I logged onto one of those gore websites, the lurid virtual outposts of sickening images and sobering reminders of our meat bodies and the terrifyingly sharp world we live in. My friend had been playing with my computer earlier, and downloaded a RealPlayer, a fact which I had known but not really thought about. I clicked on one of the beheading videos, and expected my laptop to reject it, just like it usually does when I try to download anything, and before I could register what was happening, the video popped up on the screen. The sound was off, so I couldn’t hear what was going on, thankfully, but the gruesome images flashed by both too quickly and too slowly, too fast for me to stop it, too slow for me to miss anything.

I don’t know which hostage it was. I believe it was an American, possibly Eugene Armstrong. He looked sleepy, worn, distracted, with a shaved head and the requisite orange jumpsuit. The hooded men behind him said something into the camera, and then without warning, a large knife appeared. The tallest of the hooded men took the knife and slit the hostage’s throat. Blood spurted from the wound, dark, fresh and angry. It was like a horror movie and then not, because in scary films, the camera looks away at the impact of violence, sparing the audience visceral dismay and the special effects department more realism than they are capable of producing.

The cutaway here never happened, because this was no movie, at least we hope that it was not, for that would introduce far more sinister horrors than we are capable of comprehending. The knife worked back and forth, sawing apart the neck. Even though the video was silent, I could still hear the cracking of bone and sinew, the separation of cervical vertebrae, the tearing of artery and spinal cord. The screen filled up with the wound, blood flowing like a river from it, the hole where the head once was looking supernatural and unreal. The head was held up to the camera. The eyes still seemed alive, fluttering with shock and fear. The head was rested clumsily on the now slumped body, falling to the floor like a coconut.

The film came to an abrupt end in a still frame of the headless corpse, the bloody stump revealing the sordid detail of gristle and marrow, vein and windpipe, offering a view ourselves that we should never see. It was less than a minute long, but the images are indelible, and will be with me now for a lifetime. I was offered a glimpse of hell, without the lyrical beauty or humor of Dante or Bosch. It was plain hell, devoid of art or grace, just mere unadulterated cruelty.

I am not glad that I witnessed it, but then again, I had to, in order to fully understand the implications of war. When we distance ourselves from the atrocities, we cannot grasp the absolute tragedy of them. To limit our awareness is to further subvert the humanity that is already crippled by being at war in the first place. These horrors are catalogued and counted as strikes against us, the chalk mark tally of what must be avenged, a death to-do-list, but they are not properly experienced and therefore not properly acknowledged. They become props for inept politicians who seek power and fame more than the good of humanity. All this pain is used as a device to persuade voters and advance careers and the lesson is lost.

I don’t know where sorrow is anymore, its presence in the world has vanished, leaving behind greed and the false claims of democracy. I mourn for the victims of Tawid and Jihad, headless and hopeless and names forgotten, their lives used as bargaining chips between corrupt governments where the gangsters rule all. I must also grieve for Tawid and Jihad, that our actions led to their inestimable anger. I beat my chest and cry out hardest of all for our country, with its government so far from its people that most of us cannot see why anyone might want to harm us, take us hostage, fly planes into our towers, kill us and die trying. Most of us don’t even know why, which is the saddest fact of all.

We are like the headless corpse, confused and swiping at the air for clues, for understanding. As we bleed from our mortal wound we flail for mercy and answers with eyes and ears missing, cut off. We are removed from our sense of self, conscience, purpose, but it isn’t the fault of the body, slowly starting to slip away into death. We have lost our head, or it has been taken from us, along with our voices, our reason, our control. All that is left is dissipating strength and a heart that will soon cease to beat

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