"What they do is behead Americans so they can get on the TV screens," President George W. Bush said Thursday. "And they're trying to shake our will and they're trying to shake the Iraqis' will."
That much is certain. But behind the mix of brutality, adeptly produced video and a free global distribution system, the militants are tapping into a network of fears many centuries old — and blending the ancient with the modern to create a freshly powerful method of communication.
Since journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded on video in Pakistan in 2002, the taped decapitation of kidnapped Westerners has become a staple of post-Sept. 11 shock value.
The past week in Iraq has been particularly striking. Two Americans and a Briton were abducted from their Baghdad home last week, and the Americans were beheaded and their slayings shown on graphic videos posted on the Internet. The Briton was shown in a video Wednesday
And in a departure from ancient practice — when executioners were usually hired hands — at least one of this week's beheadings was carried out personally by a hooded, the al Qaeda-linked militant who has spearheaded the insurgency in Iraq.
"The fate of the first infidel was cutting off the head before your eyes and ears," an al-Zarqawi follower said on tape after American civil engineerwas decapitated.
Then, on Thursday, a militant group claimed in a Web posting thatin Iraq had also been beheaded. No video evidence immediately surfaced, and neither claim could be verified.
Commentary from American news outlets has focused on the primitiveness of the execution method ("Butchers," said the New York Post; "Savages," said the New York Daily News). But the videos themselves — complete with full-motion graphics and scene fades — exude sophistication.
Some describe the beheading imagery as careful symbolism that's designed to appear primitive — and thus enhance the militants' credibility by placing them closer to Islam's roots when, one scholar says, "the sole way of fighting was the sword."
"In reality, they don't fight the Americans with knives. They fight them with explosions and guns," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic militants at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"But in the face of the camera, they play this traditional Islam — or what they consider the original Islam," he said. "They want to confirm they are in the same war that the prophet and the first Muslims were fighting."
That notion plays not only to the West but to young Muslims who could be recruited for the militants' cause — if they see evidence that the insurgency is strong and pure.
"They're issuing a message that's supposed to go to several different audiences at once. And it's working," said Jonathan Mendilow, a former press officer for the city of Jerusalem who now teaches courses about terrorism at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Decapitation, official and otherwise, has a lengthy and continuing history in the Islamic world. It remains a chief method of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia, where three security guards were beheaded this month after being convicted of drug trafficking.
But in most of the West today, the act conjures medieval chaos and disfiguring brutality that transcends the act of murder.
The Romans cut off heads, and John the Baptist's delivered on a silver platter stands as one of the New Testament's more lurid tales. Medieval England made it a semi-regular practice, from Henry VIII's executions of wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard to the beheadings of Charles I and Mary Queen of Scots.
And France, during its revolution, elevated the guillotine to an execution machine designed to be more humane and efficient than previous methods — and abolished it only a generation ago.
Today's videos from Iraq, which include disoriented hostages forced to hole up with their captors for days while blindfolded to ponder their imminent doom, push the terror quotient even higher.
"You are living with your executioner, who's having pictures taken both before, during and after the beheading. That increases the horror," says Daniel Gerould, author of the 1992 book "Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore."
When media-age Americans have encountered graphic death, it has a history of resonating in the culture.
One of journalism's most notorious photos remains that of Ruth Snyder, executed in New York's electric chair in 1928. A reporter with a camera strapped to his leg snapped the shot, and the image of her death — on the cover of the New York Daily News the next morning — caused months of sensation and recriminations.
And in 1968, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams' picture of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting a Viet Cong captive in the head became one of the war's most memorable images.
But the recent beheadings touch a place deep inside that nothing else does. In Baghdad, a random sampling of residents Thursday produced people uniformly taken aback by the decapitations.
"These terrorists are killing their hostages in this drastic manner because they want to anger people and turn them against Islam," said Ali Hussein, a Baghdad calligrapher.
What's next? To cultural critic Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie," the producers of the Iraq beheading videos are evolving into a bizarre permutation of "content providers" for an Internet audience.
"You're always upping the ante — whether it's movies, television or the Internet," Gabler said. "We're living in an endless game of `Can you top this?'. And human imagination is the only limitation to where this goes."