“The deeds were monstrous but the doer….quite ordinary, commonplace…..”
Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem – A Report on the Banality of Evil)

Hell is a place of cruel and unusual punishments.

Most human beings are born into and raised with some religion. Though heavenly delights may change quite substantially from religion to religion, there is an amazing degree of constancy in the torments prevalent in various hells. Most human beings therefore grow up being taught that monstrous punitive measures, considered not just illegal but also beyond the pale in their lived lives, are the norm for bad people in their particular hereafters.

Hell, like heaven, is only for the deserving. It’s a place for sinners. And sinners are undeserving of any human sympathy because they are sinners. Kind and considerate living beings have little sympathy to spare for souls suffering indescribable torments in hell.

Does this attitude of metaphysical ruthlessness bordering on metaphysical sadism play a role in making ordinary people commit, approve, or tolerate monstrous crimes? Does sympathy die when the victim is seen as deserving of his/her fate?


In June, Sri Lanka almost descended into another violent conflict. A disagreement between some Buddhists and some Muslims was allowed to become an anti-Muslim riot which left four dead and many properties destroyed.

The riots were preceded by a politico-religious meeting organised by extremist Buddhist elements. A radical monk made an incendiary speech attacking Muslims. His attentive and approving audience consisted mostly of ordinary men and women, some of them middle-aged, many of them dressed in white. They did not rant or rave; many listened to him with their hands clasped together, in the traditional gesture of respect.

They did not look as if they were capable of approving a riot. And, yet, hours later quite a few of them participated in one.


Sri Lanka is no stranger to outbreaks of anti-minority violence. Perhaps one of the darkest moments in modern Lankan history was the Black July of 1983. When the then fledging LTTE attacked an army patrol in Jaffna killing 13 soldiers, marauding Sinhala mobs attacked Tamil men, women, and children in every part of the country. For almost a fortnight, violence raged. During that reign of murder, arson, and pillage, any act of kindness or decency had to be committed in secrecy, often under cover of darkness.

In riots, unlike in wars, the killers are not soldiers who are trained to kill, but ordinary citizens who are not trained to kill.

Humanity will always have its sadists. But allowing or disallowing torture is ultimately a political decision. And that decision will be taken – or not taken – by men and women who are in no way out of the ordinary, in a psychiatric sense. Torture is still a problem in the 21st century, because it is tolerated by countless ordinary, decent, human beings without a sadistic bone in their bodies.



Historians speak about the role played by the “teaching of contempt” in the Holocaust. The practice of denigrating and demonising Jews was deeply embedded in Christian Europe; it found its justification in parts of the New Testament itself. In the Nazi lore and praxis, Jews were treated as both figures of evil and of ridicule; demons or buffoons but never ordinary people. This depiction probably made it easier for many Germans to see Jews as not-quite-human and to be indifferent to their fate.

Creating negative stereotypes is inherent in this “teaching of contempt”. Ancient prejudices, such as the “avaricious Jew”, the “lascivious Jew”, or the “treacherous Jew” became standard Nazi tropes. In the popular Sinhala discourse, the term “para” (alien) is used for all minorities. A fast growing invasive and parasitic vine, which is uprooted as soon as it is noticed in a garden, is called “demala val” (Tamil vine); “demalichcha” (Little Tamil) is the name given to a bird, which is considered to be both ugly and loud, a nuisance and an irritant. Such depictions help create/sustain what Chaim Kaplan, the diarist of the Warsaw ghetto, termed “hatred of emotion” a hatred which is beyond political ideology and is sourced in ‘some psychopathic disease’ (Scrolls of Agony: The Warsaw Diaries of Chaim A Kaplan).

The Aluthgama riot was preceded by almost two years of abusive anti-Muslim propaganda by extremist Sinhala-Buddhists, of constant referring to Lankan Muslims as avaricious money grabbers and sexual predators. Demonic or buffoonish, they were depicted as deserving of any monstrosity.

In hell, there is no sense of the proportionality. Punishment is always far in excess of the crime. Compared to hellish notions of justice, even “an eye for an eye” looks both tame and humane.

The approbation of cruel and unusual punishments, of disproportionality, of torture, is thus deeply embedded in the collective human psyche, from orient to occident. By teaching us that hell, with its absence of humanity, is a good place, religions inculcate in us a sense of indifference bordering on ruthlessness when the victim is “deserving”.

The battle against torture, against cruel and degrading punishments is also a battle against two deeply held human beliefs – that monstrous deeds lose their monstrosity when the victim is “deserving”; and there are some victims who do deserve even the most monstrous of treatments.