Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Beheading wasn't invented by ISIS

     Humans are social animals, traveling like wolves in packs that became families, clans, communities, nations.
     As such, we have a tendency to mimic each other, and generally this is a good thing. Ogg wraps himself in a bearskin, we all wrap ourselves in bearskins, and find that doing so offers protection against the arctic cold. And so civilization advances.
     But sometimes it is not good. News this week told of a fired nursing home employee in Oklahoma who threatened to come back and behead his former coworkers, inspired no doubt by the atrocity that happened days earlier and 20 miles away.
     Is this going to be a trend?
     You could argue it already is. Three times makes a trend in the newspaper business, and so cutting off heads must be in vogue, what with ISIS beheading two freelance journalists and posting the videos, the horror leaping the globe to pop up in Oklahoma, of all places (or maybe that should be, “pop up in Oklahoma, of course” that state having established itself in 1995 with the Murrah Federal Building bombing as a sort of port of entry for foreign terror techniques).
     Not that it’s anything new. Beheading holds a special place of horror in our culture, as cold-blooded murder and desecration of the body paired in one awful act.
     Which is ironic, because when history picks up on decapitation—”caput” is Latin for head, it’s also where “capital” comes from—it was the kinder form of execution, compared to crucifixion, which took longer.
     Those hot to tar Islam with any brush available will leap to cast beheading as a particularly Muslim practice. The Q’uran certainly endorses it at several points, such as verse 8:12: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”
     And history is rife with Islamic beheadings. Legendary Muslim warrior Saladin ordered the beheading of 230 Knights Templar in 1187; Turkish invaders beheading 800 Catholic martyrs in Otranto, Italy in 1480.
     Saudi Arabia still allows beheading and had a surge of such executions in August.
     But in order to consider decapitation an Islamic atrocity, we have to ignore a solid thousand years of other history; England kept its headsmen busy for centuries, even managing to behead its king, Charles I, on Jan. 30, 1649 (a groan went up from the crowd when the ax fell, but onlookers still lined up to dip handkerchiefs in the royal blood, as mementoes, a 17th-century version of the selfie).
     No Muslim nation embraced decapitation with the zeal shown by those arbiters of Western culture, the French, who invented the guillotine and then kept it busy on what is now the Place de la Concorde, using it to kill as many as 40,000 French citizens. Beheadings became entertainment, with programs sold listing the condemned for that day, and Parisians brought their children to watch. The French continued using the guillotine; the last official beheading in France was in 1977. England beheaded a trio of would-be traitors in 1817, though they were hanged before their heads were displayed.
      Nor should we be too smug in the United States. True, legal decapitation was never in vogue here (briefly on the books in Utah, never used). But that doesn't make our history free of the practice.
      In 1623, Myles Standish, of Pilgrim fame, cut off the head of an Indian chief and impaled it on a spike outside his fort, only two years after the first Thanksgiving. "That's the part we typically omit from our Thanksgiving myth," NYU history professor Jonathan Zimmerman dryly notes in his account of the incident.
      Given the number of protracted, botched executions by lethal injection, it could be argued that a swift decapitation is more merciful. No matter. Beheading is seen as repulsive, evoking visceral horror, shocking enough that a nation that had just extracted itself from the bloody quicksand of Iraq would go galumphing back.
      Murder is murder, and the dead are dead. While cutting someone's head off shows far greater zeal on the part of the killer than, say, shooting someone, we should by now be finally adjusting ourselves to the notion that the Middle East is an area where passions run high.
     I hope this doesn't become a true trend, that the news isn't filled with moments-before footage, and heads don't start being impaled on the wrought-iron fence around the White House. Because we've been there before. And the sad thing is, we'd get used to it. Again.



  1. When do we start bombing Saudi Arabia? As you say, they did it last month too, and isn't that really the impetus for it, much like the elevator video started the NFL's current woes?

  2. the headline of your column in the paper recalls the words of "Crime and Punishment's" Inspector: "Men can get used to anything, the scoundrels."

    In earlier times (although not all that earlier -- some 16,000 people were beheaded in the Germany of the third Reich) decapitation was itself not as controverisial as the means used. Henry VIII was considered a humane prince for importing an expert swordsman from France to do the deed on Anne Boleyin. And, of course, Dr. Guillotin introduced his device into service as a means of avoiding the often messy ministrations of swordsmen and axmen.

    It probably was more humane than hanging, which became the traditional method of execution in 19th Century England. The hangings were often botched, with the victimes left struggling at the end of a rope for some minutes. This was a major reason why the practice of public executions, which were infrequent but drew large, enthusiastic crowds, was discontinued in the 1860's.

    It is for all that a grisly act, and the fact that it evokes horror in a large swath of the world's population might be taken as a sign of advancing civilization.

  3. I've never looked at the beheading videos and hope I never have to witness one. It might be a more humane death than some methods, if done correctly, but it's still a gruesome horror and I can't imagine ever getting used to it.

  4. "Off with her head" comes to mind. Of course it's funny because it's ineffectual. Would that we could laugh at the silly jihadists!



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