It is worth pausing to consider the logic behind this staged mass beheading and how it differs from the notorious doctrine that defined the opening stages of the 2003 war in Iraq: “shock and awe.” Comparing the two tells us something important about ISIS and its reverence of the intimate kill—and ours, too.
Face-to-face killing isn’t the same as killing at a distance. It is sensually different. And it is harder.
When the navigator of the Enola Gay, the first plane to drop an atomic bomb, returned from that historic mission, he recalled that he “had a bite and a few beers and hit the sack.” The death and destruction that his mission visited on the Japanese city of Hiroshima was staggering, resulting in around 135,000 casualties. Yet Theodore Van Kirk claimed to have lost not a single night’s sleep over his actions. Whereas when William Manchester, a U.S. Marine and veteran of the Second World War, killed a Japanese soldier at close range, he vomited over himself and was convulsed by feelings of remorse and shame.
Many scholars agree that violence is difficult, and that killing is especially so. In Violence, Randall Collins, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that “everyone thinks violence is easy to perform, whether one brags about it, fears it, or hopes to eliminate it.” But the reality, Collins argues, is very different: “It is hard … and most people are not good at it, including those who are doing the bragging and swaggering.” This is because violence goes against people’s “physiological hard-wiring.” Killing at close range, he says, is especially challenging: “There appears to be a special difficulty in confronting another person face to face and sticking him with a knife-edged blade.”
The idea that violence is difficult was first developed by S.L.A. Marshall, a U.S. Army historian during World War II. Marshall found, through research that remains controversial, that typically only 15 percent of frontline troops fired their guns in combat, reaching 25 percent in the most effective units. Collins, who draws on Marshall, argues that the main barrier to killing is what he calls “confrontational tension,” and that what soldiers most fear in combat situations is not the prospect of dying but of killing. “It is easier to put up with injury and death than it is to inflict it,” he writes.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, agrees: “There is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man.” According to Grossman, distance is the crucial variable in killing: the nearer the “kill target,” the harder it is to do, whereas “from a distance, I can deny your humanity; and from a distance, I cannot hear your screams.”
Or as the eminent Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it in his influential study Modernity and the Holocaust, “It is difficult to harm a person we touch. It is somewhat easier to afflict pain upon a person we only see at a distance. It is still easier in the case of a person we only hear. It is quite easy to be cruel towards a person we neither see nor hear.”