General Question

janbb's avatar

What makes beheading seem so barbarous?

Asked by janbb (51307points) September 3rd, 2014

Many people are killed every day but there is something that feels so inhuman and horrifying about beheading that it stuns us. I feel that way but wonder what it is about this particular method of murder that is so shocking. It feels like a reversion to a darker part of our history as a species. What are your thoughts?

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54 Answers

canidmajor's avatar

The depth of visceral horror we tend to feel is really amazing. If done quickly, it’s probably not a bad way to die, but to know that it happened is awful beyond reason.

Probably because everything happens in our heads, the concept of separating the head from the body seems to eliminate all that makes us human. The ultimate dismemberment.

picante's avatar

There is an incongruity to it that makes the act seem particularly horrific for me. The immediate separation of mind from body, as it wear. I suppose in the spectrum of man’s inhumanity to man, this might be a quick/painless end to life—but even the words “decapitation” and “beheading” send me to a dark place very quickly.

Mimishu1995's avatar

I think it’s the gore. Everyone has a feeling of dread to see a person’s body being torn off. Not to mention the agonic face of the beheaded people and the fact that the heads can survive for a few minutes after they are cut off

And what makes it seem more barbarous than other more gory methods? Maybe because it’s one of the most popular method of execution. It was used in many countries and many times throughout the history.

JLeslie's avatar

I think because it is so disfiguring. We like to see whole bodies intact.

@Mimishu1995 Minutes after? Is that true? It seems to me the loss of blood would cause the death to be much faster.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

You probably remain conscious for the first minute or two. They always taught us in CPR class you had about 4 minutes before brain damage started.

JLeslie's avatar

The 4 minutes you are talking about you are already unconscious.

syz's avatar

@Mimishu1995 Unlikely. Science would seem to indicate seconds, at most

ucme's avatar

Because heads represent our personalty, our very being. Through expression, emotion & our eyes being the “windows to our soles” beheading is erasing a person as a whole in one swift barbaric act.

Mimishu1995's avatar

@JLeslie @syz Yeah, sorry. Seconds, not minutes :P.

But at least it is just dreadful to know that the beheaded person don’t die immediately and have to experience the pain after the heads are severed.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t know how painful it is. I’m sure it hurts, although pain usually has a little bit of a delay before we become aware of it. Probably death by fire is way more excruciating. Beheading is basically the most common view of a humane way to kill an animal for consumption I think. Unless I am wrong about that; I could be.

zenvelo's avatar

A swift beheading results in almost explosive blood loss, not the effusive seeping of a severe wound to the torso. Much grislier to behold.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

But this guy is using what looks like a regular hunting knife.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

Because it is barbarous. The idea that this is somehow religious to me does not hold water. It’s just an excuse. These “people” are nothing more than psychopaths who should be hunted down to the ends if the earth and eliminated one by one until their numbers are statistically insignificant.

Pachy's avatar

In addition to what everyone else has said so well, I think the act of beheading, the mere thought of the act, goes to our deepest fears dying horribly. Interesting to me that beheadings have become a staple of American horror movies—for me, it’s one on-sreeen horror I always turn away from.

ragingloli's avatar

Because “the others” do it.
If the west still used decapitation as an execution method, the number of people, who would be appalled at the act of beheading would be greatly reduced.

Coloma's avatar

Happens to chickens every day. haha
Yes, it does seem barbaric then OTOH it is a swift dispatch.
I think hanging seems more frightening, but that’s just my personal opinion.

trailsillustrated's avatar

Just reading this makes me sick. We did not see the entire videos, but both those men looked stoic, and brave. I would be beyond shitting meseslf. Our hearts are with you, America

janbb's avatar

@trails I have not watched any of the videos. I can’t. The thought of the families of these guys and the parents of the young contractor who was beheaded makes me nuts.

JLeslie's avatar

What video? I don’t want to see any video.

snowberry's avatar

I view death by poisoning far worse than beheading, blood and gore not withstanding. Look at how horribly those last US inmates died by lethal injection.

Darth_Algar's avatar

It’s far more humane than what we “civilized” folks in America do to execute our prisoners.

