Thursday, 4 September 2014

Why does beheading horrify us so much?

As an organisation that is very much aware of the power of the media, Islamic State must be delighted with the level of coverage it has received as a result of the beheading of two US journalists. Newspapers, radio and TV are currently dominated by the issue and it has got the world's leaders into a flat spin. Barack Obama has confessed that the US has "no strategy." David Cameron has not said as much, he has merely exemplified it with everything he has done over the last couple of weeks.

Anyone would think that this was the first cross-border insurgency the world has ever seen. In fact it seems like only yesterday that Kurdish separatists (now loyal allies and staunch defenders of minorities) threatened the stability of the entire Eastern Mediterranean region.

So what has marked out this insurgency, to the extent that anyone simply participating in it has overnight become a key threat to Western security whose passport has to be seized and statehood removed? (Except that that isn't legal of course, so what are we going to do to prevent these green-under-the-bed jihadists from poisoning our country on their return? Damn. Where are those US drone strikes when you need them?)

Not long ago, young 'radicalised' muslims who took themselves off to Syria to fight the Assad regime were seen as misguided ideologues who didn't understand the dangers they faced. Now they are all, to a man, the spawn of satan. Why?

Beheadings. I honestly believe that it is that that has changed public perception so dramatically that a man in black robes holding a knife has become the predominant bogeyman image of the day. It is not as if one has to see the footage either- it is the concept of the thing that carries the force. The simple mention of the word is enough.

Why is that? We are surely accustomed to the notion of violent death. Recently, did not coverage of Gaza innure us to it, to the point where an Israeli air strike only made the news if the death toll was in three figures? And US drone strikes are responsible for violent extra-judicial killings all the time without them making the news at all. In more directly comparable cases we have certainly seen images and heard accounts of pretty horrific terrorist outrages before, but none seemed to carry anything like the emotional force of a single beheading.

For all our apparent exposure to violent death we are, in a sense, insulated from it too. From death itself, come to that. And, slightly paradoxically, representations of death that reach us via our screens increase rather than remove that insulation. We know very well what death looks like, yet know too how different that is from knowing what it feels like. Nothing nowadays forces us to confront death, because it is taken from us and either sanitised by hospitals and funeral directors or dramatised by journalists and film- or games-makers. Yet the reality still haunts us around the margins of our existence. Whenever there is a fatal crash on the motorway police have to factor in major tailbacks on the other carriageway as drivers slow down to look.

Beheading though is an existential act that forces us to confront the reality of death in a way that nothing else can. We can look at the victim of a stabbing or a shooting- even of a bomb attack- and at a level not confront the essential reality of their death (or our mortality). We can't do that with a beheading. I have not seen, and will not see, any footage of either recent incident but (because) I know that I would see another human being who was in one moment alive and in another suddenly and incontrovertibly dead, with the essence of their being (their head) no longer a part of them.

So, in our safe, sanitised and insulated world it is the sudden and inescapable confrontation with the reality of death that has so shaken our "single state of mind that function is smothered in surmise and nothing is but what is not" (to quote Shakespeare). And horrific as the notion of beheading is, maybe that is no bad thing. Because death is horrific. And sudden violent death at the hands of another is something we should react to with horror, whether it be inflicted by means of a jihadist fanatic's knife, a terrorist's bomb or a remotely piloted high-tec US drone

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