Photo courtesy of The Columbian

Crucifixion of two men, but not to exact a torturous death. The assailants in Balagalla, Kandy, last Friday, wanted a bestial vengeance solely by inflicting the intense pain of actual nailing to a cross. The hapless victims were apparently ‘guilty’ of merely casting insults via social communications tool.

Humiliation, clearly, is severe enough a suffering to justify the brutal nailing of a person on the cross which, itself, is an ancient instrument of very cruel execution after a long period of intense agony. Whatever the provocation, the act does not, at face value, seem to be an instantaneous response in anger since it required first the planned abduction of the two victims, then the preparations for crucifixion, namely, obtaining of the nails and hammer and, the assembling of the cross itself.

But why nailing and why nail on to a cross? While this ‘sceptred isle’ had, and still has, its own repertoire of methods of torture and execution, crucifixion was not one of them. One wonders, along with ethnographers and sundry other analysts, whether last week’s bloody act was Sri Lanka’s very first crucifixion. With an island colonised by Christian powers who were bent on converting at least some of the population into a religious docility, we may speculate whether, during our colonial past, some pious fanaticism did actually inspire the occasional non-lethal but nevertheless injurious, crucifixion ritual by local Christians. We know that still, in some formerly colonised Christian societies (e.g. The Philippines), some of the faithful still, in this post-modern 21st Century, express their fervour by subjecting themselves to symbolic mock crucifixions – usually being tied to crosses, although very occasionally some would be nailed to the cross, even if very briefly.

In many, if not most, other societies, with other prevailing religiosities, the faithful similarly demonstrate their fervour by voluntarily and deliberately suffering a variety of other kinds of pain and discomfort. These range from milder disciplines like daily fasting, to extreme, self-inflicted, physical pain and injury such as self-flagellation, hanging from pierced metal hooks, wearing of clothing and footwear that have inwardly piercing metal spikes, and, ‘fire-walking’. The late Professor Stanely J. Tambiah, in his exhaustive lecture series later published as ‘Magic, Science and Religion and the Scope of Rationality’, grappled with the perennial thorny issue of cultural ‘difference’ and, finally argued for a minimal ‘psychic unity’ of humankind.

All these acts of painful piety are, nevertheless, also acts of violence, even if voluntarily self-inflicted.

Given that some of the ancient Sri Lankan techniques are impractical for covert, rapid action, simple nailing is a convenient option. And for the nailing base, I guess the suspected perpetrators simply followed the Roman trend of thought and worked out the most ergonomically painful ‘solution’. It is just possible they had already observed ubiquitous Christian iconography as ‘models’ for their design.

The use of a sacralised religious contraption will likely be hurtful to the religious community concerned. But this is human nature at its worst. And this country has seen similar macabre behaviour in the recent past. One particular method of excruciating modern torture, used all over the world by various groups not least by ‘security forces’, was reportedly given the nickname ‘Dharma Chakraya’ by its (regular) users in our Dharma Dveepa when they started the practice a few decades ago. Its current users probably use the same term. It involves tying the victim in certain way around a metal pole, suspending him/her and spinning the victim around that pole like a wheel. This writer learned about this from Amnesty International’s newsletter in the early 1970s which reported this method being used in other countries, especially in the original ‘Banana Republics’.

Truly torture has no boundaries, nor deadlines, given humanity’s psychic unity.

And such bizarre ‘overkill’ for just insulting remarks made on social media is also not really ‘bizarre’ given that, for decades in this country, people have been ‘disappeared’, murdered, imprisoned, tortured and maimed for just writing things or saying things. In one notorious case, a person was ‘accidentally’ burnt to death for even playing rugby!

This tragic but frequent human response to conflict situations, whether perpetrated by criminal thugs, social bullies, politicians using ‘contractors’ or state personnel happens all over the world to varying degrees and happens here, big-time.

So, will this be the continuing style of dealing with social conflict?

