What College Students Can Teach Us About Beheadings and Our Own System of Capital Punishment

Like everyone this side of a serial killer, I was repulsed by the videotapes showing the beheadings of captured American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by a knife-wielding masked executioner of the Sunni jihadist organization that now calls itself the Islamic State. And like most, I was also moved by the dominant American narrative that both condemned the slayings and asserted the moral superiority of Western culture and the value we supposedly place on human life in contrast to the debasements and depravities promoted and practiced by the radical terror group.

But last week, shortly after news of the second beheading broke, something happened to disrupt the narrative, at least for me: I went back to college—not as a student, but to speak at a small undergraduate seminar on ethics and communication taught by Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer at USC.

I arrived on campus without much advance information about what we’d be discussing, told only that the class would be an informal gathering of no more than 15 students, and that I should just show up and be prepared to “schmooze” about my career in the law and as a writer. I had no idea until shortly before the first student poked her head inside the classroom that the topic du jour would be beheading. The students had even less of a hint.

Scheer began the class by reminding his charges that in their previous session they had examined conflicts between ethics and the law, and the fact that despite what we hear in the media and from our political leaders, the law often fails to live up to its ideals. And then he asked, point blank, “Does everyone know about the beheadings?”

The question at first was met with an awkward silence. This was a collection of juniors and seniors, mostly communication majors, all in their early 20s, racially diverse and, with one exception, female. They were accustomed to hearing and taking notes on their professors’ points of view. Now, they were being challenged to express their own views on an issue none had anticipated.

It took a long moment for all of us to focus, but slowly a full-throated discussion ensued about the death penalty and what lessons Americans might take from the killing of the journalists for their own system of capital punishment.

No one suggested the beheadings were in any sense justified or that as a method of execution, decapitation was anything other than gruesome, disgusting and unacceptable. “But if that’s true,” I asked, trying to earn my salt as a guest lecturer, “is there any ethical way for the state or those in power to take a human life?” I reminded the students that even with lethal injection—the preferred and purportedly more humane method used in this country’s recent executions—there have been reports of botched procedures in Oklahoma and Arizona, producing long and agonizing deaths.

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