Helpful hints and discussion about mental health and mental health issues as it relates to
news, popular culture and day-to-day life.


Sunday 7 September 2014

The Isis Beheadings:James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Joan Rivers -- Laughing at Tragedy

by Stephen B.Chadwick, MA Counselling Psychology.

James Foley
This last week, dear friends, has been rather an unfortunate mix of misery in the news. There have been of course the beheading of James Foley
and then Steven Sotloff.
Steven Sotloff

 And of course there has been the ongoing concern of the situation in the Middle East.

I would like to address why perhaps for some people, when thinking about the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff, that it strikes us as particularly savage. First of all.... it is meant to!

But the question is why? If we can examine it for a moment, we can see why the beheadings are so very shocking to the public and if we can examine it and (hopefully) understand it, then we might be able to weather it.

And why should we try to weather it? In order to understand it, but more importantly in order not to "terrorized" by the act and left immobilized by this horrid action.

If we are then not paralyzed by the situation, we can act intelligently -- while simultaneously understanding our emotional reaction to it without being drawn into the misery, it can help us to act in a manner that will be the most logical, sane and humane.

Shocking Executions of Foley, Sotloff intended to paralyze the public.

So, let us begin with the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff. What is it that is so disturbing about their deaths? Quite simply because they were beheaded. And why is that so upsetting? Well, simply because beheading is (for the 21st century) considered a rather barbaric way to execute someone. In some countries, formal executions, even for mass or serial murderers no longer take place. Even in those countries which do still have formal executions for criminals, which Foley and Sotloff were not, as far as I am aware, the executions are usually lethal injection, whereby the patient/criminal's bodily functions are slowly and hopefully painlessly shut down until they die.

Even Saddam Hussein, for example when he was executed, was done so by hanging, which was not formally broadcast, but which did unfortunately escape onto the internet. In this instance it was done in a very formal and professional manner: quick and as painless as possible, almost like the humane way in which one would slaughter an animal in an abattoir.

However, the beheadings or, indeed, the butcherings of Foley and Sotloff, were video-taped and placed on the internet precisely to bring about a sense of shock and terror. And in this terror, the intent is to have the general public submit to demands or to be paralyzed with fear into doing nothing.  Recognizing therefore what we FEEL and what emotions are passing through us when we SEE or READ about such things can help us not to freeze or become immobilized.

But if indeed you think about it, beheadings have happened through history as a form of execution. This is not meaning to diminish or in any way minimize what has happened. But, regrettably, beheadings still happen in parts of the world. Why exactly should we be so shocked by another execution?

Here's why: because such an act of execution is so gory and graphic, it affronts our sensibility and sense of humanity and decency. It is exactly the same as when video or photographic images of soldiers -- soldiers anywhere in the world -- are experiencing, dealing with or witnessing something that is so far outside the range of most, normal, everyday human experiences as to be quite literally incomprehensible.

History of Beheadings is worldwide, not just the Middle East. 

Anne Boleyn

John the Baptist 
But think about it, we have the following history: John the baptist, the beheadings in medieval England of:
Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Thomas More and various others. 

Catherine Howard
Sir Thomas More

         Then of course there was the famous French Revolution.

So clearly brutal execution has happened all throughout history, but hopefully the world as a people will evolve towards more humane means of dispatching those to be executed.

Most disturbing: Lack of wholeness, completeness

But possibly the chief reason why beheading is so very gruesome as a form of execution is because it disrupts our sense of wholeness. Perhaps when most people think of dying they think of someone lying in a bed and going to sleep. Their bodies are whole and intact. They are not dismembered. One piece of the body is not separated from the other. Those grieving may indeed be able to hold, touch and even embrace the body before preparation for the funeral. Dismembered bodies are something primitive and primal. It hearkens back to primitive times when man was pitted against tribes and wild animals.

It is the same if an individual loses a body part. There is something most disturbing, gruesome in the fact that something is no longer intact. And as human beings we search and long to be able to bring completeness and wholeness back to what has been dismembered or desecrated.

Again, death is supposed to be a process where a complete body of a person who lives out their full life, with its trials and tribulations, its triumphs and successes. And then at the end we are all supposed to have a good, tidy and happy death.

But then what is death? Death, unfortunately is not always so neat and clean. People die of lingering, debilitating diseases that disfigure or disform. People go missing and lost. Victims of murders are brutally murdered in cold blood. Indeed, planes fall out of the sky -- as in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere and again, bodies are torn apart and discovered in pieces. It is gruesome and horrific.

Joan Rivers
What we expect is what happened to Joan Rivers this week: a death, certainly.

But a death that involves a heart attack, cardiac arrest and then a gradual transition into the next life. It is still sad, but less shocking perhaps. Precisely because the body is intact and whole.

However, Joan Rivers, herself might say just the opposite. And this is where we can, if we are careful and understand tragedy, laugh at it.

Gallows Humour: The ultimate coping mechanism

The expression of "Gallows Humour" could be used here in this article. And, indeed, possibly Rivers would be the first to take aim at what is happening in Ukraine, in the Middle East, with all the ills of society. One must remember of course that just because one is a comedian or comedienne, does not necessarily mean that one is jolly! On the contrary, often their wit springs from the contrast seen between what is human and humane and what is reality. What should be right and fair and what actually is.

In a documentary recently on Rivers, she was shown making fun of deaf people. Now this would be considered in very poor taste. An audience member heckled her as a result. However she shot back that her own mother had been deaf. She went on to say in her rant that she even dated an amputee once, who had "lost his leg in France" and that she thought that was "just terrible" as she thought that he should go back there and get it, as that was "littering".

It was indeed a very funny jab. However, later in the documentary, she apologized on camera and sympathized with the heckler. (The man's son was deaf).

But it brings to life a point. That gallows humour can help us to attenuate and diminish the impact of tragedy. By making a joke of terrible situations, however real, we can lessen the control over circumstances to overwhelm us and minimize the impact.

In the case of Robin Williams' recent death, see my other post here on suicide:, how might he have survived if he had only just been able to make a joke of his own personal situation? We will never know.

Finally, one would ask: Where is God in all this?

However, this is a theological question, not a psychological one, so we won't pursue this.

Douglas Adams
But, as that great English comic writer, Douglas Adams wrote in his Hitchhiker's Guide series book, So Long and Thanks for All The Fish that God, having finished with Mankind in writes, on the side of a mountain, no less:

We apologize for the inconvenience 

Rather funny. Like something you might see if road work was under construction and you had to take a detour.

So death, no matter how it comes about, is rarely something pleasant. But if we can understand what is so particularly spooky about the recent beheadings this last two weeks, then we may be able to understand how to cope with it and more importantly what to do about it.

If misery can be looked on as merely an "inconvenience", then life itself could be so much better.

Always look on the bright side of life... or in the case of Monty Python... death.

Take Care,


I welcome comments, questions for clarification and dialogue respectful to this post and any others.

If you are interested in this or other posts, why not click on the Google + button or submit your email, either way, and follow this blog?

No comments:

Post a Comment