First, masked men in combat fatigues use their knives to cut away their victim’s testicles, as he hangs by his feet from the ceiling. Then, one of the executioners peels the skin back from the man’s face and head. His head is sawn off, followed by each of his limbs. As the screams die out, pop music playing in the background breaks through. People stand around laughing as the slaughter proceeds, some taking photographs on their cellphone cameras. The seven-minute video unfolds with languid precision; its maker understood cinema verite.
The world has become familiar, these past three months, with this aesthetic, which has flowered in the Islamic State’s execution videos, culminating with the macabre immolation of the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh. But the slaughter recorded in the seven-minute video took place in Mexico, half a world away from the IS. It was just one of hundreds of narco-execution videos posted online since 2006 by Mexico’s rival drug cartels, who have plunged the country into a war that has claimed over 1,25,000 lives, and displaced over 2,50,000 people, emptying entire towns and cities.
Islam, imperialism or impenetrable tribal blood lusts: none of these causes explain the dark theatre of public torture, a spectacle that plays out in more conflicts across the world than we care to know, or perhaps even dare imagine. In war after war, pain has been much more than a torturer’s tool. It is, instead, the end in itself.
“I would’ve burnt him with my own hands,” a cheerful little child says in the IS’s documentary on the immolation of al-Kasasbeh, a murder which was played on large screens in the terror group’s de-facto capital, Raqqa. But in many parts of the word, al-Kasasbeh’s gruesome death would have been treated with the familiarity of the everyday. Necklacing — that is, execution carried out by setting alight a rubber tyre filled with petrol around a victim’s chest — was widely used by apartheid collaborators and opponents, often delivered as a sentence by popular courts. It has also been used by protestors and criminals alike in Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire and Haiti.
Legal history maintains the polite fiction that violent public punishment began disappearing from the world from the 17th century. Legal systems, it is true, did begin to eject torture and maiming from their criminal codes, which spread, with empire, across the world. Yet, public torture still runs through history, emerging in many different environments of crisis. Hundreds used to gather in Kabul to witness and applaud brutal stonings of purported criminals in Taliban-era Kabul — they still do in the parts of the country it controls. Indian communal violence also involves public displays of savagery. In Kampuchea, the French-educated Saloth Sar’s revolutionaries carried out public savageries on an industrial scale in the 1970s, killing more than two million people in a giant effort to create a “New Man”, free of allegiances other than those to the state.
These were not the outcomes of some pathology in the cultural body of the post-colonial world. In the early 20th century, professional photographers used to gather at the public mutilations and lynchings of black criminal suspects in the United States, generating a mass of postcards which tell the story. From Mexico, we know that a complex web of messages and icons surface to legitimise the violence. The country’s drug violence has spawned a number of death cults: new religions that have emerged from the detritus of old, established faiths, drawing on their memes and motifs. Scholars Robert Bunker and John Sullivan have painstakingly documented the religious elements of Mexico’s narcoculture, most visibly, the rise of the cult of Santa Muerte, the vengeful goddess of death.
La Familia Michoacana, one of the major cartels until 2011, had evolved an ideological project with evangelical roots, casting its criminality as a militarised form of Christianity. In territories under its control, La Familia has flogged “sinners”, ranging from sex-workers to teenagers wearing sagging pants or hairnets. Pushed to dissolve itself under military pressure, La Familia has been replaced by an organisation calling itself Los Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, a medieval military-religious order renowned for their zeal for slaughtering infidels. Los Caballeros use Christian imagery — a shield with a red cross, a white battle flag with a white cross, and an armoured knight holding a sword — and cast themselves as vigilantes who seek “to safeguard order; avoid robberies, kidnappings, exortion; and to shield the state from possible rival intrusions”.
These were almost exactly the stated aims of the Taliban when it swept aside corrupt, warring jihadist factions from Kabul. They also sound like a dozen other millenarian movements that have sprouted all over the world, flourishing where states and societies have imploded. Little imagination is needed to understand why ultra-violence seduces. In societies where traditional or republican norms are swept aside by violence, fear becomes the sole means of enforcing order. Iraq and Syria, like Afghanistan or Mexico, had been reduced to nightmare lands long before the IS or the Taliban appeared. Their maximal violence and grim norms may appear attractive to many and an alternative to anarchy.
Yet, this comes with a price. “Skinning people, cutting out their hearts, castrating them or cutting off their breasts, throwing them in a vat of acid, or setting them on fire while they are alive is incrementally becoming more accepted in narcoculture”, the scholar David Martinez Amador observes. “The continuing forms of extreme barbarism evident in the torture and killings of cartel and gang victims in Mexico is creating a growing cadre of hardened killers; some of whom are still in their childhoods.”
This is just as true of Iraq or Afghanistan as it is of Mexico. And it explains why appeals to social tradition, moderate Islam or plain vanilla human compassion have been so ineffectual in combating violence. The truth is this: in the dark, ultra-violent corners of our world, the savage is the norm.