There is something about decapitation that catches the world’s attention. In the last few months a number of persons from countries around the world—including journalists and humanitarian activists—were beheaded by representatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Leaders from many nations have condemned these acts as “barbaric.” A revealing choice of words. In the original Greek it meant all those who were not Greek. It came to be a general term of abuse applied to many outsiders and even to insiders who challenged the status quo. Today, however, no one has asked why this particular form of brutality is especially repellant. Perhaps its moral turpitude lies in its being their preferred form of violence rather than ours. Nor have Western spokesmen acknowledged that decapitation did not begin with ISIL. The focus—though justified—on these brutal executions only makes it easier for the US and its allies to persist in their own particular form of violence, thereby aiding ISIL’s recruiting drives.
To British Prime Minister David Cameron, "[t]he murder of David Haines is an act of pure evil. My heart goes out to his family who have shown extraordinary courage and fortitude. We will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice, however long it takes."
To term this act a pure evil is to suggest that it has appeared out of the blue, without history, motive, or background that might give it meaning or increase its likelihood. Yet the Judaic-Christian tradition, to which leaders like Cameron appeal, is often ambivalent on the subject of decapitation. In one of the most famous oil on canvas works from the Baroque period, Judith Decapitating Holofernes (c.1620), Artemesia Gentileschi depicts the dramatic moment from the book of Judith in the Old Testament Apocrypha when Judith, with the aid of her maidservant Abra, saves the Jewish people from annihilation by decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes. The artist focuses on the most dramatic and bloody moment in Judith’s biblical narrative. In addition, as feminist art historian Mary Garrard points out, her depiction of Judith and Abra with powerful and assertive hands unveils Judith as capable of the same agency and action in the world as is attributed to men. Both artistic decisions were upsetting in her era and the painting to this day retains its ability to shock and to empower women in desperate circumstances.
One question Judith leads me to ask is whether ISIL’s decapitations are a response to the genocidal impulses of the US and its allies? We can hear some readers protesting that Jihadi John, the most prominent ISIL executioner, or other ISIL executioners, are no Judiths. French president François Hollande termed one beheading “cowardly” and “cruel,” He then went on to confirm that airstrikes would continue against ISIL in Iraq. These airstrikes, however, have never and probably never can achieve the precision promised. How great is the moral distance between intentional murder and use of a technology that one knows or should know will kill many innocent bystanders? Airstrikes, drones, not to mention sanctions, have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraq men, women, and children. “Precision airstrikes” is about as much as a misnomer as “humane executions.” Often directed by manned or unmanned aircraft miles above ground, these strikes hardly seem courageous. Are the arms and legs of a wedding party scattered about by bombs from the sky or slow death from starvation less horrific than an ISIL decapitation? Artemesia’s rendering of Holofernes pictures her as being sprinkled with the blood of her victim, suggesting to us that even the most righteous resistance leaves some blood on the hands of the agent. That possibility seems entirely absent in the rhetoric and practice of today’s anti-terror warriors, who operate within hermetically sealed capsules thousands of miles from the carnage they inflict.
That ISIL has chosen to mete out the death penalty, often without anything remotely resembling a fair trial, surely merits condemnation. Yet once again, who is the US to raise this objection? The US has a sorry history of lynching to which it has never owned up. And today it continues a war of criminalization—and executions-- against minorities, who continue to be exploited within the US judicial system. In the international context, Cameron’s and Obama’s self-righteous tirades hide the West’s sanctioning of torture, authorized up to the highest levels of government.
That state governments here in the US do not make a public spectacle of executions is also—pardon the phrase—a double-edged sword. Former UK Security Minister Alan West said that Jihadi John is a "dead man walking" who will be "hunted down like Osama Bin-Laden." West’s reference to dead man walking reminds us not only of the life many US convicts live on death row but also of the tortured death many may face as states now wrestle with the formulation of the lethal cocktails to be administered behind closed walls. Public execution may have served at least one purpose, exposing the brutality of capital punishment in all its manifestations.