Beheading versus Befooting


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

In Quest of the Lesser Evil for the Greater Good


Much is currently made of beheading of individuals by ISIS militants as being an act of pure evil. Prime Minister of Australia, Tony , says ‘pure evil’ of Isis militants means action necessary ‘to protect people from this murderous rage’ (Isis beheading ‘justifies’ Australia’s Iraq intervention, says Abbott, The Guardian, 3 September 2014). The quality of evil has been variously recognized by other commentators (Security Expert: ISIS Is Nothing But ‘Pure Evil’,, 20 August 2014; Christian Leader: ISIS Caliphate Is “Systematically Beheading” Children In Iraq, “World Hasn’t Seen An Evil Like This”, 7 August 2014; Editorial, By beheading US journalists, Islamic State radicals have simply hardened the resolve of civilised people to extinguish their evil, News Corp Australia, 4 September 2014).

Framed as “pure evil”, such assertions raise the question of other degrees of evil of lesser “purity”. What makes that evil so pure? Is it the video coverage of an isolated event — specifically promoted by the mass media, whilst ignoring other forms of killing? Is it the mode of killing, despite the widespread use of other forms — possibly indifferent to the duration of the excruciating pain prior to death? Is it the deliberate process of beheading — despite the existence of equally deliberate forms of capital punishment? Is it the absence of due legal process — despite widespread use of extrajudicial killing?

How does beheading relate to decapitation as has long been used as a form of capital punishment — possibly following a legal process which may well be later found to be characterized by some form of miscarriage of justice? Wikipedia offers indications of its use in a range of countries: Asia (China, India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Syria); Europe (Celts, Classical Antiquity, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, France, Nordic countries, Spain); North America (Mexico, United States, Canada); Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iraq).

Is decapitation — as has been widely practiced in the history of western civilization — to be distinguished from hanging? This is after all a process of severing the linkage provided by the spinal chord. How is the purity of the evil to be distinguished from that of a recent execution in the USA which required some hours for the person to die (Joseph Wood: Arizona murderer dies almost two hours after execution begins, The Guardian, 24 July 2014; Inmate’s execution takes nearly 2 hours, USA Today, 24 July 2014; Oklahoma state report on botched lethal injection cites medical failures, The Guardian, 5 September 2014). According to a pattern reminiscent of the practice of the Catholic Church in transferring clergy associated with sexual abuse, the responsible officer took up a similar position in another institution where a similar issue had occurred (Prison warden present at botched execution handed Oklahoma role, he Guardian, 5 September 2014).

With respect to any comparative study of evil, so-called capital punishment, could usefully be explored in terms of other methods variously promoted and practiced by civilized societies. These include: electrocution, firing squad, gas chamber, lethal injection, shooting, and stoning. The assertion of evil may be qualified by the legality of the process of conviction. Can the legality of the process be challenged with respect to the evil embodied in the law — as was arguably the case with respect to use of gas chambers in the Holocaust? Otherwise, can it be argued that if it is legal, then the process of execution cannot be evil?

More problematic with respect to such arguments is the extensively debated issue of extrajudicial execution. This is the killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicial proceeding or legal process. It is notably characteristic of targetted assassination. This is the premeditated killing of an individual by a state organization or institution outside a judicial procedure or a battlefield. Again is the implication that if initiated by such an authority then it cannot be “evil”? Is the beheading practiced by ISIS militants then to be characterized as “pure evil” primarily because ISIS is not recognized as having status in international law?

Such arguments suggest the need for further exploration of the category of “lesser evil” — in contrast with “pure evil” (Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: political ethics in an Age of Terror, 2005; Joshua Frank, Zarqawi and Lesser-Evil Politics: a contest no one wins,, 15 June 2006). Wikipedia usefully profiles the so-called lesser evil principle.

In quest of the lesser evil for the greater good, the focus here is “befooting” as a consequence of the widespread and deliberate design and deployment of anti-personnel landmines. The term is not however used — although the consequences are real. It could be said that befooting is ensured on an industrial scale through the development, sale and dissemination of such landmines.


Befooting and befooted?
Befooting by anti-personnel landmines
Victims of befooting
Befooting as a lesser evil?
Degrees of evil
Systemic imperceptibility of greater evil — and of greater good?
Paradoxes of framing the greater evil using the Devil’s Gambit
Engendering identification with the greater good, despite the necessity for lesser evil



This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Sep 2014.

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