Middle East

The Spectacle Of The Beheading: A Grisly Act With A Long History

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Videos and other images of beheadings have appeared with increasing frequency in recent weeks. Dawn Perlmutter, director of the Symbol Intelligence Group, discusses the symbolism of this grim ritual.


Now a subject that's very hard to talk about and perhaps very hard to hear about as well. But I can recall of no other week when we spoke of three separate instances of decapitation or beheadings in the news. The self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the Free Syrian Army and militant Islamists in the Sinai all beheaded captives and distributed images of the result. Decapitation has a long ecumenical history. David cut off Goliath's head and presented it to King Saul. Henry VIII had both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard beheaded. And Saudi Arabia beheads convicted felons to this day. In fact, Amnesty International reports a surge there this year - about two a week. But what made the recent cases we've heard about different was the link between a practice so seemingly ancient and the distribution of the killings via modern social media. Dawn Perlmutter has made a study of such things. She's a semiotician and she joins us from Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: What's going on here?

PERLMUTTER: Well, beheadings and decapitation are the oldest warfare tactic in history because it's so successful in terms of psychological warfare and today in terms of information warfare. There is literally hundreds of beheadings that are occurring around the world by different groups and different cartels and even individuals.

SIEGEL: What is it about the video image of a beheading or decapitation that somehow makes murder seem even worse than murder already is?

PERLMUTTER: I think it is a combination of a lot of young people being desensitized by video games that actually have a lot of decapitation. And it also just has a lot of appeal to young men who are interested in a warrior ethos. It's often found on the cell phones of failed terrorists and of terrorists who have joined different groups.

SIEGEL: Do you think it's an effective deterrent? That is, do you think people look at these things and say, my God, these are brutes. I don't want to go anywhere near their country or whatever they do. I wouldn't want to cross them.

PERLMUTTER: I think it functions several ways. It functions as recruitment for young people. It definitely functions as psychological warfare. And obviously, the way that so many cities have fallen so quickly in Iraq demonstrates that beheadings are going to cow the citizenry into doing whatever you want. It's very effective with the cartels. Journalists in Mexico - there's been several journalists who have been beheaded. And they will upload those images to threaten anybody else who plans on chatting about what they're doing.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine people actually becoming inure to this? Could you imagine becoming insensitive to these absolutely atrocious scenes that are distributed on the web?

PERLMUTTER: I think most Americans are not aware of how many beheadings are occurring each day. And ISIS has taken it to where they have almost devolved into a more primal form where they are literally doing - beheading like 50 people at a time and putting their heads on display. And prior to ISIS, you didn't see children and women being beheaded either. So they have definitely changed the level of violence.

SIEGEL: As I mentioned, in the Bible, you know, David brings back the head of Goliath as a trophy to the King. You're saying that now the video is the trophy as much as the body part that's been severed.

PERLMUTTER: Yes. You can almost tell by the types of imagery in the pictures. They're smiling. They're keeping the image of it, and then they put it on social media and send it to everyone. It's almost like a way of earning their stripes. I view it as an initiation ritual. There is definitely status connected to this particular type of violence.

SIEGEL: Well, Dawn Perlmutter, thank you very much for talking with us today about this very gruesome subject.

PERLMUTTER: Thank you for inviting me.

SIEGEL: Dawn Perlmutter is the director of the Symbol Intelligence Group. Her field is semiotics. She concentrates on crime, and in this case, beheadings and decapitations.

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