ISIS burned a man alive. White Americans did the same thing to thousands of Black people.
ISIS burned Muadh al Kasasbeh, a captured Jordanian fighter pilot, to death. They doused him with an accelerant. His captors set him on fire. Muadh al Kasasbeh desperately tried to put out the flames. ISIS recorded Muadh al Kasasbeh’s immolation, produced a video designed to intimidate their enemies, and then circulated it online.
ISIS’s burning alive of Muadh al Kasasbeh has been denounced as an act of savagery, barbarism, and wanton cruelty—one from the “dark ages” and not of the modern world.
American Exceptionalism blinds those who share its gaze to uncomfortable facts and truths about their own country.
For almost a century, the United States practiced a unique cultural ritual that was as least as gruesome as the “medieval” punishments meted out by ISIS against its foes.
What is now known as “spectacular lynching” involved the ceremonial torture, murder—and yes, burning alive—of Black Americans by whites. Like ISIS’s use of digital media to circulate images of the torturous death of Muadh al Kasasbeh by fire, the spectacular lynchings of the Black body were shared via postcards and other media.
In fact, the burned to death images of the Black body were a form of mass culture in 19th and 20th century America.
This account of the horrific murder of Sam Hose by White Americans is an even more grotesque and exaggerated version of the cruelty visited upon Muadh al Kasasbeh by ISIS:
“The white-owned newspapers of the South had long gorged themselves with exaggerated or fabricated accounts of such violence. In the papers’ version, the fight between Sam Hose and his boss became transformed into the most enraging crime of all: the rape of the white man’s wife.”
White Georgians tracked Hose down and prepared for his lynching. Two thousand people gathered for the killing, some taking a special excursion train from Atlanta for the purpose. The leaders of the lynching stripped Hose, chained him to a tree, stacked wood around him, and soaked everything in kerosene. The mob cut off Hose’s ears, fingers and genitals; they peeled the skin from his face. They watched, a newspaper reported, ‘‘with un-feigning satisfaction’’ as the man’s veins ruptured from the heat and his blood hissed in the flames.
‘‘Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus,’’ were the only words Hose could manage. When he finally died, the crowd cut his heart and liver from his body, sharing the pieces among themselves, selling fragments of bone and tissue to those unable to attend. No one wore a disguise, no one was punished.
The murder of Jessie Washington is a genius work in white on Black violence, far worse than the wickedness of ISIS’s acts against Muadh al Kasasbeh:
“Great masses of humanity flew as swiftly as possible through the streets of the city in order to be present at the bridge when the hanging took place, but when it was learned that the Negro was being taken to the City Hall law, crowds of men, women and children turned and hastened to the lawn.
“On the way to the scene of the burning people on every hand took a hand in showing their feelings in the matter by striking the Negro with anything obtainable, some struck him with shovels, bricks, clubs, and others stabbed him and cut him until when he was strung up his body was a solid color of red, the blood of the many wounds inflicted covered him from head to foot.
“Dry goods boxes and all kinds of inflammable material were gathered, and it required but an instant to convert this into seething flames. When the Negro was first hoisted into the air his tongue protruded from his mouth and his face was besmeared with blood.
“Life was not extinct within the Negro’s body, although nearly so, when another chain was placed around his neck and thrown over the limb of a tree on the lawn, everybody trying to get to the Negro and have some part in his death. The infuriated mob then leaned the Negro, who was half alive and half dead, against the tree, he having just strength enough within his limbs to support him.
“As rapidly as possible the Negro was then jerked into the air at which a shout from thousands of throats went up on the morning air and dry goods boxes, excelsior, wood and every other article that would burn was then in evidence, appearing as if by magic. A huge dry goods box was then produced and filled to the top with all of the material that had been secured.
“The Negro’s body was swaying in the air, and all of the time a noise as of thousands was heard and the Negro’s body was lowered into the box. No sooner had his body touched the box than people pressed forward, each eager to be the first to light the fire, matches were touched to the inflammable material and as smoke rapidly rose in the air, such a demonstration as of people gone mad was never heard before. Everybody pressed closer to get souvenirs of the affair. When they had finished with the Negro his body was mutilated.
“Fingers, ears, pieces of clothing, toes and other parts of the Negro’s body were cut off by members of the mob that had crowded to the scene as if by magic when the word that the Negro had been taken in charge by the mob was heralded over the city. As the smoke rose to the heavens, the mass of people, numbering in the neighborhood of 10,000 crowding the City Hall law and overflowing the square, hanging from the windows of buildings, viewing the scene from the tops of buildings and trees, set up a shout that was heard blocks away.”
Many thousands of Black Americans were killed by white lynchers in the United States.
The spectacular lynching was a ceremony (it was not something random or spontaneous; the acts of a few out for Black blood possessed insane white people), with distinct practices, that symbolically purged the Black body from the white polity in an era of formal white supremacy:
“The actual process of lynching was morbid and incredibly violent. Lynching does not necessarily mean hanging. It often included humiliation, torture, burning, dismemberment and castration. Victims were beaten and whipped, many times in front of large crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Coal tar was frequently used to douse the unfortunate victim prior to setting him afire.”
Onlookers sometimes fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse while people cheered and children played during the festivities. Pieces of the corpse were taken by onlookers as souvenirs of the event. Such was the case when James Irwin was lynched on January 31, 1930. Irwin was accused of the murder of a white girl in the town of Ocilla, Georgia. Taken into custody by a rampaging mob, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers and finally he was castrated. It still wasn’t enough. Irwin was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers.
No one was ever punished for this barbaric killing. Black victims were hacked to death, dragged behind cars, burned, beaten, whipped, sometimes shot thousands of times, mutilated; the savagery was astonishing. How could ordinary people participate in such brutality?
The rendering of spectacular violence against non-whites paid a psychological wage to white people that helped to create a type of social cement for White America, one that covered up its own intra-group tensions of class, religion, and gender. This racial logic continues in the present with a racially discriminatory criminal justice system, the murder by police of Black and brown people, and how white Americans support such unfair treatment.
American politicians and other opinion leaders have denounced ISIS and the death by fire meted out to Muadh al Kasasbeh.
Would they apply the same standards to white Americans who committed mass violence against African-Americans through lynchings, racial pogroms, and other like deeds?
Would they support reparations as a material gesture of apology for such crimes?
Would white folks, on both sides of the ideological divide, condemn their ancestors who participated in such types of violence?
Will white America ever be willing to fully own its historic ISIS-like behavior against African-Americans and other people of color, and how such violence created the present, where neighborhoods are hyper-segregated, there exists a huge wage and income gap along the color line, and by almost every measure, Black and brown Americans have significantly diminished life chances relative to white people?
Violence is a human trait. ISIS’s burning alive of Muadh al Kasasbeh is an act of barbarism.
However, we cannot overlook how the United States has conducted master classes in violence and barbarism both before, during, and since its founding...and yes, much of this violence was against people of color whose labor, lives, land, and freedom were stolen to create American empire.
Chauncey DeVega, a pseudonym, is editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes. His essays on race, popular culture and politics have been published in various books and Web sites.
—Alternet, February 5, 2015