For Religious Martyrs Leads To The Crucifixion Of Innocents
By Robert Fisk
28 March, 2005
suffering," Auden famously wrote in 1938, "they were never
wrong,/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ its human position;
how it takes place/ While someone is eating or opening a window/Or just
walking dully along." Yet the great crucifixion paintings of Caravaggio
or Bellini, or Michelangelos Pieta in the Vatican - though they
were not what Auden had in mind - have God on their side. We may feel
the power of suffering in the context of religion but, outside this
spiritual setting, Im not sure how compassionate we really are.
The atrocities of
yesterday - the Beslan school massacre, the Bali bombings, the crimes
against humanity of 11 September 2001, the gassings of Halabja - can
still fill us with horror and pity, although that sensitivity is heavily
conditioned by the nature of the perpetrators. In an age where war has
become a policy option rather than a last resort, where its legitimacy
rather than its morality can be summed up on a sheet of A4 paper, we
prefer to concentrate on the suffering caused by "them" rather
Hence the tens of
thousands of Iraqis who were killed in the 2003 invasion and subsequent
occupation, the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam
war, the hundreds of Egyptians cut down by our 1956 invasion of Suez
are not part of our burden of guilt. About 1,700 Palestinian civilians
from the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps - equal to more than half the
dead of the World Trade Center - were massacred in Lebanon.
But how many readers
can remember the exact date? September 16-18, 1982. "Our"
dates are thus sacrosanct, "theirs" are not; though I notice
how "they" must learn "ours". How many times are
Arabs pointedly asked for their reaction to 11 September 2001, with
the specific purpose of discovering whether they show the correct degree
of shock and horror? And how many Westerners would even know what happened
Its also about
living memory - and also, I suspect, about photographic records. The
catastrophes of our generation, or of our parents or even our
grandparents generation - have a poignancy that earlier bloodbaths
do not. Hence we can be moved to tears by the epic tragedy of the Second
World War and its 55 million dead, by the murder of six million Jews,
by our families memories of this conflict - a cousin on my fathers
side died on the Burma Road - and also by the poets of the First World
War. Owen and Sassoon created the ever-living verbal museum of that
But I can well understand
why the Israelis have restructured their Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem.
The last survivors of Hitlers death camps will be dead soon. So
they must be kept alive in their taped interviews, along with the records
and clothes of those who were slaughtered by the Nazis. The Armenians
still struggle to memorialise their own 1915 Holocaust of one and a
half million at the hands of the Ottoman Turks - they struggle even
to keep the capital H on their Holocaust - because only a pitiful handful
of their survivors are still alive and the Turks still deny their obvious
guilt. There are photographs of the Armenians being led to the slaughter.
But no documentary film.
And here the compassion
begins to wobble. Before the 1914-18 war, there were massacres enough
for the worlds tears; the Balkan war of 1912 was of such carnage
that eyewitnesses feared their accounts would never be believed. The
Boer war turned into a moral disgrace for the British because we herded
our enemies families into disease-ridden concentration camps.
The Franco-Prussian war of 1871 - though French suffering was portrayed
by Delacroix with stunning accuracy, and photos survive of the Paris
Commune - leaves us cold. So, despite the record of still photographs,
does the American civil war.
We can still be
appalled - we should be appalled - by the million dead of the Irish
famine, although it is painfully significant that, although photography
had been invented by the mid-19th century, not a single photograph was
taken of its victims. We have to rely on the Illustrated London News
sketches to show the grief and horror which the Irish famine produced.
Yet who cries now
for the dead of Waterloo or Malplaquet, of the first Afghan war, of
the Hundred Years War - whose rural effects were still being felt
in 1914 - or for the English Civil War, for the dead of Flodden Field
or Naseby or for the world slaughter brought about by the Great Plague?
True, movies can briefly provoke some feeling in us for these ghosts.
Hence the Titanic remains a real tragedy for us even though it sank
in 1912 when the Balkan war was taking so many more innocent lives.
Braveheart can move us. But in the end, we know that the disembowelling
of William Wallace is just Mel Gibson faking death.
By the time we reach
the slaughters of antiquity, we simply dont care a damn. Genghis
Khan? Tamerlane? The sack of Rome? The destruction of Carthage? Forget
it. Their victims have turned to dust and we do not care about them.
They have no memorial. We even demonstrate our fascination with long-ago
cruelty. Do we not queue for hours to look at the room in London in
which two children were brutally murdered? The Princes in the Tower?
If, of course, the
dead have a spiritual value, then their death must become real to us.
Romes most famous crucifixion victim was not Spartacus - although
Kirk Douglas did his best to win the role in Kubricks fine film
- but a carpenter from Nazareth. And compassion remains as fresh among
Muslims for the martyrs of early Islam as it does for the present-day
dead of Iraq. Anyone who has watched the Shia Muslims of Iraq or Lebanon
or Iran honouring the killing of Imams Ali and Hussein - like Jesus,
they were betrayed - has watched real tears running down their faces,
tears no less fresh than those of the Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem
this week. You can butcher a whole city of innocents in the Punic War,
but nail the son of Mary to a cross or murder the son-in-law of the
Prophet and youll have them weeping for generations.
What worries me,
I suppose, is that so many millions of innocents have died terrible
deaths because their killers have wept over their religious martyrs.
The Crusaders slaughtered the entire population of Beirut and Jerusalem
in 1099 because of their desire to "free" the Holy Land, and
between 1980 and 1988, the followers of the Prophet killed a million
and a half of their own co-religionists after a Sunni Muslim leader
invaded a Shia Muslim country. Most of the Iraqi soldiers were Shia
- and almost all the Iranian soldiers were Shia - so this was an act
of virtual mass suicide by the followers of Ali and Hussein.
Passion and redemption
were probably essential parts of our parents religious experience.
But I believe it would be wiser and more human in our 21st century to
reflect upon the sins of our little human gods, those evangelicals who
also claim we are fighting for "good" against "evil",
who can ignore history and the oceans of blood humanity has shed - and
get away with it on a sheet of A4 paper.
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