Dutchess_III's avatar

We euthanize them, @Darth_Algar. Not sure how that’s less humane that chopping their heads off.

ragingloli's avatar

euthanise murder
there, I fixed that for you.

rojo's avatar

I think because it is a lot more personal way to kill than with a gun or a bomb (smart or dumb) and as such we relate to it in a more visceral manner.

rojo's avatar

What would the reaction in the US be if, instead of beheading, they just smashed them in the head with a balpeen hammer like we do to cattle? Or worse yet, a claw hammer, claw side down.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Oh, I agree that it’s murder, but there are different ways of doing it.

Looking at your link @Darth_Algar. The thing is, those were all botched. The method is supposed to be humane. They just go to sleep, is the theory.

This one slays me ”... The execution had been delayed six days because a prison guard had given Rhode a razor blade, which Rhode used to attempt suicide.” Guess they waited for him to heal before they killed him.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Key words: “suppose to be”. The reality is that it’s rarely as simple as just going to sleep. You almost never hear of an execution that isn’t “botched”. Electrocution and the gas chamber were both suppose to be humane too. Neither were and lethal injection is no different. The truth is we don’t actually give a shit about humane executions. We don’t care if it’s quick or painless. We just want it sanitized for ourselves, so we can rest easier. We demand death for certain crimes, but we want it to be neat and clean because we’re squeamish about blood. If we really cared about making it as quick and painless as possible for the condemned we’d behead them.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t see how they fuck up lethal injection, although I know they do. All I can think is the person is on meds that surpress breathing otherwise and have built up an incredible tolerance. Is that it?

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, read some of @Darth_Algar links.

longgone's avatar

Huh, funny. Are you all more comfortable with the thought of drawing and quartering? To me, beheadings seem less horrifying than other gory killings. Quick, at least…

Though “Mike”, the chicken who lived headless for 18 months might disagree.

janbb's avatar

@JLeslie There have been a lot of discussions of how lately. Apparently the “best” cocktails of drugs for lethal injection aren’t being sold as much so they are experimenting with other drugs that are not working well.

flutherother's avatar

There are no good ways to be killed but beheading seems more awful than most due to the violence, the blood and the humiliation. On the other hand the French made the guillotine the official means of execution as they thought it minimised suffering.

trailsillustrated's avatar

When you see the short sentences and times served of horrid murderers and rapists here and in Britain, I don’t mind the executions. I am sure the victim’s families don’t mind either. These journos had nothing in common with condemned criminals. It’s terrible, terrible and I hope something happens soon, to stop that sort of murder.

Buttonstc's avatar

There is something that strikes me as odd here. I didn’t watch any of the videos but someone upthread mentioned that the executioner used a knife?

How is that even possible? Yes, obviously you can kill a person with a knife slicing the jugular but not beheading someone.

As a matter of fact they was one of the reasons for creating the guillotine. Prior to that it could take 2–3 or more attempts with an ax to get through the bone. Frequently the axes used had dull blades. At least the guillotine was sharp and had enough weight
behind it to do it the first time.

So, obviously it tales a lot of weight and strength to decapitate someone. How on earth can that be accomplished with just a knife?

ragingloli's avatar

just a matter of time

JLeslie's avatar

@janbb I had heard something months ago about the availability of the drugs or maybe it was the same drugs just weren’t allowed anymore, I never read up on it. It just seems amazing to me that a doctor would not know how to kill someone. I realize their usual goal is to keep people alive.

I guess I don’t understand the science well. I know on murder mystery movies and TV CSI type shows they always seem to know how to murder someone with a drug. Isn’t everything just like on TV?

dappled_leaves's avatar

I don’t find it more barbarous than any other killing. I recognize that a lot of people do. I have no idea why people make a distinction.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

They did it on camera and shared it with the world. That’s pretty barbaric. I think we need a special way to rid the world of these folks. I’m thinking a vacuum chamber, one that reproduces the precise vacuum of space and transitions from 1ATM to 0ATM in a couple of seconds.

Araphel's avatar

Well when you see the terror in the eyes of the victim about to die a terrible death, its with our nature to be shocked, how can one human being do such a thing to another without remorse.I understand Reporters as well as Journalists are very passionate about their jobs, and most times when they go on these jobs to locations as such, their lives are automatically at serious risk.

pleiades's avatar

I’d think the physiological aspect of it plays a huge role. I think we learn early on how important our heads are, and if we don’t know by bumping and crashing and crying automatically or being knocked out cold, our bodies definitely know it. Also, have someone stick any object near your neck. I don’t know about you, but I become extremely tingly there and feel like getting away from that object asap! (Same with an object in between eyes, anywhere on the body really but especially those places)

Couple that in with the fact we understand this isn’t a guillotine. This is a person on their knees with another human, slowly ending someones life by physically detaching the head. It’s a sick sick method of death and displays zero sympathy, which is probably the main goal of such a message/action.

