Public Ritual of Murder Designed to Inspire More

I had e-mailed the poet that the ritual aspects of the murder of Daniel Pearl–the declaration of his religion, the slit throat, the severed head, all of them videotaped–were particularly black. He asked, reasonably enough, why? Aren’t banal murderers just as wicked as dramatic ones? Aren’t their victims just as dead?

But as a poet, he more than anyone knows that ritual and repetition fix things in the mind. Rhyme or meter or both together get our attention. That’s why Paradise Lost is better than The Lord of the Rings , and why “April showers / Bring May flowers” is more memorable than the Doppler 5000 forecasts.

Pearl’s murderers videotaped their deed. Why? To inspire and delight their comrades worldwide, from Brixton to the Philippines (maybe even including Marin County). Even now a hacker somewhere may have intercepted one of their e-mails, and its attachment, and is downloading them. The deed itself was a sacrament, a sacrificial offering akin to the Roman Catholic Mass–except that the body in the Mass offers to save worshippers from death, whereas the body in this rite celebrates death, and promises more to come.

I did not want to see Pearl’s murder overblown. He was, by all accounts, a bright, brave man doing valuable work. How many more such will perish before we are done? How many had already died on Sept. 11? Those of us who come out the other side may look back on the murder of Daniel Pearl as the survivors and vanquishers of the Holocaust and the gulag looked back on Kristallnacht or the murder of the Romanov family, as the first items in long, long lists.

But the stage management of this murder was arresting. It took us back, beyond the crimes of the last century, to the Terror of the French Revolution. On July 22, 1789, Gouverneur Morris, an American in Paris, dined at his club, then waited for his carriage “under the arcade of the Palais Royale …. In this period the head and body of M. de Foulon [an unpopular official] are introduced in triumph. The head on a pike, the body dragged naked on the earth. Afterwards this horrible exhibition is carried through the different streets …. [It] is shown to Bertier, his son-in-law, [who] also is put to death and cut to pieces, the populace carrying about the mangled fragments with a savage joy. Gracious God, what a people!” He is shocked because it is still new. Three and a half years later, it’s old hat, and he is writing a friend about a man who “applied to the [government] for damages done to his quarry …. The damage done to him was by the number of dead bodies thrown into his pit and which choked it up so that he could not get men to work at it.” Take the form, fill out paragraph 3, and come back next week. The bloody spectacle had become bureaucratized.

But it was spectacular still. The Germans, the Soviets and the Chinese killed far more people than the French did, but the French had the distinction of killing in public. Even if you buy Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s thesis that all Germans were Nazis at heart, the Nazi state went to the trouble of committing most of its murders in private. The French revolutionary state went to the trouble of committing most of its murders in broad daylight. Publicity was part of the point. The heads of the King, and the Queen, and their supporters, and the relatives of their supporters, and people suspected of being their supporters, were displayed and cheered, so that all patriots could join in the ceremony of destruction. The parading of heads and body parts through the streets of Paris, and of smaller cities where lesser Terrors raged, was cool. It was not a revolutionary excess; it was what that phase of the revolution was about. It was more important to the revolutionaries than the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Pearl’s captors had him say that he was Jewish and that his mother was Jewish before they murdered him. There is a sense in which all Americans are Jews now in the minds of Al Qaeda. But some Jews are more Jewish than others. “The Government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction” (George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, August 1790). For that reason, Al Qaeda gives Americans no mercy.

The religious angle and the ritual aspects of this event raise anew the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace. Since the beginning of the war, President Bush has asserted that it is, which is the proper thing for the leader of a secular nation with Muslim citizens to do. One of the techniques of leadership is to appeal to men’s better nature; often the appeal itself strengthens their better nature. But Oprah and others without national responsibility have taken up the President’s theme, with less justification. They assert that which remains to be proven.

All religions claim to be true, which means they all claim a degree of immutability. But religions exist in the world in the minds and actions of their believers. There were times when institutional Christianity sanctioned horrors, and times when it forbade them. What do Muslims want? The only people who can answer that are Muslims themselves, and not shills for grievance groups, but clerics, scholars and laymen. The New York Times quoted the leader of a Pakistani Muslim group denouncing the Pearl slaying as shameful. That is a good start, but it’s a big world. The relationship of Al Qaeda and Islam in the early 21st century will unfold as the months and years pass.

One thing we do know for certain is that journalism is the religion of pomposity. Journalism has its martyr, and journalists buffaloed the Pentagon out of the information business by reporting that it might engage in lies. Even the mighty Donald Rumsfeld finally gave up. Now the lies in the Middle East will be the monopoly of Al-Jezeera. We have had a narrow escape.