Terror in Europe

From Nazis To ISIS, Facing Our Own Thirst For Vengeance

The way ISIS shocks us with its evil prompts fantasies of retaliation. How can we make these thoughts subside? What does it take not to lose our own civilization? Confessions of a monster.

Jordanians burn a "Wanted Dead" poster of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS
Jordanians burn a "Wanted Dead" poster of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS
Uwe Schmitt

-Essay-

BERLIN — The transformation into a monster did not take place overnight. Just as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa had hoped, we too thought that this life "transformed into living, monstrous vermin" wouldn't be permanent. This hope is a treacherous one, just as it had been for Samsa.

At first there was the disconcerting satisfaction at the initial U.S. bombings of ISIS positions. At every beheading of an unfortunate soul by a masked henchman with a British accent in front of cameras did our feelings turn more and more from horror to blind ire which kindled a nameless vindictiveness. An emotion never felt before flooded our veins with poison.

Then we were felt happy satisfaction that the Paris killers were shot, even as we were quietly ashamed of our feelings. But the threshold was crossed without a backwards glance when the Jordanian fighter pilot was burned alive. We wanted revenge, without the interference of a state ruled by law and order, we wanted an execution without trial. Even worse, we wanted to torment, to torture, to avenge murder with murder. So when Jordan executed two terrorists who had been sentenced to death, not only did it make us feel better – but we may have even openly gloated and rejoiced too.

Everyone knows that negotiating with the ISIS barbarians is out of the question, that no prisoners are taken. All the carefully crafted institutions and our general understanding of civilization fail us in our rage. So we give up and go over to the dark side: an eye for an eye. We think they should consider themselves lucky that we have not sworn to a blood vendetta and to pursue this vendetta until every single last member of their families has been eliminated. After all, the West once lived through times when the rape of women and children was a prerogative of the victors. We know how to play that game, too.

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So much for the horrendous confession of wanting to answer the breach of civilized behavior with the utter renunciation of civilization. Of course, we and the states we live in would never allow this to happen. Yet the pain caused by the slow and absolutely thorough courts of law and their democratically tamed public persecutors is real.

The fanatics of ISIS are carrying out murder and torture for the purposes of entertainment and reality TV. Their global audience is rapt, nauseated and fascinated by the complete renunciation of human empathy, turned into witnesses of live cruelty.

It is quite possible that ISIS is going to extend the "appeal" of their "productions," in keeping with the rules of the entertainment industry. What will come next? Are they going to draw and quarter someone, crucify a victim in front of the rolling camera?

There are no limits to their diabolical imaginations, nor an antidote for the poison it sends rushing through our veins.

But this is exactly what they want. That we should return to the pre-enlightenment, pre-democratic mob mentality informed by the teachings of the Old Testament. And they appear to be quite successful – even in Germany, it is suspected. This is the nation that was forced into gentleness through the weight of its past as THE criminal regime. This is the nation that wants to be an integral part of Europe, and a powerful, peaceful nation but preferably incognito.

Reflex or persuaded by humanity?

Violence is so sporadic in post-war Germany that our reflexes are in danger of withering away. That is the reflex to defend both ourselves from injustice, as well as those who are not able to. Out of idleness we want to follow Goethe's commandment: "Treat every human as they would like to be treated and thereby help them to become all they can be."

It would be wonderful to be so noble and good a human being. The National Socialist Underground terror group has taught us, the heirs of history, to include the protection of life and the right to bodily safety in the German constitution. No more dehumanization, no court martial, no more liability of an entire family for the crimes of one of its members.

So, the question we pose ourselves: are we even still capable of justified violence? It seems as if our thirst for revenge is, just as the lynching fantasies of ISIS, a form of Ersatz-feelings that no longer have a place in modern society. But yet the assumption of ISIS — that we will want to return to the "holy sultanate," where incineration of the condemned and murder in the name of the Lord were daily fare if they just push us far enough — is well-founded.

We could be just like them, we could be barbarians too. The mask of humanity has been ripped off the face of civilization and that which is exposed is anything but civil. The forerunners of human degeneration and brutality, who have abandoned patience with the state, drive the anti-immigration Pegida demonstrators against the police as it once drove those of the Left.

Down to the last member

An eye for an eye was once deemed progressive compared to the concept of the blood vendetta. It was appropriate; only one eye was needed to avenge the single eye taken. It was no longer necessary to persecute an entire family, down to the last member, for some crime suffered. Not even Heinrich Himmler was successful in exterminating the von Stauffenberg family after the assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944, even though he vowed to do so in front of senior Nazi officials. In his opinion, bad blood, like poison, runs through the veins of traitors.

And it is exactly this low level of human existence that the ISIS killers have chosen to inhabit. It is shabby, primitive and, not to mention unchristian to wish them all dead – preferably after an agonizing end. This is poison to the soul. Nonetheless, we should admit to our own susceptibility to these gruesome fantasies. We should ask ourselves at what point, if ever, would we act upon them.

Many decent men failed to demonstrate their bonafide purity to the Gesinnungskommission (the Committee of Attitude Approval), tasked with probing the true beliefs of conscientious objectors to compulsory military service. They had not realized that it was more than an exercise in stating categorically that violence would be beyond them. Even when faced with the perfidious scenario that the rape of their girlfriend or the sacking of their home town could be prevented if they picked up a weapon were they to deny the application of violence. It was an exercise in describing the desperation and revulsion felt by the conscientious objectors especially when they acted against their own conscience and applied violence.

Just wars

Back then it was a matter of withdrawing yourself from the influence of the Federal Armed Forces and the drill to kill. But we have long since understood that normal life is impossible without military violence and deterrence. And we are grateful for every volunteer who chooses a career as a soldier. Maybe the war in Bosnia or the bloody alliance of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are responsible for this change of heart.

There is such a thing as a just war and there is peace that can only be brought about by weapons. We agree to fighting in the name of self-defense. We send those who can do what we are no longer able to do and what the individual and the mob, for good reason, are not allowed to do.

Most Germans do not believe in the right to defend themselves, their loved ones or their property with a weapon. The call from the National Rifle Association to arm teachers in the United States, like in Pakistan, after every gun rampage is only a solution if the power of the state cannot be trusted anymore.

So, the only route left to us (the disarmed, the ones unfamiliar with violence, the spectators) is to wish death and ruin to those who have negated their humanity for the sake of religion. And therein lies our dilemma. It does not feel right to think like this and is most certainly no reason to be proud of ourselves.

We confess to the sentiment of pondering vengeance. But, more importantly, we also declare our support to the state ruled by law and order which, may it be through diplomatic means or the use of soldiers, tames our craving for the monopoly on violence.

The state is our antidote and we are the state. "Long live death?" No, "Long live the republic!" It is our only hope.

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