A Warped Mirror


There’s a picture that comes up quite often in the social media, of a line of severed heads on a drystone wall in Morocco. It’s actually a picture postcard, with the caption SOUVENIR D’AGOURAI. NOS TIRAILLEURS FURIEUX DES MUTILATIONS INFLIGES A LEURS MORTS SE VENGENT, and the example I find on the web is stamped, and addressed to a Mme Robin in Bourges. The postmark is military, and it seems perhaps to be a trophy photograph taken when Senegalese tirailleurs had their sanguinary revenge on the Rifi bands who had bested them at the battle of Ehri in 1914.

A very nasty picture. But what is more extraordinary than the subject is that the sender – a young French officer writing to his mother, or aunt – writes nothing at all about the picture on his card. He tells her when he’s next coming home on leave, and says slightly resentfully (which may be the oblique point of the picture) that people back home think the army in Morocco is just doing rear echelon duties. No, he seems to be saying with his photo, we do the real stuff. So whenever it was that this card was sent to Madame Robin, the sight of a line of severed heads was so unexceptional as to need no comment. It was interesting, but mundane enough to be turned into a postcard suitable for mothers and aunts, and to be put proudly on a mantelpiece in Bourges.

The picture came to mind when I read last week that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre Marine Le Pen had called for the return of the death penalty in France – the death penalty for Muslims, of course, though she was too circumspect to put it quite like that. It is still not a very distant memory. The last public execution in France took place outside the prison at Versailles in 1939, and the fact that it was both photographed and filmed, and that those pictures were widely published, led to the more discreet prison-yard execution of future decapitees. The last was a Tunisian called Hamide Djandoubi, found guilty of a spectacularly nasty murder, and then judicially decapitated, in 1977.

The French penal system is an instrument disproportionately geared to processing Muslims. Andrew Hussey, in his 2014 book The French Intifada, explains that we can’t know for sure what proportion of the prison population is Muslim because Marianne is blind to her citizens’ faiths and has no record of them, but you can make a reasonable guess from the fact that no fewer than 70% of France’s prisoners order halal food. The total population of France is 66 million, the Muslim population perhaps 5 million, or about 7.7%. So that figure of 70% is a bit of a shocker. Even assuming that thousands of devoutly Catholic inmates order fattoush and tabouleh because, as Hussey puts it, “non-Muslim prisoners find prison food so disgusting that they buy halal food,” a mere half of that percentage figure – 35% – would still be a national scandal. It suggests that the majority of those executed to the clicking of Madame Le Pen’s knitting needles would be, like Djandoubi, Muslims – even before the additional business generated by jihadi terrorism.

France’s favoured method of execution since the Revolution has been the guillotine, and it would presumably remain so in the event of Mme Le Pen’s getting her way. Heads would roll once again, and this at a time when the beheading of Europeans by the thugs of the Raqqa ‘caliphate’ is causing such traumatic shocks. It would be a very unfortunate and unattractive symmetry.

It leads me to a book I have just read, published like Andrew Hussey’s, by Granta. Severed, written by a British anthropologist called Frances Larson, explores the polyvalent significance of the human head when it is separated from the body. Dr Larson’s fascinating account ranges from the relics of saints to the skull collections of phrenologists and race theorists, from trophies of war to anatomists’ subjects and painters’ models. What is very clear (and scarcely surprising) is that the human head is a part of the body endowed with a very special significance; and its removal is a highly symbolic act. More of a surprise is the extraordinary lengths of barbarity and illegality to which ostensibly respectable Westerners – soldiers, scientists, priests and painters – have gone over the last couple of centuries to get hold of human heads, and in astonishing numbers. Massive grave-robbery, the commissioning of murder, the ruthless encouragement of local wars, the taking of trophies – all filled museums, studies and billiard-rooms with bleached white skulls. There were thousand upon thousand in Europe and North America by the early twentieth century. And quite a few lined up on walls in Europe’s colonies.

Today we’re getting numbly accustomed to the horribly choreographed public executions of the Raqqa ‘caliphate,’ designed to shock and terrify, to mesmerise the West with the spectacle of frightened men kneeling in orange jumpsuits while a young ‘Muslim’ cuts their throats. We are dimly aware too that the much more numerous executions of fellow-Muslims serve also to keep wavering jihadists on-side. (As Voltaire – yes, him again – put it, commenting on the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757, it is done pour encourager les autres). The images run ahead of the rampaging hordes, in mujatweets and Instagrams, like news of Tamburlane’s ferocity, so that defenders of Mosul and other cities simply throw down their weapons, shed their uniforms and run.

