To be burned alive has always been one of history's greatest nightmares.
When the Buddhist monk Thich Quanc Duc set himself on fire sitting in a busy Saigon intersection on June 11, 1963 to protest the repression of the Diem regime, the Pulitzer-winning photo by Malcolm Browne allowed the whole world to witness his self-immolation in abject horror. That someone would voluntarily subject oneself to such a fate stunned all who saw the image and called attention to his cause. "No news photo in history has generated as much emotion as this one," commented President John F. Kennedy at the time.
The same will be said about the footage of the burning to death of the captured Jordanian pilot First Lt. Moaz-el-Kasabeh by ISIS on February 3, 2015.
There is so much one could say about the obscenity, the unfathomable cruelty of dousing a man in a cage with gasoline, setting him on fire, and video taping his agony for broadcast on television and social media but words would fail. Instead I'll direct my comments to the charred images of dead people said to be the victims of coalition air strikes. "An eye for an eye," the ISIS video pronounces, as justification for this act.
It's true and tragic that anyone with a knowledge of history could never deny that fire and its effect on human flesh has always been used as a weapon of warfare, terror, and torture. The Catholic Church routinely burned Jews at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. Whole cities were sacked and burned in Europe for centuries. The Plains Indians often roasted their captives alive. Hitler's SS burned people alive in synagogues.
During the Second World War the flamethrower became a vital weapon used against Japanese soldiers holed up in caves on Pacific islands like Iwo Jima--the effect from the Japanese point of view was unforgettably rendered by director Clint Eastwood in his 2006 film, Letters From Iwo Jima. Air forces commonly dropped incendiary bombs during this war: the burning of London, the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo. How many Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated by the atomic bombs dropped in 1945?
And then came the jellied product called napalm, invented by Dow Chemical and first used by the US military in Korea but hardly on the scale that it was later used in Vietnam...
The point is easily made, then, that yes, nobody's hands are clean--war is a dirty business.
But even so, what ISIS did to Moaz el-Kassabeh--not just the savagery of the act itself but the fiendish intention to exploit and disseminate these images as a form of psychological terror--is beyond the pale. Should we watch or turn our heads away?
After seeing it, one becomes enraged, more persuaded than ever that ISIS is indeed evil, and that it should be defeated, eradicated. And when one looks at the burned corpses displayed by ISIS as the reason for this act of horror, all one has to do is think of those who burned to death in the Twin Towers--or leaped to their deaths to avoid it--and the terrible thought arises: They started this…and what happens henceforth shall be upon them.
And thus will more death by fire be justified; and thus will more history unfold through the flames.