Sometime in 2003, the year that George W. Bush sent U.S. forces into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, I was sitting in a graduate seminar with Harvard history professor Roger Owen when he made a comment that lodged in my mind. Like other scholars, Owen was not entirely satisfied with biographies written of Hitler. He found that there was always something missing: in the normal course of working, a biographer comes to identify with their subject in some way, and, in this case, nobody wanted to do it. I don’t believe Owen used the word “empathy,” though that may be what he was getting at. But I remember he phrased it as a choice, as a risk that one could decide to take, one that biographers had avoided. High above the chaos of Harvard Square, we sat in Owen’s book-lined office and mused over these questions, concluding that you have to consider the subject’s mindset on its own terms, in its own context, to reach whatever is the greater truth biography can provide.
I thought of that conversation in August of 2014, when ISIS killed a dear friend of mine, freelance journalist James Foley. Then working as a journalist in Cairo, I emailed Owen, saying I didn’t know how best to write about ISIS when every story served to broadcast—or even to advertise—their exploits, though the reporting performed the vital function of informing the public. As images of Foley in the moments before his beheading spread throughout the world, I noted with alarm that the brutality and spectacle of the act, as well as the fact that he was a U.S. citizen, meant that awareness of his death outstripped knowledge of many other aspects of the wars in Syria and Iraq. A poll of Americans showed that his execution was the most widely recognized news event of the last five years.
Yet the spectacle seeded multiple interpretations. For ISIS, disseminating the image was a way of projecting their own might, poking a finger in the eye of the superpower, questioning its hegemony by bringing one of its citizens to his knees in the desert. It was meant partly to rally the faithful. For the American audience, it played differently: it allowed us to perceive of ourselves as innocents executed abroad, by an enemy who was barbaric, inhuman, not like us—for who could come so close to a human as to feel their pulse and then cut off that person’s head?
As with understanding Hitler or the 9/11 terrorists, the easiest recourse was to chalk the atrocities up to “evil,” that is, to forces operating beyond the realm of normal human emotion and motivation. Defining people as evil removes their humanity, both rendering them mere conduits for acts of God or Satan (if suffering has a theological basis), and making them ineligible for the legal protections others enjoy.
It also absolves us from probing the motivations of ISIS; it saves us from falling into the trap of considering their justifications or rationalizations. Not engaging with the inner life of Hitler spares us from coming too close to those elements in ourselves that could be swayed by mass fascism. Not engaging with the motivations of ISIS members spares us coming too close to our collective responsibility, to the things they say we have done and that are carried out in our name. ISIS, punching way above its weight in its battle with the United States, may not have anticipated an American response to these images that hearkened to the powerlessness of the captive, rather than our culpability for American use of power.
And what makes real understanding even more complicated in this age of rapid dissemination of powerful images is the way pictures communicate emotionally, propagandistically, and often traumatically. A note on what follows: violent images are described here, though not reproduced. Most of the ones I’m thinking about are well-known. Not only do I not wish to cause pain to those who have had to live with these images, I want to interrupt the chain of reproducibility, partly in hopes of eliminating the buzzing centripetal force that such images can exert.
Intimations of a Beheading
Once you have seen it, the stance is as arresting and unmistakable as a Nazi salute. One figure kneels on the ground, dressed in an orange jumpsuit with his hands bound behind his back. Behind him, a masked man stands with a knife to the throat of the captive. The setting is a desert with no landmarks, a generic Middle Eastern panorama suggesting emptiness and an utter lack of civilization.
This image is frozen in space and time. We do not even need to see what happens next; we already know. The knife implies a violence about to unfold, awaiting only the attention of the viewer.
As for the beheadings that exert such a morbid fascination for Americans, these images were designed to serve that very purpose.
