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Impersonal or personal, human abuse and torture exact a high cost

Last week, I headed to Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge north of St. Paul. At this time of year, its open land was covered with a lush blanket of yellow, late-summer flowers. I had read the account of the horrific abuse suffered by a nanny in the Gaddafi household. I needed to dilute the power of disturbing graphic images of Shweyga Mullah having boiling water poured over her for refusing to beat a crying child.

The solitude and beauty of Carlos Avery Refuge allowed me to think about human violence and its causes in a broader context. One would think that three decades as a practicing psychologist would have inoculated me from the impact of such descriptions. Instead each time, I am touched to the core by the human capacity to abuse and torture another person.

The phrase they are not nice people kept running through my mind. As I searched my memory, I decide it must have come from my childhood. Adults would say this phrase to one another in the presence of children, then nod slightly with a knowing look. I didn’t know what they meant, but it was the beginning of my introduction that not all people in the world are safe to be around. This family that has held Libya captive for so long is not a family of nice people.

More or less?
Humans have engaged in cruel and terrible behavior as far back as we can piece together our history. One question that emerges is whether we are growing more violent toward each other. Reading and listening to the daily news is not an exercise in joyous living! It is easy to question the probability of our future existence.

During and following World War II, war became increasing impersonal. More sophisticated destructive warfare allowed an increasing separation between acts of violence and their consequences. Such conflicts in the past had clearly defined lines between good guys and bad guys, in which war had a clear beginning and an end marked by treaties. Missile silos in North Dakota, drones whose paths appear as blips on radar screen, and bombing from high elevations far above human targets made war “clean” and antiseptic.

Today this country, along with much of the rest of the world, seems to be engaged in endless conflicts, with no clear winners and losers. Nuclear brinksmanship and a return to hand-to-hand fighting has shifted patterns of war away from impersonal mass death. Internet technology gives us graphic scenes observable from the comfort of our living rooms. We watched and waited with Baghdad, before the bombing began. Bodies of real people, someone’s child or life-partner, sprawled across our screens. The horror of war has become increasingly personal.

Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels’
Cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker argues that human violence is actually decreasing in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” His exploration of the history of human violence ranges from neuroscience to the poetry of Homer. His research offers some hope that we are evolving from our more brutal past due to development of our capacity for empathy and compassion.

Journalists, reporting from the streets and places of violence, provide us with many personal stories. The risk is that media images of individual faces of war may cause us to become immune to such human-caused suffering. However, high suicide rates among returning veterans suggests that human tolerance for violence has its limits.

The story about the nanny tortured by Aline, Hannibal Gaddafi’s wife, pushed my limits. Although she was not a direct casualty of war, but the recipient of abuse in a badly dysfunctional family, we hear her story because of ongoing efforts to oust Muammar Gaddafi and his sons from power. Today, Shweyga Mullah weeps from her hospital bed, not because of the pain, but with relief and for the kindness of others caring for her.

As the world watches, its leadership continues searching for solutions to oppression and violence. This woman’s suffering, along with many faces across the Arab world weeping unbearably at the losses of sons and daughters and spouses, illustrate the high price of violence. I hope these stories teach us the moral unacceptability of torture and abuse of others. May they move us one more step toward understanding the high cost of violence toward each other.

Elizabeth C. Nagel is a Twins Cities writer and fine arts photographer.

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