The video of Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade commander Abu Sakkar cutting out the ‘heart’ of a dead Syrian government soldier and then appearing to take a bite out of it has certainly stimulated intense debate and much criticism right around the world. (An edited version of the video can be played above this paragraph.) So much so the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to which the Brigade is affiliated, has been bounced into issuing a statement that: “Any act contrary to the values that the Syrian people have paid their blood and lost their homes to will not be tolerated, the abuser will be punished severely even if they are associated with the Free Syrian Army.” It has been reported by John Hall in The Independent that ‘wanted’ posters have been put up in rebel-held areas, calling for Sakkar to be brought to justice ‘dead or alive’.
Quite what Sakkar hoped to achieve when he staged the gruesome stunt - it was, in fact, a lung - is questionable. According to TIME’s Aryn Baker (2013a), in a Skype interview Sakkar (real name: Khalid al-Hamad) said it was a response to material found on the dead soldier’s mobile phone. “We opened his cell phone, and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there.
However, Sakkar also boasted to Baker: “I have another video clip that I will send to them. In the clip, I am sawing another shabiha [pro-government militiaman] with a saw. The saw we use to cut trees. I sawed him into small pieces and large ones.” Sakkar also explained that even though both sides of the conflict in Syria are using video clips of their own brutal actions to intimidate the other, he believes his clip would have a particularly strong impact on the regime’s troops. “They film as well, but after what I did hopefully they will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is.”
If Sakkar hopes that his ghoulish act will strike paralysing terror into the government troops and the regime’s Shabiha militiamen, he may be miscalculating on 2 levels:-
Firstly, evidence of rebel troops committing atrocities undermines those in the West who are trying to persuade their leaders to allow arms to be sold to the rebels. The Saudis and Qataris, who are already providing ‘lethal aid’ to the rebels, can control, to some considerable extent at least, their populations and what they see. In contrast, the Western ‘democracies’ have more limited control over public opinion and the stories the media presents to them.
According to a Pew Research Centre poll this March (Bruce Stokes, 2013) – see left - there is already little appetite among the general public in the West for arming the rebels amid political concerns that weapons supplied to moderate FSA groups could all too easily end up in the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists like those of the al-Nusra Front. Seeing and reading about Sakkar – who has also been filmed firing rockets indiscriminately into a Shi’ite village in the Lebanon border area, killing at least 2 villagers - will only make it more difficult for FSA supporters in the West to make their case.
No wonder the FSA are talking about bringing Sakkar in for trial ‘dead or alive’! His video is doing massive damage to their cause and they need to limit that damage fast.
The conflict in Syria has been ongoing for so long now that, short of truly dramatic news like Sakkar’s stunt, it rarely makes the headlines more than once or twice a week. Yet the Sakkar incident has been followed in rapid succession by headline-grabbing allegations of more chemical weapons use by Government forces, Russia supplying state-of-the-art ‘ship-killing’ missiles to the Syrian Government, Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries now officially topping 1.5 million and leading international figures from to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to our own David Cameron trying to get the Russians moving on an international peace conference. Clearly the situation is getting a lot worse - and a lot more dangerous - but could it just be a coincidence that a number of stories portraying government brutality and the intransigence of their Russian backers have arrived in rapid succession to kick Sakkar out of the headlines…?
The second way Sakkar’s stunt could backfire on him is that it ups the ante for committing atrocities. Aryn Baker (2013b) reports that fighters from both sides no longer simply brag about their exploits on the battlefield; they film them and share them, competing in a gruesome game of one-upmanship. Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Baker that this trading in trophy atrocities, played up for the camera and passed from phone to phone, has a desensitising effect. When such gruesome footage - eg: rape, torture, amputations, even a 13-year-old boy beheading a man – is passed around like trading cards, it escalates the cycle of honour-driven revenge. Each atrocity published demands a response from the other side. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch adds: “When people see these acts of brutality and mutilation, it leaves deep scars – and there will be a temptation to replicate it in revenge. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Quite a few fighters in Syria interpret that literally.”
The Beast in Man
I first wrote about war releasing the ‘beast in man’ for Prisoner Abuse and the Mess in Iraq back in 2005. I also wrote about ‘berserker rage’ in Munir Hussain and the Wrong Messages of Judge John Reddihough (2009).
In sociopsychological terms, this is the work of the RED vMEME set free from all BLUE/GREEN constraints of behaviour in the battlefield. Sigmund Freud (1923b) would have seen it as the work of Thanatos, the death drive of the Id. The RED vMEME can be seen as the most extreme vMEMETIC expression of the if-it-feels-good-do-it motif of the Id – the Pleasure Principle, in Freud’s construct. Thus, RED/Thanatos will carry out the most barbaric cruelty because, in the moment, it gives pleasure.