Habituated as we are becoming to the news of such violent deaths, we find it difficult, I think, to place this savagery in a historical context. Dr Larson is helpful here.

First, lest we think that the Raqqa executions are in some way unique, she tells us a good deal about the cutting off of heads by American soldiers in the Pacific War. Mostly, but by no means exclusively, done after death, this trophy-collection (for such it was) is most common in wars between nations that see themselves as being of different ‘races.’ It was commonplace in the Pacific theatre, where racial differences were constantly stressed: demonisation of the enemy, deliberately honed by military trainers, led, as it does, to this kind of objectification of human beings on both sides. “One forensic report estimated that the heads were missing from 60% of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Marianas Islands in 1984,” writes Dr Larson. And there have been reports of the same kind of trophy hunting (if generally of more portable body parts) by soldiers in Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But I think what is most important is the macabre fascination with decapitation that the internet allows and encourages. The West has been profoundly shocked by films of the beheading of French, British and American hostages; but it has also lapped them up. Dr Larson reports that three weeks after the execution of Nick Berg in 2004, the top ten internet search-terms in the USA were all for film of his execution. Kenneth Bigley’s killing was downloaded more than a million times in its first month online. “One survey, conducted five months after Berg’s death, found that between May and June, 30 million people, or 24% of all adult internet users in the United States, had seen images from the war in Iraq that were deemed too gruesome and graphic to be shown on television …” and “half of those who had seen the graphic content thought they had made a ‘good decision’ by watching.”

Now I certainly haven’t watched any of this stuff. But I am strongly reminded of a comment that I quoted in this blog a few weeks ago, made by the American documentary film director Steve Jarecki, talking about the Daech and its use of film: “we [the USA] are also a page-setter in murderous, amoral, profoundly disturbing content the world over. If we are watching Isis come up to speed, it’s to our own apparent obsession with gore and depravity.” In other words the depravity of Daech is as much imitative as original. And whether it’s imitating the behaviour of colonial troops, or the makers of American horror films, or satisfying the apparently bottomless appetite of internet-users for the pornography of gore, real and constructed, it isn’t simply some kind of parthenogenetic barbarism, but something more complicated and even nastier, in which the West is culturally complicit. A warped mirror which may distort reflections, but doesn’t simply invent them.

I had an inkling of this a year or two back when channel-hopping on the TV in a Gulf hotel room. Up from nowhere came an appalling American film called (as I have since established), The Saw, of which I wached a minute or so. It turns out – as I discover when writing this piece – that there were seven of these feature films made, called with a pedestrian flight of imagination, The Saw 2, The Saw 3 and so on, each one devoted to ingenious and graphically filmed ways of chopping up living human beings. They are one of many blood-soaked franchises. I find myself asking what it means for a culture when a significant part of its own preferred entertainment is a mindless theatre of blood. In what sense is the murder of a compatriot on video different from the killing of a gore-spattered actor, or the messy destruction of an enemy in an on-line game? There’s no shock left, except for proprietorial outrage, and I suspect only a dim, and often elided, distinction understood between the real, the enacted and the virtual.

This is what Jarecki meant: we look into the Heart of Darkness and find ourselves. The guillotine, itself a theatre of blood, would simply push the tempo up a few notches. In some as yet unimagined way it would be reciprocated and amplified, and the dreadful ascending spiral of barbarity endorsed. Plus ça change …



An interesting footnote on Raqqa comes from a letter written by Edward Luttwak to the LRB this week: “The significance of the selection of ar-Raqqah as the Islamic State’s capital rather than very much larger Mosul has been missed: when in 796 the Abbasid star caliph Harun ‘Al-Rashid’ turned from carousing and culture to jihad against the Romans, and had another go at Constantinople (his huge venture in 782 had come close), he removed himself to ar-Raqqah from Baghdad’s urbanity, and long stayed there.” Or are we simply assuming too much cultural literacy on the part of the modern ‘caliphate’? I remember a great deal of pedantic speculation about the date of 9/11 having been chosen with the Siege of Vienna in mind. But perhaps this new ‘Caliph’ just likes Raqqa. By now he is probably in a diminishing minority in doing so.


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