Cruelty and human nature

Ed Raymond

The iron coffin of Lissa.

Is cruelty a part of nature – or is it just part of human nature?

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has been my economics guru for many years for his pithy columns in The New York Times. In his Sept. 14 column he used a word that I believe he has never used before when discussing economic issues. That word is “cruel.”

His statement: “I’ve been writing about economics and politics for many years, and have learned to keep my temper. Politicians and policymakers often make decisions that are simply cruel, they also make decisions which are stupid, damaging the national interest for no good reason. And all too often they make decisions that are both cruel and stupid. Flying inro a rage every time that happens would be exhausting. But the latest census report on income and poverty made me angry. It showed that child poverty more than doubled between 2021 and 2022. That’s 5.1 million children pushed into misery, for it really is miserable to be poor in America. And the thing is, that didn’t have to happen. Soaring child poverty wasn’t caused by inflation or other macroeconomic problems. It was instead a political choice.”  

He doesn’t say it, so I will. The Congress, White House and Supreme Court has been bought by American billionaires and millionaires on their superyachts sailing from one mansion to another and to island and country tax havens scattered around the world, because their operating license is controlled by their consiglieres in Washington D.C. A mix of greed and power is a strong, addictive drug.  

I often go to one of my favorite poets when human nature is the subject. In one poem Robinson Jeffers wrote: “man was born with a wound in the brain.”

In other words, we ain’t perfect, whatever that wound is. He also wrote: “Cruelty is a part of nature, at least of human nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us.”  

What other animal lets the runts die? Pigs, wolves and monkeys don’t. I have read that if a pair of bald eagles have two chicks, they will not feed one if there is a lack of food. They will sometimes commit a mercy killing. Is that why we chose the bald eagle as our national bird? Always a sign of strength, Roman Legions used it as a symbol of power and glory. Congress adopted the eagle as the national bird in 1782. Ben Franklin wanted to name the turkey because the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character.” He didn’t go into detail on the character of the turkey.  

Will we ever know when cruelty became a hallmark of homo sapiens?

As we share 99% of our genes with gorillas, apes, chimps and bonobos, one can only assume that the isolated 1% left contributes cruelty to humankind. We see the four ancestors of humans grooming tribal friends or having sex with each other. They do have fights over territory, but cruelty does not seem to occur between individual or groups of animals.

As an example, bonobos are known to use sex to make up if there is an argument. Bull elephants and elk have terrific battles, but it’s always over who is going to have sex with willing females. Some day we may know why cruelty may be limited to 100% humans.

Researchers are extracting genetic material from a 550-year-old document written by Vlad Dracula, known in history as Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania. He impaled his enemies by placing them through the rectum on a high stake and leaving them exposed until the body rotted. He was not a nice guy.  The two researchers are working on a letter written and signed by Dracula on Aug. 4, 1475. They are both veteran biochemical analysts who have been working with the molecules left by people for 26 years. They analyzed a shirt worn by Anton Chekov, perhaps Russia’s most famous writer, and found that he suffered from tuberculosis and used several painkillers to control pain – although he died of a stroke. They say they will be able check Dracula’s health, what he ate and what the atmosphere was like around him. They admitted they were a little nervous when the night of the day they took his molecules from the letter, it rained heavily, the lightning flashed and dogs howled!  

Have humans been cruel to each other for 300,000 years because of a gene?

Some day we might know because of biochemistry. Meanwhile let’s review a few incidents and instruments of cruelty and torture from our recent history. A written source from 2,500 years ago described the cruel treatment of an Athens, Greece, adulterer. The punishment for committing adultery was called Rhaphanidosis and was conducted before a public crowd.

First, the hair from the guilty area was removed by hot ashes. Ouch! Following that, a large radish was shoved up the rectum. That had to be both painful and embarrassing in the land where democracy first flourished. No, I have no comment about the radish. A thousand years later, during the medieval period, quick deaths due to torture were dull and boring, so the Iron Coffin of Lissa was invented. A criminal was placed in an iron coffin which was slowly closed over a matter of several days where the human was finally crushed to death. ‘Twas said to have caused great physical pain.

During the same period Balthasar Gerard was sentenced to death for killing William of Orange in The Netherlands. He finally died after 18 days of torture.

