? Was she a much-loved relation? The nine prisoners, all stripped to their underwear (the one on the extreme right is naked) hands tied behind their back, three of them knee-deep in muddy water, have their attention focused on something to their left. At whom or what are they staring? What comes their way? The boy on the female’s immediate right stares in the opposite direction. The prisoner standing, his nakedness edited by Colombo Telegraph to preserve a modicum of decency, seems to be more concerned about the female than with his own “shameless” condition.
In the foreground of the picture are the nine males and one female; the middle ground of the picture has two soldiers and the naked man. A somewhat portly soldier bends over the young woman, preparing to lift her up. Her face is devoid of all feeling, expression or reaction: a mixture of extreme exhaustion and resignation? Indeed, her left foot is slightly raised as if to help in standing up. Why was she singled out? What was done to her? What she endured is not to be contemplated: torture, gang-rape and murder? De profundis clamavi (Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee”) but her cry probably only fuelled further sadism and triumphant jeers.
The background of soldiers fully clothed and armed provides a contrast to the prisoners’ nakedness. The soldiers are relaxed: what’s being done, and is about to be done, is nothing exceptional. What’s calamity and death to the prisoners is a casual matter to them. The second soldier in the middle-ground seems to ask his comrade-in-arms: “Need any help in lifting her up?” My wife wondered about the person we don’t see: the photographer. What was his motive in taking this picture? Was it deep compassion and high moral condemnation or congratulation, as proud hunters record themselves with their trophy? “See what we’ve done! Aren’t we great?” Louder, the applause!
Moving now to more general considerations, if prisoners are going to be killed why are they, not infrequently, stripped naked? Why humiliate those whom you are anyway about to “eliminate”? Neither space nor my competence enable me to be comprehensive but I offer a few possible explanations. Enforced nakedness brings home to the prisoner his or her utter helplessness; his or her total vulnerability. It removes any thought of resistance or even of escape. On the other hand, it gives the captors a sense of their god-like power. Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely: in this picture we have a visual illustration of that truth. Reflecting further, I was reminded of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Nazi extermination camps at Treblinka and Sobibor. Note: unlike concentration camps where inmates were forced to work until they could no more, Stangl was in charge of camps established for the express purpose of extermination. At war’s end, he fled to Brazil, was brought back to what was then West Germany; tried, sentenced and died in prison. When asked why humiliation and cruelty were heaped upon those who were soon going to be killed, Stangl’s answer was on the lines of so as to make it possible, psychologically and emotionally, for the soldiers to do what they did: Gitta Sereny, ‘Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience’, Vintage Books Edition, 1983, p.101. Here and elsewhere, I draw on my review of a very perceptive and powerful work, Worse Than War, by Daniel Goldhagen, Professor of Political Science for many years at the University of Harvard. The review is included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2. War is terrible but more horrible is what Goldhagen terms “eliminationism” and its eliminationist policies and actions.
Stangl’s reply shows, among other things, how we degrade our fellow human beings and then use that degraded condition to justify degrading treatment: see, at random, the plight of “natives” under imperialism, of slaves, of the so-called “coolies” on estates and the so-called Untouchables in their hovels. Effect or result is used to justify cause, the treatment meted out. While pedagogues, journalists and even artists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society when it comes to eliminationism (Goldhagen), soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role. They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world, and constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence”. They are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role” (Goldhagen). I would draw the attention of readers to Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay. Readers will recall that Homer’s Achilles was prone to anger, and when angry, pitiless and destructive: the word “berserk” comes to mind. Truly, it’s the “undoing” of a character. Sometimes our hate is so strong and intense that not even the death of the other can quieten and quench it. Achilles tied the slain body of Hector to his chariot and dragged it round and round the walls of Troy to the deep distress of Hector’s parents and wife; family, comrades and friends. In Sri Lanka, after the final battle with the Tamil Tigers, “desecrated” bodies were found: those, particularly those of females, with objects thrust into their private parts.
