I HAVE never watched a video of a beheading, but I thought last
week that I would have to start. To type those words makes me feel
as if I am beginning a science-fiction story, but, as William
Gibson says, the future is here already; it's just not evenly
distributed. And the future involves sharp knives in the desert,
filmed in high resolution, so that we seem to be watching an
out-take from the first Star Wars film while a man in a
penitential garment kneels and says his piece to camera.
It was a lesson in why the Stalinist show-trials worked, and why
the Inquisition did, too. The spectacle of humiliation is horribly
compelling. But there is a twist to this. The ghastly compulsion
exercised by the spectacle of someone lying as sincerely as he
possibly can becomes electrifying when he refuses to lie.
Watching James Foley, I understood how powerful a witness an
unresisting martyrdom by public execution must have been. The
victims were not then killed just for being Christians (or
Protestants, or papists). They were killed because they stood when
they were meant to kneel. They would not worship. They refused the
speech that their captors would have put in their mouths. They
would not abase themselves to be reconciled with their killers.
But Foley spoke. His speech ended with the words: "I am ashamed
to be an American." They killed him anyway. That was not shown on
the clip that I watched, and may not be on any of the ones
circulating, to judge from later reports, which suggest that the
video had been edited so that the hooded braggart who held a knife
to his throat was not the man who actually killed him.
So, in some sense, I still haven't watched a video of a
beheading, and I am very grateful for this. But the Foley video,
simply considered as an act of propaganda, makes clear, as nothing
else could, one of the things that makes young men into Jihadis. It
is the fantasy of power.
Mona Siddiqui, in The Observer, wrote: "Many young men
see war as a drug, all powerful and mindblowing, with the thrill of
donning a uniform and carrying guns. But we are no nearer
understanding the appeal of a nihilistic rhetoric among
middle-class, educated young men other than it may be a way of
unleashing all kinds of psychological frustrations.
"This is not a failure of integration; there is a deeper malaise
than that tapping into a sense of emotional unfulfilment when you
This is the most profound and least windy response I read to the
atrocity. To humiliate and slaughter your enemies when you are
feeling powerless and outcast speaks to something deep inside an
adolescent male. Nor do you have to be actually powerless and
outcast to dream that way. In fact, that may make it harder, since
you have less time to brood on your grievances.
It is a shocking and possibly absurd thing to confess, but, as a
privileged misfit at rather grand schools, I would have loved at
the time to make some of my teachers and school-mates die in a spew
of self-hatred and self-abnegation.
There was quite a lot of discussion, not least in The
Times, of whether the "Beatle", "Jihadi John", who played the
part of Foley's killer in the video, had actually performed the
act, or whether he had been chosen as an actor because his accent
was so recognisably London. To portray one Westerner beheading
another for the sake of Islam is a masterly piece of propaganda,
even if every part of it is untrue. It certainly captured the
attention of the Western media: I would not be surprised if more
had not been written about the death of this one journalist than
about all the suffering of Iraqi Christians this year.
AND so from real horror to the largely fantasised variety. The
American lunatic magazine World Net Daily (WND) had a
piece on Vicky Beeching which I found illuminating. "An evangelical
Christian worship singer who has been urging churches to change
their doctrine on homosexual behavior since announcing she is a
lesbian is at the forefront of a coming tidal wave of
'infiltration' of the church by promoters of the 'gay' agenda,
contends evangelical attorney, evangelist and activist Scott
Lively was the man whom Channel 4 put up against Beeching in a
debate, presumably as a way of discrediting all her opponents. He
is widely blamed for inciting the Ugandan "Kill the Gays" laws, but
WND reminds me that he is also the author of The Pink
Swastika, an alternative history of the Nazi party. "From the
party's founding in a homosexual bar, 'The Pink Swastika'
introduces the reader to all the household names of Nazism - from
Goebbels to Goering and Himmler to Hess - and their secrets of
sexual perversion, one of the driving forces of their genocidal
This explains why the worst Nazis were known as camp