Gruesome Buddies: ISIS Beheadings and the American Death Penalty

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Flagler Live (Florida)

Gruesome Buddies: ISIS Beheadings and the American Death Penalty

"What is certain is that we, too, execute innocent people. We just do it after spending a lot more money to cover our asses." (Photo: Truthout.org)

We are going to war again in Iraq and expanding the bombing to Syria, the seventh country in the Middle East to be graced with American bombings since 2001 (not including Gaza-Palestine, where American bombs are piloted by Israeli largesse). We’re doing this why? Because two Americans and a Brit were beheaded and American media whipped public opinion into a frenzy over it. The same media shrugged when 200,000 Syrians were butchered over the past three years, most of them by the same guy to whom the U.S. Air Force is about to give aid and comfort. The same media chest-thumped and encouraged the butchery of 2,000 Palestinians in July, about a quarter of them children, when Israel launched its latest massacre of Gaza residents. The killing was carried out mostly with weapons you and I paid for. But let the jingoes parade YouTube beheadings and Anglos, and suddenly it’s time to care.

At least this much is clear: we either don’t know what we want in Middle East or don’t have a clue how to go about getting what we want. We are not expanding the war again for humanitarian or strategic reasons. We are doing so as an emotional response, and because the president’s spine has been replaced with Playdoh. The beheadings were gruesome. And the brutality of the Islamic State is indisputable. But neither adds up to a compelling reason to step up the killing and get back into billion-dollar waste.

More to the point: we have no moral ground to stand on when it using the Islamic State’s bloodlust for execution as a spark plug for intervention. We do it all the time, just as gruesomely. Rick Scott has signed the death warrants of 13 people in his brief tenure as governor, a faster rate of executions than any of his predecessors in a four-year term. Florida has executed 81 people since re-instituting the death penalty in 1979, and the United States has executed almost 1,400 since 1976. We don’t show it on YouTube, because we’re ashamed while pretending to be civilized. We  hide it behind a grotesque dead-man-walking ritual that poses as solemnity.

But I fail to see how less gruesome it is than beheadings, particularly when we have a shameful record of executions gone wrong, whether it’s a head exploding in flames in our own Starke prison or injections’ lethality proving more leisurely than advertised, to the gasping inmate’s realization.

There are also some misconceptions about beheading as a method of execution. It’s not an Islamic invention. It’s a western invention. The Greeks and Romans, founders of our civilization and all things grisly, considered beheading the privileged way of dying, because it was quicker, more certain and less painful than other ways. They reserved the—what, favor, in their eyes?–for their own citizens. Non-Romans, as we well know from Jesus’s experience, got crucified. European countries subsequently reserved beheadings for their aristocrats. All European countries have since abolished the death penalty altogether, finding the act, not just the method, gruesome.

A few more backward countries are still at it of course, including Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which still has public beheadings. In that regard, those countries are no different than the Islamic State. And in that regard, we’re no different, either. We don’t behead people. At least not intentionally. That went out of style in the West with the retirement of the guillotine in Paris in 1977. But we electrocute them, lethally inject them, gas them, hang them or execute them by firing squad, as they still do in Oklahoma and Utah, though the two states, because they have such good hearts, also give prisoners the option of getting injected instead.

The conventional assumption, well-heeled by the American death penalty’s fans and PR specialists, is that capital punishment by these means is more humane, and that it’s more justified than the beheading of innocents. Murdering innocent people as the Islamic State does is barbaric. But it’s the fact that they murder them to start with that makes it barbaric, not the method. It’s not clear how less barbaric lethal injection is just because we say it is.

As for murdering the innocents: In Florida alone, 23 people have been exonerated off death row after conviction, after unexpected evidence turned up. Imagine how many people have been killed here and in other states who, on more careful review, would have been proven innocent. What is certain is that we, too, execute innocent people. We just do it after spending a lot more money to cover our asses. That’s without getting into the racism of a death penalty system that is far more likely to sentence blacks than whites for the same crime. So much for due process.

There may be a few legitimate reasons to attack the Islamic State, though I’d prefer it if Arabs were attacking them, not us. The Islamic State’s method of executions is not among those. Otherwise, we should be bombing ourselves. When it comes to capital punishment, not much separates us from the butchers of the Islamic State. That we do it in English, with more recognizable uniforms and behind closed doors doesn’t make it any less backward, any less barbaric, any less repulsive. This moral high ground can’t be claimed until the death penalty is abolished.

Pierre Tristam

Pierre Tristam

Pierre Tristam is a journalist, writer, editor and lecturer. He is currently the editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a non-profit news site in Florida. A native of Beirut, Lebanon, who became an American citizen in 1986, Pierre is one of the United States' only Arab Americans with a regular current affairs column in a mainstream, metropolitan newspaper. Reach him at: ptristam@gmail.com or follow him through twitter: @pierretristam

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