If Sakkar is to be believed, it seems to have given him pleasure to cut his enemy’s heart out and appear to eat it, partly as revenge for what he found on the dead soldier’s mobile and partly because he clearly enjoys thinking of himself as someone who fills his enemies with fear. Viz: “…after what I did hopefully they will never step into the area where Abu Sakkar is.” Talk about RED bulling itself up to be the ‘Great I Am’!
That RED/Id was driving Sakkar in his gruesome pantomime is also indicated by the fact he clearly hadn’t thought through the potential consequences of his actions. He was too ‘in the moment’, as Tad James & Wyatt Woodsmall (1988) would put it.
There are neurological correlates in this sociopsychological explanation of Sakkar’s ghoulish actions. In Freud, the Ego and the Superego repress the Id to keep it under control. Clare W Graves, on whose work Spiral Dynamics is based, saw it as the role of BLUE and higher vMEMES to compensate for and, if necessary, constrain RED in its more dangerous self-express moments. Mark Solms (2000) has carried out research to indicate the Superego and Ego functions are located in the frontal cortex and the Id function in the limbic system. Similarly Svenja Caspers et al (2011) found evidence for ‘cool’ vMEME activity to be associated with the frontal cortex while ‘warm’ vMEMES were more defined by limbic system activity. Key inhibitory circuits are known to be in the frontal cortex - which would fit with the constraining and self-sacrificial/conformist functions of the Ego/Superego and the cool vMEMES. Correspondingly, the limbic system is associated with desire and emotional responses which fit with the self-expressive nature of the Id and the warm vMEMES. (See A Biological Basis for vMEMES…? for further details.)
Freud (1926) saw dreams as the leaking out of repressed Id desires as the Superego is dormant during sleep and the Ego virtually dormant. In terms of neurological correlates, Solms found that the frontal cortex is relatively inactive during dreaming while the limbic system is highly active. While research has yet to demonstrate this, it is highly likely that, in the moment of wanton brutality the perpetrator’s inhibiting frontal cortex is a lot less active than the self-expressive limbic system.
A further neurological correlate lies in the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine, activation of which is highly rewarding on the meso-limbic pathway. From her work with fighting amongst mice, Maria Couppis (2008) has postulated that some people intentionally seek out aggressive encounters because of the rewarding sensations, caused by the increase in dopamine from these encounters.
So intense aggression, rabid destructive urges freed from the constraining inhibitions and rules, can be very rewarding and pleasurable.
A personal anecdote: I remember the last fight I got into, around 30 years ago…feeling my fist crunch into my opponent’s face, the flesh on his face giving way and the cheekbone beneath seeming to bend beneath the force of my blow. To recall that sensation today still gives me a little thrill of pleasure. (Karma: I lost the fight in the end and was quite badly beaten up!)
Of the ‘pleasure’ aspect of committing atrocities in conflict, Roland Weierstall (2013) writes: “About one third of all former combatants in our studies said that to some extent the violence and the struggling of the victim could be fascinating, emotionally arousing and even linked to excitement. In these cases, blood must be shed as the victim is killed.”
All of which brings me back to Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck telling a HemsMESH meeting in October 2000: “When a country goes to war, its government had better prepare the people for tales of their troops committing atrocities.
What Sakkar did is, of course, by civilised standards, deplorable. But he and others like him are not operating in a civilised world. They’re in the midst of a brutal and bloody civil war where deep trusts have been betrayed, safety is an all-but-impossible ideal and living on the edge, ‘in the moment’ is often the only way to be because there may be no moment after. We may be dismayed by Sakker’s grisly video but we should not be surprised.
Almost inevitably worse is yet to come – as Weierstall confirms: “…the Syrian case should not surprise anyone. We should rather be surprised that the extent of human right violations we should expect to happen in Syria is kept secret.”
Ethnic divisions facilitate dehumanisation and derogation of ‘others’
Facilitating such atrocities is the dehumanisation and derogation of the enemy because they are not-of-our-tribe. This has been noted as typical of the first 2 stages in Social Identity Theory (Henri Tajfel & John Turner, 1979) in which the ‘others’ are castigated, blamed for ‘our tribe’s problems and consequently demonised. This then permits action of some kind to be taken against the ‘others’ in the third stage, Social Comparison.
This is the way the Nazis built up the persecution of the Jews to the point where they could perpetrate the Holocaust, is typical of both Serbian and Crotian ethnic cleansing strategies in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and was a hallmark of the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
A number of commentators have expressed concern at the way the Syrian conflict has become increasingly polarised along Shia vs Sunni sectarian lines. Sunni Saudia Arabia and Qatar are arming the rebels while Shia Iran funnels weapons through to the regime of Bashar al-Assad - Assad is an Alawite, Alawites being an offshoot of Shia Islam. Meanwhile, according to BBC News, both Shia Hezbollah fighters and Sunni militants are coming across the Lebanese border to fight for the respective sides. Even Sakkar’s grisly pantomime has an alarmingly sectarian element to it: according to Peter Bouckaert, in the unedited (and so far unpublished) version of the video held by Human Rights Watch, Sakkar exhorts his men to “slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them”.
