Betrayal Will Find Its Punishment

We will examine the consequences of treachery and betrayal.  Zahir Al-Umar Al-Zaydani (ظاهر العمر الزيداني) was a charismatic regional potentate who managed to carve out a fiefdom for himself in Palestine during the waning centuries of the Ottoman empire.  Born around 1690, he achieved ascendancy through the usual mix of piety, maneuvering, and ruthlessness; and by the 1730s he had acquired such power in Galilee that the Turkish authorities in Istanbul knew they needed to find a way to clip his wings.

Yet he handily defeated the expeditions sent against him, and these victories only augmented his confidence; by 1768, the sultan was forced to concede, and formally recognized Zahir as a legitimate semi-autonomous ruler with the title of “Sheikh of all Galilee.”  But Zahir was not only a military man.  He knew he needed a diplomatic front, and sent waves of ambassadors and emissaries to the Sublime Porte in Istanbul to advocate on his behalf.  Persuasion is one half rhetoric, and the other half sharpened steel.  Zahir craved yet more independence, and to this end sought an alliance in 1770 with Ali Bey, the resourceful Mamluk ruler of Egypt, who also found his Ottoman obligations a hindrance to ambition.

Fortune did not smile on Zahir at this point, however.  Ali Bey met with military reversals and died, leaving Zahir alone and old–he was in his eighties by this time–and forced to face the consequences of his treason against the Ottoman sultan.  When his lieutenants hesitated to take up arms directly against Istanbul, Zahir perceived the limits of his power; he had not much fight left in him, and thought it prudent to enjoy his remaining years in quiescence.  It was not to be.  The old man was betrayed not by a battlefield enemy, but by his own family.

It seems that his son Uthman sought to hasten his father’s demise.  For this purpose he enlisted the services of one of his father’s own officers, an unscrupulous Maghribi mercenary named Ahmad Agha Al-Denizli.  Uthman promised Al-Denizli lucrative offices and prestige; the soldier found these enticements irresistible; and plans were laid to end the life of the luckless Zahir.  As the old man was leaving the city of Acre with his retinue, he noticed that one of his women was absent.  He turned around to retrieve her, eventually locating her at a spot where a hidden ambush was waiting for him.  Zahir was dismounted and set upon with knives.  When the assassins had finished their work, his head was separated from his corpse, and the dismal trophy was sent to the Ottoman admiral Hasan Pasha.

Yet traitors never find a warm reception, even from those to whom they have rendered services.  So it was in this case.  The admiral had his men clean Zahir’s severed head, and the dour Turk no doubt reflected on the transitory nature of all human affairs.  The historian Eugene Rogan, who relates the fortunes of Zahir in his book The Arabs: A History, tells us that Hasan began to simmer with anger, and that this anger soon boiled over.  The perturbed admiral announced to the traitor Al-Denizli:

May God forgive me if I fail to avenge Zahir Al-Umar against you!

And with this, Al-Denizli was arrested, throttled to death, and thrown into the sea.  So it could be said that two men who had betrayed, were themselves met with violent deaths.  Not only was Al-Denizli subjected to severe punishment, but it could also be said that Zahir himself had reaped the fruits of his own long history of disloyalty to the Ottoman sultan.  Few crimes inspire as much revulsion as betrayal.  We find that betrayal comes in two varieties:  (1) betrayal of one’s office or duties, or (2) betrayal of a person or persons.  No one likes a schemer; men make use of such people, but find nothing in them that merits respect.  In fact, experience shows that the betrayer, the traitor, is often the next person to find himself standing on the scaffold.

Of what use were all the machinations of the intriguer Seianus, who thought that insinuating himself into the confidence of the emperor Tiberius would shield him from culpability for his schemes?  He used the Praetorian Guard as his personal instrument, never imagining that one day he himself would fall victim to the snares he had set for others.  Such men subsist on a diet of blood, stratagems, and anxiety.  This is why Tacitus says of him,

Neque Seiani voluntas nisi scelere quaerebatur.  [Ann. IV.68]

And this means, Seianus’s favor was not obtained except through crime.  The corrupt desire to see their own image reflected in others.  What strikes me is how often betrayers deceive themselves into believing that they will never be made to answer for their conduct.  They see no inconsistency in thinking that what they do to others, will not also be done to them in time.  But this is how it is when desire, lack of restraint, and an addiction to the base things of this world combine to seize control of a man’s mind.

