What Iraqis need is an Ida Wells-Barnett. She is the American black woman, born into slavery in 1862, who led a movement that helped end mob lynchings in the US. Iraq could use someone with her moral leadership as a voice to turn public opinion against a similar barbaric practice: beheadings.
Lynching, beheading, and other gruesome types of killing do more than just kill. They are spectacles meant to instill fear – if one chooses to react that way. Such terrorism explains why it is often used against the innocent for political purposes, much the way black men were lynched by white, mainly Southern, racists well into the 20th century. Last week, two US soldiers captured by Al Qaeda in Iraq were beheaded and left for public viewing.
Killing by decapitation has a long history. Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen still have beheadings for some crimes. In the West, the use of the guillotine during the French Reign of Terror is a notorious example. These days, violent Islamists are the world's serial beheaders, unmoved by how it degrades them and their cause.
In broadcasting beheadings on the Internet, Al Qaeda and other such groups had hoped to rally the faithful. (Many people who watch the videos later regret it. American TV stations refuse to show them in part to avoid playing the terrorist's game.)
But there's also a long history of revulsion against such forms of cruelty. Look at how the West turned against slavery, chemical weapons, execution by hanging, and, to some degree, land mines. And a recent survey finds support for suicide bombings has dropped substantially in three Muslim countries: Jordan, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
The possibility of Iraqis creating a culture of shame against beheadings arose last year when a top Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, rebuked the group's leader in Iraq, the recently killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for the beheading of hostages. He hinted that it repulses potential Muslim supporters. High-profile beheadings quickly declined, although many Iraqis still die this way.
Clearly Iraqis are open to forming a consensus against beheadings, even as the conflict continues. Such a moral stance taken by many Iraqis could be the kernel for widespread rejection of the entire insurgency in Iraq.
Which brings us back to Ida Wells-Barnett. She helped found the NAACP in 1909 but is best known as a journalist-crusader against mob lynching. At its peak, in 1892, this type of public vigilantism claimed the lives of some 162 black people. She compiled data and eyewitness accounts, often in disguise, to help generate outrage. Her stories resulted in her Tennessee newspaper, Free Speech, being ransacked. To save her life, she had to flee the South.
Her persistence made it difficult for whites to remain silent. Many Southern women declared lynching un-Christian. A few years after Wells-Barnett's passing in 1931, lynching was headed for the history books, helping the civil rights movement to blossom with less fear.
For Iraqis, standing up to the fear of beheadings is a first step. Wells-Barnett showed how the courageous activism of one person against a form of barbarity can help end it.
Will Iraqis now do the same?