Remains of a biblically brutal regime turned to dust by modern-day monsters

March 9, 2015

An undated image of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. REUTERS TV/Files

What are the benefits of cruelty? This question occurred to me after forcing myself to watch some of the slickly produced propaganda videos of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). The now-infamous productions often show the cruel killing of helpless captives in the most horrifying ways imaginable. It’s hard not to wonder about the intent of the filmmakers. It’s also hard not to wonder who the target audience is.

I also watched recent video of ISIS members in a museum smashing (alleged) archaeological relics from the very ancient Mesopotamian past. I felt a certain sense of historical irony while doing so. I wondered as I watched them use sledgehammers and power drills on a 3,000 year old Assyrian statue if they realized that they were following the ancient Assyrian playbook as they tried to erase the region’s past.

Within sight of the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul lie the ruins of the great Assyrian capital at Nineveh. The Assyrians of that era were masters at the art of atrocity marketing. The concept of publicizing horrific cruelty to cow and intimidate subjects or opponents has a long history, and only fell out of style relatively recently (and not everywhere). Lacking the 21st-century media tools ISIS possesses, earlier peoples took a more old-school approach. The Assyrians used stone as the vehicle for their marketing of atrocity.

“I built a pillar over his city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skin. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar…And I cut the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled…Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads, and I bound their heads to tree trunks round the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire.”

That is the boasting of an Assyrian king who lived almost 3,000 years ago, named Ashurnasirpal II. He was one of many Assyrian monarchs in the so-called “Biblical” era of history that enforced their rule with almost unbelievable brutality.

The cruelty of the Assyrian Empire’s actions were publicized via text, colored wall paintings and carvings in stone. Historian Arthur Ferrill compared them to photos of Nazi concentration camps, and said they had few parallels in history. Artwork showing the skin being cut off of living captives, the impaling of prisoners on stakes, mass forced deportations of conquered peoples, captives being burned or having their tongues torn out and everywhere piles upon piles of human heads are highlighted. One can only imagine what Ashurnasirpal might have done had he possessed video technology.

But the Assyrians were more the norm than the exception throughout most of world history. The ancient Romans, for example, also knew how to make a point by marketing atrocities. One of their citizen-generals, Marcus Crassus, famously had the captured slaves that survived the famed Spartacus revolt crucified along the Appian Way. The 6,000 victims died suspended on either side of the busy Roman road, at evenly spaced intervals. The bodies were left in place for months. Is this the ancient equivalent of posting horrifyingly violent acts on the Internet? Or is it a twisted, bloody version of a modern freeway billboard campaign? It certainly wasn’t unusual. Publicized cruelty was all the rage throughout most of human history, and it was common in most places until quite recently.

It’s only in the last century or so that public executions, for example, have become rare. Having people view a burning, beheading or hanging (with or without a torture appetizer) was thought to be something that reinforced law and authority and demonstrated that justice was being carried out. Often it was thought an edifying thing to have children watch. Had there been video and the Internet two centuries ago, would that mentality have supported the idea that it would be good to post such events online for all to see?

This old-style marketing of atrocity and object lessons seems to contrast sharply with the more modern approach. In the 20th century, the architects of mass atrocities usually tried to disguise or cover up their cruelty. One can only assume that they felt that human sensibilities had become more refined and that widespread exposure of their deeds would reflect badly upon them. How would the German public living in the Third Reich have reacted to ISIS-like, slickly produced films showing the scenes inside a death camp gas chamber while people were dying? Even in a nation brainwashed by state-fostered anti-Semitism, it’s hard to imagine the reaction being anything the Nazi regime would have considered positive.

The fact that the Islamic State’s marketing gurus feel otherwise is interesting. Perhaps its more evidence bolstering the idea that ISIS seeks to return to the values of an earlier, much more harsh historical era. If so,we might be seeing a visual and visceral example of what our ancestors might have done with a good TV studio.

If online video existed in the Middle Ages, does the burning of Joan of Arc go viral? Would it go viral today?


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I wonder how ISIS compares to a group like the Taliban? I got that they’re both “Muslim extremists” but could they be considered to be following the same playbook? The Taliban didn’t strike me as being so expansion-minded.

Great insight Dan, thanks.

Posted by Goodfoot | Report as abusive

Great article Dan!

Posted by alton987 | Report as abusive

Any religion that does not see a future on earth, is probably led by crazy people. And you know who follows crazy people? More crazy people.

End days are all fun and good until you wake up tomorrow with a mortgage payment due, and soccer practice to get to. Grow up, Islam.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Not only Assyrians in ancient times , but also Ethiopians in the years ( 1987-83 ) of Mengistu’s Red Terror , when mutilated bodies of people including school kids as young as 11 years old were dumped on street corners , might have understood ISIS’s methods ( or I could add Rwandans and Bosnians in the 1990s ; or if one wanted to go a bit futher back think of Japanese and Chinese atrocities during the Japanese takeover of China and the later communist takeover of China ; so the statement that in the past century became less cruel may apply more to Western countries than elsewhere . Technology and mass media may have helped de-sensitize the public to cruelty or helped create the illusion the veneer of civilization is thick and this might be a factor in the development of ISIS .

