Beheadings v. Drone Assassinations

As gruesome as the Islamic Front’s videotaped beheadings are, there is ambiguity over whether the U.S. government’s death-by-drone is any less horrific, with some victims crawling about with severed limbs and others just collateral damage, a moral dilemma addressed by ex-FBI official Coleen Rowley.

By Coleen Rowley

Why do Americans hate beheadings but love drone killings? What accounts for our irrational response to these two very different forms of illegal execution, one very profitable and high-tech, usually resulting in many collateral deaths and injuries, and the other very low-tech, but provoking fear and righteous condemnation from the citizens whose country prefers the high-tech?

The answer lies in human psychology. And probably like the old observation about history, people who refuse to understand human psychology are doomed to be victims of psychological manipulation. How is it that even members of peace groups have now come to support U.S. bombing?

A Predator drone firing a missile.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

One woman framed the issue like this: “I request that we discuss and examine why the videotaped beheading of a human being is understood to be more egregious than the explosion (almost totally invisible to the public) of a human being by a missile or bomb fired from a drone.”

There are at least four main reasons that could explain why Americans care far more about the beheadings (thus far) of two Americans and one U.K. citizen than they care about the thousands of foreign victims of U.S. drone bombing. Here’s how people are likely being manipulated into believing that more U.S. bombing is the answer to such terroristic killings even when almost all military experts have admitted that it won’t work and “there’s no military solution”:

1) “Us versus them” mentality, the group bonding also known as tribalism,  nationalism, group elitism, etc. seems partially learned behavior but also hard-wired into humans (like other animals) to enable group survival. The worst, most excessive forms of group bonding are also known as racism. Yet it’s an innate part of human psychological makeup to identify most closely with those with whom we share group affinity, so Americans are always going to care more about Americans/Westerners as opposed to more distant foreigners. A 2013 Gallup Poll seems to bear out this role of group affinity on multiple levels:

“In U.S., 65% Support Drone Attacks on Terrorists Abroad — Less than half of Americans are closely following news on drones. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) think the U.S. government should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists. Americans are, however, much less likely to say the U.S. should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against U.S. citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists (41%); to launch airstrikes in the U.S. against suspected terrorists living here (25%); and to launch airstrikes in the U.S. against U.S. citizens living here who are suspected terrorists (13%).”

(A researcher, however, who later published her findings in the Washington Post believes these polls ostensibly showing that “Americans love drone strikes” were skewed by not asking the right questions.)

2) The gruesome beheadings were deliberately and dramatically videotaped to ensure that U.S. media brought the scenes into all U.S. living rooms whereas the drone bombings of citizens of foreign countries are almost never filmed nor covered at all by U.S. media. Thus to the majority of Americans, drone killings seem sterile, sanitized and surgical even though some of the pilots and analysts whose cameras hover over the scene afterward thus allowing close-up views after launching their missiles, know differently and end up suffering from PTSD. Some are even committing suicide.

3) It’s apparent that even a large segment of the “peace” community does not understand that U.S. wars and U.S.-orchestrated regime changes indirectly created Islamic State (and other Al Qaeda type terrorist groups) and that U.S. drone (and other aerial) bombing is giving rise to MORE terrorism, rather than working to reduce it. These two articles “How the West Created the Islamic State” and “How ISIS Is Using Us to Get What It Wants” describe the dynamic.

As in all wars, the leaders of both sides are opportunistically using each other to empower each other. Robert Greenwald’s video puts it most succinctly: “How Perpetual War Fuels Terrorism.” (The opposite is also true: terrorism fuels war.) This is well-known by Western intelligence analysts and foreign policy experts. It’s garden variety war manipulation for everyone except the duped U.S. public. (Andy Borowitz isn’t really joking when he reports: “Americans Who Have Not Read a Single Article about Syria Strongly Support Bombing It.”)

It’s just too depressing to realize how many uninformed people there are who still think “bombing the village to save it” somehow can work. Such “war on terror” propaganda is actually effective on the liberal-minded who are more vulnerable to having their emotional buttons — fear, hate, greed, false pride and blind loyalty — pressed than it is on more pragmatic, cool-headed realists. It’s being reported that a number of U.S. journalists who should know better have even fallen for hyped terror threats used to justify the recent launching of bombing upon Syria.