Darth_Algar's avatar

@JLeslie “It just seems amazing to me that a doctor would not know how to kill someone.”

That’s the thing, executions aren’t carried out by doctors. Usually they’re carried out by someone with little, if any, medical training.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I don’t see the big deal with beheading. Thinking about it though, I’d rather be beheaded than a lethal injection. At least beheading is relatively fast and while painful at first, that pain quickly fades as you die from massive blood loss rather than the minutes of agonizing pain from a lethal injection.

@JLeslie To add to what @Darth_Algar said, doctors do not perform lethal injections as it goes against the Hippocratic Oath. They also use all kinds of new drug cocktails on inmates that have never been tested before rather than just overdosing someone on morphine or something similar that would just put them to sleep, so the chances of a “botched” execution is pretty high.

JLeslie's avatar

@Darth_Algar @El_Cadejo I would assume they consult with someone who has medical training to decide what the cocktail will be. An ME certainly would know what kills people. They aren’t just letting some average person with no knowledge of medicine decide what drugs to give are they? I can’t imagine that.

Morphine can be botched if the inmate already takes morphine or fentanyl regularly. The amount of morphine a relative of mine takes (she has severe chronic pain) would probably kill me and she is just fine.

I would imagine the person is rendered unconscious first with a drug, and then drugs to stop his breathing are administered. I really know nothing about how they do it.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Just consulting with someone doesn’t really mean anything. When it comes down to it a person without proper training isn’t going to have the skills or knowledge to properly administer the drugs, make adjustments where necessary, or even necessarily be able to find a suitable vein easily. And it isn’t just a matter of knowing what kills people. That’s the easy part. It doesn’t take much to know what will kill someone. The crux of the issue is being able to do it as quickly and painlessly as possible. That’s where our executions so often fail. If it’s just a matter of killing then every execution is a success*.

(*Kinda like Eduard Delacroix’s execution in ‘the Green Mile’.)

JLeslie's avatar

@Darth_Algar I assume the goal would be for it to be done quickly. Phlebotimists find veins every day, and all they are is trained in doing that, they are doctors. A trained phlebotimist might be better than a doctor in some instances, although a doctor is the one who would be able to do alternated veins besides arm, hand, and the usual places.

Does this vary by state? What drugs are used, credentials to administer the drugs, and other details like that. I would assume it does. I wonder if some states are a much worse place to be put to death.

Also, I wonder how many are botched compared to how many are done? I figure the botched ones get a lot of publicity.

The whole thing is morbid of course. It’s troubling talking about how to end someone’s life who is not ready to die. Then there are some crimes so horrific that some people won’t mind if the person suffers. I know sometimes it can be a case of the person did not do the crime and all sorts of mistakes in the justice system, I am just saying for those who we know without a doubt the person is a horrific criminal who tortured others, some will feel it is karma I guess.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

These days it’s because of who’s doing it and why.

Darth_Algar's avatar


The stated goal may be for it to be done quickly, but that’s rarely what happens. And yes, a phlebotimist finds veins every day, but these things aren’t carried out by phlebotimists or other doctors. Doctors cannot be involved in executions without violating the ethics of their profession. Generally speaking these executions are, at best, done by someone who’s maybe taken some nursing classes at a local community college. It is a mistake, from a practical, an ethical and a moral standpoint, to turn execution into a medical procedure. But, as I said, we don’t actually care if it’s quick or painless for the condemned. We care that it’s sanitized for us. By carrying out executions under the pretense that they’re just being put to sleep it makes us more comfortable with the process. If we really wanted to make it as quick and painless as possible for the condemned we’d cut their heads off. But that involves blood and we don’t like that.

janbb's avatar

This article by David Brooks in today’s NY Times addresses some of the issues raised in this question.

rojo's avatar

Anyone else see the hair raising connection between “Barber“ous and Be“heading”?

Coincidence? I think not!

Dutchess_III's avatar

That was turrible @rojo!

ragingloli's avatar


rojo's avatar

Yeah, I know but it didn’t work as well that way.

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