THE BLOG
10/08/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

About Beheading: There Is More to ISIS Decapitations Than Mere Publicity

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Our recent "family night" with my two young children featured popcorn and pizza (of course). We watched the second Hobbit film, and it was great fun.

Watching Peter Jackson's wizardry, I could only think: What a lovely beheading of Orcs! I know Orcs are less-than-human, even "human animals" -- and yet the viewer is ineluctably encouraged to revel in their blade-extravagant decapitation. The movie moves cinematic heaven and earth to give us a blood-rush when evil heads are severed. Keen blade and righteous cut here celebrated like I have never seen.

But I came away shaken by the real beheadings of our own: Because our family night came just after the very real beheadings of two Americans -- with the stark scenes of their execution burned into the eyes of us all. These were not Orcs but our own -- with children of Muslim immigrants we welcomed into our fold wielding the knife.

Yet I was shaken all the more realizing how much Hollywood -- and we, their cinematic customer -- seem to love extravagant decapitation, especially in exotic plotting and locale. How many severed heads have pampered our prurience in Game of Thrones -- on pike, or rolling out from burlap bag -- and all the broadsword cuts by good guys as well as bad -- how many heads salaciously unfurled, snapshot-true? Or how about the pyramid of heads in Kingdom of Heaven, piled high after Hattin? Or the head Vorenus kept lovingly by his side for months, in the mini-series Rome? And we should not forget Assassin's Creed.

These may be mere fantasies from antiquity and the medieval world, conjured simply for our late night entertainment. Moreover, barbarian warlords did that then. It was a normal part of doing political business. But their justice, in pornographic display from cinema to TV is noteworthy on two levels: 1-That we actually seem to enjoy the passionate rush of taking a human head, and 2-That we are thus all the more vulnerable to the real passion of decapitation. By so celebrating this primitive act in movie fantasy, we are all the more at its mercy in our reality.

Decapitation is central to human politics because it has extraordinary ritual power. Moreover, it is primitive not in its human baseness but rather in its raw capacity to assert authority.

This is why the taking of heads has ruled Western consciousness until very recently. Beheading is culturally satisfying, a powerful act of statecraft, and a deep wound to the enemy. This intertwining of fulfillment, power, and wounding of the enemy is, I would argue, central to our consciousness.

We all share the ritual compulsion to behead. There are four rites associated with decapitation in civilized societies -- meaning, literate cultures with cities:

· Enunciation of ruling authority.

To cut off the head is in symbolic terms to cut off ruling authority itself. Hence De Capito in political terms signifies severing the head of the state, in terms we still use today: as in Capitol and capital. Or in military terms: The Captain.

Severing the head of any figure representative of a ruling establishment is by extension the promissory cutting to come of the rulers' heads themselves. It is not enough to say that Islamic State victims were simply journalists or aid workers.

Hence Americans and Brits in their very persons represent the majestic and imperial presence of big authority. They are, in the eyes of the righteous, full representatives of Western subjugation and pollution of the Muslim world.

Beheading is infused with statecraft: it is a public act asserting the legitimacy of the executor over the illegal and insurgent acts of the executed.

· Passion-rites announce a new world. Moreover, at its most powerful, a great decapitation can upend an entire world. The grand beheadings of Charles I and Louis XVI shook political paradigms.

But Louis at the guillotine changed the Western world forever. Enacted before a grand theater of tens of thousands, in the central city on earth, holding Louis' head aloft by the hair became the electric enunciation of Modernity, and the touchstone for 23 years of European war. But see the theater that drove this home, here, and here.

The biggest problem we face in confronting Islamic State beheading is in not understanding and accepting the DNA-coded significance of decapitation in asserting new ruling legitimacy. Beheading -- especially as an act of civic theater -- is not just a barbaric act: it is the deepest and most powerful tool of political legitimacy. This has been true through history, and we need to take on its significance here, for us.

· Symbolic prostration = subjugation. What does it really mean to hold the head of a powerful enemy by the hair? Beheading is the most symbolically powerful way to show that you have literally separated the enemy from its leadership, its captain. Because decapitation is also the highest act of state, it is also the act of replacing a former legitimacy of rule. Decapitation is be a powerful symbolic announcement of new Rulership.

But there is another layer. The specific beheading of precious youth is symbolic warning that the impending victorious state will not only destroy the leadership of its antecedents, but also, all those who defend it. Hence the decapitation of non-military Americans and Brits -- otherwise innocents in our eyes -- are in fact (to the new power) the very heart of the old order's tyrannical reach. To execute them is just as much a ritual execution of the authority of the ancien regime, as it would to take the heads of its leaders.

