The Semiotics of Beheadings
Everyone has seen the images of the poor fellow on his knees with the hooded executioner standing over him. The imminent death of the captive is sufficient existential horror, as we all have a momentary absorptive identification with what it must be like, that moment, but the real focus of our identification is the violence made visible by the idea of a severed head. There are many quick and efficient ways to kill somebody, especially in the modern era. Then why behead someone? ISIS and like extremist groups are skillful users of media and savvy about manipulating images so they know that beheadings have a long history and carry a symbolism that resonates not only with Islamic traditions but captures the attention of the audience. The beheadings may be part of Islamic true believer’s traditions – of which I will say more about below – but they also hold a special horror in the West and have a long tradition of literary and artistic representation. Since beheadings are not the most rational or simplest way to kill somebody, they must carry extra social significance. Moreover, “ritual” beheadings are particularly symbolic and infused with cultural symbols. Beheadings, in fact, constitute a system of meanings that serve strategic as well as internal group purposes. It is always is difficult to draw a line from religious and cultural precepts to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend that these things don’t matter.
Perlmutter, in her explication of honor killings and ritual murder, begins with a basic Islamist tribal code originally designed to recognize proper social values, establish differences between right and wrong, and bind the community together. These evolved into Sharia law and have maintained their tribal commitments to ancestry worship, solidarity, purity, and powerful ingroup-outgroup mentalities.
It is purity that is most associated with the evolution of the moral code and this is true in most fundamental religions including Orthodox Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. But Islamism in particular observes moral and purification rights by establishing prohibitions and practices on everything from dietary laws to sexual behavior. Ritualization inculcates these principles into the social unit and assists with learning and repetition. When an individual is afforded status or respect in the group it is because he or she is representing honor and adherence to the code. Dishonor and humiliation are to be avoided and when they are present in an individual or the community, then restoration in the form of vengeance is called for. Beheadings are form of vengeance and restoration.
As Perlmutter explains, ritualized killing of enemies is even more barbaric than honor killings because the enemy represents the threat of eradication. A beheading is a masculine response that restores honor because it is particularly vile but represents the group as brave, powerful, and heroic. Westerners may not recognize it, but the hooded fellow standing over the debilitated and restrained victim is experiencing an orgiastic sense of power, status, and honor.
In a symposium on violence, terrorism and Islam, participants made regular reference to “shame” cultures and the honor-shame continuum. Shame is associated with feminine qualities of weakness, defeat, acquiescence, and the loss of masculine identity. Shame requires a culture to move it more toward the honor end of the continuum and the shame is redressed by restoring masculine qualities such as violence. Shame resides in two places – the sexual organs and the face. One results in “honor” killings, and the other in the killing of enemies. The face is the focal point of human interaction and the location on the body that carries meaning, insights, and communicative expression. Beheadings, then, represent a strike at the core of one’s humanity and a form of mutilation that robs the other of manhood.
In her book titled Losing Our Heads, Beheadings in Literature and Culture, Janes identifies five types of severed heads: venerated, trophy, presentation, sacrificial, and judicial, corresponding to five types of traditionally authorized beheadings in human culture. There is the ancestral head, removed after death; the trophy head, taken in warfare or raid; the sacrificial head taken from a living person by decapitation in the performance of a religious rite; the presentation head, taken in a political struggle to remove a contender or rival; and the public execution, proceeding from a legal decision.
Beheadings, thus, are infused with meanings. They are the visible signs of deep cultural meanings and make manifest the inner workings of the culture. Knowledge of such workings is a crucial first step toward some sort of reconciliation, if not transformation.