The oldest story ever told

Is the only way to avoid victimisation to become an aggressor? And once an aggressor, does a persecution complex justify further aggression? There are important historical examples of countries and individuals avoiding the mark of Cain and it is more urgent than ever that we learn from them, argues a one-time ambassador of Korea to Japan
Jong-yil Ra
7 April 2010

Romain Gary once wrote a short story, titled 'The Oldest Story Ever Told', on the relations between a Nazi officer and a Jew whom he maltreated. The relations between the persecutor and the victim may not be as simple as we usually think. Cain, commonly regarded as the prototype of persecutor, may rather have thought himself the victim of invidious treatment at the hands of God and his brother. His impudent and even defiant response to God’s reproachful questions certainly suggests this kind of possibility.


In a similar vein, some people have suggested that Hitler and the National Socialists were capable of carrying out all their horrible deeds only because they thought of themselves as potential or actual victims of Bolshevism or France and Britain. Commenting on the considerable extent to which there is a feeling of being victimized in Japan, a country generally regarded as aggressor in the first half o f the last century, I once referred to the "persecution complex of the persecutor", implying that the perpetrator of offence lives under fear of reprisal. However, I later came to the conclusion that the problem was more complex than this. Misguided as it may be, there are cases in which people become offenders because fearing, or so as to evade, the perceived fate of falli ng a victim to others.

It is quite common among simple criminals as well as aggressor nations to regard themselves as victims rather than aggressors, and to see their actions as either the result of unjust treatment they have received or as a way of evading the supposedly- inevitable fate of being victimized, i.e. they consider they have no option oth er than acting the way they did .

Could it have been that Japan turned aggressor against its neighbours because it was imitating the imperialist powers of the West and so as not to be victimized by them? In the event it was defeated by the western powers. But a large number of Japanese people themselves had to undergo enormous suffering s for the sake of the country's imperial ambition. At the center of the persecution complex of Japan may be the consciousness that it was the only country which suffered nuclear attack.

However has one necessarily to become a persecutor in order not to be a victim? This question is not limited to Japan alone, nor to relations among nations. It could be applied to the relations among private persons too . Even today we witness around us instances of people or nations turning on their neighbours as persecuto rs because - or on the strength of - a persecution complex stemming either from the experiences of the past or fears for the future. Some countries tend to behave in the same aggressive way as their persecutors of the past did and do not have qualms in inflicting the same kind of  suffering on the weak that they endured, once they have enough power to do so. Do they think that by dint of their own sufferings in the past, they are justified in turning into an offender now? One thing in common in the mentality of these victim-turned-aggressors is an enormous sense of persecution complex and that what really matters in the world is after all power, either economic and military. Is there to be no end to this vicious cycle of relations between persecutors and victims?

There are exceptions. Ahn Jung-guen , a devout Catholic convert who shot Ito Hirobumi, never harboured any rancour let alone hatred of the Japanese waiting for his death in prison. He died leaving behind an unfinished manuscript in which he described how three countries in East Asia - China, Japan and Korea - could cooperate with one another in pursuit of peace and prosperity. When his unit overpowered a Japanese garrison in the bordering area between Korea and Russia, he took many Japanese soldiers as prisoners of war. However, once the prisoners were persuaded - or seemed to be persuaded - that Japan 's invasion of Korea was an act of injustice and promised that they would never join in this act of aggression, he released them all despite objections from his colleagues. His gaoler, a member of the Japanese military police, was so impressed by Ahn that he resigned when the latter died. Having retired from service he went ho me, placed Ahn's relics in a temple and spent his remaining years performing memorial service for Ahn.

Similarly in the 1919  Declaration of Independence of Korea on the occasion of peaceful demonstrations by K oreans throughout the country : conspicuous by its absence was any ill-feeling against the Japanese oppressors who had forcibly colonized them and betrayed incessantly - repeated promises to respect Koreas independence. Instead of retaliation, there was talk about how the nations of the region should cooperate to open a new era of peace and prosperity leaving the rancorous past behind them. Those who scoffed at this kind of idea, dismissing it as the meaningless utterances of the weak and helpless, brought about in the event catastrophic disaster on their own country.

Never before ha s the destiny of human beings been more closely interrelated among different people and nations than it is now.  However, even with all the disastrous experiences of the past and with the opening of a new millennium, our mind s seem mostly to be mov ing within the old grooves - repeating the oldest story of human beings.

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