The barbarism of the scene is explicit, even cavalier: A warlord watches his young protege execute prisoners while he enjoys a haircut. The commander relishes his brief victory over an apparently stronger enemy while we look on from afar, sickened by the callous killings, indignant at the involvement of child soldiers, and certain that any culture that indulges in such depravity has no respect for life. They want to destroy what we have: our laws, our values and our civilization.
It is a sadly common scene. Sometimes we react with indignation and fear. Sometimes we remain numb, inuring ourselves to the violence in an attempt to impose normalcy at a time of rising terrorism. But regardless of our reaction, these horrific events happen repeatedly in our time. Where does this particular scene take place? Is it perpetrated by the Islamic State in Raqqa? Al Shabaab in Nairobi? Al Qaeda in Iraq?
None of the above. This scene actually dates back to the year 69, when the Jewish revolt and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple were the biggest news of the times. But this is another revolt. As with every era and every newscast, there is more than one story from which to choose — even though the media trends toward covering but a single event at any given time. This dreadful scene is of the Batavian revolt against Rome. The moment comes alive in a 1613 painting by Otto van Veen commemorating a proud, if brief, moment for the Dutch, whose ancestors rose up, like the Jews, against an empire. They lost.
Given this context, do we still sanction the Batavian leader, Claudius Civilis, for letting his son use Roman prisoners for target practice?
A recent visit to Amsterdam's extraordinary Rijksmuseum raised countless questions for me about how and why the past repeats itself, particularly in its butchery. Does the might of the mighty make right? Or are the valiant efforts for freedom worth collateral excesses of cruelty? Who decides the fate of the masses? What is fair and what is just? Are our values indeed universal and do we all want the same thing at the end of the day? The Rijksmuseum is alive with these questions as posed by Dutch masters who indulge in historical, epic and fantastical narratives. Salome's lust for John the Baptist's head. Brutal slave trade. Jacob cheating his brother Esau out of his inheritance. An anthropomorphized swan defending its young. Sixteenth-century battles for independence, territory and resources. And amid it all, a mother cradles her child.
Taking in the contradictions of human nature on canvases both giant and small was an exercise in rue and awe. Magnificent works of art the world over steal away one's breath: their size and specificity, near-photographic realism of the past, impressions of time gone by cast in streaks and dots, techniques and refinements of color and brush, the use of light, perspective and two-dimensional motion. As one feeble in these arts I stood before the paintings and gaped, humbled by the artistic prowess. As one trained in communications and connections, though, I ached knowing that we have been repeating these terrible offenses against one another since settling down to guard our fields in the Neolithic era. Taking a quick look at our world today, it appears we are content to continue on the same path.
Some might say we are doomed to repeat the past, but not for lack of trying to steer our ship in another direction. We enacted the Magna Carta and ended the divine right of kings. But that gave way to the demonic rights of dictators. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, and the Netherlands abandoned the practice two years earlier. But human trafficking continues with a vengeance. The establishment of the state of Israel created a homeland for the Jews and homelessness for many Palestinians. The Berlin Wall came down and others go up. U.S. relations with Cuba are warming and Iran is preparing to buy civilian airplanes from Boeing, which some see as progress and others strongly advise against. Even those who voted for a Brexit know there will be consequences of economic instability and geopolitical tremors in the European bloc. The matrix of change has no guarantees.
Yet the more things change the more they stay the same.
Although we are the real McCoy and not the mechanical devices that merely mimic human behavior, as my colleague Luc de Keyser writes, we are not using our natural cognitive gifts to learn from the past. Too often we default, like the best of robots, to merely replicating basic human ways, "weighing functions in response to a representative set of examples in the hope that it will work accurately when applied to other, similar sets." We jump to simplistic conclusions about who commits what crimes and why, who's against us and how to stop their advances.
Maybe we should go a little easier on ourselves and be more patient; keep the very long view in mind. It takes time to recover from war and to get an economy back on its feet after crashes, referendums and sanctions. It takes time to reset our personal and social moral compasses after committing or suffering brutality.
How shall we judge the Batavian, basking in bloody victory and valuing his son's archery lesson over the suffering of another human being? In the long term, that son may become ruler and he'll need the skills of a warrior to lead and protect his people. Could that be comparable to the unfortunate choices our leaders face today? Destroy that home because there could be an insurgent inside. Drop an atom bomb because it's the fastest way to end the war. It's complicated.
These are challenging times, yes. But a visit to the museum reminds me that human beings have always lived in challenging times. We are part of a continuum that our descendants will analyze in centuries to come, just as we assess the ways of those who came before us and from whom we inherit both brutality and creativity. While we contemplate our past in art museums, people in the future may assess our times by watching YouTube.
In the ongoing dialectic on the nature of mankind, art is an anthology of our shared glories and shame. My encounter with Civilis the Batavian reminds me not to be too swift to judge, while painting after painting reinforces the possibility that we, too, will get through the challenges before us.