The first of the videos ISIS released showing the beheading of a Western hostage, James Foley, was released on YouTube on August 19, 2014. It was titled “A Message to America,” likely a conscious echo of Osama bin Laden’s explanation (published in November 2002) for why he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. The narration of the video, as well as the speech Foley was forced to give, make it clear that the reason for this execution was the air strikes the United States was then carrying out on ISIS positions in northern Iraq, which the militant group had taken over earlier in the summer of 2014. Further, they point out that the U.S. government was given the opportunity to ransom Foley, which it chose not to do because of its stated position against negotiating with terrorists. Hostages from other western countries such as France and Spain were in fact released, their governments widely understood to have paid cash ransoms to reclaim their citizens.
Several more such executions of hostages—journalists and aid workers from the global North (United Kindgom, United States, and Japan)—were filmed over the next months, and immediately still images taken from the videos began to proliferate, both to accompany news stories and as illustrations in propaganda for and against ISIS. While containing a promise of brutality, the stance of a captive about to be beheaded was often not judged as inherently too violent or graphic to be seen, and the images seeped into media around the world.
Eventually, fictionalizations, allusions, and artistic representations followed. Debates about whether it is “appropriate” to employ such images shrouded the deeper questions of what causes people to carry out such acts.
These still images called upon the viewer to conclude immediately and with moral certainty that one of the individuals depicted was simply evil, the other simply good. Outside of the story the video tells, that the executions are in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Iraq, the still image becomes a moral shorthand that is ahistorical and depoliticized. What the easy narrative of good and evil also overlooks is that the United States’ most important Arab ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, beheads criminals all the time—with a scimitar, before cheering audiences, as a public spectacle.
Blood and Balm
A beheading video was filmed in order to be widely viewed. If you watch it, you are implicated by playing that essential role of audience. You accede to the wishes of those who filmed it by choosing to revive a bygone moment of horror. The still image abstracts a single frame from the video and freezes some moment before the end, a moment where the viewer can provisionally escape implication, yet retain a moral certainty about who is in the right and who is in the wrong.
The authenticity of the execution establishes a moral hierarchy which is obvious to the respective audiences. For ISIS, the evil is coalition bombs, the execution of a U.S. or UK citizen barely a drop in the bucket in comparison. For the Western audience, the innocence of the journalist or aid worker—the selflessness, the devotion to serving an often indifferent, even openly hostile public—is even more poignant when cast against the refusal of their governments to negotiate with terrorists for the lives of their citizens.
The ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq, published in up to twenty languages and aimed at recruiting foreigners to join their Caliphate, announced Foley’s execution with a full-page, full-color still taken from the video. They selected a frame where the knife has already made contact with skin to show their victory against the “arrogant” “crusader” governments of the anti-ISIS coalition, primarily the U.S. and UK. In an article headlined “Foley’s blood is on Obama’s hands,” they state that “it was a cooling balm for the believers’ hearts to witness the execution of James Wright Foley as a retribution for the recent American aggression against the Muslims of Iraq.”
The ISIS argument works on the visceral level too. People fight with the weapons they have, and in the context of a terrifying air war waged by a technologically superior foe with limited chances at retaliation, this was the most direct way of taking the fight to that enemy. Beheadings are a more precise instrument of death than air strikes. There is an intimacy to the pose, a willingness to make the killings personal and intentional, unlike the coalition’s “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes” that ISIS (and others) hold responsible for the deaths of many more Muslim civilians than the coalition admits.
On the other hand, one of the most prominent threads in U.S. news coverage of the executions was language calling them “barbaric,” “medieval,” “evil,” and, as the New York Post put it, the work of “SAVAGES.” The still photo they selected took up the front page of the newspaper and was a scene particularly close to the actual beheading; the executioner is bending forward at the neck and has one hand over Foley’s mouth, the other, with the knife, directly at his throat.
This thread, the savagery and inhumanity of the Muslim, was used in an anti-Islam ad by Pamela Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative. It ran a still from the execution video. Unlike the Post’s, which was taken at the moment before the violence began, this one took an earlier moment, when the executioner was standing behind Foley with his arms at his sides. The ad counterposed an earlier picture of Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John,” the executioner), in a tracksuit with earphones on, with a video still of the execution. The tag line was “It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism.” The ad ran in the New York City subways, though the image of “Jihadi John” was changed after Foley’s family objected.
