“What we see happening with Isis, the Islamic State, this is deeply medieval – we should not, in our societies, if we have Europeans going and behaving like this in other countries, they should be arrested when they come back and in my view, go through due process.”
That’s Prof Brigid Laffan speaking at the Daniel O’Connell Summer School in Cahirsiveen. You can see where she’s coming from, as they say. The video-taped beheading of what we’re told was an American journalist was indeed barbaric and disgusting (no Virginia, I did not watch it. And btw, there are hundreds of such beheading videos floating around on the internet). But it’s Prof Laffan’s reference to the beheading of James Foley as “deeply medieval” that’s truly puzzling. Is she referring to the act of publicly beheading? Beheading certainly happened in medieval times, but our forebears then were an imaginative people and used a range of other methods, often after prolonged torture. The breaking wheel, hanging, pressing or crushing with heavy stones, burning to death, boiling to death, impaling, and hanging, drawing and quartering. Public beheadings still happened in Britain until the middle of the eighteenth century and in Germany until the 1930s (Hitler stopped it). France was still guillotining up to the 1970s. And if you’re in Saudi Arabia today – an ally of the US and Britain, of course – mind your step. You’re liable to lose your head in public if you’re caught murdering, raping, drug trafficking, engaging in sodomy, armed robbery or sorcery. And beheading is still the law in Qatar, the World Cup venue for 2022.
Actually, if you have to be executed, beheading is considered in many circles as pretty humane. If done properly, beheading means consciousness is probably lost within 2-3 seconds and the person is dead in less than a minute. When you hear of the botched barbarity of executioners in some US states, beheading starts to sound comparatively merciful.
As to Europeans who’ve been involved with radical Islamic groups, Prof Laffan advocates their arrest on return home. I heard an expert on BBC Radio Four this morning argue the opposite: a considerable number of such people regret their decision to travel and join up with Islamic groups, and these should be helped, after a period of ‘quarantine’, to reintegrate into their old lives. Mind you, you’d need to be really really sure they’d had a change of heart.