Thucydides wrote about war in order to study man’s character. Conflict brings out both the very best in human nature, and the very worst. The two often emerge simultaneously.
Witness Fabrizio Quattrocchi, 36, a baker from Italy who went to Iraq to work as a security guard for a contracting firm. He and three other Italians were taken hostage by al-Katibat al-Khadra, the Green Battalion, who demanded that Italy release some of the Muslim extremists they are holding, and that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologize for statements he made that allegedly insulted Islam. They showed the hostages on video, and threatened to kill them if their demands were not met. To demonstrate they were serious, they took Quattrocchi to a field, and had him dig a large hole. They then put a hood over his head and forced him to kneel by the grave, preparing to murder him. But Fabrizio did not cooperate. He stood and tried to pull off the hood, shouting, “Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies!” The terrorists shot him in the back of the neck. Al Jazeera, which obtained the videotape of the killing, chose not to air it, saying it was “too gruesome.” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said, Fabrizio “died a hero.”
I was reminded of the story of William Logan Crittenden, of the Kentucky Crittendens, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran. He went to Cuba in 1851 with Spanish General Narciso Lopez to try to foment revolution. Things went terribly wrong, and Crittenden found himself with 50 other Americans standing bound beneath the walls of Castle Atares in Havana, awaiting execution. They were taken before the firing squad in groups of ten. Crittenden led the second group. Spanish custom at the time was to have the condemned kneel with their backs to the executioners. A Spanish officer ordered Crittenden to comply. “A Kentuckian never turns his back on an enemy,” he said, “and kneels only to God.” The Spanish struck his legs with their rifle butts, forcing the young American down and turning him, but before they could fire he stood and faced his killers. A bullet hit Crittenden above his nose, tearing his head open. Shortly before he went to meet his fate he had written to his uncle, John Jordan Crittenden, then the US Attorney General, “I will die like a man.” He did.
British officer John André, Benedict Arnold’s accomplice in the plot to betray West Point, was troubled that he had been sentenced to hang for his part in the affair. He knew he would be put to death–attempts by Alexander Hamilton to have André exchanged (preferably for Arnold) were thwarted by politics; the country needed to avenge the execution of Nathan Hale. But though André happened to have been caught wearing civilian clothes, he had been a career soldier, not a spy. He wrote a letter to George Washington requesting that he be given a soldier’s death, by firing squad. The request was denied; again, the decision swayed by the shade of Hale. When André mounted the platform and the noose was placed around his neck, he spoke to the assembled crowd: “I pray you bear me witness that I met my fate like a brave man.” Many of the American soldiers present regretted the act, and respected the man they hanged. It was not so much because it was a different era, but because we faced a different enemy, a foe that for the most part shared our principles. Warfare was more civil then, because both sides were civilized.
The enemy we face today would have to rise far to earn even our contempt. Fabrizio’s captors wanted not just to kill him, but to humiliate him, the true mark of the savage. However, they needed his cooperation, and Fabrizio knew it. He was beyond help, but not helpless. He was alive. He could still choose, if only to choose the manner in which he would die. Consider the bravery, the nobility, the strength of that act. In his final moments, facing eternity, willfully discarding the shred of hope that maybe it would not happen, maybe he would get out of it alive, shouting defiance in the masked faces of his captors and denying the barbarous cowards intent on murdering him the satisfaction of his complicity in their crime.
Fabrizio Quattrocchi showed us how an Italian dies, and how a hero lives.