Soldiers disregard the laws of war when their officers signal that it’s alright; and the officers do so because those still more senior support them, tacitly if not overtly. And the highest ranks permit, if not order or encourage, such behaviour because they know politicians will approve and reward. Those in uniform are the creation and creatures of society. They act with brutality because they know they have the support of the majority of their people, and that “their” state will protect them from investigation and justice. Under an electoral system (unlike in a dictatorship), final responsibility lies with society and the state. (I admit: not all electoral systems are democratic in the true sense of the word.) Returning to Stangl’s explanation, we cannot recognise the other as fully human like us and then proceed to subordinate her or him. No, the humanity of the other must first be destroyed for non-human treatment to follow. (A student of mine once questioned the word “inhumane” because it suggests that humans are humane.)
Generally, language reflects reality: signifier and the signified. For example, the existence of that pachyderm has led in English to the word “elephant”: But language can also create reality; more precisely, create our perceptions, attitudes and conduct. So while it is a sin and a crime to kill “fellow human beings”, it is admirable and meritorious to slaughter “the enemy”. Dehumanisation not only permits but encourages dehumanising treatment. Perception is paramount. I have suggested to students that while we see through our eyes, we “see” with our minds. The man who would risk his own life by jumping into the water to save an infant or child whom he doesn’t remotely know is capable, under different circumstances, of hacking that same baby or child or throwing it into the fire: as riots and pogroms prove. I repeat: perception is paramount, and the latter depends not on the eyes so much as on the mind. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wondered: What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk, and for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by security forces? (See, Tom Fletcher, Prospect Magazine, 23 July 2018.) We humans are indeed a strange, contradictory species. Karl Marx once commented, if this is Marxism, then I’m not a Marxist. Similarly, one can imagine the Buddha sadly saying, if this is what has been made of Buddhism, then I’m not a Buddhist – and so too with Christ and Christianity, with the Hindu gods and Hinduism, the Prophet Mohammed and Islam.
South African Bloke Modisane published his autobiography in 1963 titled Blame Me on History. There’s something fundamentally flawed in the human makeup: can we shift responsibility and say, “Blame us on (evolutionary) biology”? Robert Sapolsky is an internationally known Professor of Neurobiology, and here I turn to his Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. We don’t hate violence per se but only what we consider to be the wrong kind of violence by the wrong sort of people. Though we are not aware of it, our conversations are filled with military metaphors (Sapolsky). We are “hardwired” (innately predisposed) to violence. I am an ignoramus when it comes to science but have long seen that thoughts are the products of the brain – and the brain is a physical organism. We are an aggressive species, given both to defensive and offensive aggression. “The amygdala is the archetypal limbic structure, sitting under the cortex in the temporal lobe. It is central to mediating aggression” (Sapolsky, page 31).
Returning to the picture, before subordination; before we degrade and eliminate, there must be division: the separation between “Us” and “Them”. While “we” are made up of unique individuals, “they” are a homogeneous, unchanging group. “Our brains form Us/Them dichotomies with stunning speed” (Sapolsky, page 388). This has been demonstrated by the well-known Implicit Association Test. (For IAT, see the Internet as a starting point.) But this excluding dichotomy is not fixed and permanent. If creatures from outer space were to attack Planet Earth, then all of us (including Sri Lanka’s present divisions and groups) would immediately become “Us”. Not so long ago, Jews were seen as non-European, as Asian. The Nazi general Walter von Reichenau in his notorious ‘Severity Order’ to the Sixth Army, declared the Jews to be sub-humans; an Asiatic danger to Aryans and so to be exterminated – women and children not exempted. Now occasionally I note that Israeli individuals or teams participate in some European competitions. “They” have succeeded in metamorphosing themselves into “Us”, and it’s the Palestinians who remain “They”.
Sapolsky admits that he tends to pessimism but, on the positive side states that genes aren’t about inevitabilities but about potentials and vulnerabilities. They don’t determine anything on their own. Perhaps, this where our (evolutionary and biological) nature can be influenced by nurture; by culture, in the general sense of the term, including moral upbringing? The frontiers of exploration are not only in faraway space but also with and within us.