For the last year and a half I have been obsessed with the violence in Mexico and the cartel-fueled drug wars. There is a character in my new novel named Violeta. She lives in the midst of the blood drenched chaos and I felt I had to be familiar with the horror of her day-to-day life so that as I could write her story. I have spent a lot of time down on the border, interviewed people whose lives have been affected, visited the sites of savage brutality. I start each morning with the Mexican blogs where I read about unspeakable atrocities and look at gory photos. Mass graves keep popping up all over the country in which 20, 30, 70 tortured bodies are discovered. At first I was able to keep my boundary intact. The crimes committed against innocent people in Mexico were upsetting but they were happening in a foreign country—not here in my life. I was safe. But slowly the reality of Violeta’s life started to color the way I looked at the world. Everyday I viewed pictures of headless bodies and crying families. I read accounts of barbarous torture and saw that the cartels were engaged in a monstrous competition, each group trying to out do the other in order to prove that they were most fierce and therefore most powerful. I got depressed. Was this the end of western civilization, as we know it? Had human nature devolved to such a level that we were slaughtering each other over drugs and money? I decided to take a look at history in order to put things in perspective.
Of course I was aware that torture has always been a part of the human condition. Public displays of abuse and execution have consistently been used in the past to deter others from committing similar crimes. I knew that persecution and sacrifice were practiced in many religions throughout the history of mankind. But it was through a careful inventory of exactly what we’d done to each other in the past that I was able to revise my outlook for the future.
We are all familiar with the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome. Originally the “games” consisted of two robust warriors who would enter an arena, clad in armor and wielding weapons. Men with names like Spartacus, Priscus and Thrimpus. They would try their damnedest to kill each other for the entertainment of the Emperor and thousands of loyal subjects. Those contests were immensely popular. But with time the public appetite for blood and gore increased and the sport evolved. By the end of the Roman Empire the gladiatorial games had devolved into a full-out slaughter. Starving prisoners were forced into the arena with hungry, savage animals. The audience watched and cheered as the prisoners were torn to pieces and devoured—all in the name of entertainment.
Caligula liked to hang his victims upside down and slowly saw them in half, starting at the groin. He found that by hanging them upside down the brain received plenty of blood and was thus able to stay conscious until the saw finally reached a main artery in the abdomen.
During The Middle Ages, Christian leaders used torture to force people to convert. Those who resisted becoming a good Christian were burned at the stake or drowned or suffocated.
Catholic priests of the Spanish Inquisition favored using pulleys or the rack to literally tear their victims apart. Heretics were nearly always tortured.
Vlad the Impaler was know for burning, skinning, roasting and boiling his victims then force feeding them to their relatives. But his torture of choice, his trademark, was impaling his enemies on a sharp, pointed stake. He would order the victim’s legs to be spread wide and then insert the stake into the rectum and slowly, slowly push it up through the body. This agonizing form of torture was performed publicly and it could takes hours, even days, before the subject finally expired from blood loss or a punctured heart.
The Bolsheviks are said to have gouged out the eyes and cut off the noses of their enemies.
Stalin, Hitler, Mao.
Idi Amin killed more than 300,000 people in eight years. He had his second wife murdered by dismemberment then ordered her body parts sewn back together so he could show her off to their children.
Necklacing was popular in South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s and 1990s. A tire filled with gasoline was forced over the victim’s arms and chest and then set on fire.
The list goes on and on. The barbaric crimes that we’re seeing in Mexico are nothing new. In the course of my research I have been reminded that blood lust and cruelty are an ever-present component in the history of mankind. We have been brutally slaughtering each other right from day one. Nothing new. But what I realize is that for every ounce of darkness there is an equal or greater part that is light. We make art, and music and write great literature. And I hate to sound like a sap but there is kindness and love. There is always love. Sometimes the balance shifts but we endure. I am still deeply troubled by what is happening in Mexico but it is oddly comforting to see that this kind of present-day brutality has happened over and over again throughout history. I believe that, with time, the other part of human nature, the good part, will prevail. We’ve been here before; it’s going to be okay. And now I’m going to sit down and try to finish Violeta’s story.