The videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley earlier this week by Islamic militants rattled the most powerful man in the world. A “visibly angry” and appalled President Obama said that the action “shocks the conscience of the entire world” and vowed that those responsible would be brought to justice.

The killing was retribution for American airstrikes against the rebel group ISIS, though The New York Times reported that his abductors had previously demanded a multimillion dollar ransom.

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Though the United States has paid ransom to terrorists under previous administrations – even helping arrange a $300,000 payment to a bin Laden-affiliated terrorist group in a failed 2002 attempt to secure the release of two American missionaries — the Obama administration refused to do so in this case, likely for fear of setting an example.

A History of Beheading

The idea of execution by decapitation is horrific, though for millennia public beheadings around the world were fairly common. Beheadings were at one point a popular public spectacle — as were hangings. The French guillotine allowed huge crowds to see justice meted out during the French revolution.

It’s only in modern times that cutting a person’s head off has come to be considered barbaric. In centuries past beheading was actually preferable to other forms of execution — such as being burned alive or disemboweled. In early England beheading was considered a noble, and even honorable, death. Historian Geoffrey Abbott, in his “Book of Execution,” notes:

“This method of execution, rather than that of hanging, was actually granted as a privilege to those of noble birth, death by cold steel being considered more honorable, akin to being slain on the battlefield … the ‘heading axe’ as it was called, was little more than a blunt primitive chopper which crushed its way through the flesh and vertebrae of the victim as he or she knelt over the block. Death did not always come quickly. The executioner was not noted for his expertise or his sobriety, and the axe was heavy and unwieldy, so ill balanced that it had a tendency to twist in his hands as it descended.”

Horrifically, it sometimes took more than one blow to finish the job — in some cases three or more. One of the most feared and hated men in England in the late 1600s was Jack Ketch, an infamously incompetent executioner whose barbarous and botched beheadings became notorious throughout Europe.

Why Beheadings?

As death penalty opponents have noted, there is no clean, painless or humane way to kill a person. Even with modern drug cocktails designed to bring a swift painless death by lethal injection, things often go awry.

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Still, some methods of execution are faster and cleaner than others. Foley’s captors didn’t just want to kill him, they wanted to kill him in a most gruesome way and record it as a warning. There are far less gruesome ways to kill a person, but few things make a greater impression on the public than seeing a severed head. The goal is to instill fear and send a message that they mean business, and that their demands must be met.

One need not travel to the Middle East to find the practice of beheading. In fact the United States shares a border with a country where dozens of people have been decapitated in just the past few years. Mexican criminal organizations including the drug gang Zeta routinely decapitate and dismember their victims. Headless bodies are sometimes found hanging from public places, including highway overpasses and bridges. Sometimes their hands or feet are cut off as well. Just last year four women caught up in the drug wars were killed by masked gunmen. Not only were they beheaded, but their killing was recorded on videotape and made available online, just as Foley’s murder was.

According to a McClatchy Newspapers report:

“Decapitations by drug cartels in Mexico first began in 2006, and that year armed thugs swaggered onto the white tile dance floor of the Sol y Sombra discotheque in Uruapan, a town in Michoacan state, and dumped five heads from plastic garbage bags.

 The blood-curdling act shocked Mexico, and evoked images of Islamic terrorism half a world away.

 ‘These guys are copying the methods of al Qaida (terrorists),’ said Jorge Chabat, a criminal justice expert at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics in Mexico City. He said the Mexican drug lords saw Internet video of beheadings of hostages captured by Muslim extremists in Iraq and Pakistan, and adopted the tactic themselves, down to the posting of video on the internet.”

These Mexican beheadings, of course, do not draw the same international attention and outrage that a kidnapped American journalist does, especially when his death is used as a political act in the Middle East.

Hundreds of years ago severed heads were placed at the entrances to cities as a warning to visitors that crime would not be tolerated. Today the beheadings are a warning to authorities — by criminals and terrorists — that their interference will not be tolerated.