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A History of Political Terror

Peter — Abdul-Rahman — Kassig, a 26-year-old American aid worker and former Army Ranger, is the latest hostage to be beheaded by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, aka Islamic State).  Raised a Methodist, he converted to Islam during captivity.  His murder drew much media revulsion and Pres. Obama called it “an act of pure evil.”

Other Western victims of ISIS beheadings include the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff as well as two British citizens, David Haines, a former Royal Air Force engineer, and Alan Henning, a taxi driver.  ISIS is also rumored to be holding an unknown number of additional Western aid workers and some of them will likely be beheaded in the near future.

Decapitation is a public ritual of political theatre that dates from ancient times.  It is designed not simply to gruesomely kill a victim, but to send a powerful message to adversaries, both local and foreign.  The ISIS killings of Kassig and the other Westerns were acts intended to shock U.S. and UK governments and citizens and as well as Islamic adversaries.  These acts of war have been very provocative, generating a sense of rage on both sides of the Atlantic.

Overlooked amidst the coverage of ISIS beheadings is an acknowledgement of how decapitation is a political act employed by other government and nongovernment entities.  Equally revealing and little discussed, it has a long history as a punishment spectacle.  The U.S.’s principle ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, has put more than a 1,100 people to death by decapitation over the last two decades; it 2012, 77 people were beheaded, including one woman.  In Mexican, drug cartels – often armed with U.S. weapons — are estimated to behead “hundreds” annually; one hit man allegedly confessed to beheading 800 victims.

***

Beheading is a very old form of capital punishment serving a political function.  One of the great Biblical stories involves David slaying Goliath with a sling.  Their fight was the decisive battle between the Israelites and the Philistines and, often forgotten in it’s retelling, David cut off Goliath’s head and brought it to Saul as a devotional offering.  Also often forgotten, Saul was in tern beheaded by the Philistines.  In addition, the Bible has about a dozen other references to beheadings.

The Greeks and Romans were no strangers to decapitation.  References to it are in Greek myths (e.g., Perseus beheading Medusa) and it was a Roman custom to behead a citizen (e.g., Saint Paul) and to crucify noncitizens (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth). Among early Muslims from the days of Muhammad, the beheading of non-Muslim captives was not uncommon.  Timothy Furnish points out in the
Middle East Quarterly, Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 C.E.), reports that “the Prophet ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina for allegedly plotting against him.”

Europe perfected the art of beheading.  Among the ancient Brits, it was limited to those of noble birth and involved such crimes a treason and theft. It was considered a far less painful form of execution then being hanged, drawn-and-quartered or burned at the stake – punishments inflected on the lower classes.  William the Conqueror used it to execute Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, in 1076; other nobles decapitated were Charles I, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Lady Jane Grey.

In German, beheading formally ended in 1851, but was revived by the Nazis.  During its reign (1933-1945) an estimated 16,500 men and women were beheaded.  In France, estimates vary widely as to how many people faced the guillotine between the Revolution and the end of WW-II; one puts it at 6,000 people while another claims that 16,549 people were beheaded during that Revolution alone.  In Sweden, between 1800 and 1903, 657 people (including about 200 women) were beheaded. Between 1814-1870, the Papal State in Rome used a guillotine to execute 369 people.  While Austria was under Nazi control (1938-1945), 1,377 men and women were guillotined.  Decapitation was also used in Belgium, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

* * *

The U.S. has not employed beheading as a tool of political terror.  While a territory, Utah permitted someone who received a death sentence to be executed by decapitation; no one chose the option.  When it became a state, it dropped the option.

The most gruesome episode of beheading in U.S. history is known as the German Coast Uprising that took place in 1811 along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in the Louisiana territory.  Inspired by the Haitian Revolution that lasted for more then a decade (1791-1804), between 150 and 500 slaves rose up in rebellion.  In the course of the battles that took place, only two white planters were killed; their wives and children were spared.  Local white planters, together with U.S. Army and militia forces, put down the uprising.

Dan Rasmussen, author of American Uprising, notes, “The planters, supported by the American military, captured Charles Deslondes [a revolt leader], chopped off his hands, broke his thighs, and then roasted him on a pile of straw.  Over the next few days, they executed and beheaded over 100 slaves, putting their heads on poles and dangling their dismembered corpses from the gates of New Orleans.”  He concludes, “The rotting corpses were grim reminders of who owned whom – and just exactly where power resided.”

Shortly following 9/11, Americans were shocked when videos of the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl appeared.  Timothy Furnish argues, “the Pearl murder and video catalyzed the resurgence of this historical Islamic practice.”  He notes that following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a number of other Americans, including Nicholas Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong, were decapitated and videos of the gruesome acts were widely distributed via the Internet.  In addition, a British businessman, an Egyptian, a Korean, Nepalese and Bulgarians as well as “scores of Iraqis, both Kurds and Arabs” were also slaughtered.  He notes that Chechen rebels, “egged on by Islamist benefactors,” had earlier utilized beheadings during their bloody uprising.

Beheading is a form of political spectacle, intended to not simply punish but send a message.  The punishment is execution; the message is gruesome.  It is capital punishment with blood-curdling theatrical vengeance.  The act involves the killing of someone deemed a threat, ritualized in the separation of the person’s head from their body.  Simultaneously, it involves the public display of the act.  Beheading is a form of public shaming intended to demonstrate the murderer’s utter and absolute power.  It is enacted to warn – taunt — an enemy.

In the U.S., supposedly more humane forms of capital punishment — hanging, firing squad, electrocution and lethal drug cocktails — have superseded beheading.  One can only wonder if police shootings of (nearly always) unarmed African-American and Latino urban youth is a postmodern, 21st century form of the spectacle of beheading — one finally being exposed through anonymous smartphone videos?

David Rosen can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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