If you have been wondering how a state-sanctioned beheading proceeds in Saudi Arabia, read on, but
Be warned: the following material will make some readers uncomfortable.
The series of beheadings videotaped by ISIL strikes exceptional fear and revulsion in the West, as it is intended to do. The beheadings and the videos are political: they are meant to terrify and compel action, whether it be retribution for air strikes or the payment of a ransom. Mercy and compassion are absent from ISIL’s vocabulary.
We can look to Saudi Arabia, where beheading is practiced routinely (79 in 2013, 83 in 2014) and often publicly, to find out about the gruesome practice. The Saudis insist that their beheadings are different from the ones executed by ISIS because in Saudi Arabia the criminals are convicted in court. The UN, however, has called the trials “grossly unfair,” because defendants are not allowed legal counsel and death sentences may be imposed after confessions that have been coerced by torture. Westerners are horrified by decapitation, yet its defenders say lethal injection as practiced in the U.S. is no more humane.
The details that follow were reported in Newsweek, based on the 2003 interview with a Saudi executioner and videos provided by a human rights group.
Executions are held in a public square, and sometimes people are compelled to watch. Public beheadings are the “only form of public entertainment” in Saudi Arabia, excepting soccer matches. Al-Beshi, the state executioner, has performed as many as seven beheadings a day. He describes his calling as “God’s work.” Members of the justice system reportedly do not regret the frequent executions, saying they fulfill the will of God. There is no room for doubt in a Saudi court: forced confessions and flimsy or rigged evidence are not investigated, despite the irreversibility of the penalties. Crimes that call for beheading are banditry, murder, drugs, pedophilia — and political dissent.
Though he prefers a knife, the executioner uses a $4,000 sword given to him by the Saudi government. His trade is often hereditary, handed down from father to son. It also falls to him to cut off hands, fingers and legs, depending on the crime.
The convict is forced to his (or her) knees on the plastic bags that have been spread on the ground to catch the blood. The back of the neck is exposed. She is sometimes sedated, but sometimes not, when the sentence calls for suffering maximum pain. He is blindfolded to make the executioner’s job easier, because if the person turns his head, the sword may not fall on the neck or may not complete the job. It is necessary for the head to be severed cleanly so that the cleanup is less messy.
If the crime is banditry or drug smuggling, the corpse will be crucified, and the head must be hung above it in one piece. When there is not a clean cut and the sword must fall again on the exposed neck, “the head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard. It rolls to the front or side of the body, which twitches in spasms as the heart continues to beat for a while.” This detail begs the question, what happens to the head? Does it retain consciousness for some amount of time?
As Americans, we are horrified by the barbaric beheadings, as we should be. But let us contemplate executions in the electric chair and by lethal injection. Even when they go flawlessly as planned — and how often do we hear that they do not — do they cause less suffering to the condemned person? And let’s not forget that we rank in fifth place in the number of yearly executions worldwide.