4) A fourth reason why most Americans now go happily along with perpetual war in a kind of blissful stupor, cheering on their favorite war hawk politician comes from the lessons learned so well from the Vietnam War. Getting rid of the military draft and putting the trillions of dollars of mounting war costs on the ever-expanding and perfectly elastic national debt card was a stroke of genius on the part of the military-industrial complex to wipe away any remaining “Vietnam Syndrome.”

The new “poverty draft” that we’re left with constitutes another layer of “us versus them” type manipulation geared to getting the liberal, intellectual middle class on board as they perceive little or no costs and only benefits to endless war. Even when not directly profiting by working for military or national security contractors, many Americans have thus come to believe that war creates jobs and ensures they are supplied with cheap gas and other resources.

When I solicited others’ opinions on the Huffington Post where an earlier version of this thought piece was published, one man responded, “The answer is obvious. Given the choice, I guarantee that a vast majority of people would rather be killed in a missile attack (quick and painless often) than the horror of some guy chopping your head off with a knife.”

Of course, I know of no one who can tell us which death is more painful, but there’s reason to question that being killed by drone bombs is any less horrible  then death by beheading. Some drone pilots have talked about watching those they’ve hit try crawling away with severed limbs or lie bleeding to death for hours.

The comment would seem to be a window, however, into what’s probably a very common perception or rationalization in the U.S.  Ironically, if you check out the history of official beheading via the guillotine, it was invented during the French Revolution as a quicker and more humane, seemingly less painful way to execute people than prior methods like hanging. It was then used for almost 200 years in France up to 1981 when the French made capital punishment illegal. Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies still frequently conduct beheadings.

Anyway, enough said about morbid deaths. I may be flat wrong but there has to be some explanation for this American incongruity. Without the witty humor of a Borowitz or Jon Stewart, some people may even resent the question and/or this discussion of how they are constantly duped into supporting a perpetual war that makes them less and less safe. But hopefully, more people will learn to wise up to this psychological manipulation.

Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI agent and former Minneapolis Division legal counsel who writes on ethical and legal issues. [An earlier version of this article appeared at Coleen Rowley’s blog at HuffingtonPost.]

21 comments for “Beheadings v. Drone Assassinations

  1. Coleen Rowley
    October 3, 2014 at 00:28

    Here’s a very good article about the (largely forgotten) history of beheading which people of many different cultures have engaged in: “Beheading has a multicultural past” by JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN, “European tyrants and revolutionaries both used it, and it’s as American as Thanksgiving Day.”

  2. Eddie
    October 2, 2014 at 21:56

    Good brief summation by Ms Rowley. Her four points pretty much say it all. About the only thing that I might add/expand is in point#4 that US civilians have never experienced any kind of prolonged deprivation from repeated bombings to the continental US, even in WWII, so bombing and the widespread devastation of war isn’t viscerally appreciated by most here in the US. It’s almost an ‘abstract’ thing. (Yes there are personal tragedies when someone’s son or daughter are killed or maimed, but psychologically it’s almost equivalent to them getting some dread-disease and dying young or being handicapped afterwards.) While many Europeans of this generation may not have experienced these horrors also, they at least have remnants of an older generation who can temper the war-mongering impulses. And with plenty of politicians and ‘macho-men’ here in the US who like to beat the war-drums (especially when they’re safely ensconced 6 or 7,000 miles away from any violence, and making $$ from defense contractor contributions and revolving-door jobs) to drowned-out more cautious, humanitarian voices, it’s surprising that we have the few years of peace here and there that we occasionally experience.

  3. Eric Sundin
    October 2, 2014 at 10:49


    Beheadings, collateral?

    When death by beheadings
    just the victims die.
    Spared bystander shreddings
    when children’s limbs fly.

    No bridal party wreckings,
    no cultures desiccated
    beneath drone buzzed weddings,
    no countries devastated.

    Killings industrialized
    by American Exceptionalism,
    while propagandized as ‘civilized’
    slaughter by imperialism.

    Depleted uranium technology
    lobbed by shells without qualms.
    As well, without regret or apology,
    white burning phosphorous bombs.

    Casualties just ‘collateral’
    when by Western ideology,
    while ‘gruesome’ by those ‘fanatical’
    when using low tech technology.

    Still each death an execution
    under whatever delusion.
    In one by one retribution
    or conveyor belt profusion.

    • October 3, 2014 at 00:42

      Great Poem, thanks for sharing.