The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro scales the heights of power in the New World through a combination of cunning, bravery, and shameless treachery.  During the conquest of Peru, the Inca monarch Atahualpa fulfilled his promise to pay the ransom required for his release; yet he was strangled anyway, despite having received guarantees of his safety.  Pizarro is said to have been opposed to Atahualpa’s killing, but in the event he did not act with sufficient vigor to stop it.  Pizarro was himself later killed in a melee connected with a power struggle among his associates; so do treachery and betrayal perpetuate themselves among their practitioners.

No one respects the betrayer.  No one sees them as anything more than a tool to be used, but never trusted.  In his immortal Art of War, Sun Tzu devotes an entire section to the use and employment of turncoats, quislings, and spies.  Yet that eminent Chinese general never sees these “secret agents” as anything more than contemptible tools.  Their lives mean nothing; at one point he tells his readers:

If plans relating to secret operations are prematurely divulged, the agent and all those to whom he spoke of them shall be put to death.

Equally true is it that those who seek to protect themselves from treachery cannot rely on cruelty or fear, for these things only inspire the desire to betray, rather than dampen it.  The Greek physician Hippocrates says, in his treatise On the Joints:

Some tell a tale how the Amazons dislocate the joints of their male offspring in early infancy (some at the knees and some at the hips), that they may, so it is said, become lame, and the males be incapable of plotting against the females.  They are supposed to use them as artisans in all kinds of leather or copper work, or some other sedentary occupation.  For my part, I am ignorant whether this is true; but I know that such would be the result of dislocating the joints of young infants.  [LIII].

I can only speak for myself, but as I see it, if someone had deliberately crippled me, I would spend the rest of my life working to revenge myself on him.  Confidence and trust inspire mutual confidence and trust, and good faith begets good faith.  He who seeks to prevent betrayal through prolonged cruelty only makes it more of a certainty.

And here I cannot resist providing a few more examples of betrayal and treachery in war, and how it was handled.  Among the ancients the Carthaginians were known for their subtlety and cunning; even the Greeks held them in awe on this matter.  The general Hamilcar, during his campaigns against the Romans from 260 B.C. to 241 B.C., had Gallic units as auxiliaries.  Some of these were unreliable, and had a habit of deserting to the Romans.  To solve this problem, Hamilcar had some of his most trusted men pretend to be Gauls and approach the Roman lines with the apparent intention of defecting.  When they would get close to the Romans, however, these “Gauls” would then take out hidden weapons and attack the Romans.  Soon, the Romans began to distrust all Gauls, which of course was Hamilcar’s intention.  The North Koreans did similar things during the Korean War by hiding soldiers in columns of refugees, or by pretending to surrender, or by deliberately allowing their soldiers to be “captured” so that they could inspire prison camp revolts behind the lines.

The betrayer is often entangled, and then strangled, by his own scheming.  The Carthaginian commander in Sicily, Hanno, devised a truly brilliant scheme to punish the treachery of one of his units.  According to the historian Frontinus (Strat. III.3), Hanno discovered that four thousand of his Gauls were about to defect to the Romans because they had not been paid in some time.  Hanno did not want to punish them openly, for fear that this would give his other unpaid men a pretext to mutiny; instead he promised the unhappy troops that he would increase their wages.  Hanno then told the Gauls they could leave camp on a foraging expedition to find supplies.

At the same time, he sent an agent, who pretended to be a deserter, to his opposing Roman commander, Otacilius, with news that the Romans might find a unit of Gauls foraging on such-and-such a day and time.  Otacilius, after some hesitation, finally decided the tip was genuine: he had an ambush set up near the place and at the time indicated by Hanno’s agent.  When the Gauls appeared, the Romans slew them to a man.  But they also killed a number of Romans during the fight, and thus accomplished two goals for Hanno:  he was rid of these potentially treacherous Gauls, and, at the same time, he had reduced the fighting strength of his enemy, the Romans.

Hannibal also punished betrayals with a similarly ruthless method.  He knew that in Italy there were Roman spies shadowing his movements, and were even in his camp.  He made use of this fact in an unexpectedly cunning way.  One night, a unit of his soldiers deserted.  Hannibal knew that the best way to capitalize on this situation was to make it appear that the had wanted these men to desert.  So he put the word out that the deserters had been acting under his orders, and had gone on a special mission.  The Roman spies in his camp reported this information back to the consuls; and when they encountered Hannibal’s defecting troops, they refused to believe the men were genuine deserters.  They believed them to be acting under Hannibal’s orders to cause mayhem.  So the Romans hacked off the deserters’ hands, and sent them back to the Carthaginian camp.  Such was the fate of those who betrayed Hannibal.



Read more in the complete collection of essays, Digest: