THE reappearance of decapitation, brought back to the fore by Isis, is a test for the modern mob mentality, writes Stephen McGinty, and we must not be sucked into their vile world.
For 300 years, there existed a gruesome but desirable job, one that came with wage and accommodation in the gatehouse at London Bridge. The Keeper of Heads was like a foul florist in search of a bloody bouquet; he was responsible for maintaining the city’s prime display sites and replacing old and decayed specimens with fresh ones straight from the executioner’s block. The post was permanently occupied between the 14th and 17th century and while the Keeper was kept busy in London, across the continent in Hamburg, the city’s executioner, Clause Flugge, had a sharpened axe and, unfortunately, a loose tongue. In 1488, after executing 79 pirates in quick succession, he was asked by the ruling senate how he felt, to which he, unwisely, replied: “I could easily go on and do away with the entire wise and honourable senate.” The senate soon thought it best to do away with Clause first.
Decapitation – the severing of the head from the body – was, for centuries, a common, even popular, spectacle for the residents of major European cities. Visitors to Madame Tussauds will largely be unaware that she began her waxwork profession by collecting heads from the basket under the guillotine during “the reign of terror” of the French Revolution when the device made its debut, to the initial disappointment of the crowds, who protested that the new device meant the spectacle was over too quickly.
The heads, or skulls to be more precise, of famous musicians such as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all ended up in the hands of collectors, but at least they were not around to witness the detachment. Thomas Browne, the celebrated author of science and medical tomes, wrote in 1658: “To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls… are tragic abominations.” Sadly, exactly what he wrote came to pass and by 1840 his own skull was on display at Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
These grim tales roll out from a new book, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson, an anthropologist and research fellow at Durham University, published by Granta. Tragically, it is a book that serves as a guide to the present as much as the past.
Last December, few but the most astute commentators on the Syrian crisis would have predicted that in 2014 decapitation would come back into such chilling vogue. This week, the grim, stage-managed murders released on to the internet – let us not cloak them with legitimacy by using the word “execution” – reached their zenith (for now; God knows what lies ahead) with the decapitation of a row of captive Syrian soldiers by young men caught up in a brotherhood of blood.
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In her book, Larson explains that decapitation has always been about the projection of power, of taking everything from one’s enemy, and an act which is “the ultimate tyranny”. It has an effect on us which is more pulverising than other means of death because it separates the body, rendering the person not only dead but incomplete: “… a severed head is simultaneously a person and a thing… an apparently impossible duality… an intense incongruity.”
Everything we associate with being human is wrapped up in a person’s head; from the physical identity to the mind as well as all the senses that make life worth living – seeing, smelling, listening and tasting.
Who could do such a thing? Larson states: “The physical detachment of a person’s head is often preceded by an assumed social detachment that separates the perpetrator from his victim. This social detachment has often taken the form of racism… [which] can turn the person into an object before they are even dead.” For Isis, their hostages are no longer people but kafirs – unbelievers and infidels.
Yet, according to Larson, geography can also be a contributing factor. Being far from one’s usual environment “can allow the perpetrator to assume an alternative identity and occupy an alternative reality; one where normal codes are inverted.”
But what of those who watch? In 2004, when Nick Berg became the first American to be beheaded in Iraq, the video was the most popular internet search item in the US for a week and for a month it was second only to American Idol.
Those individuals who willingly click on a link in order to witness the brutal decapitation of a western hostage or a Syrian officer are comparable with those who view child pornography. In both cases, individuals are clicking on a video in the full knowledge that they are about to witness a heinous crime, one with a perpetrator and an innocent victim. What are the reasons for doing so?
In one case it will be a morbid fascination with a transgressive act; an opportunity to test themselves against a genuine horror. In the latter, it will be to achieve a twisted sexual thrill. It is arguable that the behaviour of both perpetuates a foul and despicable online market.
It cannot reasonably be said that those who view Isis decapitation videos are very likely to carry out such acts themselves, but the thousands of new recruits and the recent arrest of three suspects allegedly plotting to behead a member of the British public would suggest it will not be unheard of.
The internet also has a way of prompting people to act in ways they would never act in real life. Trolls wouldn’t scream abuse at strangers on a bus but would do so on Twitter, and so I wonder how many people would volunteer to witness a beheading at the bottom of their road and would the number be different from those who would watch online?
I’ve often thought about whether it is legitimate to make the viewing of such videos an illegal act. Is the heavy hand of government and the law now required as a prompt to make people think twice before participating in such a spectacle? Yet I’m also inherently wary of racking up our already overloaded statute books with another potential crime.
If it is unwise or impossible to legislate against such videos, then how do we, as a society, defend ourselves against them as they are being used as a propaganda weapon, a means of extolling Isis’s power?
As Frances Larson said in a recent interview: “I think they are trying to draw us into their narrative. I think they know we cannot resist it despite all our misgivings and discomfort and horror at these atrocities. It still makes front-page news, and they, of course, are playing on that.
“We no longer see these graphic mutilations, which used to be a part of life. Crowds did flock to see [beheadings], but now the thought of one man killing another man, holding a knife to his throat, is frighteningly intimate and shocking. Death isn’t like that to us in our society. I think it’s a very visual demonstration, like a play; it’s a staging of power.”
Should the media act in a more censorious manner? Should we no longer put such images on our front pages? There is an argument for this, but then our responsibility is also to report the news, and a picture can still speak a thousand words.
It is galling and depressing that the picture – perfectly posed – is one of theirs. The world needs to find a way of turning its back. As Larson said in her book: “The real power of the crowd lies in the possibility that we might decide not to watch.” Now that would be shocking.
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