There are many ways to kill a human being, but few are as flamboyant as beheading. In his Civil Wars, for instance, the Roman historian Appian recounts the beheading of Gaius Trebonius — and, more important, its aftermath:
Since Trebonius had participated in the murder of Caesar by detaining Antony in conversation at the door of the senate-house while the others killed him, the soldiers and camp-followers fell upon the rest of his body with fury and treated it with every kind of indignity. They rolled his head from one to another in sport along the city pavements like a ball till it was completely crushed.
The Romans were a brutal folk, but in the annals of human-on-human violence, similar incidents are not uncommon. There is John the Baptist’s head on Herod’s platter, and Blackbeard’s head roped to Maynard’s bowsprit. The guillotine may have purported to make beheading humane, but les révolutionnaires still rejoiced in the blood of Marie Antoinette.
Still, although one can find state-sanctioned beheadings in “civilized” nations into the 20th century — France last employed the guillotine in 1939 — beheading has assumed a much-deserved taboo. Call it moral progress if you like: In the West, we no longer accept as permissible rending a human being in twain.
Which is what Islamic State jihadists were counting on when they beheaded American journalist James Foley this week. Foley was kidnapped in Syria in 2012, and little was known of his whereabouts until the appearance of a video purporting to show his decapitation. The video is reminiscent of others we have seen in recent years: The murders of Daniel Pearl in 2002, and Nick Berg and Paul Marshall Johnson Jr. in 2004, all American citizens, were similarly broadcast.
Scholars of Islam debate whether the Koran actually sanctions beheading. Whether it does or not, what is clear is that sword-wielding jihadists of the Islamic State type believe that it does. And, the word of Allah aside, Islamic history provides plenty of precedent. In the late 19th century, Mahdists — Islamic millenarians — beheaded foes in British-administered Sudan. Nearly a millennium before, the Muslim conqueror Yusuf ibn Tashfin and his troops cut off the heads of the 24,000 Castilians they had killed in the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086, and then they piled up the rest of the bodies “to make a sort of minaret for the muezzins who, standing on the piles of headless cadavers, sang the praises of Allah,” wrote historian Paul Fregosi. Tashfin then sent packages of heads to every major city in North Africa and Spain. But the practice of beheading goes further back, to the Prophet Muhammad himself, who reportedly ordered the execution of 700 Jewish men in Medina on charges of conspiring against him.
There is, to all of this, a political element, of course. In every age and in every part of the world, heads of traitors and criminals have been impaled on stakes as warnings, and heads of enemies and oppressors hoisted aloft as prizes. Foley’s death was apparently a response to American air strikes on Islamic State positions, and the jihadists have promised another American’s death if the U.S. does not refrain from further military action. In this political maneuvering, the killers have a counterpart: Mexican drug-cartel members, who are also notorious for beheading opponents. In 2006, La Familia announced its presence by rolling the severed heads of five rivals onto the floor of a discotheque in Michoacán. Since then, beheadings have become a regular occurrence south of the border.
But at the risk of trivializing, drug cartels are a business, if a particularly ruthless one: They aim to expand their market share and control the mechanisms of government to facilitate their trade. But do not expect the Zetas to lay siege to Austin. By contrast, the Islamic State is like the Mahdists: lively with eschatological aspirations. “See you in New York,” proclaimed one member. “We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” declared another. They would enthusiastically lay siege to Austin or Albuquerque or Ottawa, if they had missiles that could reach them.
Beheading, then, is not merely a tactic of terror; it is a symbol of religious totalitarianism. As Theodore Dalrymple wrote in National Review in 2005:
To sever the head from the body, at least nowadays when we have a more refined sensibility, is not merely to kill: It is symbolically to annihilate not only the biological existence of the beheaded, but the very thoughts he has had during his lifetime. To throw away a head as if it were a worthless inanimate object is to deny in the most categorical way possible any ideas that it might have had while living. It is to imply that only correct thoughts can henceforth be allowed to exist in heads, the kind of thoughts that the executioners themselves have; not until there is unanimity in thoughts, they imply, will our heads rest easy on our shoulders.
Beheading is not just a warning or a promise; it is a ritual expression of an ideology. That this ideology seeks to annihilate and tyrannize is clear from the jihadists’ beheading method: not a quick, clean blow, but a slow, agonizing sawing motion that keeps the victim alive to experience his own execution. This is not the guillotine: It is torture. And its perpetrators glory in it.
Welcome to the Islamic State.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.