In a sense, as pointed out in the previous essays of this short series, COVID-19 has suppressed  some of the volatility that could arise from underlying and on-going major conflicts – the conflicts discussed earlier. But even ‘lockdowns’, even if (deliberately?) inefficiently enforced, can only suppress social anger for a limited time. If some individuals can explode in absolutely violent rage over the triviality of a social media insult, how would whole cohorts of people or social layers or entire communities act when, finally, the terrors of an unseen contagion fade, allowing human activity, not just economic operations, to ‘open up’?

Intricate social and political management is key to meeting this challenge and not legalised repression, or covert violence. Nor should it be religious gimmickry or cultism, whether ‘peniyas’ or cursing or insulting sacralised ritual practices like ‘Halal’ or ‘Dharma Yuddha’ or ‘Jihad’.

Cosmic war  

During the extreme political repression done under the guise of ‘counter-insurgency’ in the 1980s-90s, the grieving, angry, women of the Mothers’ Front went to various shrines casting punishment spells on governmental leaders of the time. And some of the targeted governmental leaders quickly responded with their own cultic counter-spells, often at the same shrines. It was a veritable cosmic war between gods and goddesses activated by humans on Earth. Professor Gananath Obeysekere actually predicted this vengeance-motivated social violence in his famous lecture (1981) and later book on the cult of Goddess Patthini.

All sociological indications are that such cultism has only grown and evolved greatly with the help of the Internet and social media. In turn, political mobilisation has taken the easy way of motivating people according to their non-deliberative whims, desires, and impressions based on unverified information now flooding the digital communication pathways. Mass mobilisation is infinitely easier with the scale of the mass communications in which we are embedded.

Just as much as the Internet is an enormous asset in positive and creative human action, unregulated as it is, in its current infancy stage, it has also opened up the floodgates for the weirdest imaginative speculation and most destructive disinformation and, biggest ever scale of human mobilisation often based on such falsehoods and manipulation. The newly created cyberspace is the link between life – and violence – on Earth and the aspired life in Heaven.

Of course, it is most human that the divine world must reflect humanity’s attributes and more. Gods and goddesses always take on the form or attributes of the human (with some embellishments to accentuate their divinity). Even the commandments of gods without form must resonate with human interests and feelings. When left to individual interpretations alone, however, there is no verified consensus on what the Divine expects and this breaks down the security of human community.

With the facility of individual inquiry and compartmentalised consultation provided by the Internet, in which greater common interests and already constructed rational consensus are wholly undermined, there is now vast room for disintegrative human action and behaviour. ‘Self-regulation’ then, is the new myth of digitised society already affirmed by the compulsions of laissez faire political-economy.

That is why ‘the public’ is so easily blamed for the failure of pandemic management. That is why social interest groups organising to defend their interests and needs can be ‘blamed’ and targeted as outliers and not the bedrock of society.

This rise in individualised cultism is the challenge for formal religions and religious institutions. The parallel worsening of individualised political/social actions and ‘vengeance’ as opposed to ‘justice’ is the challenge for formal governance and the institutions of law and order.

Instead we have the concentration of power in extra-institutional groups of nepotistic nature and of unsuitable capacities even as there is a steady drip of ‘resignations for personal reasons’ by the competent technocrats unable to function coherently amid the chaos of ‘deals’ and individual loyalties.

Certainly, economic managers can print money. That is a standard form of financial macro-management. But print money for what purpose? Is it to bankroll bloated over-budgeting based on ‘deal’ linked economic operations? What about the need to bankroll a large-scale state subsidising of social groups deprived of earnings and business operations disadvantaged by strictly enforced ‘lockdowns’?

Instead, economic operations are allowed as normal, thereby compelling the workforce (and consumer cohorts) to mass commute and engage in mass production to earn livelihoods. In terms of the basic science of any contagion, these activities are all super-spreaders.

The next essay will discuss the available strategies for managing both the COVID interlude and avoidance of a post-COVID complex of social disasters.