It is hard to think of a greater affront to reason than the decapitation of a helpless human being. Actually, it is an affront to many other things as well, including the dignity of the victim and the feelings of family members. But I grew up in what seemed a new age of reason, when scientific discoveries held out the prospect of making the world a better place; the last thing I expected was that a few years later I'd be forced to look at images of men being beheaded by sadistic killers. I can't imagine I'm alone in feeling almost literally sick when I hear that another video of a beheading has been placed on the internet.
The murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines are a horrible reminder that the barbarism of earlier stages of human history has not gone away. In fact, we've known this for some time, at least since the beheadings (in 2002 and 2004) of two American hostages, Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg. In the most recent videos, it is not clear whether the masked British jihadist actually carried out the murders, but we're invited to make that assumption. At any rate, the theatrical brutality of the act is a rejection of an evolution of human values, over centuries, that places such atrocities beyond the pale.
Whether individual members of the group fully understand the symbolism is unclear, but the head is the seat of reason. Murders staged in this fashion are an attack on the Cartesian proposition cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), which has had such a profound influence on how we think about our identity. They are also an assault on the notion of human progress, challenging assumptions about empathy and compassion. That was, I think, the purpose of the gruesome murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was hacked to death and almost decapitated outside his barracks in Woolwich, London, last year.
For most of my life, beheading was something I associated with Tudor kings. I read with bemusement that Henry VIII imported a French swordsman to execute his second wife Anne Boleyn, a gesture explained as more appropriate to her status than being despatched with an axe. Two-and-a-half centuries later the French devised the guillotine, which was designed to provide an instant and painless method of execution. Unfortunately it came into use in 1792, just in time to mechanise mass murder during the Terror.
In England, the last public execution – a hanging – was carried out outside the walls of Newgate prison, now the site of the Old Bailey, in 1868. Public executions were staged events, spectacles devised to terrify and impress; beheadings in particular emerged from warrior culture, in which leaders demonstrated their ruthlessness through a willingness to despatch opponents with their own hands. Salah al-Din (known in the West as Saladin) defeated a Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and personally beheaded one of his prisoners, Renaud de Chatillon, with his sword.
Saddam Hussein came from Salah al-Din's home town, Tikrit, and modelled himself on the Kurdish general; in 2001, paramilitaries controlled by Saddam's eldest son, Uday, beheaded more than 200 Iraqi women and left their severed heads on the doorsteps of their families. The women were accused of being involved in prostitution, but many had professional jobs and were probably opponents of the regime. Indeed, it is sobering to realise how often women are the victims of beheadings. Astonishingly, three women have been decapitated in London this year alone; the most recent was Palmira Silva, 82, who was killed in her garden in Edmonton at the beginning of this month.
Despite these horror stories, capital punishment had been abolished across most of Europe by the end of the 20th century. The name itself is a reference to beheading (from the Latin caput, a head) and its abolition marks a significant change in the relationship between the state and its citizens. These days, the only state which regularly beheads convicted criminals is Saudi Arabia, creating an uncomfortable paradox for Western politicians; the Saudis are now our allies in a bombing campaign against the self-styled Islamic State in retaliation for the beheading of Western hostages.
Outside Saudi Arabia, the decline of capital punishment has created a situation in which beheading has been almost entirely privatised. The decapitation of innocent people in videos can be seen as terrorist groups appropriating a power which modern democratic states have voluntarily given up, reinforcing the notion that jihadis aspire to the most brutal form of statehood. Equally troubling is the way in which they have revived the practice of execution as public spectacle, reaching a potential audience far larger than ever turned out for a beheading in the distant past. Clicking on a link to a video showing the murder of a journalist or aid worker isn't much different from turning up at the Tower of London to watch the execution of a Tudor queen. Personally, I don't even want to see still pictures from the moments before the killing, which show men undergoing unimaginable psychological torture.
Some of the masked men in these propaganda videos treat severed heads like props from a horror film. Ghastly as this is, neuroscientists have a prosaic explanation; they're experiencing a bio-chemical high derived from a combination of testosterone and oxytocin. Thus science comes to our rescue once again, turning inexplicable behaviour into a question of hormones. Having too much testosterone is so much less glamorous than fighting to establish the Caliphate.Reuse content