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The endless repeat of history

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Many of our collective disasters are shaped by a lack of imagination.

We tend to privilege what we know or experience directly, and discount what we don't. We also prioritise what is familiar and routine. Cognitive inertia is strong, and a lot of power and authority structures are based on it. For everyone, life is ruled not by abstract analysis of every moment of every day, but by the heuristics of habits. If it worked last time it will most likely work this time – these heuristics are embedded in our more-or-less automatic (but initially trained) reactions.

All of that makes human groups prone to judge situations of danger in terms of what they would do themselves. It also means that when we make a wrong, or a less-than-best decision, it tends to get perpetuated in our behaviour until a real disaster forces a reassessment.


The rare Cassandras of the world can see exactly what is going to happen, but their curse is that most of the time no one listens to them. On the off chance someone does, it is usually too late to avert disaster. This is not the fate for all Cassandras. Perhaps the most famous modern Cassandra was UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Unlike the Cassandra of legend, he survived in power long enough to have his moment of worldwide recognition.

The Ukrainian invasion is a good example of the world failing to listen. Even to those with a good grasp of history, the thought that a modern ruler could flatten cities and authorise the killing of citizens because he wants to take their territory is almost unimaginable.

We're used to the rule of law: politics and lawfare rather than warfare. We're rightly horrified when one Australian takes another's life. The Port Arthur massacre was so traumatic it led to a mass disarmament of the Australian population, yet Putin and his troops have piled on the massacres one after the other.

One clue to Churchill's prescience may be that he was an historian. History tells us that leaders like Putin are the rule, rather than the exception. Indeed, Putin models himself on the Tsar Peter the Great. The word Tsar derives from Caesar, the honorific the Roman Emperors gave themselves.

If you want to see the ruthless degradation of human life, you need look no further than the Romans. Take the case of Crassus, who in 71 BC defeated the slave rebellion of Spartacus and took 6,000 slaves captive. He crucified every one of them along the Appian Way. As he was campaigning for a consulship at the time, it is said this was the ghoulish equivalent of yard signs advertising his military prowess. It certainly would have been more pungent than the red and black attack pamphlets deployed in modern Australian campaigns.

This historical moment puts the crucifixion that occurred a hundred years later, just outside Jerusalem, into perspective. There were only three men, and the the Romans cut the torturous death, which could take up to three days, short, breaking their legs so they died more quickly, apart from one who was dead already.


The men were likely all political executions because crucifixion was reserved for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the State. Certainly, one of them had gone out of his way to draw attention to himself. A week earlier he'd staged a procession into Jerusalem as though he were a political leader. He'd also created a scene in the Jewish temple where the Roman currency was changed into coins that could be used to buy sacrifices to be offered in the temple. He'd attacked a number of the money changers with a whip. All political agitprop, intentionally or unintentionally depending on your point of view, destined to reverberate down millennia.

Still, this didn't really seem to faze the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, too much. As he said, 'I can find no fault in this man.' But he ordered the crucifixion anyway. Essentially, it was a clever political strategy done as a favour to placate the Jewish religious authorities who begged for the crucifixion. They had much more reason to dislike this man but couldn't put him to death themselves because the Romans reserved the power of capital punishment to themselves. Perhaps as an ironic aside, he had 'This man is the king of the Jews' written in three languages on a sign and placed on his cross.

Life was cheap, and anyone who has heard this story in full at least once a year is taken imaginatively to a place where casual destruction of human life is a fact of life. They know that another 40 or so years later, the Romans got so angry with the whole Jewish nation that they marched in and marched them all out, destroying their massive temple at the same time so that not a stone was left standing on stone.

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This article was first published in The Spectator.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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