Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Jihadi John and the horror of beheadings

We’re shocked, in the West, by the actions of ISIS in beheading its victims. 

The mass executions are horrifying, but the individual killings are strangely more horrifying still: it’s easy to identify with the single man, bound and unresistant, as Jihadi John deliberately and without compunction uses a knife to hack into his neck, inflicting deliberate suffering and then death on an innocent victim.

We’re right to be shocked. But we have no basis for feeling superior – or at least, that our nations are superior. Beheading has a long and time-honoured tradition in our societies too, often carried out in public, and until relatively recent times.

Beheading: a long tradition in our countries too
and until not that long ago...

The last beheading in Britain took place in 1747. Funnily enough, the man executed, Simon Fraser Lord Lovat, paid for his life for involvement in the 1745 uprising of Scots against the Hanoverian dynasty in London. It’s a measure of some progress that Scots were able to express their views on separation from England last year without any of them being beheaded for it, or indeed having to take up arms in the first place.

Though Lovat’s execution was the last by beheading, it was by no means the most spectacular. That sordid tyrant Henry VIII decided in his paranoia, in the last decade of his reign, to do away with any remaining descendants of the Plantagenets, the dynasty his own Tudors had supplanted from the throne. It has to be said that quite a few of them had shown themselves less than supportive, but given the way he dealt with any opposition, who can blame them?

One of the last was Margaret Lady Pole. Henry had her imprisoned, under sentence of death, for two and a half years. Finally, when she was rising 68, he decided to have the sentence carried out.

There’s probably no truth to the story that Pole, furious at being sentenced without even a trial, ran away from the axeman who came after her, swinging his weapon, until it at last made contact and brought her down. However, what does seem to be true is that he was incompetent, that his first attempt to cut off her head missed and struck her shoulder, after which it took another nine strokes before he finally completed the decapitation.

So basically he tortured her to death. Shades of Jihadi John, wouldn’t you say?

Other countries kept beheading far longer. France made the process more clinical with the guillotine, but the application of engineering doesn’t make the basic thing any less dire: it’s still the violent removal of someone’s head from their body. The last state beheading in France took place in 1977, so well within living memory.

And of course there are countries which still engage in the charming practice, not least our great and staunch ally Saudi Arabia. It not only likes beheading people, it likes to do it in public, no doubt for the edification of the bystanders and passers by. And it is even a member of the international coalition against ISIS.

Presumably it doesn't feel that ISIS is wrong to behead people, perhaps just that it goes a little too far in the number it beheads. Saudi in its moderation kept to just 87 last year. Then again, maybe Saudi just feels ISIS is beheading the wrong people.

In the West, we feel shocked by the beheadings by ISIS. And we rightly support efforts to put an end to their dire regime, by force if necessary. Still, we’d do well to remember that our own track record isn’t that glorious. Let’s finish off ISIS by all means, but then take a look at our friends too – and remember our own history.

Of course, ISIS does even more abominable things. It burned that Jordanian pilot alive. Not something that we’d ever do. Or not that we’ve done for nearly 300 years: we liked to use this punishment against women, mainly. And the last woman burned alive in Britain? Catherine Hayes in 1726.

Rather too uncomfortably recent for anyone with a little sensitivity to history…

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