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Why Do People Behead People?

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Almost every day we see images and videos of people having their heads chopped off. These beheadings have left the world in a state of shock. How could anybody do such a thing? we wonder. And how could they do that in the name of a religion?

A man name Stanley Milgram did some research about what motivates people to commit hateful acts toward other people. He did his famous Yale study of the late 1950s, labeled the “Obedience to Authority” experiment, because he was shocked by Germany’s extermination of Jews and others during World War II.

In his experiment, subjects were told by an authority figure (a scientist conducting an experiment) to administer electric shocks to other subjects, who were in fact actors who were only pretending to be shocked. About two-thirds of all subjects were willing to administer 450 volts of electricity, hearing the subjects screaming in another room–all because an authority told them it was all right to do so. Milgram concluded that people will be hateful to others if an authority says it’s all right.

It’s hard to dispute his findings. Every war that has ever been fought since the dawn of time has been waged under the banner of some kind of authority such as a political or religious leader or a religious or political document. The Bible has been used by Christians as a reason to burn witches and go on Crusades. The Koran is now being used by some Muslims to justify beheadings.

However, I have always believed there was something missing from Milgram’s conclusion. While a majority of his subjects were willing to administer shocks, many of them were not. A large number of Germans joined the Nazi movement and were seemingly eager to exterminate Jews, but many were not part of that movement. Some Muslims seem to enjoy beheading people, but the vast majority of Muslims around the world are just as horrified by this phenomenon as the rest of us.

Therefore the motivation to do harm to others comes not only from obedience to authority, but also has to do with something else. And that something else has to do with the amount of unconscious anger people have inside them.

There was a reason why so many Germans were willing to follow a madman like Hitler. The German’s were in a depression. They had lost World War I and had been punished severely for the loss. The whole country felt angry and resentful. Hitler gave them a chance to immediately restore their sense of balance by stroking German pride and giving them permission to kick some ass.

Similarly, those terrorists who are doing the beheading, who were probably all seemingly regular and normal people of their society a few years ago, are now emboldened with a “holier than thou” attitude, a self-righteous rage, that makes them more than willing to listen to leaders who tell them to behead people. The Quran contains 109 verses that exhort Muslims to violence against infidels, including phrases about chopping off heads and fingers. These verses are usually vague, and most members of the Islam faith do not interpret them as being literal. Radical leaders interpret such verses as Allah encouraging his followers to exterminate infidels, and a sizable number of followers, who have an unconscious rage that was there all along, are eager to behead.

Islam is a very rigid religion, often demanding that its followers pray four or five times a day in a kneeling position and strictly control their thoughts, emotions and desires. This, I believe, can be oppressive. In the meantime, they have grown up first hearing about and then seeing for themselves the way in which Westerners indulge themselves in all kinds of ways such as buying expensive houses, cars, and gadgets, lounging on beaches, taking drugs, disregarding religion, demanding their rights, and filling their computers with porn.

The contrast between the lives of Westerners and that of the typical member of Islam breeds resentment and anger. They see us indulging ourselves and hate us for doing what they are forbidden to do. And as we have become a world dominated by the internet, anything anyone does in one country can easily be seen by those in another country.

President Obama made a good point when he noted, in a speech last week, that Christians have also been known to commit crimes against humanity. The more we can look at our own dark past, the better we can understand present-day terrorists.

But understanding it doesn’t mean forgiving it. No matter when or how it happens, in the past or in the present, whether we do it or they do it–if the human race is to survive and endure, man’s cruelty to man must never be tolerated.

Why Do People Behead People?

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2015). Why Do People Behead People?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 26, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Feb 2015
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