How the Brutalized Become Brutal
How the Brutalized Become Brutal
By Chris Hedges /

The horrific pictures of the beheading of American reporter James Foley, the images of executions of alleged collaborators in Gaza and the bullet-ridden bodies left behind in Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are the end of a story, not the beginning. They are the result of years, at times decades, of the random violence, brutal repression and collective humiliation the United States has inflicted on others.

Our terror is delivered to the wretched of the earth with industrial weapons. It is, to us, invisible. We do not stand over the decapitated and eviscerated bodies left behind on city and village streets by our missiles, drones and fighter jets. We do not listen to the wails and shrieks of parents embracing the shattered bodies of their children. We do not see the survivors of air attacks bury their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. We are not conscious of the long night of collective humiliation, repression and powerlessness that characterizes existence in Israel’s occupied territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not see the boiling anger that war and injustice turn into a caldron of hate over time. We are not aware of the very natural lust for revenge against those who carry out or symbolize this oppression. We see only the final pyrotechnics of terror, the shocking moment when the rage erupts into an inchoate fury and the murder of innocents. And, willfully ignorant, we do not understand our own complicity. We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them. This is a recipe for endless terror.

Chaim Engel, who took part in the uprising at the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp in Poland, described what happened when he obtained a knife and confronted a German in an office. The act he carried out was no less brutal than the beheading of Foley or the executions in Gaza. Isolated from the reality he and the other inmates endured at the camp, his act was savage. Set against the backdrop of the extermination camp it was understandable.

“It’s not a decision,” Engel said. “You just react, instinctively you react to that, and I figured, ‘Let us to do, and go and do it.’ And I went. I went with the man in the office, and we killed this German. With every jab, I said, ‘That is for my father, for my mother, for all these people, all the Jews you killed.’ ”

Any good cop, like any good reporter, knows that every criminal has a story. No one, except for perhaps a few psychopaths, wakes up wanting to cut off another person’s head. Murder and other violent crimes almost always grow out of years of abuse of some kind suffered by the perpetrator. Even the most “civilized” among us are not immune to dehumanization.

The enemies on the modern battlefield seem elusive because death is usually delivered by industrial weapons such as aerial drones or fighter jets that are impersonal, or by insurgent forces that leave behind roadside bombs or booby traps or carry out hit-and-run ambushes. This elusiveness is the curse of modern warfare. The inability of Sunni fighters in Iraq to strike back at jets and drones has resulted in their striking a captured journalist and Shiite and Kurdish civilians.

U.S. soldiers and Marines in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israeli soldiers in assaults on Gaza, have been among those who committed senseless acts of murder. They routinely have gunned down unarmed civilians to revenge killings of members of their units. This is a reaction I saw in several wars. It is not rational. Those murdered were not responsible, even indirectly, for the deaths of their killers’ comrades, just as Foley and the Shiites and Kurds executed in Iraq were not responsible for the deaths of Sunni militants hit by the U.S. Air Force.

J. Glenn Gray, who fought in World War II, wrote about the peculiar nature of vengeance in “The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle”:

When the soldier has lost a comrade to this enemy or possibly had his family destroyed by them through bombings or through political atrocities, so frequently the case in World War II, his anger and resentment deepen into hatred. Then the war for him takes on the character of a vendetta. Until he has himself destroyed as many of the enemy as possible, his lust for vengeance can hardly be appeased. I have known soldiers who were avid to exterminate every last one of the enemy, so fierce was their hatred. Such soldiers took great delight in hearing or reading of mass destruction through bombings. Anyone who has known or been a soldier of this kind is aware of how hatred penetrates every fiber of his being. His reason for living is to seek revenge; not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a tenfold retaliation.

Those killed are not, to the killers, human beings but representations of what they fear and hate. The veneer of the victim’s humanity, they believe, is only a mask for an evil force. The drive for vengeance, for “tenfold retaliation,” among those who are deformed by violence cannot be satiated without rivers of blood—even innocent blood. And Americans do as much of this type of revenge killing as those we fight. Our instruments of war allow us to kill from a distance. We therefore often lack any real consciousness of killing. But this does not make us any less depraved.

Christopher Browning in his book “Ordinary Men” tells of a German reserve police battalion that was recruited to carry out mass executions of Jews in World War II. Browning’s book echoed the findings of the psychologist Stanley Milgram, who concluded that “men are led to kill with little difficulty.” Browning, like Milgram, illustrates how easily we become killers. This is a painful truth. It is difficult to accept. It forces us to look into the eyes of Foley’s executioners and see not monsters but ourselves.

“Few of us ever know how far fear and violence can transform us into creatures at bay, ready with tooth and claw,” Gray wrote. “If the war taught me anything at all, it convinced me that people are not what they seem or even think themselves to be.”

I am teaching inmates at a supermax prison this summer. We are reading William Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Every student in my classroom was charged with murder, and, though the American judicial system imprisons its share of innocents, it is a safe bet that many if not most in my class have killed. At the same time, once you hear the stories of their lives, the terrifying domestic abuse, the crushing poverty, the cruelty of the streets, including police use of deadly force against unarmed people, the societal and parental abandonment, the frustration at not being able to live a life of dignity or find a job, the humiliation of being poorly educated—some went into prison illiterate—you begin to understand the power of the institutional racism and oppression that made them angry and finally dangerous.

Marguerite Duras in her book “The War” describes how she and other members of the French Resistance kidnapped and tortured a 50-year-old Frenchman they suspected of collaborating with the Germans. The group allows two of its members who were beaten in Montluc prison at Lyon to strip the alleged informer and repeatedly beat him as onlookers shout: “Bastard. Traitor. Scum.” Blood and mucus soon run from his nose. His eye is damaged. He moans, “Ow, ow, oh, oh. …” He crumples in a heap on the floor. Duras wrote that he had “become someone without anything in common with other men. And with every minute the difference grows bigger and more established.” She goes on: “Every blow rings out in the silent room. They’re hitting at all the traitors, at the women who left, at all those who didn’t like what they saw from behind the shutters.” She departs before finding out if he is executed. She and her small resistance band had become Nazis. They acted no differently than Hamas did when it executed more than 15 suspected collaborators last week in Gaza

Our failure to understand the psychological mechanisms involved means that the brutality we inflict, and that is inflicted upon us, will continue in a deadly and self-defeating cycle in the Middle East as well as within poor urban areas of the United States. To break this cycle we have to examine ourselves and halt the indiscriminant violence that sustains our occupations. But examining ourselves instead of choosing the easy route of nationalist self-exaltation is hard and painful. These killings will stop only when we accept that the killers who should terrify us most are ourselves.

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

4.2 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 12,026 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 7,875 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 6,875 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Who I'm Voting For...
3 min · 5,552 views today · Prince Ea announces who he's voting for. It's probably not who you think.
Free Trade Explained In An Excellent Comic
Michael Goodwin, Illustrated by Dan E. Burr · 4,268 views today · The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) are the latest in a long line...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 3,698 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 2,663 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
Open Up - Have the Difficult But Important Conversations With Loved Ones
5 min · 2,650 views today · “The biggest casualty of humanity is the lack of communication, it’s the thing that breaks most relationships. It just feels so much better to talk and get it out.” There is...
#Hypernormalisation - Why Heathrow Plan Is Proof We Exist in a Catastrophic Fantasyland
Matthew Adams · 2,248 views today · The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,558 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,490 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
'Maritime Graveyard': 2016 Deadliest Year Ever for Refugees Crossing Mediterranean
Deirdre Fulton · 1,415 views today · "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," says UNHCR spokesman
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 1,334 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,151 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 1,001 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 702 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 701 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
These Incredible Stories Remind Us of Our Better Selves
36 min · 632 views today · #WhoWeAre is a campaign to share the stories of people whose actions show us compassion and to send a message of empathy, hope and optimism. These videos will automatically...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 468 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 423 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How the Brutalized Become Brutal