Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Problem(s) with Decapitation

What makes the fact that Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti was decapitated so disturbing? (I'm assuming others were disturbed. If you weren't, you'll disagree with nearly all of this post.) Here are three candidate explanations:
1) Coming so close on the heels of the taunting at Saddam's execution, the botching of al-Tikriti's execution will likely fuel suspicions among Sunnis in Iraq and beyond that the Shiite-led government is deliberately abusing its power to humiliate Sunnis. This in turn will further fuel sectarian violence.
2) Decapitation is a cruel method of execution. Although the guillotine was promoted in its day as humane, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the severed head sometimes remains alive for a small period. This is certainly one of the reasons why the hangman is supposed to try to avoid decapitation.
3) Decapitation has been used by terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere as a particularly brutal form of murder. The accidental decapitation of a murderer like al-Tikriti is of course not as revolting (to a person holding reasonable moral views) as the deliberate beheading of an innocent like Daniel Pearl, but the former nonetheless evokes the latter.

I think all of these concerns are in play here, but I also think there's a primal revulsion that goes beyond these particular consequences. One possibility is religious. Orthodox Jews oppose autopsy on the ground that when the Messiah comes, the dead will be resurrected bodily. Muslims permit autopsy if strictly necessary but would certainly regard unnecessary decapitation as profoundly disrespectful. Nonetheless, I don't think religious feelings explain the revulsion. For one thing, there's my own intuition; I'm not religious but I find the prospect of decapitation more revolting than other methods of execution, even controlling for pain (to the extent that such a thought experiment is possible). Moreover, unless one holds the view of bodily resurrection, religious convictions ought to make one care LESS about the body than otherwise: the immortal soul, in such views, is what matters.

So, assuming that I'm correct that there is a residual unexplained revulsion here, I don't have an explanation for it. My own subjective report is that this is something on the order of the revulsion against cannibalism. That revulsion probably evolved as a defense against the spread of prion disease. (See Chapter 13 of The Family that Couldn't Sleep, by D.T. Max, for a fascinating account.) Could the revulsion against decapitation be rooted in the same period of pre-human history? We know that brains are among the most infectious portions of cows and sheep infected with BSE and scrapie, respectively. Perhaps before pre-humans learned not to eat the corpses of one another, they learned not to eat their brains, which would have been facilitated by a taboo on decapitation, one that remains with us to this day. A just-so story, I freely admit, but the closest thing to an explanation that I've got.

9 comments:

Adam S. said...

When I direct the focus inward and engage in my own (oh-so-scientific) thought experiment, I find that decapitation (applied to me) is FAR better and even more interesting (prospect of an extra second of really cool and different perception) than, say, death caused by the heating of an overturned metal tub with mice on your belly (the mice, trying to escape the heat eat through the abdomen. See Sam Harris, The End of Faith).
As for evaluating the phenomenology and source of revulsion to decapitation and cannibalism among others, I think it has to be related to a laying bare of the true fragility and non dualism of human existence. With both cannibalism and decapitation, you are getting an "in your face" reminder that we are just a bunch of parts that can be easily broken up and destroyed. A freestanding head makes that more evident on a deep level than merely drawing and quartering inasmuch as we associate the head/brain/face area with true/deep personal identity. Thus, it trivializes human existence to see a freestanding head or a sizzling side of human meat on a platter.

Caleb said...

I think that one of the sadest facets of human history is the creative and ingenious ways we have devised to kill each other. Adam S's example is one; as is decapitation. Personally, I think that being burned at the stake would be a horrible end.

As for the revulsion towards decapitation. I wonder if it doesn't lie in our predisposition to prefer "human" forms. One head, two arms, two legs - that's sort of the standard formula for creating a "person". When someone is decapitated, that recipe is messed up. There is something decidely unhuman about a torso and body without a head - our terror of things like headless horsemen might come from something like that. I think a severed head has a similar power to discomfort. There's something human about it, but at the same time something profoundly different. Neitzsche aside, I think we are primarily herd creatures, and something that makes us feel disconnected from that shared "humanness" can have unsettling effects.

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