Cruelty – the dark side of humanity

What is interesting is that religion and religious differences have always been used as a justification for cruelty, even though most religions preach love and respect

It is the year 1749. The feast of St Peter and St Paul (l-Imnarja) was celebrated in Malta with the usual pomp and after a lavish banquet at the Palace, Grandmaster Manuel Pinto de Fonseca went to sleep. A plan to kill him had been frustrated at the last moment – the plan that in our history books is known as the conspiracy of the slaves.

Usually after lunch on such a holiday, the Palace was practically left in the hands of the few guards and the many slaves employed in the kitchen and stables. According to the plan, a small group of slaves were to stab the Grandmaster in his sleep. Other slaves were then to rush upstairs and overpower the guards, followed by the freeing of slaves in the prisons while another group was to take over St Elmo.

The plan was hatched by Mustafa Pasha, an Ottoman Prince who was brought to Malta after being captured on an Ottoman galley. He enjoyed the protection of the King of France and therefore was actually treated very genially in Malta, living in a house near ‘Porta Reale’.

The plan failed as a result of an unplanned event. Three of the conspirators were involved in a quarrel in the coffee shop of Giuseppe Cohen, a Maltese Jew, who overheard the three and reported everything to the Grandmaster. The three were arrested and the rack did the rest of the investigations: there were 38 conspirators in all. They were all tortured, tried and executed. Cohen was amply rewarded with an annual grant to his family.

A friend of mine recently unearthed an old Maltese history book written by Giovanni Faure that relates in graphic detail the ceremonial executions of the conspirators. These were spread on several days, with three being executed each time. The prisoners were carried in an open, mule-driven cart from St Elmo to outside the city walls in the area now occupied by the Hotel Phoenicia.

On the way, they would publicly be asked whether they wanted to become Christians before they died. If they refused, they would be maimed: a part of an arm or a leg would be cut off and then ‘stuck’ again with hot tar. This went on several times.

Some opted to ‘convert’ to Christianity whereupon they were publicly baptised with important personages acting as godfathers. As Christians, they would no longer be tortured but simply hanged. The torture was not stopped in the case of those who refused to recant their faith, who were instead beheaded, drawn and quartered. The heads of the dead conspirators were then placed on the Marsamxett bastions: a grim indication of what befalls those who dare challenge the Grandmaster’s supremacy in Malta.

Our forefathers gathered in the streets to witness the show – cruelty to other humans was not only a commonly accepted way of doing things but was also a spectator sport. This was Malta barely two and a half centuries ago. Slavery, in fact, was abolished some 50 years later by Napoleon after he drove the knights out of Malta in 1798.

The age of enlightenment and basic human rights were still unheard of notions during the reign of Grandmaster Pinto.

Cruelty to other humans, it seems, has always been a human trait, even though we like to think that we in the west have shaken it off from our systems. No doubt the very idea of basic human rights, which are today embraced by many, drives people in the opposite direction.

Today we react with shudder and horror when we hear of the atrocities that are being carried out by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Every atrocity, whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or in the Balkans, and every savage beheading of a human being, whether American, Yazidi or Syrian, becomes a timely reminder that some human beings are not yet ‘civilised’.

Yet executions are still the order of the day in countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the US, the family of a victim are invited to witness the execution of the victim’s murderer and executions are currently only on hold, rather than outlawed. Maltese who worked in Saudi Arabia know only too well that public beheadings of men found guilty of particular crimes are still a very normal occurrence. The lines between justice and revenge are blurred.

We in Europe rightly feel proud that we have adopted a more humane approach to punishment and that cruelty to people is a breach of human rights, whatever the circumstances. We now even talk of animal rights and consider cruelty to animals as a crime.

Yet cruelty to humans still exists all over the world. Graphic press reports of a recent murder case in Malta that is still in the courts indicate that cruelty played a considerable part in the way the murder took place.

Is cruelty to other fellow human beings a human instinct?

What is interesting in the historical episode I recalled and in the atrocities that ISIS are today committing is that religion and religious differences have always been used as a justification for cruelty, even though most religions preach love and respect.

Being cruel to someone who is ‘different’ is the real cause – religion is just an excuse. Children bully others because of being ‘different’ – darker, fairer, shorter, taller, fatter or leaner than the average. Those of a different ethnicity or faith provoke people to react negatively, resorting to cruelty, even if only figuratively: witness the racist comments on African migrants posted on blog sites.

We would like to think that the Enlightenment finally changed all this with mankind’s final coming of age. I am no philosopher and I therefore refrain from entering into an intellectual debate about this. It is enough to acknowledge that today democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; the elimination of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and the full separation of church and state have been accepted as the norm in the western world.

Yet mankind’s instincts sometimes lead to some not accepting these norms fully. We have to resist this. The dark side of humanity must be vanquished universally, at least on a political level.

The likes of ISIS and those of its ilk, for whom religion becomes an excuse for the imposition of a form of mental slavery justifying cruelty and hatred, must be checked and opposed if man’s hard-earned freedom is to endure.

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