Orlando. Istanbul. Dhaka. Baghdad. It has been a depressing couple of weeks for anyone who abhors violence, loathes terrorism and cherishes civilized society. ISIS, reeling in both Iraq and Syria, has proven itself able to embolden various zealots, cultists, camp followers and wannabes in other parts of the world to perpetrate acts of horrific cruelty on innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is admittedly difficult right now to believe in the alleged brotherhood of man or to feel very good about being a member of the species Homo sapiens.
But history, often an abrasive, can sometimes provide, if not solace, at least some perspective. Two recent items in the news are suggestive in this regard.
First, July 1 marked the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, arguably the most horrific battle in history. On the first day of this World War I clash along the upper stretches of the River Somme in northern France, over 19,000 British soldiers lost their lives and over 57,000 others were wounded. Over the course of the entire 141 days of fighting at the Somme, almost a million British, French and German soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing, numbers that constitute a story of mass carnage staggering to contemplate. The rationale for the Somme is now considered more complicated than scholars – and the general public – once thought, but any way you slice it, a million lives lost against 4.5 miles of forward movement by the Brits seems an egregiously bad deal for all concerned.
However heinous the four terrorist attacks over the past three weeks – and, let there be no mistake, they were heinous indeed – about 850 people in toto were killed or wounded, not counting 10 terrorists who died in the bloodbaths. Yes, 850 people subjected to terrorism is 850 too many, and we mourn each and every one, particularly the nearly 400 who lost their lives. May each of the dead rest in peace.
Nonetheless, some historical perspective is called for, which is answered by remembering the butchery that defined the Somme. ISIS comprises a brutish group, to be sure, but its state is largely a chimera and its mayhem-creating capability rather more of the retail than wholesale variety. Regarding capability, the threat it poses is very different from that posed, let us say, by nuclear-armed North Korea under Kim Jong-un.
And different, too, from Adolf Hitler’s murderous Reich, which brings me to the other news item I wish to address: the death of Elie Wiesel, the esteemed author of “Night” among other works on the Holocaust.
A little balm in Gilead
With Wiesel’s death, the world lost one of the foremost and most memorable chroniclers of that enormity. We mourn his death, too, but take some comfort in the fact that because of Wiesel’s dedicated efforts, the scale and scope of Hitler’s villainy have been imprinted indelibly in our historical imaginations, including, most notably, our knowledge regarding the millions of deaths for which “Der Führer” was ultimately responsible.
The quote that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” is often attributed to Joseph Stalin, who himself has as much blood on his hands as almost anyone in history. That said, the quote contains much truth. It is hard to wrap one’s head around large numbers of deaths whether from natural disasters, epidemics or wars – or from terrorism.
The fact that the incidents making us weep today involve numbers of violent deaths several orders of magnitude lower than was often the case in famous incidents and episodes of violence in the not-too-distant past suggests that there just may be a little balm in Gilead after all.
Further corroboration is provided by Steven Pinker, the distinguished Harvard-based cognitive scientist who argued convincingly in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that human violence of all kinds has declined significantly over the millennia – again, by orders of magnitude.
We should have a margin of hope that the scattered and episodic acts of terrorism associated with ISIS, however wicked and vile, will also pass. Bluntly put, ISIS poses a different and significant, but not civilizational, much less existential threat to the world order.
Through smart, committed policy responses by Islamic and non-Islamic nation-states working in concert, the civilized world will ultimately win out. We have survived worse deeds than those committed (thus far) by ISIS, and, inshallah, will survive this group’s cruel acts – and this group – with our belief in humanity, much of our dignity and almost all of our population intact.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.