  4. Moi
    October 1, 2014 at 02:52

    Terrorism is terrorism. Some bombs are delivered by truck, others by air.

  5. Abe
    October 1, 2014 at 01:35

    The anti-government forces in Syria have never been “rebels.”

    From the beginning of the conflict in Daraa in March 2011, the Syrian government has claimed that it has been battling armed “extremist and terrorist groups.” Its evidence has been persistently ignored by Western media.

    The February 2011 “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt set the stage for regime exchange projects in Libya and Syria.

    Syrian anti-government protests in February predominantly aimed at democratic reforms, “freedom”, abolition of emergency law and an end to corruption. The national emergency law was in place for 48 years due to Syria’s previous wars with Israel.

    Mass protests erupted on 15 March in Damascus and Aleppo, and spread in the following days to more cities, while growing in size.

    On 18 March 2011, the largest protest was in Daraa where thousands of protestors demanded an end to government corruption. Shooting erupted and four protestors were killed. Their deaths were blamed on Syrian security forces.

    On 20 March 2011, thousands took to the streets of Daraa for the third straight day, shouting slogans against the country’s emergency law. Fifteen persons were killed and scores injured. The courthouse, the Ba’ath party headquarters in the city, and the Syriatel building owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Assad, were then all set on fire. During these clashes, 7 policemen were killed.

    In his March 2011 speech addressing the protests, Assad claimed that an international terrorist conspiracy sought to topple the Syrian government. The Syrian military has been fighting these terrorist forces continuously since 2011.

    During this time, Assad released prisoners from the Sednaya prison; former prison inmates with no association to the uprisings. These former criminals would go on to lead militant “jihadist” groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.

    Since 2011, the Syrian government has successfully resisted an increasingly brutal assault from mostly non-Syrian mercenary jihadist forces.

    The February 2014 neo-Nazi instigated coup d’etat in Kiev, Ukraine followed the identical script of protesters and police suddenly killed by sniper fire, with their deaths blamed on government forces. The new pro-U.S./NATO Kiev regime promptly launched a terroristic “anti-terrorist” assault to ethnically cleanse eastern Ukraine.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    September 30, 2014 at 21:23

    So, who wants to speculate on whether the USA & it’s MidEast Alliance will establish a Syrian No Fly Zone after this November US elections are over? Further more if we take out Assad would there be any infrastructure left in Syria to run the country in an efficient manner? If ISIS is a true rebel army, then how do they re supply there front lines? Does ISIS have a front line? Would not a country with a sufficient security force be able to contain and extinguish such a rebel force? Who’s army will that be?

    The reason why beheadings are bad, and drones are good, is proof of controlling the narrative. We like drones because there’s money in manufacturing and distributing those killer joy stick war toys. Besides, ever since the invention of the spear it makes killing less personal. A lot less messy than sawing off someone’s head. The enemy thinks we will go broke…ha, we invented the printing press, don’t they know? The real weapon the west has is its media. Controlling the narrative is key to gaining the publics conscent to invoking all out war on the Assad government. With just enough spin, and a false flag or two the Neocon’s will have their way once again. Unless, this time the public puts its foot down, and says, enough is enough!

    • Masud
      October 1, 2014 at 03:57

      “Unless, this time the public puts its foot down, and says, enough is enough!”

      The problem is the vast difference in public’s attention span and that of Media.

  7. Evangelista
    September 30, 2014 at 19:52

    If one thinks back one might remember the Oklahoma Bombing and the hysteria that was whipped up about that. and the 9/11 Twin Towers 2001 equivalent to a pair of missile strikes.

    And then one may think back to just about any recent execution in the United States, and even any debate/argument about ‘death penalty’ in the U.S.

    There isn’t any rationality involved. The psychology is that “faceless” “others” are fair game, “ours”, or ours who have “faces” to us, are “real” people with real emotions and feelings. Does anyone remember any media-favored public personality who has not been plead for, whatever his or her crimes, by one or another of his or her fellows, for being susceptible, for any punishment being terribly punishing to them, for their being so punished by such punishment, though the same would assert the punishment “not enough” for even average citizens, let alone if they were minority or “low life” or “crumbs”. Recall Richard Nixon, for example, who “needed” pardon, and the pleading for “Scooter” Libby. While people serve jail time for no crimes, for being too poor to pay fines (which qualifies them for ‘contempt’).

