Invitation to a Beheading*

I have no way of proving this. But to me at least it’s clear that the president of the United States finally decided to take up arms against ISIS because of recent videos showing the beheadings of two American journalists. We know about Barack Obama that both his campaign for the presidency and his more than six years in the White House were predicated on getting us out of foreign conflicts, not in. We also know that earlier this year he dismissed ISIS as insignificant, not a threat, certainly not to the security interests of the U. S. Similarly we know that the majority of the American people and the majority of the Congress more or less supported the administration’s foreign policy, specifically its aversion to foreign entanglements. In fact for years now, while the brutal and miserably costly civil war in Syria has dragged on, the U. S. has been content to stay on the sidelines, a bystander, not a participant.  But once James Foley and Steven Sotloff were decapitated, and once their decapitations were posted on line, things changed.

If these same two journalists had been shot – even in cold blood in a public square – America’s foreign policy would not have turned on a dime as it did. The American people would not have gone from being near-isolationists to near-interventionists, and the American Congress would not have supported the strategy of getting directly involved. Most importantly, the American president would not have delivered a televised speech from the White House in prime time (a rarity for this president) to announce to the world that he was assembling a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

So what is it about a beheading that is so gut-wrenching? What was it about these two beheadings in particular that was so overwhelming they turned a ship of state? Two things: first the barbarism of the deed itself, a knife wielded by one to sever the head of another, close by, bound and kneeling in abject subjugation. Second, the videos. As David Carr pointed out in the New York Times, these videos are by no means crude or one-dimensional. Instead they make evident a “sophisticated production unit, with good cameras, technically proficient operators and editors who have access to all the best tools.” Of course the irony is this 21st century technology is being used to 12th century ends. YouTube is being used to depict the ultimate regression: an atrocious even sadistic murder committed in a public square.

Exactly what ISIS hoped to gain by filming its defilements is not clear. What is clear is that its action triggered America’s reaction – which is another way of saying that its tail wagged our dog.


*Invitation to a Beheading is the title of a novel by Vladimir Nabokov


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