For sheer compelling dismay, perhaps no subject matches accounts of the enormities man inflicts on his fellow man.
We know what Hitler did to the Jews, what Lenin and Stalin did in their own "harvest of sorrow." We know the horrors of Cambodia - what the Japanese, North Koreans and North Vietnamese did to American POWs.
We read daily of the slaughter of Israeli innocents by Palestinian suicide bombers - a practice now being extended to American targets in Iraq. With the first of two East Coast sniper trials now under way, we are learning the details of last year's grisly enterprise.
All fill dark pages - dark chapters - in history's grimmest catalogue.
Lately the news columns have carried accounts of torture and mass murder in Iraq under Saddam and in North Korea now.
In Iraq, survivors of Saddam's gulag are telling the tale. Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran an extensive story by Peter Finn about Abu Ghraib - "for thousands of political prisoners crudely executed by hanging in its ghoulish death chamber, ... the final station in an excruciatingly brutal system." An estimated 30,000 were hanged there during the Hussein years.
Finn summarizes accounts by two former prisoners - Abdul Hussein Faraj, arrested in 1988, and Hakem Kharqani, arrested in 1982:
"(Upon reaching the prison's) interrogation room, ... the prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs with cuffs; Faraj's wrist is still cross-hatched with scars from when he was bound. They were then hoisted by a rope attached to a hook in the ceiling so they dangled above the ground, the tendons in their shoulders tearing under the strain. The ball and socket in the shoulders of some prisoners completely rotated. . The prisoners were lashed with cables. Clips were attached to their earlobes, nipples and genitals, and they were administered electric shocks. When they passed out, as they almost invariably did, they were dragged back to the corridor and cuffed again to the radiator. ..."
This torture continued for several days, hours at a time, even after the prisoners broke. Nearly all eventually signed forced confessions put in front of them and stamped them with a single fingerprint, their hands lifted to the paper by the guards because the prisoners no longer had the strength.
"Prisoners who held out longer than expected were subject to further horrors. Faraj saw his mother dragged in front of him. His mother's gown was roughly lifted, exposing her bare legs and underwear as the police said they would rape her. The humiliation, he said, was unbearable. Kharqani and two other inmates were forced to watch three other prisoners killed with acid.
When the torture ended, the prisoners were bundled into one of a number of fetid basement cells so crowded that prisoners created their own rotation for lying down, sitting and standing. ... The cells were about 9 foot-by-6-foot and each held between 35 and 40 prisoners."
Many lived in such cells for more than 20 years.
In North Korea, it's a similar story of a Stalin-like gulag, famine, terror and repression.
A new report written for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea by David Hawk, a chronicler of the Cambodian genocide, is titled: "The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps."
Hawk's report notes that torture, including the use of isolation cells and beatings, is common. Food deprivation appears to be the central way of controlling inmates. Work with livestock is coveted because prisoners have "the opportunity to steal animal food and even pick through animal droppings for undigested grains."
The Post quotes at length an account by one North Korean woman, a defector, of cannibalism:
"We started seeing cannibalism. You probably won't understand.
When one is very hungry, one can go crazy. One woman in my town killed her 7-month-old baby and ate the baby with another woman. ... I can't condemn cannibalism. Not that I wanted to eat human meat, but we were so hungry. It was common that people went to a fresh grave and dug up a body to eat meat. ..."
Another woman was held in a 5-foot-by-5-foot underground cell for 14 months - where, according to The Post - she was regularly tortured, denied sleep, doused with water and forced to kneel naked on ice. Sentenced to death, she was later reprieved and sent to a political prison camp. "Those seven years in prison still haunt me. I have seen so many different ways to kill and torture people. I still see them in my dreams."
She and another woman told of being repeatedly sold in and out of sexual slavery.
Currently, North Korea's highest-ranking defector - Hwang Jang Yop - is on a visit to the United States. Now 80, he defected to South Korea in 1997 after serving as a confidant to Kim Il Sung (North Korea's late leader) and a mentor to his son, Kim Jong Il (who succeeded his father).
Two quotes from Hwang:
(1) "I came here to tell the world about North Korea. By the time I left, more than 1.5 million North Koreans had died of hunger. ... I could not endure it any longer. Kim Jong Il was only preoccupied about holding onto his power. He did not worry about the destruction of our nation."
(2) "North Korean society has turned into a dark world of totalitarianism highlighted by hereditary succession of leadership and feudal patriarchy. The upshot of all this is famine and mass exodus of its people while the regime spends hundreds of millions of dollars to build the mausoleum for Kim Il Sung's dead body."
And so the catalogue goes endlessly on. Yet it remains as stark justification for America's abiding efforts to write "finis."