Recent beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have attracted considerable media coverage and evoked great public outrage. Yet those two high profile beheadings are just two of the hundreds of beheadings for which ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – is responsible.
Why so much outrage in the West over the death of two journalists and not for all of those beheaded? Why so much attention to the beheading of two journalists and widespread media silence about beheadings of convicted criminals in Saudi Arabia (at least 19 in August 2014) and some other countries?
Part of the answer to those questions is that many contemporary Westerners perceive beheading as an especially cruel and barbaric way of killing someone. Beheading presumably causes blood to spurt and then to pour from the deceased's body and head. (I readily confess that I adamantly refuse to watch any video of beheadings, both because I morally object to giving groups like ISIS the publicity they crave by adding to the number of their viewers and spiritually because I do not want ugly images of beheadings in my brain.) Spilling human blood in that fashion feels wrong, triggering an involuntary sense of revulsion.
Beheading is also one of the ways in which humans slaughter domesticated animals for food. Execution by beheading is thus akin to slaughtering animals for food, tacitly reducing the executed to the same status as animals raised for food.
Furthermore, beheadings are reminiscent of Western history, in which beheading was prominent, e.g., the guillotine in France, the execution of Britain's King Charles I, and the Biblical story of Judith beheading an Assyrian general named Holofernes, who had been laying siege to her town. This history challenges widely cherished illusions of cultural and ethnic superiority to Muslims and Arabs.
Beheading frequently connotes cruelty. If the executioner is unskilled, bungles the blow, or uses a dull blade, beheading can require several strokes to complete. For example, the executioners each required three blows to decapitate Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex. Incidentally, the terms capital punishment and capital crime, have their origin in the practice of decapitating persons guilty of major offenses. Scientific research suggests that a person beheaded with a single, decisive stroke loses consciousness within 2-6 seconds of decapitation. Claiming that beheading, when done efficiently, inflicts more pain or suffering on the executed person than do other forms of execution (e.g., firing squad, hanging, electric chair, or lethal injection) is difficult to justify.
Unlike the days in which an execution occasioned a cheerful crowd gathering to watch, executions in the United States are now done out of public view, with no videos permitted. Many Americans still want certain types of criminals to die, but find the thought of public executions repugnant. Saddam Hussein's execution by hanging, surreptitiously videoed and then promulgated on the internet, ironically evoked outrage for this reason.
In part, the beheading of American journalists was a catalyst for public furor because the West at least nominally esteems the journalistic profession and generally accords journalists a protected status as disinterested observers rather than considering them as active protagonists. ISIS by executing Foley and Sotloff rebuffed their claim to neutrality.
More broadly, ISIS rejects the West and its culture. Westerners find such rejection incomprehensible, outrageous, and immoral. By killing the two journalists, ISIS emphatically rejected Western rules of war, legal standards (ISIS judged Foley and Sotloff guilty of being infidels, apart from anything else), and cultural presumptions (i.e., beheading is cruel and immoral).
Foley and Sotloff's deaths were tragic. The greater tragedy is that self-interest effectively blinds us to the larger problems. ISIS beheading hundreds of people for reasons that have no more merit than ISIS' reasons for executing Foley and Sotloff sadly triggers little moral outrage in the West because those people were unknown and therefore meaningless to most of us. We largely ignore legally sanctioned beheadings in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both because those who die mean little to us and because the oil that those countries sell is important to Western economies. Meanwhile, the US hypocritically persists in the evil of capital punishment.