I have to say something about Muath al-Kasasbeh. But you have to understand that it is a personal thing. I have long known that death is not the worst thing; pain is. So while I am very much against murder, I think that torture is worse. Torturing someone to death is, of course, worst of all. So when I heard that the Islamic State had burned al-Kasasbeh to death, I was touched in a more profound way than I had been on hearing of the beheadings (even though they were done in a far more cruel way than necessary).
It took me so long to write about it because I needed to find out how these psychopaths did it. But I knew that I could not watch the video. As it is, I’m horrified and will continued to be haunted by it. Not to be too ghoulish about it, but there are more and less cruel ways to burn someone to death. For example, it is far more cruel to put a lobster into a vat of water and then bring it to a boil than to simply drop the lobster into boiling water. In the first case, the lobster suffers for much longer. Horrifying as it is to contemplate, what these Islamic State representatives did was not as cruel as things that others have done in other places at other times.
But what they did was still unimaginably cruel. Basically, they did what Thích Quảng Đức voluntarily did to himself. Al-Kasasbeh was doused in gasoline. And then he was set on fire. He screamed and thrashed around his cage. This took something more than a minute. Then he collapsed. And then he was dead. I assume that by the time he collapsed, his pain system has stopped working and that he wasn’t really conscious. So we are talking about a minute and a half of hell on earth — far more pain than you or I will hopefully feel in our whole lives, compressed in a tiny slice of time.
When I was young, I knew little boys who enjoyed catching toads and throwing them far into the air to watch them splatter on the ground. I did not and do not understand this instinct. On the positive side, they were only children. On the negative side, these toads had done nothing wrong; there was no way that the boys could have imagined that smashing these toads was an act of justice or vengeance.
But there are similarities between the mindless brutality of the boys killing toads and the calculated torture murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh. The biggest is simply the lack of empathy. The boys did not think that the toads deserved the same concern as humans. And the Islamic State representatives clearly had reached the same conclusion about the actual human being Muath al-Kasasbeh.
This is an important aspect of fighting a war: dehumanizing the enemy. Because why else would anyone think it was all right to kill another human being? And to do it in the most cruel of ways? I’m still scarred from watching Saving Private Ryan. At one point, German soldiers are on fire, running from their their enclosures. And one of the Americans yells, “Don’t shoot! Let them burn!” That horrified me. That was one of the “good guys.”
Glenn Greenwald provided a large number of examples of another side of this cruelty, Burning Victims to Death: Still a Common Practice. It is about drone attacks. I’d never thought about it, because I figured that the targets were simply blown up — a quick death. But as a practical matter, those on the edges of an attack can be treated just the same Muath al-Kasasbeh.
From an article in The New York Times, Obama’s Forgotten Victims:
It isn’t my intent to equate any of this. But it is all part of the same thing. We limit our empathy. And when we do that, we are able to do anything to those we define outside our group. It is horrifying. And it is frustrating. We can send spaceships to the stars. But we can’t manage to treat each other with even the most basic of humanity. We use our great intelligence to justify why it is right or necessary. But the justifications sound hollow — like things you would hear on a grammar school playground. None of it rises much above, “He started it!” Meanwhile, the cruelty continues — as it has for all of human history.
 For the record, I think it is always wrong to cook lobsters alive.