To quote the source: “First he was flogged, had his hand forced into a vat of boiling oil, and honey was rubbed into his wounds. A goat was brought to lick the honey off, but the animal thought better of it. Then Balthasar’s limbs were stretched, and armpits branded. He was covered in hot bacon fat and his feet were shrunken by fire. Then the skin on his feet was torn off before a single arm was amputated. Over the course of the next two weeks, different parts of his body had the flesh torn by red hot tongs.” Hang on. The torturers were not done yet. He was then placed in the middle of a public square, and carts loaded with coal were placed around him. They were set on fire, creating a huge BBQ in which Balthasar was the meat. Barely alive, he was then bound to a cartwheel writhing in misery. The executioners finally took pity on him and choked him to death. After death he was disemboweled and quartered.”

The “cruel” gene was alive and well.  

How many secrets were revealed by torture called ‘enhanced interrogation’?

I have been interested in torture and war crimes since I was a Marine Corps commander of a heavy machinegun platoon and later a reinforced rifle company in the 1950s. By regulation, I had to inform troops each year about the four Geneva Conventions and all international treaties covering war crimes.

President George W. Bush approved the famous “torture menu” of his lawyer John Yoo in 2002. In order to be called torture or a war crime, “physical pain must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death, and must have been the specific intent of the defendant to amount to a violation of the regulation.”

Although pure bullshit compared to all international treaties signed or agreed to by the United States, this is how our torture camp at Guantanamo, Cuba, was born. Here’s some real critical history. Ramzi bin al-Shibh has been charged with organizing one cell of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks. Captured in 2004, he has been a “detainee” under the care of the CIA at black torture sites in foreign countries and at Gitmo for 19 years.

Finally going to trial on September 22, 2023, a military judge ruled he was incompetent to stand trial because years of torture “rendered him lastingly psychotic.” In the Divided States of America, torture is against the law – but it is not a crime in Cuba at Gitmo or some European sites.

Here are just some of the standard tortures used on detainees: In solitary confinement under camera surveillance, windows were blacked out and no clock or radio or TV to help him mark time. The lights were left on for days, and sometimes he was left in the complete dark for days. Sometimes the cell was extremely hot, sometimes extremely cold. Sleep was constantly interrupted. He was often threatened with death, given disorienting drugs, and shackled and forced into stress positions for hours at a time. Whenever he was moved, he wore a blindfold and noise-cancelling headphones to reinforce his isolation and helplessness. Detainees often suffered involuntary twitching and self-inflicted scratch wounds and had long weeping spells. The “cruel” virus was always spreading.  

What do psychiatrists and psychologists say about torture and truth?

Mark Fallon, a U.S. counterterror official, stated this at a United Nations General Assembly: “Torture produces corrupted information. It is more than ineffective – it is counterproductive. This corrupted information leads to flawed decisions and policies at the highest levels – and we have lost lives because of those flawed decisions.” 

When I was in the Marines, the military rule was, “If captured, give only your name and serial number even if tortured.” I thought that was nuts. Make up stories, drive them nuts with numbers, lie constantly and drop a harmless truth occasionally. Shane O’Mara, a brain researcher at Trinity College, Dublin, says: “The use of torture makes captives more likely to confess untruthful and inaccurate information.” Napoleon Bonaparte got it right in 1798 when he told his commanders: “Don’t use torture because you only get wrong answers.”

There is so much cruelty in the world it’s human nature to shrug it off if we can get something valuable in return. In 1945 the U.S. government ran Operation Paperclip. We wanted to know how close Nazi Germany got to developing nuclear weapons. So instead of charging German scientists in Germany who had often committed war crimes when working directly for Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Herman Goering, particularly in using Jewish laborers until they died of illness or starvation, we shipped them to the states where they thought they might be tried for war crimes and executed for their cruelty. Instead, scientists like Werner von Braun who were rocket and nuclear experts were treated to restaurants and hotels. They soon gave us the right answers to scientists and worked for us – just like Napoleon said more than 200 years ago.

Civil rights leader John Lewis of “Good Trouble” fame was arrested more than 40 times and  bitten by dogs and beaten by southern cops and rednecks almost to death. How he retained his humanity is a wonder to behold. Ten years ago he asked these questions about cruel people: “We (civil rights leaders), from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of the person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others?” Donald Trump and his  MAGA horde cult need to answer.