Beheading allusions and visual references seeped into popular culture in various guises, the trope close to the surface of collective memory, readily deployable and always drawing a strong reaction from the public. For example, there is a scene in the Game of Thrones series finale that depicted Grey Worm, field commander of the victorious queen Daenerys, taking the lead in executing a group of captured soldiers from King’s Landing. You see a row of soldiers on their knees with their hands bound behind their backs, and standing behind them is Grey Worm, about to slit all their throats.
The logic of the double standard of whose lives are more valuable, whose lives matter, emerges in the fog of any war.
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine published a cover illustration shortly after President Trump’s inauguration depicting him with a bloody knife in one hand and the severed head of the Statue of Liberty, dripping blood onto the ground, in the other. He is not given eyes, but orange skin, a shock of yellow hair, a red tie, and a mouth open mid-fart. The legend “America First” is intended ironically: the accompanying article focused on, among other things, his disparaging of the media and the free press, maintaining the original distinction for a leftist Western audience that only authoritarians and jihadis curtail the workings of a free press.
When comedian Kathy Griffin released a photo of herself holding a Trump mask that was splattered with ketchup like a bloody head, it engendered a vitriolic response as well as a Secret Service investigation. The outcry over the image resulted from the fact that she violated the tacit contract with the U.S. audience whereby one does not present oneself taking the ISIS role.
Another controversial use of beheading imagery is found in artist Anne Bothmer’s work “Phantom Pain” (displayed in Enschede, Holland, 2018), which reimagines the ISIS beheadings of Westerners by creating a life-sized execution photo as a carnival-like cut-out board: the viewer can put their head through a hole in the picture.
The beheading image is totemic in that it establishes a moral hierarchy of victim and perpetrator; its proliferation via video and social media makes it widely available and widely viewed, which both reinforces the community of viewers who see the image as a shorthand for their values, as it desensitizes them to the violence of the act. Dehumanization and exclusion follow, as the respective communities close ranks along the lines of their worldview and fail to try to imagine the other. In the Dutch art installation, for example, it is not even possible to pose as the executioner; something about that would be too insensitive, too far-fetched.
Inviting the audience to reveal, like Jihadi John, only their eyes, while holding a knife at the throat of their beloved, would be truly revolutionary. It would force all viewers to consider, even for a split second, whether they could bear putting themselves in that man’s shoes. It would be insensitive, yes—but that insensitivity would be earned, if it caused the viewer to wonder if they are really as upright as they think they are.
This failure of imagination prevents us from seeing the humanity and suffering of huge groups of people. That has real consequences for, among other things, determining who falls under the protection of the law and who does not. Thousands of ISIS fighters and their families are now in prisons in Iraq and Syria. Over the course of 2015-2019, as the anti-ISIS coalition retook territory from the militant group, captives were detained in makeshift prison camps in Iraq and in Kurdish areas of eastern Syria. There are thought to be some ten thousand prisoners in Syria, including about two thousand foreigners. There are also camps containing families of ISIS members, mainly women and children, mixed in with regular civilian war refugees. One such camp, al-Hol, holds about seventy thousand people, including many women who are among ISIS’s most committed ideologues. Conditions are terrible, overcrowded, and understaffed. Despite Syrian Kurds’ many pleas for assistance from countries whose citizens are among the detained, little has been forthcoming. There is no appetite for repatriation of such suspects: government officials argue that they pose a security risk and that public opinion is against it.
Foreign and domestic detainees in Iraq do face trial, in courts where confessions, often coerced, are taken as proof of guilt, and the standard penalty for ISIS membership is death—all violations of basic human rights law and international humanitarian law.
One tactic used by Western governments to prevent the return of their citizens who are suspected ISIS members is to strip them of their citizenship, removing legal protections as well as preventing their repatriation. This is the case for the two surviving “Beatles.” Nicknamed for their accents, this group of four Britons was responsible for holding, torturing, and beheading U.S. and UK citizens. With their UK citizenship revoked, there is no polity to defend their rights, including the right not to be tried with the death penalty, which is against British law.
