A small photo of Jack Hensley appeared on the front page of Wednesday’s paper. Hensley was one of three construction contractors recently abducted from their homes in Baghdad.
Two were Americans and both are dead. The news reports say Hensley and Eugene Armstrong were beheaded.
It wasn’t the first beheading in Iraq since the occupation, and it won’t be the last. Looking at the picture of Hensley, the trace of a smile on his face, I couldn’t imagine what he was going through in the final, horrific minutes of his life. But part of me wanted to know.
How long did Hensley suffer? How long was he conscious? What goes on inside a human being whose living head is detached from his living body by a knife?
I still can’t bring myself to watch any of these Internet videos, but I wanted to find out. There are humane ways to die and there are the barbaric and unspeakable. Decapitation, terrorist style, has to lead the league in barbaric and unspeakable.
This isn’t death by injection or dying in your sleep. This is the evil we’re up against.
Jonathan Hayes, a New York City medical examiner who gave a talk in Des Moines after 9/11, felt the same need to know after the beheading of Nick Berg.
“The true nature of this war has been so carefully hidden, every supplied statistic and every image pruned like a prize rosebush,” he wrote for New York Magazine . “But the slaughter of Nick Berg seemed unspinnable; like the Abu Ghraib images, it was digital information, free to anyone who chose to look.”
Hayes chose to look. Almost everyone who has seen a beheading video advises against it. It changes you. Enrages you. Embitters you. Depresses you. Leaves you doubting whether there’s any hope for the world.
Like nothing else, the videos convey the full horror and savagery of the act.
The Boston Phoenix, an alternative paper that put the Daniel Pearl video on its Web site and was criticized for publishing pictures from the tape, said it “vividly illustrates the human toll of terror.”
Sometimes a vivid illustration is what we need. No matter how often this happens, it should never begin to feel even remotely abstract or commonplace.
Hayes is a pro who has witnessed grisly deaths before. He was on the scene at ground zero. But even he was hit hard by the Berg video.
If you want the details, seen through the clinical eyes of a physician, keep reading. If the answer is no, stop here.
Hayes watched the five masked men on his computer screen. He heard Berg talking about his family. He heard the “God is great!” cries as the terrorists moved in.
“The sound,” Hayes wrote, “is six or seven seconds out of sync: Berg’s screams begin long before they start cutting, and then there is silence as they lift his severed head and jerkily pan to the pixelated slick of blood around the body.”
This isn’t death by guillotine, an 18th-century invention intended to be quick and painless.
“The guillotine blade, massive and extremely sharp, cleaved the head off effortlessly, causing instant spinal shock, with complete loss of sensation and immediate death. In the video, the killer uses a large knife to cut through the soft tissues, and then struggles to saw through the ligaments and bones of the neck to separate the head.
“Watching, I try to do the math: If someone’s heart stops immediately, he still has about 15 seconds of consciousness as the brain burns off the last of its oxygen. Maybe, I think, he could have had an air embolus – when the large veins of the neck are cut, air can be sucked into the heart, where it’s whipped into a froth, which forms a vapor lock, and stops the heart from pumping blood. That, I tell myself, would kill him a few seconds faster.
“But I know that the notion is a distraction, the possibilities collapsing because you can hear him screaming, and if he’s screaming, his trachea hasn’t been cut through yet, and he’s in pain, and he’s alive, and he’s conscious.”
Some conspiracy theorists believe the Berg tape is phony or that the victims are drugged or even dead before their heads are removed.
To Hayes, the tape seemed all too real. When he wrote the magazine piece, he was still having trouble getting over the outrage, the sorrow and the feeling of helplessness. Until the insanity ends, that’s how it should be.