Posted by JohnOfOnt | Report as abusive

History is full of groups like ISIS. Atrocity is ancient. The only thing new is smart phones and twitter accounts in every pocket. Get thick skin or turn off your phone. Men are gross.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Very insightful&very interesting. Thank you Dan Carlin, most informative

Posted by JoKidd | Report as abusive

Here’s the greatest Atrocity PR in history: The Japanese killed THIRTY MILLION CHINESE during WWII and yet everyone sees them as the victim- The media cried today about the firebombing of Tokyo yet NOTHING about the 30 million murdered Chinese.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

No doubt ISIS has committed some terrible atrocities. (Granted, ISIS would not even exist if not for the Israel-controlled US government’s constant meddling and efforts at “regime change” in that part of the world. But that’s another topic.) How about the far more numerous atrocities committed by the US government? How many foreign countries that posed no threat to us has “our” government invaded since WWII? How many human beings outside the US have been killed, blinded, paralyzed, or crippled by the US government’s Imperial Forces? How many have been horribly burned with demonic weapons like napalm and white phosphorus? How many people have been imprisoned and tortured physically and psychologically in hellish dungeons by American “good guys”?

In the minds of the flag-waving, neo-fascist Americans, the victims of the US government’s foreign aggression always deserved what they got. According to their thinking, if a foreign military force were to invade and occupy the US, we would have the right to resist them with guerilla warfare; but when “our” troops invade a country, the citizens of that country have no right to resist us. Even when foreign noncombatants fall victim to our bombs, bullets, and torture, that’s their fault for being born in the “wrong” country. They need to stay out of the way of our ordnance!

Yes, that’s what today’s excuse for “America” has come to stand for: “might makes right” and “do as we say, not as we do.” Even more, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been replaced by “My country, right or wrong” (where “my country” actually means “federal politicians and their armed mercenaries”). Ironically, this mindset is especially prevalent among those who think of themselves as Christians, i.e., followers of the “Prince of Peace.”

For most Americans, “right” and “wrong” are no longer defined by a God in heaven or by their own consciences, but by a false god here on earth. That false god is the US federal government. Americans like to advertise their hatred of the corrupt politicians in Congress and the White House; but then why do they worship those people? Why do Americans slavishly obey those politicians’ laws, support their wars, adopt their enemies as our own, venerate their symbol (the Stars and Stripes) as a holy idol, and view their armed servants in uniform as righteous angels who can do no wrong? This is cognitive dissonance on a colossal scale.

In a word: Anything that is wrong for ISIS to do is also wrong for US forces to do. That includes invading other countries, torturing captives, or anything else.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

ISIS is a joke. They are a ‘military’ with no way to communicate, other than consumer cell phones. We hacked all of their cell towers within the first two weeks. Now we monitor their movements and read their texts, and listen to their calls. Very easy to hit a target when they tell you where to aim. So all you jihadists around the world, go join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. They’ll give you a free samsung galaxy :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

You know, as an Assyrian I feel extremely offended. Right now Islamic Terrorists are and have been committing genocide against the Assyrian people for the last 1000+ years. We have been Christians since 1AD and were followers of the ancient Assyrian religion prior to that. We are good democratic people and we still exist there are 5 million of us worldwide and about 1-2 million in the U.S. We are good people, and we were kicked out of our own lands by muslims and Kurds. So next time at least mention the fact that Assyrian people are being slaughtered, raped, and pillaged before trying to justify what isis is doing. 2000 years ago war had different rules, things were different, such as putting peoples heads on sticks in front of doors. It is 2015, you don’t see Christians stoning non virgin engaged woman anymore do you? lol thanks hopefully I have shed some light on this topic.

Sargon, an American Assyrian.

Posted by Sargon1 | Report as abusive

Our own western culture, well the Christian part, has committed the very same atrocities. Consider how the natives of south america were treated. The native indians of north america. That’s just in the last 6-700 years. Prior to that, going back over a thousand years the Christians ‘subdued’ the native cultures of eastern Europe. Prior to that the Romans subdued the Germanic tribes. In all these instances the native culture was completely overrun, temples and idols were destroyed, languages forcibly changed. Ultimately the end result…our civilization here, built right on top of a previous culture and nation. Seems we even took their children just a few mere decades ago and ‘educated the savage’ out of them.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

so how many cruise missiles armed with how many tons of high explosives did the US armed forces fly into Iraq during the first few weeks of its invasion?

just checking.

yes, of course ISIS is barbaric. and they had a masterful tutor.

Posted by wilhelm | Report as abusive

ISIS = Rabble with guns.

Posted by notfooled2 | Report as abusive

Just for the record, human beings were also turned to dust by our very own American monsters. We invaded Iraq for absolutely no reason, and displaced millions of lives. While I am deeply saddened by the loss of archeological treasures, the inhumane taking of life by America and its allies is even more disturbing. Look in the mirror Americans — we have created a governmental Frankenstien.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Mankind cannot change himself. Education and technology cannot and will not change him. He can decorate himself with his Dacron-Polyester profile, but he’ll always be mean as Hell. God’s the only one that can change him.

Posted by T.L. | Report as abusive

Nice article, people should know ISIL is not s single or unique case in history, same atrocities were committed few years back in bosnia, or even now by syrian barbaric regime that is supported by russia and Obama administration, let alone centuries ago.

Posted by Noproxy | Report as abusive

Maybe and let us hope they were reproductions and the originals are hidden away.

Posted by mirab | Report as abusive

Maybe and let us hope they were reproductions and the originals are hidden away somewhere safe.

Posted by mirab | Report as abusive

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