Barbaric methods appeal to mankind’s worst instincts

YouTube is dripping blood nowadays. Viewers of these videos are as numerous as horrified.

I refer to the barbaric decapitations of U.S. journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, presumably at the hands of educated Arabs with a British education and formation, and the movies showing the mass slaughter of prisoners who are dispatched with shots to the head, delivered without the slightest drama by murderers linked to the Islamic caliphate.

These shocking images usually elicit two questions from the viewers.

▪ The first one: Why do these violent groups film and show these savage acts that demonstrate the degree of moral depravity in which they live and kill?

▪ And the inevitable second question: How is it possible that young men raised in civilized European, U.S. or Australian cities enlist, voluntarily and cheerfully, in criminal gangs that carry out these repugnant acts of butchery?

The answer links the two questions. They film those scenes because the spectacle of violence, though it provokes the rejection of a percentage of society, attracts numerous young people, almost always male, who feel seduced by the sinister spectacle of a sharp knife slashing or deeply penetrating human flesh.

It has ever been thus. The Romans used to attend the arenas to see how the gladiators killed each other mercilessly or how prisoners were devoured by wild beasts. The Mayas staged ball games, similar to soccer, that culminated with the ritual execution of the losing team, to the fanatical rejoicing of the public.

One of the personages most famous and admired during the French Revolution was Charles-Henri Sanson, sixth in a generation of executioners.

Through his guillotine (it was his and had been built by a maker of stringed musical instruments) passed 3,000 persons, from the spiritless king Louis XVI to the vehement Danton and Robespierre.

While he carried out his bloody task, women on the square knitted, children played and men played cards. They applauded enthusiastically only when Sanson raised the just-severed head of his latest victim by the hair and showed it to the crowd.

Typical of the French? Wrong. Typical of human beings. Some of the most successful shows in the United States today are the combats on “Ultimate Fighting.” The contenders kick each another, smash each other's face with their fists, knees and elbows, destroy each other inside a hexagon surrounded by a tall and impassable wire fence. Inflamed, the spectators encourage their favorite fighter by inciting him to crime: “Kill him!” “Finish him off!”

It is a world drenched in blood and adrenaline, lacking in mercy. And if the defeated fighter does not die, it's because the referee usually stops the fight just before its fatal conclusion.

There is a letter from Che Guevara to his first wife, the Peruvian Hilda Gadea, written in Cuba on Jan. 28, 1957, when the Argentine doctor writes — in a revealing statement — that he has not died: “Dear one: Am in the Cuban jungle, [fighting with the guerrillas], alive and thirsty for blood.” Not long after he wrote that letter, he was able to satisfy that ghoulish need — copiously.

In Central America, the “mara” gangsters frequently prove their loyalty to their “mara” by murdering an innocent person. Someone else’s death becomes a kind of rite of passage associated with manhood.

Crime transports the criminal to a new stadium of respect, as happens in tribes where you become a man when you kill a dangerous animal or withstand some excruciating pain inflicted by the shaman or medicine man.

None of this surprises me. Many years ago, I read a couple of books that alerted me to the terrible side of human nature. Both books still retain their alarming validity.

Stanley Milgrams experiment (Obedience to Authority), in which he demonstrated how “normal” persons could torture unto death unknown and innocent persons only because an authority ordered them to do so.

In the experiment, the “victims” faked the pain and convulsions, but their “executioners” thought that the pain was real, as they “increased” the voltage of the electric chair on which the victim presumably suffered.

The second book was On Aggression, a work that helped Austrian Konrad Lorenz win a share of a Nobel Prize. In it, he analyzed the secret drives that compelled men to attack other members of their species and the symbolic value of those terrible acts.

At that time, YouTube did not exist. But human beings then were identical with those today, with those forever.