It is perhaps useful periodically for devotees of self-governance to be reminded of the depths of depravity and cruelty to which human beings may descend. Such awareness is surely humbling and prevents the democracy advocate from imagining that the challenges implicit in seeking to permit individuals to maintain their own freedom are easily surmounted. Recent days have provided a host of reminders of the frequent barbarity of human behavior, whether the actions occurred historically or are unfolding today.
On February 11, for example, the nongovernmental organization (NGO), Human Rights Watch (HRW), released a report detailing the mass rape of 200 women and girls by Sudanese army troops in Tabit in North Darfur in late October and early November 2014 (Human Rights Watch, 2015). Sadly, this is not the first time this hate crime has been documented in Sudan. In addition, it has occurred in the Congo in recent years and in the war in the Balkans during the 1990s, amidst other examples that might be cited. However troubling, this atrocity is common.
A day before the HRW investigation was released, February 10, The New York Times published an article describing the efforts of another NGO, The Equal Justice Initiative, to document the large number of public lynchings of African-Americans that occurred in this country between 1877 and1950. The group has now verified 3,959 such victims during this era and is seeking to place memorials at the site at which each death occurred to remind today’s citizens of the behavior of their forbears.
The Times article quoted E.M. Beck, a University of Georgia sociologist who has researched this issue extensively, as observing, “If you’re trying to make a point that the amount of racial violence is underestimated, well then, there’s no doubt about it. What people don’t realize here is just how many there were, and how close. Places they drive by every day” (Robertson, 2015). The Equal Justice group did indeed identify 700 lynchings in locations across the South that had not previously appeared in listings of those killings. The day following release of The Equal Justice Initiative’s 5-year investigation, the Times editorial board wrote:
It is important to remember that the hangings, burnings and dismemberments of black American men, women and children that were relatively common in this country between the Civil War and World War II were often public events. They were sometimes advertised in newspapers and drew hundreds and even thousands of white spectators, including elected officials and leading citizens who were so swept up in the carnivals of death that they posed with their children for keepsake photographs within arm’s length of mutilated black corpses (New York Times Editorial Board, 2015).
The newspaper also noted that these episodes of horrific community-supported violence have been all but erased from public consciousness in the states where they were most frequent: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Accordingly, the editors embraced the Justice Group’s project of ensuring memorialization of the victims as one significant step in helping this nation’s citizens understand how such injustice could occur and what roles many of their fellow Americans played in creating the racial inequities that persist in the United States today.
Meanwhile, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continued its efforts to exceed previous barbarism by burning a captured Jordanian pilot alive and, some days later, by murdering an American woman working on behalf of Palestinian rights. Veteran journalist Bill Moyers took note of the latest ISIL outrage against humanity, in the form of its treatment of the pilot, in his February 5 syndicated column. The horror and almost unbelievable heinousness of the ISIL crime sent Moyers back to a memory of an old newspaper photograph his father had kept in a drawer, of an event that had occurred when he was a boy of 12 in Waco, Texas. Moyers’ father never forgot the very public lynching, burning and dismemberment of Jesse Washington, a black man accused of murdering a white woman. A grand jury took four minutes to convict Washington of the crime for which there were no witnesses, and thereafter, a mob took over:
[They] took him outside, pinned him to the ground and cut off his testicles. A bonfire was quickly built and lit. For two hours, Jesse Washington—alive—was raised and lowered over the flames. Again and again and again. City officials and police stood by; approvingly. According to some estimates, the crowd grew to as many as 15,000. Reporters described hearing ‘shouts of delight.’ When the flames died away, Washington’s body was torn apart and the pieces were sold as souvenirs. The party was over (Moyers, 2015).
Moyers pointed out that the large crowd witnessing this outrage did not consist of members of a foreign army or terrorist group, but of, “neighbors, friends and kin. People like us” (Moyers, 2015).
