By Anjuli Kolb

Following the massacre of 16 Afghanis by an American officer last Sunday, the ubiquitous question in the press seems to hinge on the singularity of the crime. An aberration? A disgusting outrage? Or an inevitable outcome of a war "on" terror? Let's open the history books to test the uniqueness of this type of behavior.

The above photograph, taken in 1919, shows an Indian man obeying Brigadier General Reginald Dyer’s “Crawling Order”—according to which residents of Amritsar were required to crawl (at gunpoint) down a particular street to get to and from their houses. Days later, Dyer ordered the massacre of between 1,000 and 1,500 men, women, and children trapped in a public garden called Jallianwallah Bagh on suspicion of insurgency, and to "teach them a lesson." Writing in the seventh century, a Jain monk asks us to consider whether we may always lose our way and encounter the demoness of time when we set out for another country; whether the sweet drops of a so-called freedom can be justification enough.

1. “After years of war, Mr. Samad…had been reluctant to return to his home in Panjwai, which was known in good times for its grapes and mulberries…It was against this background that, United States officials said, the soldier left the American base and walked south about a mile to Mr. Samad’s village…an elderly woman named Anar Gula, who had been cowering in her home, said she had heard an explosion, screaming and shooting as the soldier broke down the door of Mr. Samad’s house and chased his wife and two other female family members from room to room before he shot them. Two of the women and some of the children had been stabbed, she and other villagers said, and blankets had been laid over them and set alight—to hide the stab wounds, she said.”

—Taimoor Shah and Graham Bowley, New York Times report on the 16 Afghanis murdered by an American Staff Sergeant on Sunday

2. “If an officer justifies his conduct, no matter how gallant his record is—and everybody knows how gallant General Dyer's record is—by saying that there was no question of undue severity, that if his means had been greater the casualties would have been greater, and that the motive was to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab, I say without hesitation, and I would ask the Committee to contradict me if I am wrong…that it is the doctrine of terrorism. If you agree to that, you justify everything that General Dyer did. Once you are entitled to have regard neither to the intentions nor to the conduct of a particular gathering, and to shoot and to go on shooting, with all the horrors that were here involved, in order to teach somebody else a lesson, you are embarking upon terrorism, to which there is no end.”

Edwin Samuel Montagu, Secretary of State for India, speaking at theCommons Sitting on July 8th, 1920, following the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre

3. “A certain man, much oppressed by the woes of poverty,

Left his own home, and set out for another country.

He passed through the land, with its villages, cities, and harbors,

And after a few days he lost his way…

[t]here appeared before him a most evil demoness, holding a sharp sword, dreadful in face and form, laughing with loud and shrill laughter…he trembled in all his limbs with deathly fear, and looked in all directions….

[j]ust by chance a drop of honey fell on his head,

Rolled down his brow, and somehow reached his lips,

And gave him a moment’s sweetness.

He longed for other drops…

This parable is powerful to clear minds of those on the way to freedom.

Now hear its sure interpretation…

The drops of Honey are trivial pleasures, terrible at the last.

How can a wise man want them, in the midst of such peril and hardship?” 

—“The Man in the Well,” parable from the Jain text The Story of Samaradityakatha; cited from a prose and verse version written in Prakrit byHaribhadra in the seventh century and collected in Sources of Indian Tradition (Introduction to Oriental Civilizations) 

Let Me Recite What History Teaches (LMRWHT) is a weekly column that flashes the lavalamp, gaslight, candlelight, campfire, torch, sometimes even the starlight of the past on something that is happening now. The form of the column strives to recover what might be best about the “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts.” Each week you will find here some citational constellation, offered with astonishment and without comment, that can serve as an end in itself, dinner party fodder, or an occasion for further thought or writing. The title is taken from the last line of Stein’s poem “If I Told Him (A Completed Portrait of Picasso)."

Image: National Army Museum [via]