We are days away from the month of Muharram and the annual commemoration of the massacre at Karbala, where Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Holy Prophet, and his male family members down to the last infant were killed. They were starved and even denied water before the carnage started. The women and girls who were among the besieged were taken prisoner. The event is considered the most tragic example of bloodshed and barbarism in Muslim history.

Unfortunately, everywhere one looks today there is incontrovertible proof of the human capacity for cruelty. History provides even more. For instance, many years ago, I used to believe that art, the creation of it and the pleasure it gives, was a small rebellion against the human capacity to be cruel. But I changed my mind when I visited the Alhambra Palace, constructed during the 13th and 14th centuries in Granada, Spain. This was the residence of the last Muslim kings of Granada, the building built atop a hill and at a beautiful angle where the golden rays of the sun as it sets hit the arches and porticoes.

Cruelty and art

To everyone around, particularly the residents of the surrounding area called Albaicín, the palace appears almost ethereal, something that has been conjured by other beings. It was, however, made and inhabited by humans. If you purchase a tour, which is quite expensive and requires booking long beforehand, you can see the attention invested and the spiritually moving result while witnessing the miraculously still surviving courtyards and inner rooms of the magical palace.

But here we find examples of extreme cruelty linked to the creation of art. Upon reaching the inner court, an area poetic in its fountains and roses, I wondered how one could ever be sad or distracted in the presence of such beauty. One could, I soon learned: “one” was none other than Mohammad XII or Abu Abdullah, the last Moorish king of Granada.

Legend has it that a quarrel began between the Banu Siraj and Banu Edin clans. It is said that a member of the former clan had been seen trying to climb up to the chamber of one of the Banu Edin women. One of the elders of the latter clan was so angered that he arranged a banquet to which he invited all the Banu Siraj. Then when they were all seated in a chamber that opens onto a beautiful courtyard, he ordered them to be slaughtered.

Their blood seeped from under the doors and into the courtyard where it poured into the still operating fountains. Even great beauty, created lovingly and with such attention, cannot incapacitate human cruelty or talk a killer out of his mania, his desire to avenge real or imagined slights. Not long after, the kingdom fell and King Abu Abdullah had to ride away in tears from the ancestral palace where generations of his family had ruled, and which would soon be looted, its achingly beautiful contents and furniture ransacked and ruined.

Perhaps it could be said that the massacre within was a sign of the terrible cruelty of exile, which the king, who is said to have been only in his 30s at the time of his departure, had to endure until death.

Witnessing cruelty

The history of Pakistan has cruelties woven into the very story. It was an act of creation mired in colonial cruelty. There are some in India and Pakistan who are still squabbling over which side endured or inflicted more deaths – or rather which one had a greater capacity for cruelty.

The cynic would say that the competition endures today, for what is a nuclear weapons race other than a mad bluff at who has the capacity to kill and destroy more. Those who will suffer from such a cataclysm are human but so too will those who inflict this cruelty.

Nowadays, the rationalisation of patriotism and duty is presented to make blood flow into millions of courtyards, and no invocation of the humanity of one or the other can halt matters. Those who believe in the human capacity to eschew cruelty are believed to be stupid and naïve.

The only possible panacea against these potential avalanches of human cruelty which surround us is to acknowledge and even highlight their presence. Perhaps the potency of cruelty lies in the human urge to deny its existence, to wish it away by pretending it is not there. When cruelty or the capacity for cruelty – individual, national and societal – is discussed openly then it can be judged and dissected; its antidotes developed with greater speed and more pressing commitment.

It is no surprise then that the emergence of the phone camera has already initiated the process. We are no longer hypothesising about the cruelty inflicted in private, we are all now witnesses to it.

This task, that of being a witness to human cruelty, a recorder, a sifter, a publiciser of it, is not small. Sometimes, interventions are not possible at the moment, for any number of reasons not least because they would be a danger to witnesses including those wanting to intervene. But record making is an antidote to future cruelties, even if they are only one or two.

Records of cruelty force society into the moral reckoning. They force a confrontation with an aspect of the self, the individual self, the social self and the spiritual self that is otherwise hidden under the thin onion-skin of humanity.

All those who wish to defeat this innate capacity for cruelty within themselves and others should know this. It is never just a video of a child being beaten, never only a picture of a cleric who is a paedophile. These are small rebellions against those who seek to inflict anguish and who revel in the suffering and pain of others.

This article first appeared in Dawn.