    The problem is distance from suffering. The farther people are from real suffering, themselves, the less empathetic they are, the more isolated. The answer is what the American government is now doing: Wreck the system, bring on real unrest, real want and real deprivation, real insecurity. Nothing brings people together like tragedy and war.

  8. Masud
    September 30, 2014 at 19:04

    The ownership of Drone killing is clear, a reality, pre-meditated and committed by most advanced and civilised first-world state. Beheadings are video images claimed-but not proved- to be perpetrated by a dubious organisation whose reality is not 100% established as global opinion is clearly divided regarding the origin of that organisation. There is a possibility these videos could be staged and therefore fake.

  9. Zachary Smith
    September 30, 2014 at 16:56

    Quibble time: the Alastair Cooke piece (How ISIS Is Using Us to Get What It Wants) I found to be almost incoherent. And his “democrat prospects” remark managed to squeeze in both a spelling error and an insulting epithet.

    Otherwise, this was an interesting and thought-provoking essay.

    Coleen Rowley deserves a lot of credit for bringing up the point that those drone murders do not always involve quick and clean deaths for the victims.

  10. Tom Welsh
    September 30, 2014 at 15:36

    I agree with all the points Ms Rowley made. Further, I would like to suggest that Hollywood and TV have a lot to answer for – in fact, I jokingly said this morning, “Maybe we should bomb Hollywood!” Anyone old enough to remember “The A-Team”? Each episode featured hundreds of shots being fired, bombs exploding, vehicles being blown up, aircraft crashing… and no one was ever killed or even seriously injured. In more recent shows and movies the bangs are bigger and the flames higher, but our heroes always escape by the skin of their teeth. As for the baddies, well they get what they deserve, don’t they? Going back still further, what about those Westerns in which John Wayne got hit over the head with a chair – hard enough to splinter it – and then recovers completely a minute later?

    Or consider the Christian idea of hell. Seriously, just for a moment. A sea of fire and brimstone – and you will be immersed in that for all eternity, presumably unable ever to die and escape the pain. A few seconds of such pain is almost impossible to contemplate, yet ordinary human beings were willing to imagine millions of their fellows undergoing such punishment.

    The only possible explanation is a lack of imagination and empathy that amounts to sheer woodenheadedness.

    • Zachary Smith
      September 30, 2014 at 17:06

      Your point about the A-Team was well taken. More recently, I has a relative press a DVD of TAKEN on me for viewing. The “hero” emerged completely victorious after incredible trials with barely a scratch. And as for his own morality, turns out torture is A-OK in a Good Cause.

  11. F. G. Sanford
    September 30, 2014 at 15:18

    It’s all in the semantic packaging. It doesn’t matter if Saudi Arabia decapitates a dozen people a month without a trial; that’s all conducted by our “ally” in accordance with their “laws”. If some Western backed “democracy” bombs a U.N. Refugee Shelter and kills a bunch of women and children, that’s “collateral damage”. But if some poor bastard that’s had his land stolen, his friends imprisoned, his family murdered and his future destroyed decides to blow himself up in a public place, that’s a premeditated crime called a “homicide” bombing. The name attempts to remove the act from any relevant social context, as though the perpetrator had no stake in the outcome other than an abundance of inscrutable malice aforethought. How could he possibly commit suicide, when everyone knows he wasn’t a “human” in the first place? I could write a long list of these semantic reality flips. “Coalition of the willing” in plain english would be “association of delinquency”, or even plainer: “conspiracy”, but you get the idea. I’m wondering when some of this semantic aptitude will finally be applied in a more fitting and descriptive way. Let’s start with “petrodollars”. Fungible cash is a big part of what the banking cartels strain through the colander of international money transactions to bleed profits from “off-label” commerce. Today, we talk of the Golden Triangle, but forget Britain’s “Opium Wars”. Then there was the “Golden Crescent” in Southeast Asia, made chic by the moniker “French Connection”, which cost us 58,000 American lives. Then there was Iran-Contra, which should have been called “Iran-Coca”, and that spread from Nicaragua to Guatemala to Honduras to Panama to Mexico and finally, to Los Angeles and every major American city where draconian drug laws provided slave labor to a profitable prison industry. Afghanistan’s opium trade was almost wiped out by the Taliban except for the region controlled by the Northern Alliance. Of course, that’s who we chose as our “ally” when our troubles began. Oh, sweet victory! As Eric Margolis points out, “The U.S. remains the proud owner of the world’s leading producer of heroin”. Today, Afghanistan’s government runs entirely on drug money supplemented by U.S. financial aid, more appropriately known as “bribery”. As American foreign policy slowly but surely destroys its ability to prop up petrodollars, the financial cartels who actually run things have a ready substitute: “Narcodollars”. They just haven’t named it yet. Iran stands in the way of total control of that resource. Recent headlines bemoan that “illegal aliens” are being allowed to enlist in our military. That’s actually an old story. Has no one noticed those big mass ceremonies they hold when American Soldiers, Seamen and Airmen and Women get their citizenship? Critics have called the “All Volunteer Force” a “poverty draft”. Inner city minorities and Appalachian poverty victims are the most numerous recruits, but that shouldn’t disguise the fact that history has a better name: “Mercenary Army”. It is a phenomenon that precedes the collapse of empire. But the financiers never collapse, they just change venue. Whether it’s Rome or Byzantium or Venice or London or Wall Street, they know no loyalty, no patriotism, no fidelity, and above all, no remorse. Today, it’s oil and drugs; tomorrow it may be food and water. Whatever it is, these vultures will insure that patriotism and religion will package it in a way that it can be sold…for as much as the traffic will bear. Victory? Think again. Today, the Taliban remain Afghanistan’s most popular and authentic political movement. What should that tell us about “ISIS”? They’ve taken to calling them “hardened” jihadis. I shudder to think what that really means! Perhaps we should ask John McCain. After all, he knows them – “intimately”.

