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by Peter Kurth
July 7, 2004

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I think it’s time we started talking about the “beheadings.”  In fact, I think it’s past time.


Just now, the cutting off of the heads of “kidnapped victims” in Iraq – where God knows how many civilians have already been killed or “maimed” in Bush’s war – is depicted as a uniquely barbaric and medieval form of punishment – just the kind of thing you’d expect from the Infidel, who knows no compassion like the electric chair, the hanging, or the murder by “lethal injection.” 


This is all wrong.  Beheading is a very quick and easy form of execution.  It never fails; neither does it light a man’s hair on fire and leave him burning alive, as the electric chair sometimes does.  It doesn’t allow for the mistakes of hanging, where the wrong kind of “fall” from the platform or the gibbet can leave the victim squirming in agony for 10 minutes or more. 


As to lethal injection, the supposedly “humane” and “peaceful” way many criminals are now put to death in America, there is no breaking through the bullshit of newspapers to hear the testimony of witnesses:


Execution by lethal injection takes much longer from start to finish than any other method, typically 30 - 45 minutes depending on the execution protocol and ease or otherwise of locating a vein. … For the majority of this time the condemned person is fully aware of what is happening to them and able to experience their execution. They know that they will be dead at the end of it and the fear of suffering (particularly in front of an audience) and of the unknown is strong in most of us. It is difficult to see therefore how it can be considered more humane, as the prisoner is subjected to far more mental anguish over a longer period.




In the case of Rickey Ray Rector, a retarded Arkansas murderer who was executed in 1992 [on the order of Bill Clinton, who left the campaign trail to witness it], it took executioners 45 minutes to find a vein in which to insert the IV tube. Eight medical workers tried to find a vein that would not collapse; in the end Rector had to help his own executioners insert the IV.


Or (from CBS News):


The muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide may render a person helpless without dulling pain. Used in about 30 states in combination with two other drugs that cause death, the drug may leave inmates wide awake as other medications cause them to suffocate slowly.


So, let’s not scorn or belittle the beheading.  Fast, easy, bloody – it provides everything that people want to see in a state-sanctioned murder. 


“Arab terrorists” have no monopoly on this.  Beheading is a method of execution the Germans used throughout the Second World War (in cases of treason) and the French for much longer than that:  they only gave up the guillotine in 1977, four years after George W. Bush evaded service in Vietnam by pretending to work on an election campaign in Alabama. 


In fact, for many centuries, beheading was the preferred method of execution among the condemned – far preferable to burning, disemboweling, boiling in oil, "pressing" or “quartering.”  In England, when King Henry VIII decided to get rid of her on trumped-up charges of “sorcery” and “adultery,” Queen Anne Boleyn pleaded for a “headsman” from France, where the sword was used in place of the axe.  She got it, and praised the King for his “justice.”


“Will it hurt?” Anne wondered – and her killer replied, as politely as possible, “They say not, Your Majesty.”  Her little head flew off in a second when he struck – a mercy, when you think what they might have done to her.


It was the same two centuries later, when Queen Marie Antoinette mounted the scaffold in revolutionary Paris, during what is still known as the Reign of Terror.  Whereas her husband, Louis XVI, had been escorted to the guillotine in a gilded coach with full regalia and honor to his rank, Antoinette was taken in a wooden cart -- the tumbrel -- her hair shorn in the way of all criminals, every last favor and wish denied her as an “enemy of the State.”  It is said that she went gladly -- as she mounted the scaffold, she stepped on the hand of “Samson,” the official executioner of the Revolutionary Committees, and said, simply, “Pardon, Monsieur.” Both her head and her body were afterward “abused” by the crowd. 


In 1976, when my father was working for the US government in Saudi Arabia, the streets of Riyadh were still unpaved, the sewers were still open to the air, and the punishments in what we called “Chop Square” were still going on every day.  Not just that, but the heads, hands, feet and other parts of the punished "miscreants" were posted on pikes to warn the faithful away from crime. 


“Justice here is hard,” I heard – “but it’s swift and it works.”  Throughout the months I was there, I refrained from actually going down to watch somebody’s head cut off, although it was something I guessed, at the time, I would never have another chance to see.  It was a daily dither – “Should I?  Shouldn’t I?” 


In the end, I never did.  But I did see the heads, hands and feet on pikes, after the fact.  They just looked like big cantaloupes left out in the sun.


It may still be the same in Riyadh – I don’t know.  In the “war on terror,” don't forget, the Saudis are our allies, and the Bush family, in particular, is bound by hoops of gold – black gold, oil -- to the regime that rules there.  At this writing, American foreign policy is shaped entirely by the demands of Israel and the bribes of Arabia.  And the next time some “innocent victim” is beheaded by “Iraqi terrorists,” think twice – it might be you, in Kansas, Texas or Florida, dying much more slowly and painfully than Islam could ever contemplate.


Peter Kurth is the author of international bestselling books including Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Isadora: A Sensational Life, and a biography of the anti-fascist journalist Dorothy Thompson, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson. His essays have appeared in Salon, Vanity Fair, New York Times Book Review, and many others. Peter lives in Burlington, Vermont. He can be reached at: Visit his website at:


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