She had to carry a bag of heads. Blood was dripping from the bag. The armed men made her laugh about this. When they arrived, the bag was emptied and she saw the heads of her children. This happened in Sierra Leone toward the end of the twentieth century. An account of the event was given by the woman who had been forced to carry the bag. Hers is a story of cruelty and suffering, reminiscent of similar stories told and sometimes recorded over the millennia. It is a story about the twin constellation of cruelty and suffering, perpetration and victimhood. Cruelty is the intentional inflicting of suffering. It is suffering plus agency. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can also be to delight in or be indifferent to the pain or misery of others and to act in a merciless, hard-hearted fashion. There is, of course, also suffering without cruelty and perpetration: there can be no cruelty without suffering, but there can be suffering without cruelty. Human beings can and do suffer without anyone in particular being responsible for the suffering (although magical and conspiratorial thinking, with their belief in excessive agency, will attempt to identify a perpetrator, someone to hold accountable). Contemporary politics of life, with its focus on the maximization of vitality, is likely to define suffering as an absence of intervention, as an act of omission.

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