By their works shall ye know them: barbarians and sadists
The news was all but inevitable: the bodies of the two missing soldiers have been found in Iraq, and spokespeople say they have been "tortured in a barbaric fashion." No details have as yet been provided.
Pajamas Media has a roundup of reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.
All thoughtful people--myself included--mourn their loss, and the suffering they endured before their deaths.
When I read the sad news, however, the use of the word "barbaric" caught my eye. Like many familiar words, ordinarily we hardly think about what it really means.
Here are some synonyms:
barbarian, barbarous, boorish, brutal, coarse, cruel, fierce, graceless, inhuman, lowbrow, primitive, rough, rude, tasteless, uncivilized, uncouth, vulgar, wild
The word is the essence of cultural non-relativism. Its origins are in antiquity:
...from Latin barbaria, from Latin barbarus, from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (barbaros) which meant a non-Greek, someone whose (first) language was not Greek. The word is imitative, the bar-bar representing the impression of random hubbub produced by hearing spoken a language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah or rhubarb in modern English.
Many cultures traditionally have had terms for "the other." Even if those appellations don't start out as pejorative, they usually wind up that way. And so it is with "barbarian" and "barbaric," which have come into general use to mean especially vicious, cruel, and sadistic.
It's really that last definition--sadistic--that seems to be the most important element here. When a soldier kills, there is always violence, no matter how the killing is accomplished. But barbarism implies a gratuitous level of mayhem, a sort of overkill, which indicates an emotional element that drives the perpetrator towards inflicting the maximum amount of pain for personal enjoyment and sensations of power.
One of the hallmarks of jihadi violence has been this element of barbarism--or, perhaps more correctly, sadism. There is a practical and strategic goal as well, which is to instill fear. Sadism and strategy are not mutually exclusive, however; they can coexist, and both may be driving this particular behavior. No one who has watched the beheading videos--or even read descriptions of them--can avoid the sense that those doing the deed are reveling in their own barbaric power, unleashed.
Sadism traditionally has been linked to sexual kinkiness. If you Google the word "sadism," most of the definitions you find will have some connection to sex. Many have also remarked on the disturbances in Arab culture's treatment of women and their sexuality (see this, for example), so it's easy to surmise that there's a connection between the two.
But it's certainly not as simple as that--sadism is probably overdetermined among the jihadis. And another one of the elements that go into it are the backgrounds and personality disorders of some of those who rise to positions of power, such as the late and unlamented Zarqawi, who was clearly both a sadist and a psychopath in the classic sense.
But sadism and psychopathology are not limited to Arab culture, of course. In fact, the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal clearly involved elements of sadomasochism of the sexual sort, although the sadism did not even begin to rise to the level of that seen with the jihadis.
Then there were the Nazis, who came from a culture with enormous cultural achievements, one that was thought to be almost ultra-civilized prior to WWII. That's one of the reasons the deeply barbaric turn many Germans took at that time was so very shocking: the degree of sadism that was unleashed in the concentration camps, for example, rivaled anything in history, classical or otherwise (and yes, I'm aware that not all the guards were German, but the guiding vision sprung from that society, and was largely a product of German or Austrian nationals).
The bottom line is that barbarism and sadism are possibilities for all human beings. But some societies and some historic times seem to encourage their fuller expression. And the task of a "civilized" military is to reduce the elements of sadism, while preserving the ability to kill.
I've written previously about how US soldiers are trained to kill without sadism, here. It's not an easy task, but it's the goal of the US military to reduce combat stress and make atrocities far less likely to occur (read the post for the details of how this is done). In contrast, the goal of the Nazis was to maximize the expression of sadism in their concentration camp guards. Likewise, this seems to be the goal of the jihadis, or at least many jihadi elements.
And they're not the only ones who are drawn to the admiration of the barbaric. As the Wikipedia article on barbarians indicates, in a discussion of the fictional Conan the barbarian (and with an interesting connection to German history):
The modern sympathetic admiration for such fantasy barbarians as Conan the Barbarian is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment idealization of the "Noble Savage". The German Romantics recharacterized the barbarian stereotype. Now it was the civilized Roman--or that modern Romanized Gaul, the Frenchman--who was effeminate and soft, and the stout-hearted German barbarian who exemplified manly virtue. The reforming of Arminius as "Hermann" the noble barbarian countering evil Rome provided a prototype from the 16th century onwards.
In fantasy novels and role-playing games, barbarians (or berserkers) are still depicted as brave uncivilized warriors, often able to attack with a crazed fury. Conan is simply best known of the type.
Many of those who defend jihadis, make excuses for them, and/or sympathize with them, may indeed be feeling these sorts of Rousseauvian/Romantic stirrings.