You'd be forgiven for thinking decapitation is back in fashion this year. Used by everyone from the Islamic State to Boko Haram to some over-enthusiastic supermarket robbers in Coventry, England, it won't be surprising if a beheading turns up in Nicki Minaj's next music video.
Now even Christians are getting in on the act. When Isaiah Marin, a devout Christian student in Oklahoma, got pissed off with his 19-year-old goth roommate Jacob Crockett recently, he brought a machete to a card game and attempted to hack his head off.
Marin was reportedly upset about his victim's "un-Christian" interest in witchcraft (though didn't feel the same way, reportedly, toward his own heavy drug use). It sounds ludicrous, until you remember there are thousands of Christian parents out there shitting bricks over Harry Potter. Sure, GodHatesGoths.com, with its handy Harry Potter section, is almost definitely a parody, but it's a fact that the boy wizard's books were the most challenged in 21st-century America—more people tried to get them banned from libraries than any other text.
(And this isn't confined to the Bible Belt. My housemate at university had parents who took objection to his younger brother's Pokémon collection, buying it off him and putting it on the bonfire. Since he'd outgrown them by then, he was quite happy with the cash… but still.)
Fortunately, most societies have moved past chopping off heads as a way of settling scores. Instead we just bitch and whine on blogs and social media. The machete and the guillotine have been replaced by the downvote button and the passive-aggressive subtweet, or something like that.
But as the War Nerd points out, (in the best article on the topic I've ever seen), beheadings have been with us for most of history. They've been an execution method for thousands of years of course, but they can also be an effective propaganda tool—nothing says "I've won" better than carrying your opponent's head on a spike.
What makes recent cases seem different is the weird synergy between ancient propaganda and modern social media. Something remote and medieval that we'd largely forgotten about is suddenly right there on our computer screens. Seeing a beheading on YouTube is like seeing a knight turn up with an iPhone—it's something we just don't expect to see in our modern world.
That impression is more down to our ignorance than anything else. In Europe we've long since packed away our guillotines and nooses (well, for 30-odd years at least), and the Americans will probably get there eventually. In Saudi Arabia though, witchcraft is still a capital offense, and waving a wand too eagerly could see you strung up in the delightfully nicknamed "Chop Chop square" for a public execution. The Islamic State may have brought the technique to wider attention, but those jihadists' efforts pale in comparison to the routine actions of the Saudi legal system.
That said, murder—whether by states or fanatics—is in a long period of decline. The death penalty is acknowledged by pretty much anyone with a brain to be costly, ineffective, and annoyingly prone to killing innocent people. It fails to deter criminals, and makes those states that take part in it look backward and barbaric. Countries have been abandoning it steadily for a few decades now. Murder rates have been falling worldwide, and violence generally has been trailing off for generations.
Of course you wouldn't get that impression from the press. The Daily Mail loves beheadings almost as much as it loves breasts, feigning moral outrage about both while eagerly lapping up page views for articles that blur the lines of what's acceptable to print in a newspaper. Photo editors used to figuring out exactly how much nipple they need to pixellate do pretty much the same with Jihadi murder scenes. The reputation of "Jihadi John" in the UK is almost entirely thanks to media outlets like the Mail eagerly building up his legend in pursuit of a compelling character to write about.
And as examples like Isaiah Marin's gothphobia show—and centuries of history before that—gruesome killings aren't the preserve of Muslims. Hell, violence isn't even the preserve of the religious—as barbaric as beheadings look in 1080p on LiveLeak, the end result isn't much different to a drone strike for the victim. In fact, there's really only one common theme when it comes to the causes of violence, and that's secular democracy. Secular democracies are less prone to beheadings, murders, and violence of any kind, even if they have large populations of religious people living in them. The more secularism in government spreads, the more peaceful the world gets.
So if there's anything to be drawn from our decreasingly bloody history, it's this: You probably won't lose your head to a crazed Muslim fanatic—or any other kind of fanatic—anytime soon, whatever the papers say, and while we don't all have to become atheists to live in a peaceful world, any move toward making our society more tolerant of different people and cultures is a pretty good thing.
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