The Moral Equivalence of Beheading

Rodger [sic] Jacobs has had an epiphany:

“Beheading and stoning are acceptable forms of execution in Arabic cultures,†I explained. “It pisses me off when the media pundits in this country start calling the perpetrators ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric.’ It’s just a different culture.â€

I asked Oscar if he remembered the controversy over Old Sparky, the infamous Florida electric chair that, until discontinued, was subject to frequent malfunctions that often sent sparks and flames shooting through the skull of the condemned prisoner.

“Anyone watching that,†I said emphatically, “watching the executioner pull the switch on that, could just as easily scream savages and barbarians.â€

Kathy Kinsley notes that the mere fact that something is considered acceptable in another culture doesn’t exlude it from being barbaric. And, whatever one might think of Old Sparky, at least the people executed in it have been found guilty of henous crimes through a legitimate judicial process.

The mind marvels at the logic of moral equivalency. Certainly, we should take into account the cultural norms of a time in place in judging the actions of given people. I don’t believe, for example, the mere fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves makes him, retroactively, a bad human being. That doesn’t mean that slavery wasn’t a barbaric practice. Indeed, the first step away from barbarism is to question the moral legitimacy of extant practices. That’s why Old Sparky was replaced by a comparatively humane lethal injection system, for example. (Either way, it’s less savage than sawing people’s head off slowly with a knife. ) Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll decide that executing murderers is barbaric and stop doing it altogether.

Our enemies are barbarians. Their value system is stuck in the 7th Century and they are willing to use any means necessary to impose the values of that age on the modern world. Likely, future generations of Americans will look back on us and judge many of our current practices to be barbaric. That’s because we live in a society that constantly reassesses its belief systems and adjusts its actions accordingly. I don’t feel particularly uncouth in preferring our system over that of the Islamists.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. La Femme Crickita says:

    Gee, how shocking. Most people do prefer the Western ideas of civilization, perpetrated by a bunch of dead white guys, or looked at through the lens of history and changed by a bunch of dead white guys.

    I enjoy your blog very much and do learn a great deal from it.

  2. We are dealing with an assbackwards, afraid of modernity, stuck 1400 years in the past political insurgency.

    Thats why it is so important to make sure we sdo (and did) this right . . . My fear is that at best, we’ve accomplished 2 steps forward and 2 steps back.

    We’ve captured or killed many of the Al-Quada higher ups, but we’ve also given OBL a PR/recruiting coup. Al-Quada is like a hydra — for every savage jackass we kill, 7 more pop up in their place.

    Its a problem, and I do not know what the solution is at this time.

  3. McGehee says:

    We are dealing with an assbackwards, afraid of modernity, stuck 1400 years in the past political insurgency.

    On first reading this I thought Barry was referring to people like Rodger Jacobs…

  4. Kate says:

    James, I’m detecting a somewhat harder edge to your commentary lately.

    It looks good on you.