What Does It Take To Behead a Man?

There will always be people who look at Muslims, specifically those who hail from places like the Middle-East and Africa, and see only barbarians. These people will invariably be wrong; every Muslim, Arab, African etc. is no more assured of being a ruthless murderer than every member of any other culture on the planet. But a question has to asked about what it takes within someone's personality to be able to literally try to decapitate a man, in public or otherwise.
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There will always be people who look at Muslims, specifically those who hail from places like the Middle-East and Africa, and see only barbarians. These people will invariably be wrong; every Muslim, Arab, African etc. is no more assured of being a ruthless murderer than every member of any other culture on the planet. But a question has to asked about what it takes within someone's personality to be able to literally try to decapitate a man, in public or otherwise.
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Woolwich man

Yesterday on the weekly "Bob and Chez Show" podcast that we do together, Bob Cesca and I discussed the story of the broad-daylight attack on a British soldier in London that had just broken internationally. What was interesting about our conversation is that it was happening literally just a few minutes after the first real details of the attack had emerged and therefore our reactions to what we were learning were pretty much right from the gut. When Bob and I talk about a subject or a news item on the show, we've usually had at least a day or two to process it and get our thoughts straight; rarely are our reactions immediate and visceral. But yesterday's were, and the result was something unexpected, namely an abandonment of political correctness, or at the very least political nuance, in favor of righteous outrage over what had just happened, who was apparently behind it, and the supposed justification they were attempting to provide for why they'd done what they'd done.

I obviously don't want to stray into far-right nationalist territory here, and I know Bob would feel exactly the same way, but, yes, of course my reflexive reaction to the brutal murder of an innocent man on a London street -- an attempted beheading by a blood-drenched madman who then somehow casually strolled over to the nearest camera and offered a political rationale, rooted in Islam, for his despicable actions -- was something along the lines of, "I don't give a damn what this asshole's lunatic reasoning is, why aren't there cops there putting a few dozen bullets in him and sending him off to meet Allah?" Maybe this reaction isn't the most progressive, but given the situation I'm not sure it's the most difficult to fathom either.

It's understandable that there will be backlash from the West's many adventures and misadventures abroad, particularly as it sometimes egregiously prosecutes the "war on terror," but what Bob and I were immediately drawn to about yesterday's daylight attack wasn't the political or even religious debate it was sure to spur but the attack itself -- the unimaginable savagery of it. There will always be people who look at Muslims, specifically those who hail from places like the Middle-East and Africa, and see only barbarians. These people will invariably be wrong; every Muslim, Arab, African etc. is no more assured of being a ruthless murderer than every member of any other culture on the planet. But a question has to asked about what it takes within someone's personality to be able to literally try to decapitate a man, in public or otherwise.

I remember the first time I saw the video of businessman Nick Berg being beheaded in Iraq in 2004. I was working at CNN at the time, plugging away at my desk one morning, when I heard a scream unlike anything I'd ever heard in my life coming from behind me. I turned around just in time to see a televised image of Berg's head being taken off by a masked man armed with a machete, what later turned out to be terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It remains, sincerely, one of the most gut-wrenching things I've ever witnessed, something I truly wish I could un-see. That was the first time, though, that I wondered what the hell it was that separates those whose bloodlust is so insatiable -- and whose tolerance for violence and capacity for outright savagery was so pronounced -- from the people who inhabit the civilized world. True, as a nation we've been guilty of many horrific crimes against the world -- or have at least brought violence upon those we deemed had earned it -- but I'm not sure any of us would be able to engage in that kind of violence. The end result of dropping a bomb on someone and disemboweling him or her is the same -- death -- but the means of arriving at that point would have to say quite a bit about the constitution of the perpetrator. It takes a special kind of sociopath to be able to take a knife and saw someone's head off -- to do what the men who killed that soldier yesterday did.

There's no doubt that we've faced accusations of cowardice in the past for our own brand of sanitized violence and I'm sure many would argue that if we're going to kill we should have the balls to do it up close and personal, to be unable to escape the reality of our actions. But I still can't help but think that the kind of person who actually can slaughter a human being with a knife and do so without compunction and with a justification securely and calmly in mind is the kind of person you don't under any circumstances want walking around a free man. While discussing this yesterday, Bob and I tried to figure out what it was that kept the Abu Musab al-Zarqawis of the world living in the brutality of the eighth century, in a place where they could stomach beheading a person without giving it a second thought. Again, not all Muslims or even Muslim extremists are savages, but there seems to be an unavoidable correlation between the kind of Muslim extremism that leads to terrorism and a lack of submission to the rules of the civilized world and to modernity itself.

Is it an adherence to ancient religion? Is it a resentment so deep and furious that it manifests itself in unthinkable violence? Is it simply a means to an end, the knowledge that beheading a man in broad daylight will terrify and make a statement like no other act of violence possible? What is it?

Neither Bob nor I had any answers yesterday. And 24-hours later I still don't. I just know that regardless of the supposed reasoning behind it or the causes for it, anyone capable of that kind of primitive barbarity has no place in the civilized world.