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Why We Should All Watch the Video of the Pilot's Fiery Death

02/09/2015 02:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

It's amazing to see what has happened to our tolerance for images in the past few weeks.

Just under a month ago, the killing of four cartoonists who worked for the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo prompted millions of French people--and millions elsewhere-- to say, "Je suis Charlie / I am Charlie." Thus they upheld the magazine's right to publish with impunity images that insult or ridicule the beliefs of anyone--except of course Jews. In France itself you can be prosecuted for denying the holocaust, or--by implication-- forgetting the role that anti-Semitic caricatures played in leading up to it. (For more on this point, see my previous post.)

But anti-Semitic images are not the only ones we find intolerable. In spite of our fervent conviction that publishers (in print and online) must be free to circulate words and images alike, must defy all those who seek to suppress them by intimidation or any other means, You Tube will not post the ISIS video of a Jordanian pilot burned to death in a cage, and neither will any other U.S. website known to me--with one ironic exception: Fox News. Though all good liberals deplore Fox for its ideologically driven distortions of fact, its website is the only one that posts the ISIS video in full.

The case against posting this video, I suspect, is twofold: it is too shocking for the American public to see, and the mere act of looking at the pilot's final agony may somehow make the viewer feel complicit with his torturers--just as the act of witnessing a lynching in days of yore might have made the witness feel guilty of condoning it, though never liable to prosecution for doing so.

No one but ISIS condones the burning of the pilot. If the barbarity of this act appalls us, it also appalls the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even though the video is titled Sura 9:14, a passage from the QUR'ĀN that is easily misinterpreted ("Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands and will disgrace them and give you victory over them and satisfy the breasts of a believing people.") According to Eamonn Gearon, a historian of the Middle East, the QUR'ĀN includes examples of immolation, but since the seventh century it has been almost universally condemned by Muslim theologians as a desecration of the body, which belongs to God alone.

Consider how the pilot's execution has been judged by Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, head of the thousand-year-old Al Azhar institute in Cairo. "This vile terrorist act," he has said, "requires punishment as cited by the Quran for oppressors and spoilers on earth who fight God and his prophet, that they be killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off." Likewise, King Abdullah of Jordan, himself a former general who was visiting Washington when news of the pilot's immolation broke, has vowed to retaliate against ISIS until his army runs "out of fuel and bullets," which is not likely to happen so long as we furnish them. As a first act of revenge, he ordered the pre-dawn hanging on Wednesday morning of a man and a woman who had each been condemned to death for terrorist acts in Jordan years ago.

But how much solace can we draw from the imam's condemnation and the king's vow? If they are both appalled by the vileness of the burning, how much less vile and more civilized is crucifixion, amputation, or hanging--especially when the latter is prompted by nothing but the lust for revenge? Though the jailed man and woman had been condemned to death years ago, it was only the news of the pilot's death that suddenly ended their lives. And it was precisely for ordering their instant deaths that King Abdullah was cheered by the crowds who welcomed him back to Jordan on Wednesday.

So let us be brave enough to watch the video right to the end, for only its last few minutes show the pilot's immolation. Let us also remember that death by immolation has a long history starting at least as early as the Old Testament, which is studded with threats of fiery death such as the prophet Jeremiah's against the Ammonite city of Rabbah ("it shall be a desolate heap, and her daughters shall be burned with fire" [Jeremiah 49:2]).

Thus authorized by the Good Book, this kind of punishment permeates the history of the Roman Catholic church, which started burning heretics around the year 1300 and by the early eighteenth century had immolated tens of thousands under the Inquisition. And can we forget what happened in August of 1945, when American bombers immolated well over two hundred thousand Japanese civilians with atomic fire?

No atom bomb has ever been dropped in America and so far as I know, no one has ever been immolated for heresy here. But starting in the late eighteenth century, just as our Constitution first affirmed the right to freedom of worship and speech in this land, African-Americans were regularly lynched for crimes never proven in a court of law, and many of them were burned to death before large crowds. On Wikipedia you can find a picture of one. Publically burned to death in Waco, Texas on May 16, 1916 and then hung up for display in the nearby town of Robinson, Jesse Washington's charred corpse appears on a postcard written by a man who thus describes his own part in the proceedings: "This is the barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son, Joe."

Lynchings ended in America more than fifty years ago. But consider what is happening in our own time. Closely following the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture of detainees from 2001 to 2006 (including all the horrors of Abu Ghraib), Little, Brown has just published the diary of a Guantanamo prisoner named Mohammed Ould Sahi, an electrical engineer who was arrested at his house in Mauritania in November 2001, brutally interrogated in Jordan over a period of eight months, and then sent to Guantanamo, where he was further tortured and where he remains a prisoner to this day--all because he once fought with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when its war against the Soviets was indirectly supported by the U.S. It does not matter that he left Al Qaeda long before it turned against us.

Our Middle Eastern allies are not much kinder. While all of them seem united (for once) in condemning the fiery execution of the Jordanian pilot, which of them administers a justice that can truly be called humane? Surely not Saudi Arabia, where a blogger named Raif Badawi has been sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes--fifty at regular intervals--for launching a website of social and political debate. And news of this sentence coincides with fresh evidence that the 9/11 immolation of more than 2600 people in the World Trade Towers--which became our own burning cage--may have been funded by three leading Saudis including Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the onetime Saudi ambassador to Washington. (Why would Saudi princes fund jihad against their staunch ally America? To keep the jihadists--above all Osama bin Laden--from undermining the Saudi regime. In other words, a protection racket.)

So ISIS has no monopoly on cruelty or immolation. On the contrary, it has exploited for its own ends the shock value of something used for centuries to punish and terrify heretics and African-Americans, and lately used by desperate dissidents around the world upon themselves. In June of 1963, a Buddhist monk in Vietnam burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Likewise, to protest the Chinese stranglehold on Tibet, 27 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009. And remember what literally ignited the so-called Arab Spring of revolutions in Egypt, Tunis, and Syria? On the morning of December 17, 2010 in central Tunisia, a 28-year-old vegetable-seller named Mohammed Bouazizi, breadwinner for a family of eight, set himself on fire when his unlicensed cart and its contents were confiscated by the police, who then refused to hear his appeal.

Given the shock value of immolation, whether self-inflicted or not, the propagandists of ISIS have used it to showcase their capacity for revenge. In the long runup to the final immolation scene, the video condemns Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and all the other Middle Eastern countries that have allied themselves with the hated infidels of America; the Jordanian pilot himself, who is made to personify the allied war against ISIS, "confesses" at length to the allies' sins; and finally we see pictures of bodies--men, women, and children--that are said to have been mutilated and, you guessed it, burned to death by allied air attacks.

In avenging such attacks by burning the pilot, ISIS has inevitably provoked further acts of revenge such as the Jordanian bombing of an ISIS stronghold in Northern Syria last Friday. But according to ISIS, the only person killed by the airstrike was an American woman named Kayla Jean Mueller, who disappeared in Syria in August of 2103 and was being held as a hostage. If this is true, it confirms the folly of thinking that we can ever defeat ISIS by strapping ourselves to the nonstop wheel of revenge. And even if the story is fabricated, as many contend, it holds a grain of truth. It reminds us that airstrikes always run the risk of "collateral damage" by killing the innocent.

But in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq, Arabs themselves have already launched a fascinating alternative to such revenge, which is the subject of my next post.