Why you should care

Terrorists are horrifying the world with recent beheadings, a practice that dates back centuries. 

Islamic State group terrorists have made a propaganda campaign out of spreading the most gruesome images: cutting off the head of a man. And in doing so, they have horrified millions and propelled countries to go to war against them.

But sadly, perhaps the only thing new in what they’ve done is to use social media to broadcast these grotesque scenes.

Though not a topic most are comfortable with, the image they’ve employed — the sword and its deadly consequence, decapitation — is a symbol of history that has made its way into pop culture, from Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction to Christopher Lambert in the 1980s saga Highlander. These followed Star Wars: A lightsaber in the hands of a Jedi knight is an elegant, civilized weapon that set itself apart from modern-age high-tech. Its owner stands for a better world of days gone by and is trying to protect that world from advancing modernity.

The sword remained a weapon of the duel, of individual battle, a representation of nobility.

But what is the history behind beheading? Long before humans learned to process metal, they hunted heads. The number of shrunken heads or scalps on a man’s belt determined his position in social hierarchy. By taking the head, the hunter, it was thought, could obtain the knowledge or power of his victim, while the skull as a drinking vessel was an instrument of ritual cannibalism. Conversely, the sight of a large number of captured heads had the ability to demoralize potential enemies.

As proved by finds on prehistoric battlefields, arrows, spears, lances or clubs can damage the skulls. Only the sword enabled conquerors like Genghis Khan or Timur Lenk to create piles of neat skull pyramids that marked territorial dominions and, with the height, set visible symbols of their power.

Greek forces fought with spears, those of the Macedonians with extended sarissas, and the Roman legions with spear and short sword, which causes carnage when used in deep formations but hardly provides any opportunity for heroic showmanship. The Celts with their long swords, on the other hand, wanted to keep the “heads of their enemies that were the chiefest persons of quality” embalmed in a box, according to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, but didn’t stand a chance against the disciplined Roman columns.

The medieval knight used the lance. In disciplined lines, this weapon could decide the battle. As soon as the knight was no longer on a horse, however, the noble lone fighter often fell victim to lightly armed foot soldiers or bowmen and crossbowmen. The church had good reason to condemn these cowardly weapons of distance. The sword, however, remained a weapon of the duel, of individual battle, a representation of nobility.

In the Middle Ages, beheading was regarded as the most “honorable” death sentence of all.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the sword culture of the Japanese samurai. After the Tokugawa Shogunate had outlawed firearms, demobilized the country and decreed strict isolation, warriors made handling a sword into a badge of physical accomplishment and social style. Everywhere else in the world, however, cannons, guns and disciplined large armies destroyed the noble contingents.

Even so, many officers in World War I still led their people with sword in hand against machine guns. The Nazis didn’t want to do without an edged weapon as parade accessory for officers: In 1935, the so-called officers’ dagger was introduced.

In the criminal realm, in ancient Rome, death by the sword was introduced as the most severe capital punishment for Roman citizens, while crucifixion and death in the arena were reserved for people at the lowest end of the social scale. In the Middle Ages, beheading was regarded as the most “honorable” death sentence of all. To be executed by the sword was also an act of mercy when the possible alternatives were skinning, impalement or by breaking wheel.

Yet here, too, enlightenment and modernity eventually replaced the sword with more efficient and less skillful forms of execution. The guillotine of the French Revolution was to enable unskilled executioners to transport a larger number of convicted offenders to the other side surely and swiftly, that is, as humanely as possible.

With the use of the sword as instrument of death, Islamic terrorists probably want to demonstrate one thing above all: that they detest efficiency and humanity as a statement of Western modernity. The bloody blade with which the Iraqi terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi had carried out his beheadings was the messenger of an ecstatic sadism that wove atavistic cruelty with theological mummery.

Radical Muslims cite the Quran Chapter 47.4 as the rule for execution: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks until you have crushed them.”

In order to smite the neck, the sword is required, once again giving it the old-fashioned role it has played over the centuries. Yet it’s safe to assume that the terrorists are cynical enough to consider the pop-cultural history of this weapon.

Berthold Seewald writes for the German newspaper Die Welt.

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