It is also warning that the corrupt Arab tyrants -- rulers of life and death -- now risk their own heads to a new authority. But the apostate communities will not be accorded such honors. This explains the merciless execution of Kurdish and Shi'a soldiers. But they are killed prostrate and bound in the dirt, like dogs.

· New legitimacy lives in immortal trophies. Our own are treated differently -- Why?We should recognize that beheading is not only an act of state, but also an act of princes and kings. Beheading is to be distinguished from casual, battlefield hanging and shallow-grave mass shootings. Our Islamic enemy has paradoxically accorded us a great token of respect in ritual decapitation.

Decapitation as an act of public theater is crafted as a transfer of legitimacy. Hence it must accord those to be executed the honor of being the soon-to-be-former holders of state legitimacy who, through the act of losing their heads, at the same time proffer the authority within them to the new leaders. Thus the act of decapitation represents, ritually and symbolically, the transfer of legitimacy from old order to new.

This is why heads-on-pikes is such a fixture of ancient and medieval politics. It represents a tangible transference of political legitimacy, and thus is essential to the building-out of new political authority.

This is why heads become trophies. This is why American Indian nations took scalps. We humans need to express shifts in political relationships through the possession of sacred physical symbols.

Modern states do this very decorously. At the US Naval Academy, for example, you may view the various battle ensigns of the defeated. Even the so-liberal Dutch, in Breda, maintain a splendiferous collection of battle trophies from many a conquered people. The collection, like so many in every military, stems from, and speaks to, the same need to commemorate victory -- but also, to show for all time how you vanquished an enemy, and the glorious fruits and booty of their condign submission.

How can America best respond to this ancient ritual?

I am confident that Americans do not understand any of this. We are babes-in-the-woods because we inhabit -- for all our recent, accreted cynicism on world affairs -- strangely innocent in our assumptions on war and politics.

Hence I can only offer some cautions to my fellow citizens, and their grand, if also innocent, military establishment. I have only two.

First, look at the actual position we inhabit in the Muslim world, especially in the Arab Sunni world. Forty years ago we became the guardian of their world. The real threat of the Islamic State is not military -- it is an attack on the legitimacy of our guardianship -- and so far the United States is failing.

The Islamic State represents a direct attack on the US position in the Middle East. Americans need to take a deep breath and look at the real world, rather than remaining wholly absorbed in the political utility of Middle East policy for point-scoring in domestic wrangling -- read, upcoming elections.

Second, Americans are suckers for the power of Islamic State grand opera. Our every reaction has been perfectly reflective, as if on-cue. We become wholly absorbed with what these acts do to us and mean to us, rather than focusing on how to overturn the ritual and symbolic power they represent to Muslims everywhere.

Moreover, we have been galvanized by beheadings into stern action. But could this in fact be part of the strategic intent on our enemy? Remember, the beheading of Louis XVI galvanized the European monarchies to invade France: Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Britain. What a coalition!

Slam-dunk, right -- not. At the battle of Valmy revolutionary France began its epic overthrow of the ancien regime, culminating in the grand victories of Jena-Auerstadt, Austerlitz, and Friedland. In other words, the righteous response of the establishment coalition was crushed by the new idea. We should beware the same strategic snare.

It is not, as some insist, an act of suicide for the Islamic State to use all the ritual significance of beheading to provoke the West into action. Why? Because our collective action, like the bloated, overblown monarchies of late 18th century Europe, could soon show itself equally weak and feckless. Our intervention may thus become the vehicle for our own eventual defeat, if not demise.

Moreover, we simply have no idea of the existential pull of Muslim renewal that the Islamic State represents. Simply, the IS now embodies all Muslim hopes for a renovatio, a rebirth of identity, so long promised and so long postponed. The pledge of allegiance from the Taliban is just one notch along the way.

Thirteen years at war with the Muslim world has not given us anything like an empathetic understanding of their identity and its trajectory. Yet in strategic terms, our shortcoming is their gain. If we don't "get them" then we really don't get them -- and that represents a huge strategic advantage for Da'ish.

Our greatest vulnerability as a people is that we inhabit a wholly vicarious, narcissistic heroic landscape, overlaid on actual world dynamics that we can approach only through the most cartoon-like stereotypes -- which we insist on believing utterly. Hence our righteous actions come up short, because there is no effective response in reality to a fantasy of our own making.

Ritualized IS beheadings tee-us-up for defeat to come. Suddenly confronted with the power and horror of sacral death -- which we are deeply receptive to and yet not equipped to understand -- we move, reflexively, like the monarchies of the 1790s, to simply destroy the bacillus.

Yet in doing so we play right to their strength, offering up only our weakness.

This is an existential struggle for legitimacy and identity -- and for us, time is running out.