Academic journal article Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Have Beheadings Intimidated or Angered the American Public?

Academic journal article Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Have Beheadings Intimidated or Angered the American Public?

Article excerpt

Reactions to ISIS Beheadings

"With the beheading of James Foley by Islamic State, a red line has been crossed at last," reads the headline by Jonathan Rugman from the August 22-28th edition of the New Statesman.1 Rugman was referring to the killing of the American hostage Foley, a fellow journalist, by a group known as ISIS, in Syria. A month later, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to destroy ISIS for beheading British hostage David Haines.2 That month, U.S. GOP Congressman Ed Royce also called for America to take a tougher line against ISIS after American journalist Steven Sotloffwas beheaded in September of 2014.3

Yet not all leaders were quick to call for a change in policy after a beheading. U.S. President Barack Obama said that video showing Sotloff's beheading would not lead to a policy change.4 A similar tone was struck by French President Francois Hollande after French tourist Herve Gourdel was beheaded by Jund al-Khalifa (a group that leftal-Qaeda and declared allegiance to ISIS) in September of 2014. Hollande said he would not change policy with regards to ISIS.5 Like Obama, airstrikes would continue; there would be no escalation with regards to ground troops, or a full retreat from the policy.

This article examines whether such beheadings have sparked a backlash in American public opinion, as is generally assumed, or whether such videos of these events have failed to accomplish their goals, despite the attention they have received. A survey of the literature on the purported historical, cultural, and psychological effects of these executions is provided, as well as survey results taken before and after the events, to gauge the impact of these killings.

A History of Heads Rolling

Videos of beheadings by terrorists have certainly captured the West's attention, the way public executions (with beheadings being one form of capital punishment) used to draw thousands of onlookers, according to Frances Larson in her new book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found.6 Throughout history, these heads have included "war trophies," and conflict to supply the demand for shrunken heads.7 "To be human is to have a head that houses a brain and carries a face," writes Ann Fabian in a review of Severed. "And so we are all haunted by the thought of losing our heads...a head without a body makes us sit up and pay attention."8

A review of history shows a variety of cases where beheadings have been meted out. These can go back to Peru's Moche era culture, as evidence from the El Brujo ruins has shown.9 Decapitations also appear in the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage.10 They occurred during biblical times, as seen in the stories of David beheading Goliath,11 Judith killing an Assyrian King,12 St. John the Baptist's execution,13 and even the demise of St. Paul in Rome.14 Anthropologists and historians have found that the Avar people of Austria (600s A.D.-800s A.D.) also engaged in the practice of severing heads, though the methods and possible motives vary.

As Christianity spread, so did the decapitations. Medieval Italy employed that practice of executions during St. Catherine of Siena's time, a practice that was "brutal and cruel," according to Molly Morrison.15 Spanish Christian soldiers fighting for Aragon displayed shields with the symbol of four beheaded Moors from the battle of Alcoraz.16 A similar parade shield featured David's beheading of Goliath.17 Other celebrated cases of decapitations include the executions of St. Edmund and Anne Boleyn,18 and the use of the French Guillotine.19

Far from Europe, the practice seems to have spread across time and continents, to include extra-judicial killings as well. According to Theodore Dalrymple, Japanese soldiers beheaded prisoners out of disdain for their surrender.20 Scott Atran found evidence of the brutal beheading of civilians in Kashmir after an earthquake, in the context of the Pakistan-India clashes.21 The Mungiki criminal gangs of Kenya appear to engage in the practice of severing heads,22 as do the Mexican drug cartels. …

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