Photo credit: Antonio Marín Segovia via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The wagner video, and processing human brutality

The sheer scale of the horrors that human beings are capable of inflicting upon each other would, if you took the time to think about it, turn you into something of a misanthrope. In 1870, the House of Commons finally abolished, in law, in this very country, the old penalty for treason – hanging, drawing, and quartering. In the execution of that sentence, it was common for the condemned man (always a man) to have their guts pulled out of their bodies and burned, while they were still alive. I often think – and perhaps this is unusual, or odd – about the executioners who carried out that sentence. Did they go home to their wives and their dogs that evening, and live a normal life? Was inflicting that kind of suffering just a job to them?

I think also of the crowds who used to turn up to watch such events – or who would show up to watch a burning at the stake, where it was common, according to some witnesses, for the condemned woman (usually, but not always, a woman) if she had not been “mercifully” garrotted to death in advance, to scream for up to fifteen minutes while the crowd inhaled the scent of burning flesh. These were things done on these very islands, and at the behest of those in power. And done by the same people who funded and patronised Shakespeare, or who built some of the magnificent cathedrals and castles that still dot our landscape. And lest we get Anglophobic about it, they were done more often to English nobles than they were to Irish peasants.

I write this because there is, at present, a video doing the rounds online of some uncommon brutality and inhumanity by Russian soldiers – or mercenaries in the service of Russia – against one of their Ukrainian captives. In it, a defenseless man is beheaded with a knife. If you wish to see this video, you will find it without too much difficulty. I’d advise against it. Watching that kind of thing is, I think, bad for the spirit.

It is tempting to say that there is something wrong with a culture – in this case Russian culture – which could produce people capable of such barbarity. And indeed, the arguments to that effect are strong: Russia emptied its prisons to staff the ranks of the Wagner Group. This is an organisation filled with the worst dregs of human filth that the Kremlin could muster, to the extent that calling them soldiers is an insult to that profession. It should also be said that the video was circulated in Russian channels not as an example of wrongdoing, but as a thing to be celebrated. When the Americans had their own horror show – Abu Ghraib – there were congressional enquiries and widespread revulsion at home. You will find very little revulsion – or at least very little publicly expressed revulsion – for this act amongst the Russian people. If your reaction to this video is that Russia must take the blame, you are not wrong.

And yet, that is not the beginning and end of it. We Irish live in a country where such and similar things were done by our own state within almost living memory: Niamh wrote, some weeks ago, about the Ballyseedy massacre, where agents of the Irish Free State tied six defenceless men to a landmine, and then detonated it. On a much lesser, but still sickening, scale, there was another video circulating online yesterday of the gross abuse of a dog in open daylight in Cork. Is it a cultural issue? Or are these things simply the work of individuals with sick minds, and sicker souls?

It is not, I think, purely cultural: Every society on earth has produced acts of gross brutality and does to this day. The United States, for some reason, thinks itself more civilised because it executes people with lethal drugs rather than with chainsaws, as is common amongst Mexican drug cartels. In the Islamic world, some countries have decided to modernise and civilise by forcing surgeons to surgically amputate the hands of thieves, rather than resorting to the old-fashioned and much less civilised method of a meat cleaver. This country is not short of people who will tell you that, for example, the brutal torturing to death by an angry mob of two UK corporals in Belfast at a Republican funeral in 1988 was an act of community self-defence, rather than simple brutality. Some of those same people, I fear, might also suggest that the latest outrage by Russians is a cultural problem.

Even the Ukrainians themselves, who are as far as I am concerned the injured and righteous party in this present war, have not been above having people acting in their name committing isolated acts of public humiliation, and on occasion, savage brutality – both against Russian soldiers, and against alleged collaborators in their own people.

Your correspondent is not, I’m afraid, an especially religious person – and it also must be said that many religions, including Christianity, are drowning in the blood of people who at various times in history were thought to have been heretics, or infidels, or witches. Putin himself encourages the war in Ukraine to be thought of as a kind of holy crusade against western degeneracy.

And yet, I still think that if the events in Ukraine are to teach us anything, it should be that we cast away religious and moral instruction at our peril. Because people, clearly, need to be taught in every single generation that such things are wrong. Atheists often argue that the basic human state is an intrinsically moral one, and that acts of gross brutality are alien to us; the historical record says different. Some people, you see, do not instinctively see such things as wrong. They must be taught it, and deterred from it by the promise of either worldly or heavenly punishment.

It is likely, absent their running into a Ukrainian bullet, that those who perpetrated the beheading of a Ukrainian soldier will pay no worldly price for their actions. Russia has no selfish interest in persecuting its own soldiers, and certainly not those so committed to its cause that they are willing to imperil their own souls for it. In that sense, in the absence of legal justice – for the victims of Ballyseedy, for the victims of the Spanish inquisition, for the victims of the IRA, or for the victims of the Wagner Group, the only thing we have left to us is to place our faith in divine justice instead.

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