Shamima Begum, another high-profile ISIS member from the UK, has also been stripped of her citizenship. Together with two school friends from Bethnal Green, she left London at the age of fifteen to live in the Caliphate. She married while there and had three children, all of whom have reportedly died. She has expressed a wish to return to the UK, but the revoking of her citizenship makes that unlikely. A kind of slapstick theater ensued when the British Metropolitan Police asked journalists for evidence from their interviews with Begum so that they could prosecute her case; the court concluded that since it was unlikely she would be tried in the UK, as she was no longer a citizen, there was “no pressing social need” to require journalists to turn over their materials.
Similar to white fragility, there is a kind of American nationalist fragility.
The stripping of citizenship is a fundamental issue of human rights law, and it also poses the philosophical question of who “belongs” to a polity and who does not. The atrocities of World War II prompted Hannah Arendt to consider the origins of totalitarianism. She identified a turning point when the German state stripped Jews of their citizenship: once the Jews were made stateless, no one was there to defend those rights against persecution. She described Hitler’s “solution of the Jewish problem” as “first to reduce the German Jews to a nonrecognized minority in Germany, then to drive them as stateless people across the borders, and finally to gather them back from everywhere in order to ship them to extermination camps,” and she thought it gave other nations a blueprint for “how really to ‘liquidate’ all problems concerning minorities and [the] stateless.”
Thus the right to not be made stateless is a human right, enshrined in postwar legal instruments meant to forge lasting norms on the heels of their grievous violations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states in Article 15: “(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.” The Geneva Refugee Convention (1951) was intended specifically to address the problems of statelessness and persecution.
Aside from ensuring that people accused of crimes receive due process in legal proceedings they may face now, the citizenship issue also hints at a philosophical question: Where did they come from? Are “they” like “us,” or does the fact that they joined ISIS disqualify them from belonging? What even caused them to go there in the first place?
It might seem upon meeting them that they are, in some ways, just like us: London Times correspondent Anthony Loyd, one of the journalists who interviewed the two surviving Beatles while they were still in the custody of the Syrian Kurds, recounted what might sound like a surreal tale. These eager torturers found they had London haunts in common with Loyd, and they revealed their fondness, shared by prisoners, stoners, and war criminals everywhere, for the movie The Big Lebowski. Indeed, they are sons of the UK, as the many other foreigners who left home to go join the Islamic State are products of their countries as well. What many European ISIS recruits had in common was criminal backgrounds, often charges like theft and drug-related offenses, much more than violent religious ideologies.
While European criminal courts and prisons have seen their share of people who went on to join ISIS, one of the most potent incubators of violent extremism in the Middle East is the carceral system set up as the United States has prosecuted the Global War on Terror. The U.S. military has detained thousands of suspected jihadis and committed horrific abuses at prisons like Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would later become head of ISIS until his death in 2019, was held by U.S. forces in Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib in 2004. There he came in contact with religious extremists as well as former Iraqi army officials who lost their posts when Saddam’s Ba’ath party was disbanded in 2003 by order of the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority.
Many went on to become key players in ISIS. These inmates found common purpose hating their jailers, the detention arm of the foreign force that occupied their country. They heard the Americans talk about instituting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and saw them consistently abusing prisoners’ rights and due process. ISIS’s fondness for waterboarding the hostages and dressing them in the orange jumpsuits like those worn in Guantánamo shows how keen a sensibility they had for these fault lines in the moral logic of the superpower.
The United States set up offshore carceral sites such as Guantánamo and outsourced the labor of securing them. Guard posts are staffed primarily by third country nationals such as Bangladeshis and Filipinos, contracted by security firms such as G4S, Fluor, and DynCorp. The effect of this is to yet further distance the Americans from what is done in their name. Darryl Li, a lawyer and anthropologist who has studied these effects, writes that “at overseas bases like at Guantánamo, keeping the McDonald’s staffed and the prison filled with people who are neither local nor American has gone a long way toward keeping the empire’s burdens manageable and the voices against it muffled.”
