As I myself become history, I have become increasingly interested in the process of history itself. In watching what has unfolded in Gaza, the effort to understand the accelerated destruction of a surrounded and helpless country has led me to William R. Polk, an extraordinary Middle East historian who participated centrally in the events he writes about. He tells the story of Zionism in the 20th century with an almost divine objectivity, together with an equally divine depth of sympathy and understanding for all the parties concerned. A search for heroes and villains in this fascinating story is thwarted by the rapidity with which they keep changing places.
This pursuit led me in turn to Polk’s remarkable ten-year-old essay, Thoughts on Torture. He documents a fundamental fact of human nature which makes sense of our senselessness. It is also utterly terrifying.
A century of careful medical and psychiatric studies tell us that the juxtaposition of absolute weakness and absolute power provokes violence. The bound and hooded Iraqi prisoners lying naked on the floor of Abu Ghraib prison invited attack.
So shocking is such a statement that few of us have wanted even to consider it. To deal with its implications requires us to reexamine our very concept of our humanity. So to get around that inhibition, some scientists, like the Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, posed “our” problem to animals. What he found was that those animals that have “weapons systems,” like the lion with its claws and fangs, have evolved to practice restraints. Had they not done so, their species might not have survived. So the winner in a fight among lions will make ferocious noises but will usually stop short of killing the lion he has just knocked down. In contrast, those creatures, like that symbol of peace, the dove, that do not have lethal weapons have not evolved to practice restraint. They did not need to. Lorenz observed a dove actually torturing another to death.
Our evolution, students of violence assert, has made us more like doves than lions.
This makes terrible sense of an episode from my late adolescence. Back in 1950 I was working during the summer between college years on a farm in the Sacramento Valley with a gang of a dozen or more other late teen-age boys, all of them friends of each other and sons of local prosperous farmers. At mid-day, when we went into a barn to eat our packed lunches, we disturbed a sleeping barn owl. Without a word, the lads immediately shut the barn door and proceeded to stone the owl to death. Everyone joined in except me; as an outsider, I was forgiven for not participating.
I remember every detail of the experience—I never saw my fellow humans in quite the same light again. Polk’s essay explains why it happened. It explains the proverbial desire of small children to pull the wings off butterflies. It explains why, a few years older, sadistic bullying is rampant in those boarding schools in which the system of fagging makes each incoming class the total slaves of the most senior class, a practice which will make the products of these schools the principal patrons of brothels with “stern taskmistresses”.
Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” takes on a dimension that goes far beyond mere love of power for its own sake. It explains the torture that has occurred, not only in Abu Ghraib, but in every prison in the history of the world, up to Guantanamo and all the other unnamed torture centres that the US and many other world governments--including Israel--still maintain.
And finally it explains why a very large group of non-persons who are seen as “the enemy”, when they are crowded into a space from which they cannot escape and in which their survival is totally dependent on their captors, present an irresistible temptation to treat them like an anthill. Whether that space is a concentration camp or an entire country, whether the means of their destruction is chemical or combustive, the intoxication of total power is the same. Mussolini’s son, leaning out of his bomber and enjoying the concentric scattering of bodies, like the petals of a flower—or Israelis gathered on a hillside to watch and cheer as their planes drop bombs on Gaza—both are following the same impulse that will lead a dove, the archetypal symbol of peace, to torture to death a helpless fellow-creature.