Et tu ISIS

Because I have an ambitious trial docket this year, I thought I'd begin the rigorous schedule with a little laid back Italian perspective, so my wife and I recently headed to Italy. You can't get more romantic than Venice or more historic than Rome. First stop in Rome was the Colosseum. One of the seminal symbols of past European cultural dominance, most people don't realize that the Colosseum was simply one big sports arena, an ancient version of Lambeau Field. Today, owners have their exclusive stadium boxes where they entertain special guests. It was the same in Roman days, but it was designated the Emperor's Box, and he generally hung around with a slew of Vestal Virgins. Roman senators were on the next level, located where we find today's luxury boxes. The more status you had, the better your seat. Sound familiar?

So, just what was happening on the field of play? The movies portray the most important event as a blow-out: Lions v. Christians. That may not really have happened in the Colosseum, but those gruesome contests did take place at some Roman venues. That doesn't mean the Colosseum wasn't a scene for what today would be considered inappropriate behavior. Animals fought animals. Sometimes domestic animals were pitted against exotic animals collected by the Romans on their conquests. Slaves and criminals were paired against wild animals. Then in the main event, people squared off against each other; they called them gladiators. The entertainment was generally a fight to the death.

The stars of the main event were, in fact, sent to gladiator schools. I suppose those training grounds were something like today's minor league baseball teams, or perhaps more like college football. Similar to modern day toreadors, successful gladiators developed personal followings. They became heroes and even earned product endorsements. On the mornings before all the fun began, there was a whirl of activity around the Colosseum. There was probably a lot of tailgating; it was just done in the back of chariots.

At the Forum, Cheryl and I walked the same stone path once trod upon by Augustus Caesar and stood in the likely place where the senators assassinated Julius Caesar. The assassination of Caesar was a very important, if unsuccessful, event in the history of man. You see, Republican Rome had been governed by its senators for hundreds of years. Julius Caesar, a successful military leader, strolling across the Rubicon, decided the greatly expanded Empire had outgrown its republican form of government. It needed a dictator: him. The assassination of Caesar by the Roman senators, even his friend and mentee, Marcus Brutus, may not have been because the senators didn't like Caesar (although I'm sure he irritated more than a few people on his way to the Forum). Rather, the assassination was a demonstration against totalitarian rule in favor of laws instituted by a broader based government. Of course, as we all know, the assassination didn't turn out that well for democracy, as other "Caesars" ended up ruling the Empire for the next 500 years.

While in Italy, I learned of the Islamic State's beheading of its Japanese hostage and then the burning alive of its Jordanian hostage. These atrocities have demanded world attention. We ask ourselves, "How can individuals do things in the name of god, country or cause that are so obviously wrong?" Yet, while we condemn ISIS, we cannot forget this is not the first time unfathomable atrocities have been committed by individuals believing they were doing something good. Jesus and his followers were crucified, the Crusaders let loose a swath of terror and destruction in the name of god, and most Americans don't appreciate how bad our own reign of terror was during the Civil War.

During that war, in the name of the North or the South, or in defense of their respective ideologies, or ways of life, Americans killed each other in an alarming number, and often in a gruesome fashion. Although passed over in our high school history books, a not uncommon practice was the habit of scalping "the enemy," and tying the scalps onto saddles as souvenirs. Scalping occurred on both sides, though generally not by the established Union or Confederate armies, but rather by the irregulars. Among the more famous irregular groups were Quantrill's Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson's Guerillas. Both groups counted Frank and Jesse James among their members. These "bushwhackers," as they were called, shot down civilians in cold blood, often slitting their throats. Sometimes their victims were preachers. Interestingly, these American defenders of their way of life chose black as their flag, the same flag color chosen by ISIS.

So, what is it that happens to individuals that make them oblivious to well-established measurements of right and wrong? What makes them think they are above the people's law? Some argue mankind is basically bad and requires rigid societal structures to keep it from evil. As much evidence as there is for that proposition, I don't believe it. I think mankind is good - as a rule - but needs a little guidance along the way. That guidance, more often than not, is the rule of law established by representative groups of the people.

Overall, through the centuries, mankind has gotten better. We have gone from the sport of watching people kill each other in the Colosseum, to bullfighting, state regulated boxing and American football. Some of our modern sporting events may be questionable, but it cannot be doubted that we are moving in the right direction. The same is true with government. As the years have unfolded, we have generally moved towards the rule of the many, from the rule of the few. The many rule with laws, the few rule with power and fear. Like Caesar, tyranny by the few, or even emanating from an ideology, can last for awhile, and threats will re-emerge from time to time.

It is true that in the wake of ISIS violence, we question just how far have we come from the days of feeding people to the lions. Nevertheless, the warriors of the Islamic state are not significantly different than their predecessors who committed atrocities in the name of their particular god, state or way of life. In the end, they will fail, like all others that ignore the rule of law, and try to hold back the tide of time.

Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer. You can reach the Levison Group in care of this paper or by e-mail at

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Published: Fri, Feb 13, 2015