The most unsettling reporting I have done on the subject of human necks was in March 2014 in the Central African Republic. I was interviewing a militiaman who said he had killed Muslims, and offered to demonstrate. He then took out a blade and posed with his friend, placing the cutting edge against the man’s throat. What gave me the creeps was not the knife hand but the other one. His fingers pulled taut the skin of his friend’s neck, the better to ensure a firm cutting surface for the blade. The move was instinctive—and to me familiar, from having butchered animals. If you don’t pull the flesh tight, your knife doesn’t bite cleanly, and you make a mess of things. I saw that finger and thought: This man really has done this before.
A close relative of that thought is what many Americans have experienced in the past few days, contemplating what diseased mind could place a knee on the neck of another human being and press until the man died. The tactile experience of kneeling into a human neck is not familiar to most people, and the video of Derek Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer and now a civilian charged with murder, kneeling into the neck of George Floyd is about as disturbing as anything most of us have ever seen. Even I—a veteran watcher of snuff films—cannot recall ever seeing someone killed in this way. (The Islamic State would stab people slowly in the heart, or smoosh them with tank treads, or burn them alive.) The only thing that has brought me close to this form of killing is Joshua Oppenheimer’s singular film The Act of Killing, about executioners in Indonesia with extensive experience strangling their victims.