There are, as well, spillover effects from U.S. foreign policy, especially in Syria. As the Syrian regime, with help of its Russian backers, consolidates control of Kurdish areas abandoned last October by U.S. troops, detention centers there may well come into regime control. Suspected ISIS detainees in Kurdish camps know that the Bashar al-Assad regime has no better history incarcerating jihadis than the Americans do. Syrian regime prisons have always been bad but over the course of the war they have become death camps, with crematoria erected to burn the bodies too numerous for mass graves.
In the midst of Syrian consolidation, U.S. forces are said to have moved the two surviving Beatles from Syria to a U.S. military base in Iraq, though they failed to secure the transfer of several dozen other high-value captives. While Trump bragged that the two “Beetles [sic],” “the worst of the worst,” were moved to U.S. custody, it also didn’t quite sit right that those who had committed crimes against Americans were accorded special treatment, leaving the fate of thousands of others unaddressed. Rukmini Callimachi, chief ISIS correspondent for the New York Times, tweeted, “There’s something particularly cynical about ensuring that those who harmed American citizens are brought to justice, while creating a situation that could lead to the escape of those who hurt citizens of other countries.” The logic of the double standard of whose lives are more valuable, whose lives matter, emerges in the fog of any war.
Nobody is just one thing. Recent biographies of Hitler cast him, variously, as a hater of capitalism, an all-powerful strongman who controlled policy “down to the last detail,” somebody who was an excellent politician and able to read his audience, yet privately aware of his own “mediocrity.” While there may be more or less truth to these different visions, they are prisms that refract a composite image of Hitler in his context, in terms of the questions that can be asked, the facets of him that can be excavated. And always the underlying question: How could this man and his actions come to pass? The assumption being that he was fundamentally different from the rest of us.
Not asking questions about Hitler’s humanity, or that of ISIS members, leaves us vulnerable to misunderstanding our own.
Yet we, too, are more than one thing. In the case of the ISIS beheadings and their propagandistic functions, why is it so important for us to identify with the victim, and does it matter if we fail to imagine ourselves behind the mask of the executioner? Not imagining that means we will not confront our own hypocrisies and the role they played in producing these fighters. We forget that we are the ones who came up with the orange jumpsuits in the first place, at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. It was our president who said, “They hate our freedoms.”
Similar to white fragility, there is a kind of American nationalist fragility. Our reflexive identification with an innocent journalist on his knees in the desert speaks to a weak point in the self-regard of the hegemon. U.S. audiences are inclined to view themselves exclusively as victims, whether in the case of beheadings by ISIS or in the 9/11 attacks. While there are obviously real American victims of violence, it is not the only truth of these acts that we label “terrorism.”
As for the beheadings that exert such a morbid fascination for Americans, these images were designed to serve that very purpose. They originated as ISIS propaganda to serve a direct, personalized blow to the United States. Their resolve, the inevitability of the film’s ending that allows the still frames to be invoked with moral authority, is supposed to make you believe whatever they say next: that their Caliphate—the holding of physical territory that distinguished them from insurgent groups like al-Qaeda—was “remaining and expanding,” whereas it lasted five years; that they could redraw the map of the Middle East; that they posed a civilizational or existential threat to the world and/or the West; that their Islam was the only true and righteously guided one.
ISIS may or may not have intended to project themselves as “savages.” But even as the image of beheadings seeped into our culture and art, it only misled us; its brutality fed into an American willingness to see themselves only as innocent victims, and to tune out the words of protest about our bombings, and to ignore visual clues, such as the orange jumpsuits, about their historical grievances.
We don’t need to accept their actions as justified in order to look seriously at what they say we’ve done. And we have done these things; they have been carried out on our behalf. Not asking questions about Hitler’s humanity, or that of ISIS members, leaves us vulnerable to misunderstanding our own as well.