In movies of the French Revolution, the severing of heads by guillotine is so tidy. The weighted, angled blade drops, and the dismembered head plops into a basket. Scarfing popcorn and licking the butter and salt off our fingers, we are hardly moved by the sight. I will have closed my eyes, but most people don’t even flinch. They are watching a movie – it is just pretend. No one is actually executed.
But beheadings aren’t so tidy when executed by Islamic State Jihadi. I haven’t watched the videos, but I have followed the news of the beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American contractors, and more recently the execution of David Haines, a British aid worker.
Does the severed head fall to the ground or does the executioner keep hold of the man’s hair? I don’t know. I can’t look. As I quarter an apple with a dull paring knife, I wonder. Does the black-hooded Jedi use a knife or a cutlass? How big is the knife? Is the knife sharp? Does the videographer recording the scene vomit? Is death quick or does the executioner have to saw away?
Unlike our cinema-going remove – unlike our dispassionate response to Ebola, the Ukraine, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, our response to the beheadings is visceral.
I recently started reviewing my earlier work, and as I sort through my political essays, I am saddened by how little has changed in the last ten or 20 years. The same issues come and go to come again. One of the pieces that I found was titled, “Give Me a Steady Hand.” I wrote the piece in 2004 after the beheading of three civil engineers kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq. Ken Bigley was British; Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong were Americans.
The ten-year-old piece reads as follows:
I study the photo of Kenneth Bigley, executed in Iraq this past September. Dressed in Prison garb and at the knees of Islamic extremists, Kenneth Bigley is somber in shades of black and white. He looks tired – drawn. Yes, the photo is monochrome, but you know that if the picture were in color, his face would still be gray.
His V-neck shirt is open to his breastbone. He looks naked – exposed. His neck looks vulnerable, a baby’s neck… a nursing home neck too weak to support his head. I want to reach out and cup the back of his head in my hand. I want to cover his ears and shut out the prison sounds. Did he wonder at the random nature of his capture? Did he ask, “Of all the foreigners in Baghdad, why me?”
If you asked Bigley what he wanted, his demands would probably be modest…. A drink of water…. To hold his mother… to have his mother hold him… we all want our mother when we are about to die. Did he pray for a quick death?
I think of all the ducks and geese I’ve killed. Cutting through a neck is more difficult than you would guess. My husband and I would work as a team. Holding the duck’s beak in my right hand, I would stretch the bird’s neck over the chopping block by using my left hand to pull its feet in the opposite direction. A taut bird is a still bird. Swinging the ax, my husband would do the deed.
This worked for a number of years. I didn’t like the killing but I quite liked the eating. Until one slaughter when my hand jerked, the duck moved, and the ax only made a partial cut. Hysterical, I dropped the duck. Away it ran – blood geysering high and its head off to one side… flopping to and fro… attached only by tendons.
My husband was yelling; I was sobbing. The dozing dog, untrained in hunting, knew exactly what to do. In a flash, he leapt to fetch. Usually I was the one to pluck and gut. That day I went to bed. It was my very last beheading.
I wonder… did the men who beheaded Bigley have experience? Did they hone their skills on chickens? Does practice make perfect? Is every neck the same? Do amateurs sometimes flinch?
I hope no one flinched.
Ten years have passed and the terrorists are gaining ground thanks to their outreach through social media and the inability of Iraq and Syria to form inclusive governments. Unhappy? Disaffected? Join us. We’ll give you a gun and a uniform!
I was happy to see Congress vote according to their conscience. What a bright light to see them sever their party ties so close to the mid-term elections. Their show of independence is a step in the right direction. I don’t want to see “boots on the ground,” but if we selectively target ISIS and diminish their capabilities, that is the most we can hope for. Only the Iraqi and Syrian governments can minimize the Sunni/Shia conflict.
For a balanced discussion of Sunni/Shia issues, I highly recommend reading La Voz, “Colorado’s #1 Hispanic-Owned Bilingual Publication.” In particular, read Ernest Grule’s article, “High Tension in the Middle East.” http://wwwlavozcolorado.com. Go to Archives and type in 9/10/2014. I don’t know when I’ve read a better article on the history behind the conflict… the reasons that violence will come and go and come again.
Autumn / Even the birds / and clouds look old. Basho 1644-1694