Reviews — From the December 2014 issue

Heads Will Roll

The story of a morbid curiosity

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 4 of 4 )

Larson’s book amounts to a history of — and, at times, an example of — morbid curiosity, which can never be morally quarantined from its obsessions. It explains why people have wanted to sever, collect, display, and shrink heads over the centuries. But the questions it raises about viewing these heads are perhaps more troubling. When the artist Damien Hirst had his picture taken at the age of sixteen next to a jowly severed head in the Leeds morgue, he crossed a line few would want to cross. But most people would be willing to see the image online, as I have, or seek it out when exhibited, as it was most recently in Walsall, England, and Qatar. It is hard to escape the feeling that every time someone clicks on frame 313 of the Zapruder film, or finds the autopsy photos of Marilyn Monroe, or looks at the video of the suicide of Pennsylvania State Senator R. Budd Dwyer, or checks out the Facebook page of a spree killer, a portion of the culpability transfers to the gawker. Many of these images make somebody, somewhere, rich. Hirst, Larson writes, “may well be the wealthiest living artist in the world.”

Representation presumes that we maintain sufficient distance from the object we’re viewing to observe and consider it. This distance is frustrating, which is why Hirst wanted to pose with the head, and why so many people find themselves examining the photo in a gallery or online. This type of monetizable voyeurism translates brilliantly to the Internet, and so it comes as no surprise to discover the role that beheadings have played in the Web’s history. In 2002, when Daniel Pearl was beheaded by Pakistani militants, the video of his execution spread widely online. Two years later, the beheading of American engineer Nick Berg by Iraqis became the most popular video on the Internet. Larson reports that on May 13, 2004, shortly after Berg’s killing, the top ten search terms in the United States were all related to Berg’s execution:

nick berg video
nick berg
berg beheading
beheading video
nick berg beheading video
nick berg beheading
berg video
berg beheading video
‘nick berg’
video nick berg

There is a moral gulf between killing an innocent man and watching a video of his killing, but it is not clearly broader than the gulf between murderers and the tourists who, once upon a time, bought tsantsas. And often the terms are identical: “savage” crops up often in discussions of radical Islam. A few years ago, a group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative wanted to put signs in the Boston subways reading in any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. support israel; defeat jihad. The Boston transit authority rejected the sign, a decision that was backed up by the courts. Yet it was mainly “civilized men” who made the beheading videos an Internet phenomenon.

The current wave of brutal decapitations in the Middle East makes reading this book, which is often darkly joyful in its descriptions of hideous violence, an uncomfortable experience. What allows us to think of heads as things separate from persons, and therefore from suffering, is usually their otherness: babies’ heads float in formaldehyde a century old; Amazon warriors, like Japanese soldiers, are “savages.” A mist of anonymity or infamy hangs over most of the heads that make it into cultural circulation.

The videos and stills of the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, some of them posted by the executioners, confront us with the spectacle of people we know or could easily know, people who were innocent of any crime, killed in the most exploitative way imaginable, against the desolating backdrop of sand and wind. The week Sotloff was beheaded, the Internet was up in arms about the invasion of Jennifer Lawrence’s privacy after her hacked nude photos made it online. But on those same days, more than double the number of people searching for those photos performed searches related to Sotloff, with “beheading video” among the top hits. John Podhoretz, in the New York Post, excoriated President Obama’s “inaction” against the Islamic State in a column printed alongside the clearest image I have seen of the moments before Sotloff’s murder, the executioner’s knife visible in his hand. If I hadn’t read Severed I would have been much more confident in dismissing these images as instruments of fringe politics, fed to people who believe their fury to be different in kind from that of the people doing the killing. But Severed makes it clear that there are no beheadings without an audience, and the Internet is the biggest human audience ever assembled.

Previous Page Next Page
4 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
’s most recent book is Bicentennial: Poems (Knopf). His last review for Harper’s Magazine, “The Humble Vernacular,” appeared in the November 2012 issue.

More from Dan Chiasson:

Readings From the November 2013 issue

Away We Go

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.