Daniel Pearl. Nicholas Berg. James Foley. Steven Sotloff.
Four American noncombatants have been beheaded by Islamic fanatics, and the videos of their murders brazenly circulated over the internet for the world to witness. Another Westerner — David Cawthorne Haines, a security expert hired by international aid organizations – faces the same gruesome fate.
The question goes to the method, not the motive, of the madness. Murderers’ motives don’t matter much in the Middle East. In local eyes, there are so many causes to kill for, and so many victims deserving death. But assuming one is inclined to butcher, why do so by the particularly peculiar method of beheading? Why not butcher by shooting, or by hanging, or by detonation?
This is, to put it mildly, a grim inquiry. But it is worth the trouble to explore. For the answer may tell us something about the nature of the evil we face.
Others have asked the same question and come up with their own theories. David Brooks of the New York Times believes Islamic fanatics choose beheading because the act represents a defilement of something sacred: the human body.
A beheading … is not just an injury or a crime. It is an indignity. A beheading is more like rape, castration or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable. ….
We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter.
Brooks’ observations are eloquent, but they are not persuasive. The Islamic fanatics hold no monopoly on beheading. Until 1981, the sole method of execution allowed in France was the guillotine, which was viewed, at the time of its adoption during the Revolution, as “humane” (it was quick) and “democratic” (it was administered to aristocrats and peasants alike).
And contrary to Brooks, any method of execution – not just beheading — is an indignity and a defacement of the human body. For there is no way to snuff out a human life without doing grievous injury to the body. Hanging breaks the spinal cord. Shooting shreds vital organs. Even the supposedly “civilized” method of lethal injection defiles the body; it paralyzes the lungs and diaphragm, rendering the condemned unable to breathe.
Michael Rubin, writing in Commentary Magazine’s online blog, believes that the answer lies in the Qur’an. He cites sura (chapter) 47, containing this ayah (verse): “When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely; then bind the prisoners tightly.” He cites other scholars who have explained that the Qur’anic injunction to “strike at the necks” of non-Muslims means that no prisoners should be taken until the enemy has been completely crushed.
This theory too has some merit, but ultimately it does not fully answer the question. First, the Quar’anic passages cited by Rubin apply to enemies on the battlefield, not to civilians. Neither Pearl nor Berg nor Foley nor Sotloff was a combatant. Berg was a free-lance radio tower repairman and the others were journalists. Second, the beheadings have not been limited to non-Muslims. Indeed, most victims have been Muslims. In Syria, ISIS murderers are beheading their co-religionists. On the other side, the Free Syrian Army, backed by the United States, has beheaded their fellow Muslim ISIS prisoners. So religious doctrine fails to provide a complete answer.
Explaining why Islamic fundamentalists behead us requires a deeper look into this dark subject. It requires examining the relationship between the executioner and the executed, and their strange and ancient mutual obligations.
An executioner – whether employed by a state, or a religious movement – must believe that he is not a common murderer. He must believe that his act of homicide deserves some kind of legal or moral sanction, and is not merely a callous act of violence. The best way to secure that sanction is to enlist the condemned in the process of his own death.
In many places, this involves allowing the condemned to have a say in the manner of his execution. In a number of American states, the law grants, or until recently, has granted, death row prisoners choices. Convicts in Alabama, Arkansas (convicted before 1988), Florida, Kentucky (1998), South Carolina, Tennessee (1998), and Virginia can choose between lethal injection and electrocution. Convicts in Arizona (convicted before 1992), California, Maryland (1994), and Missouri can choose between lethal injection and lethal gas. Convicts in Delaware (convicted before 1986) and Washington can choose between lethal injection and hanging. Convicts in Utah, until 2004, could choose between lethal injection and the firing squad.
Allowing choice is not an act of benevolence. Rather, it is an act of transformation. It elevates the process of execution above that of common murder. For a common murderer allows no such options to his victim.
Another obligation between executioner and condemned is the custom of granting the right to choose a last meal. This ritual finds its origin in the traditional code of conduct between guest and host. By accepting food from his host, the guest agrees to a state of peace. He agrees to forego violence or vengeance. Similarly, by choosing and accepting his last meal, the convict symbolically makes peace with his executioner, and forswears vengeance from beyond the grave.
The last meal tradition is widespread, provided even to the most odious criminals. The Israelis followed it before hanging Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi mass murderer. He declined the offer of a special meal, preferring instead a bottle of Carmel, a dry red Israeli wine. He drank about half of it.
It hardly needs saying that observance of these obligations does not placate the condemned. He may go to his death hating his executioner, and bitterly resenting his fate. He may fervently wish that he could turn the tables, and kill his killer. But even if he does not agree that his executioner is meting out justice, he must concede that his executioner thinks that he is meting out justice. Thus, even the condemned is unlikely to consider his executioner a mere murderer.
When officers of civilized states carry out a sentence of execution, the process is designed to convey this message to the world:
This condemned man deserves to die. His sentence has been delivered and is being implemented in accordance with a set of legal and moral principles. The condemned man may hate and curse us for executing him. But by witnessing and participating in the rituals surrounding his death, he has acknowledged that we, his executioners, are trying to do justice, at least by our lights. Therefore, even if we are wrong, we are not mere murderers.
Those who decapitated Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, James Foley, and Steven Sotloff, on the other hand, had no interest in observing any mutual obligations between themselves and the condemned. They allowed them no say in the manner of their execution. On the contrary, they selected a method as alien as possible, because, for these butchers, there was no need to persuade the world of anything, not even that that their victims deserved to die. Note that in the speeches written by the executioners and recited by their victims under duress shortly before their deaths, there were no arguments to show that the men were guilty or that they deserved their fate.
When Islamic fundamentalists behead Western civilians, and publicize their grisly acts, their process is designed to convey this message to the world:
These condemned men do not deserve to die. They have done nothing wrong. Yet we kill them anyway, and we do so in our own way, without any pretense of any relationship between us. We do not recognize any mutual obligations between us and our victims. We do not seek their sanction, nor do we seek the world’s. We do not pretend to care about justice. We kill because we can.
Theirs is a message intended not to pacify, but to terrify. It is highly doubtful any of these murderers ever read Percy Bysshe Shelley, but if they did, they might be tempted to paraphrase his poem Ozymandias, set, like the executions, in the desert, and to point to the severed heads bleeding on the sand, and tell us: “Look on my works, oh ye moral, and despair!”