    • Abe
      September 30, 2014 at 19:15

      Semantic packaging indeed, F.G.

      “Coalition” in even plainer English would be “thems my regime change bitches.”

      • F. G. Sanford
        September 30, 2014 at 20:14

        Latest update – screen crawler on foreign satellite channel claims, “Latest ISIS horror – three Kurdish women decapitated by jihadis”. Now them bitches be choppin’ bitches, ’cause they jus’ ain’t gettin’ no traction choppin’ dudes. Trouble in da hood now, bro! Assad best be keepin’ it low cuz da law gettin’ desperate!

      • Abe
        September 30, 2014 at 20:50

        Time for the Two Minutes Hate:

  12. September 30, 2014 at 14:48

    I considered writing a “Letter to the Editor” of my local paper raising precisely this point, but pretty much decided against it for fear of backlash. The public at large seems to be simply incapable of considering such heresy. We are, in fact, the “Good Germans” of the 21st century. The US is thought to be the prime force for all that is good and beautiful. It’s a very effective lie.

  13. Abe
    September 30, 2014 at 14:37

    The author’s statement that “U.S. wars and U.S.-orchestrated regime changes indirectly created Islamic State (and other Al Qaeda type terrorist groups)” is patently inaccurate.

    Islamic State (and other Al Qaeda type terrorist groups) were directly created and are wielded as weapons of U.S. (proxy) wars and U.S.-orchestrated regime changes.

    Analyses that do not begin with this basic fact are functional disinformation.

    That includes all “blowback” apologetics.

    Neo-Nazi murderers in Ukraine and so-called jihadist terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Libya and coming-to-your-town are no unfortunate consequence of Western foreign policy.

    They ARE Western foreign policy in action.

    The real monsters are the ones for whom “Beheadings v. Drone Assassinations” is a business decision.

    Democracy don’t rule the world
    You’d better get that in your head
    This world is ruled by violence
    But I guess that’s better left unsaid
    – Bob Dylan, “Union Sundown” from Infidels (1983)

    • Joe
      September 30, 2014 at 21:30

      “The author’s statement that “U.S. wars and U.S.-orchestrated regime changes indirectly created Islamic State (and other Al Qaeda type terrorist groups)” is patently inaccurate.”

      Frankly, this is totally propaganda. Our meddling throughout Mid-East in Iraq and Afghan wars has been a disaster fomenting so much blowback that we are on the brink as a country of creating permanent war draining our finances in fruitless wars. We have elected fools.

    • Abe
      September 30, 2014 at 22:15

      Blowback is an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result, or set of repercussions.

      The disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria and Ukraine, have been not unforeseen or unwanted. The evisceration of those societies, and of American society, has been entirely deliberate.

      Our nation’s finances continue to be drained into the coffers of those who have perpetrated these catastrophes. Follow the money. Ain’t hard to do. Everything else is propaganda.

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