I don’t normally bother to dissect silly op-eds, but this one by Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at NYU, merits attention because it is part of a broader campaign of obfuscation. Start with the title: “Beheading has a multicultural past.” Perhaps, but–to make a blindingly obvious point–it’s the present we are worried about.
Nevertheless, let’s follow Mr. Zimmerman’s logic. He begins by positing that Americans are horrified by ISIS’s beheading of journalists and others, and are fighting ISIS as a consequence. But, he implies, that is an irrational reaction, because decapitation has a long history:
In 1623, just two years after Native Americans and Pilgrims dined together at the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrim commander Myles Standish decapitated an enemy Indian chieftain and impaled his head on a pike outside of the Plymouth fort.
Zimmerman goes on to describe beheadings carried out by the ancient Celts, the French revolutionaries–the guillotine wasn’t finally abolished in France until 1977!–the British fighting the Scots, and singular incidents of decapitations by American soldiers–one Japanese soldier in 1945, and one Iraqi soldier in 1991.
Not only that, Zimmerman writes, but two of our allies in the fight against ISIS, Saudi Arabia and the Free Syrian Army, have been known to decapitate convicts or prisoners. But they are, of course, Muslims. And one must be extremely myopic not to recognize that in the modern world, beheadings are overwhelmingly a feature of the Muslim world. I assume this is because they are spoken well of in the Koran. Sure, even in America the occasional head might get separated from the shoulders, like the headless body in a topless bar. But it would be a stretch to say that beheading is a steady feature of Western culture.Zimmerman doesn’t mention the beheading that has been in the news lately, carried out in Oklahoma by Alton Nolen/Jah’Keem Yisrael, who shouted Arabic phrases (“Allahu Akbar,” one guesses) as he sawed the head of a middle-aged lady with a knife. Let’s just say it wasn’t a surprise to consumers of the news when it came out that Nolen was a convert to Islam. Okies may have their faults, but decapitation hasn’t been among them; not in recent years, anyway.
Some have argued about whether Nolen’s beheading was an act of terrorism. I don’t think it was; to my knowledge, there is no evidence of a political motive. But that is the wrong question, in my view: it certainly was an Islamic murder. Nolen is reminiscent of Muzzammil Hassan, the government-funded moderate who “founded Bridges TV … to counter anti-Islam stereotypes,” and in 2009 beheaded his estranged wife.
Are Nolen and Hassan latter-day Myles Standishes? Not exactly. Standish killed an enemy warrior, cut off his head and paraded it on a pike. By today’s standards, that was bad form. But he didn’t saw the head off a living, middle-aged lady who had done him no harm, nor would he have dreamed of doing so.
Condemning ISIL, Obama said it “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” The allusion was to Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899 novel, in which a deranged white colonist in Africa erects human heads on the fence around his house.
To Conrad, writing at the height of imperialism, the heads showed how whites could regress into the barbarism of the lesser races.
I am not a Conrad scholar, but I’m pretty sure that’s not quite what he had in mind.
Today, we know better — or we should.
The savagery that you see on those YouTube videos isn’t just in ISIL, or in some other enemy that you fear and despise. It’s in you too.
Well, no, actually it isn’t. I am proud to say that I have never yet beheaded anyone, and it is unlikely that I will ever do so.
Zimmerman’s op-ed is one foot soldier in an army of political correctness. His theme is in the “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?” category. You’ve been watching the news, and you think there may be something sinister going on with all of these beheadings by Muslims? Forget it, dude–it’s multicultural! The Pilgrims did it too! If you wonder about the treatment of women under Islam, or the lack of intellectual progress in Muslim countries, or the extermination or suppression of adherents of other faiths, you will be met by a similar blizzard of misdirection. Sometimes newspapers inform, and sometimes they merely obfuscate.