Of Bullwinkle and Beheadings


All I wanted was to get some Bullwinkle cartoons, but there's no escaping politics these days.

When stress threatens to overwhelm me, I can often find mental comfort food in two commodities: old movies and old cartoons. A few days ago I was perusing the shelves at one of my favorite used book stores, Weinstein Fine Books on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, when I happened across a must-have stress reducer: a previously-viewed VHS of 'The Rocky and Bullwinkle Hour' for three dollars.

Let it be said, chiefly because my wife will be reading this piece, that I did not immediately reach for my wallet. Even though I'm currently working on an assignment for a major monthly magazine, the life of a freelancer--particularly after the corporate belt-tightening that went down at magazines coast to coast in response to the dot com blowout a few years back--is one of practiced frugality. Three dollars is a six-piece pack of Chicken McNuggets. Three dollars is a pack of smokes, generic variety. Three dollars is laundry money. What three dollars is not is a used video of Rocky and Friends.

But then the deadline arrived. Not the deadline for my magazine piece. I'm speaking of the deadline this morning, June 18, for Paul Johnson, the American contractor in Saudi Arabia who was seized by Islamic militants and threatened with the penalty of death if certain unreasonable demands were not met by the Saudi monarchy.

'Savages!' shrieked the headline at The Drudge report when news hit the wires that Johnson's headless corpse had been discovered in a remote area of Riyadh . Fox News anchors and commentators were getting wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth in righteous indignation. The word of the day, repeated like a sick jingoistic mantra, was the one employed by Drudge: Savages.

The story dominated the news. There was, in the words of CNN Senior Analyst Jeff Greenfield, 'a massive imbalance of concern' because we had seen Johnson's face and heard his voice in the tape released by his kidnappers. Sure, 838 American men and women have been killed in Iraq to date, but there was a false sense of intimacy about Johnson because of that videotape.

After two hours of non-stop coverage, I could take no more. I had to have that Rocky and Bullwinkle tape and chill come evening.

It was quiet and tranquil at Weinstein's Fine Books. Classical music chimed pleasantly over the fine stereo system. When I approached the counter with my purchase, the clerk, an exceedingly friendly matronly woman still clinging tenaciously to her good looks, smiled warmly. And then the classical radio station broke for a news update. Over the radio came President Bush's condemnation of Paul Johnson's murder.

'The murder of Paul Johnson shows the evil nature of the enemy we face,' the President blustered. 'These are barbaric people. There's no justification whatsoever for his murder.'

The clerk's soft eyes became infused with anger. She slapped her palm down on the counter so swift and hard I almost jumped.

'When I was a child,' she thundered, 'we understood that different people have different cultures. My father used to read 1001 Arabian Nights to me. Do you remember that? 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves'? Beheading is part of the Muslim culture.'

I nodded my understanding and explained to her that I had written an editorial expressing just those opinions last month for Strike The Root after the beheading death of American Nick Berg in Iraq .

'I'll bet you got a lot of hate mail for that,' she laughed.

I did.

Arriving back home with my used, three-dollar Rocky and Bullwinkle video, I switched on the TV to catch the late afternoon local news. On the Los Angeles ABC affiliate, KABC, an anchor was walking the streets of Pasadena to collect the thoughts of average citizens about the Johnson killing.

The anchor caught up with Jennifer Klingworth, a New Yorker on vacation, outside what appeared to be a Starbucks.

'We're dealing with a primitive, archaic mentality,' Klingworth opined. She concluded that 'you can't deal diplomatically or militarily with that' so the best one can do is 'cut your losses and leave.'

Klingworth wasn't totally wrong. Nor was she totally correct.

What I have to explain now makes me feel like I'm playing Mr. Peabody to a collective group of Shermans . For every one of you who feel that Johnson and Berg's execution by beheading was 'savage' and 'barbaric,' let me ask you one question: Do you know the derivation of the words 'capital punishment'? The buzzer has already sounded and none of you have your hands in the air. It's from the Latin capitis, meaning head. It has been an acceptable form of capital punishment for as long as man could sharpen an axe and figure out a fitting way to punish a transgressor. The only reason it was discontinued, except in modern jurisdictions subject to Islamic Sharia and by militant Islamists, was because of a fear that the severed head may in some cases continue to be alive and capable of feeling pain.

Yes, beheading is a ghastly bit of business and the deplorable pictures of Mr. Johnson's headless body available all over the Web (Boy, did Drudge get those gruesome snapshots up on his web site but quick) are sickening. But do not, never mistake this act as the work of dark-skinned, 'primitive' and 'archaic savages.' When your mind starts to wander there, remember that last week, had she survived the Nazi holocaust, Anne Frank would have been 75 years old. She and millions of others were murdered in unspeakable ways by a culture not dissimilar to our own.

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Columns on STR: 14

Rodger Jacobs is a screenwriter, freelance journalist, and an award-winning writer and producer of feature documentaries.