I provide one additional example of human brutishness which, while itself not an atrocity, bespeaks attitudes that are necessary for such behaviors to occur. Conservative writer Debbie Schlussel shared the following comments concerning the murder of Kayla Mueller in her blog on February 10 under the headline: “Kayla Mueller: Dead ISIS Hostage was Jew-Hating, Anti-Israel Bitch:”
No tears for the newly-departed Kayla Mueller, the ISIS hostage whose parents confirmed today that she is dead. Mueller was a Jew-hating, anti-Israel piece of crap who worked with HAMAS and helped Palestinians harass Israeli soldiers and block them from doing their job of keeping Islamic terrorists out of Israel. …As I noted last week and many other times on this site, I have no sympathy for any of these ‘American’ (in name only!) hostages of ISIS. And my attitude when I hear they’ve been snuffed out is, so sad, too bad. Every single one of these hostages has been a leftist America-hater (Schlussel, 2015).
Schlussel’s piece fairly drips with hatred and an altogether too facile willingness to deny Kayla Mueller her humanity. It should go without saying that disagreeing with another citizen’s views in a civilized society has never implied a blank slate to celebrate their murder, nor to deny them human standing. The author’s stance is particularly sad and ironic because she justifies it as a way to “defend” Jews, who suffered unbelievably in the Holocaust under the guise of eerily similar dehumanizing claims.
If the examples cited above remind one that those who would govern themselves must first discipline their own omnipresent potential to brutalize their fellow human beings, Schlussel’s commentary suggests how such ugly actions are often rationalized. To burn another individual alive and make sport of doing so, or to rejoice in a person’s murder, one must first convince oneself the victims are neither equals nor human. One must, in short, be willing to celebrate dismissal of another life on no other basis than that person is different from oneself in some way.
This is just the sort of claim Schlussel makes, and its viciousness and intolerance can lead only to still more hatreds, and to willingness to take the rights and even lives of those with whom one disagrees. This rhetoric is not only objectionable and vile on its face; it constitutes a poisonous trend that could lead to the erosion of our citizenry’s capacity to govern itself. Every citizen who “stands with” Schlussel as a “patriot” is another American willing to dismiss the most fundamental bulwark of individual freedom, respect for persons simply because they are human beings.
When this elemental tenet has been violated, whether in the past or today, that step has resulted in countless crimes against humanity and liberty. We, Americans of all political persuasions, have too often countenanced discrimination and hate-filled scapegoating that led to dehumanizing targeted groups. The cost of doing so, as the “era of lynchings” demonstrated, was incalculably high. Today, Americans must not allow a fresh round of “justified” torture and rationalized hatred to debase once more our shared commitment to individual rights and freedom. Schlussel and others like her must remain sad examples of hate mongering who do not understand that maintaining freedom amidst heterogeneity demands civility and openness to difference, and not calculated appeals to the most savage elements of the human make up. Liberty is too precious to waste on rationalizations for dehumanizing and attacking our fellow citizens.
Human Rights Watch (2015). “Sudan: Mass Rape by Army in Darfur,” Human Rights Watch Website, February 11. Accessed February 13, 2015 at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/02/11/sudan-mass-rape-army-darfur
Moyers, B. (2015) “The Fiery Cage and the Lynching Tree, Brutality’s Never Far Away” Moyers and Company, February 5. Accessed February 13, 2015 at: http://billmoyers.com/2015/02/05/isis-brutality-burning-lynching/
New York Times Editorial Board (2015). “Lynching as Racial Terrorism,” New York Times, February 11. Accessed February 13, 2015 at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/11/opinion/lynching-as-racial-terrorism.html?emc=edit_th_20150211&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534
Robertson, C. (2015). “History of Lynchings in South Documents nearly 4,000 Names,” New York Times, February 10. Accessed February 13, 2015 at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/us/history-of-lynchings-in-the-south-documents-nearly-4000-names.html?emc=edit_th_20150210&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534
Schlussel, D. 2015, “Kayla Mueller: Dead ISIS Hostage Was Jew-Hating, Anti-Israel Bitch,” February 10. Website. Accessed February 13, 2015 at: http://www.debbieschlussel.com/77161/kayla-mueller-dead-isis-hostage-was-jew-hating-anti-israel-bitch/