The news is overloaded with photographs of people forced to kneel to be executed, stories of mutilated bodies hanging from lampposts, reports of public humiliation like the recent spectacle of captured Ukrainian soldiers paraded through streets filled with bloodthirsty crowds. The world seems poised on a new age of savagery in which indiscriminate mass killings make a mockery of individual lives, while we look on horrified, powerless and afraid. Yet, little of this is new. Totalitarian regimes and insurgent fanatics have been using these tactics for millennia. They do it to get rid of people they don’t like. They do it to incite the barbaric passions of their base. They do it to scare the rest of us into silence. The Romans had their crucifixions, the Jim Crow South its lynching parties. Hitler vilified the Jews, Stalin held show trials and built gulags. Today ISIS practices undiluted cruelty. It works. We are cowed.
And yet, no matter how thorough, how brutal or how massive the slaughter, the human spirit finds a way to endure. Hitler killed 20 million people, Stalin 40 million, Mao 70 million, but it was never enough. The spark of opposition survived – in a religion that went underground, in a culture that would not be crushed, in art that subverted the state, in the courage of a few who would not be silent.
We think of Isis as a brutal jihadi army. But we should remember that she is also the Egyptian goddess of nature and rebirth. Of hope.