Cruelty, a word that suggests a deliberate intention to hurt and damage
another, is not only practiced by governments, including democracies,
that employ torture and atrocity for many different reasons from the
extraction of information, to the suppression of dissident and ethnically
different groups and by criminal groups, especially drug gangs that
use mutilated bodies as warnings. It is now deeply embedded in fantasy
life: in cartoon violence, in video games, in literature and visual art, in
mass media versions of the Holocaust and the “dirty wars.” Consider
a film like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, in which extreme
cruelty is played for laughs as Jewish commandos in Nazi Germany rival
the ss in horrendous acts and scalp their prisoners. Tarantino boasted
that “taboos are meant to be broken,” but when the taboo against harm-
ing another is broken, there can be no limits, no social pact. Jonathan
Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones devotes several hundred pages to acts
of cruelty as the protagonist, a Nazi officer, welcomes the reader as his
brother, as someone who in the same circumstances would behave just
as he did. Postapocalyptic devastation in countless films, in comics
and in novels takes us back to primitive states where violence was the
necessary tool of survival. Notorious crimes are rapidly fictionalized or
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