Sectarian divisions essentially emerge from the PURPLE vMEME’s differentiating of ‘our tribes’ from ‘others’ in its quest to find safety-in-belonging. If the BLUE vMEME is also activated – for example, by differences in religious belief, even very minor ones – then a PURPLE/BLUE vMEME harmonic is created. Thus, the difference in beliefs between Sunni and Shia add an extra driver to tribal and ethnic differentiations and make the ‘others’ even more different. As BLUE cannot tolerate any deviation from ‘the one true way’ even those with the slightest difference in belief easily become categorised as ‘heretics’. And, if the ‘heretics’ cannot be converted, they must be destroyed to prevent contamination of the ‘true believers’. Thus, a dreadful combination of xenophobic PURPLE, over-pious BLUE and RED in a Thanatos mode lead to the kind of atrocity against ‘others’ that Abu Sakkar and others like him are revelling in.
Erwin Staub (1999) has studied a number of recent conflicts where mass killings and other atrocities have taken place. All the issues discussed in this Blog are among those he identifies as contributing factors to genocide. However, Staub identifies an additional factor: the passivity of bystanders to the process.
Whereas it can be argued that the international community got over-involved in Libya’s 2011 civil war, with NATO effectively acting decisively as the rebels’ air force, the United Nations has been paralysed by disagreements between the West, hesitantly on the rebel’s side, and Russia brazenly bolstering Assad’s position on the other.
The result has been inaction by outside powers, other than arms sales, with the consequence that the conflict has become more and more dangerous and more and more violent and brutal. Peter Weierstall is almost certainly right: we shall see much worse than the kind of atrocity Sakkar committed as the conflict drags on.
Moreover, the direct involvement of Lebanese factions, the overt support for Assad from Iran and the semi-covert support for the rebels from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar poses a real risk of the conflict spilling across Syria’s borders and mutating into a regional conflagration. That undoubtedly is one of Israel’s reasons for destroying convoys of hi-tech arms Assad intended sending to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Modern missiles launched across its northern border would be on a completely different level from the paltry salvos of home-made or outdated rockets employed by Hezbollah and, in Gaza, Hamas so far. Israel would feel obliged to react with massive force which would risk bringing in Iran and uniting the Arabs (Sunni and Shia together) against the common enemy: the Jews. Samuel Gaertner et al (1993) identified this coming together of sworn enemies to battle a common threat as the Common In-Group Identity Model.
You could almost argue it’s in Israel’s and the West’s interests to let the Sunnis and the Shias engage in sectarian conflict right across the Middle East – and Samuel Huntington (1993), with his theoretical division of the world into near-incompatible cultural zones, would almost certainly advocate such a course of action.
There are at least 2 major problems with that approach.
Firstly, there are too many outside parties with interests in the Middle East to just let them slug it out. From Israel desperate to maintain its security and possibly expand its borders, to a large part of the world’s dependency on oil from the Middle East, to Iran and several Arab states tacitly – or not so tacitly! – providing support to al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements - outside countries have good and often competing reasons to meddle in the Middle East. Plus, of course American and Russian arms manufacturers have a live war in which to try out their latest death toys for a sizeable profit - only that very easily degenerates into a proxy war between their respective governments.
Secondly, the way the Western media works means that, in ORANGE’s desire to make more and more money, it will ramp up the ‘atrocity factor’ by coming up with ever more gory, outrageous and scary stories to sell. The ‘desensitisation factor’ results in eventual boredom in the audiences, meaning the media have to find even more gory, outrageous and scary stories to continue making money. This gives the RED/Thanatos-driven extremists on the ground in Syria an external and ever-more demanding market for their filmed atrocities.
It’s certainly given Abu Sakkar his ’15 minutes of fame’, with several major league interviews and lead stories in international media last week.
For Barrack Obama, Syria presents a damned-if-I-do-and-damned-if-I-don’t challenge. The situation is so complex, both non-intervention and intervention (at any level) present dangers from virtually every angle. No wonder he is clearly procrastinating! But the intense public reaction to every new outrage that is worse than the one before puts more and more pressure on him and other Western leaders to act. The reaction, of course, fades with the desensitised ‘boredom factor’ until an even worse outrage sneaks its way on to YouTube.
While the political leaders of the Western world ring their hands and wonder rather helplessly what do, the next Abu Sakkar is carving up his next victim, all the while hamming it up for the camera.