IN a remote village in rural Nigeria, on the banks of a river, about a month or so ago, there washed up 40 bodies. Many of them, those of village women, of little children in ragged shorts and many men, including the village elder, had been beheaded.
The carnage was reported in the press on May 28 of this year — the reason behind the killings supposedly was a land dispute between warring villages. The angered ones, to demonstrate the depth of their ire, decided that their enemies must not simply be killed but also decapitated.
Thousands of miles away, the residents of Cadereyta, an industrial town in Mexico, had recently witnessed a similar horror. On May 13, 2012, the morning brought the sight of nearly 49 headless bodies, some without limbs, strewn all over the town square.
The massacre was said to have been ordered by the Zetas drug cartel. Graffiti identifying the drug cartel was sprayed all over the area, and within hours a video of men dumping the bodies was on the Internet. It showed men pulling bodies out of trucks and piling them up.
The men then leave a message written on a blanket, threatening security forces and the rival Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. “Nobody can do anything against us,” the message said, “If they do, they will lose”.
In Pakistan, at the end of June, the Taliban also released a video. In it, the names of 17 Pakistani soldiers were recited, their identifications flashed before the camera.
All seventeen had been beheaded by the Taliban, whose spokesperson Ehsanullah provided the video and also the following statement: “We are not enemies of Pakistan and its people; in fact we are enemies of the infidels and the democratic system that has been imposed upon us.”
The killings were carried out by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in the Upper Dir area and reportedly orchestrated by Maulana Fazlullah who enjoys support in the region. The soldiers, who were kidnapped a few days earlier, were killed over two days. In the video, their heads are on a white sheet, while Taliban soldiers, masked and clutching their weapons, stand right behind them.
Perhaps events such as these, the killing of many in ways intentionally brutal, have always been occurring in disparate and far-flung areas of the world where justice needs to be seen to be believed, where greed and revenge so skews the capacity for empathy that simply taking another life is not enough.
The scepticism afforded by these reservations regarding the timelessness and ubiquity of such violence are certainly instructive: it is nothing new that humans can be brutal and that naked, raw violence, mercilessly inflicted, enables its own propaganda of power.
The notable thing about this mode of killing and its sudden resurgence is not ‘novelty’ but rather its argument against justice as a state-dominated private affair. In almost every case recounted here, decapitation is directed not at the individuals killed, but at those who will witness their end.
The deaths are publicised through the most modern of technologies — video productions of death produced for propagation via the Internet to anyone who owns a computer. It is this second prong, the recording and popularisation of the act, that needs to be seen not as an accidental regression into barbarism but a deliberate and substantive critique of state-provided justice.
In most liberal democratic states which possess a legal system, justice is based not on visibility but on procedure. Criminal convictions, the handing out of punishment, happens in this sense invisibly, beyond the walls of prisons, in rooms and cells beyond the view of the public.
The legitimacy of justice, at least theoretically, depends on the procedures followed, evidence presented, the verdict considered not just because it is imposed by a powerful judge who can take out a gun and begin shooting the accused, but because rules have been followed.
Beheadings, grotesque, horrific and public, are in this sense, not simply acts of outrageous violence but also acts that question the validity of procedural justice as a concept.
Combining barbarism with the connectedness of the millennial age, they challenge both state power and procedural justice by saying that violence secretly inflicted behind walls is a weakness, which their own acts of brazen and public killing can supersede with ease.
In this sense, the barbarism of beheadings is not simply the act and its lurid dissection of the dignity of life, of a human body but also a challenge to states whose own forms of justice are not open to the onlooker.
The exploited vulnerability used by cartels in Mexico, village militias in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan is the same; the average Mexican, Nigerian and Pakistani already sceptical of governments that misuse their power, under whose rule people ‘disappear’ and executions happen in the dead of night; can hold those secrets against the openness of the admitted barbarians.
The misuse of procedure by corrupt judges, well-heeled politicians and crooked lawyers, all of whom have used it to hide their own acts of injustice, are now indicted by an abandonment of all procedure represented in the grisly brutish power of those killing because they can,
In countries where the outward trappings of procedural justice exist, courts and lawyers that require the hapless to go through the motions but are nevertheless unable to deliver the product, decapitation in its open and deliberate barbarism represents a rebellion.
It presents a question which asks the most exploited whether the choice is simply between those who kill openly their depravity for all to see, and those that do so in secret behind the front of procedure.
The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.