It was an act of revenge. Hours after news emerged that the jihadists of the Islamic State had burned alive captured Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, the Jordanian government responded by hanging two people.

Both Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli were convicted terrorists, languishing in Jordanian prison. Their release had been demanded by the Islamic State during what proved to be futile negotiations with Amman as it attempted to rescue Kaseasbeh and a Japanese journalist held by the extremists, who was later beheaded.

The executions underscore the darkness of the moment. Jordan lifted an eight-year moratorium on capital punishment in December, in part as a response to growing public demands for tougher measures to deal with crime. Jordanian authorities hanged 11 men convicted of murder on Dec. 21.

Rishawi was a failed suicide bomber with ties to al-Qaeda's chapter in Iraq. In 2005, during a shocking triple-bomb attack in Amman, her explosive laden vest did not detonate. She had been in jail on Death Row ever since. Despite being identified by the Islamic State as a prisoner for exchange, she played no active role in the organization's decisions to brutally murder its captives or, for that matter, in anything else the Islamic State has done during a horrifying year of carnage. The same can be said for Karbouli, another detained al-Qaeda operative.


A Palestinian holds a poster with a picture of slain Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh during a demonstration Wednesday in front of the Jordanian Embassy in the West Bank City of Ramallah. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Jordan's response to the Islamic State's latest provocation is not limited to these executions. The country's military has vowed an "earth-shattering" retaliation; the United States has stepped up financial assistance to the kingdom, in part to help further modernize its armed forces. The slain pilot's father told reporters he wants the militant group "to be eliminated completely."

But the question remains, what purpose did hanging these two convicts -- bargaining chips that clearly didn't matter much to the Islamic State -- serve? The pair were already on death row and had gone through the Jordanian legal system. But the timing of the executions was beyond symbolic.

Was it a statement of intent from Amman? There are other ways a country's leadership can communicate its steely resolve. A warning to other extremist militants? They probably don't care. A fleeting catharsis for an angered public? Perhaps, but governments should not be in the business of pandering to such instincts.

"Jordan’s interests would still be better served by holding back and making a clear distinction between themselves and these criminals running around Syria," Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch's representative in Amman, told the New York Times on Wednesday. "Today it’s hard to make that argument. People are calling for vengeance."

The impulse is also on view in Pakistan. After the horrifying Taliban assault on a school in the city Peshawar last December, an embattled and bewildered government started immediately hanging suspected terrorists in the country's jails. It's unclear what this achieved. The Taliban have not been deterred; just this week, a school in the coastal city of Karachi was attacked with grenades by suspected militants.

Indeed, the argument can be made that carrying out these executions is exactly what the Islamic State, which some observers now describe as a "mass death cult," wanted Jordan to do. The conflict in Iraq and Syria has been defined by the jihadists' grisly violence: online videos of beheadings, stonings and mass executions have shocked everyone and spurred the United States to embark on a bombing campaign against the Islamic State, with Jordan as one of its partners.

As the Post's Philip Kennicott cogently writes, the Islamic State's "atavistic brutalities" makes us "see the world through an iron-age filter." Their barbarism summons the cold, moral calculations of a primeval time, as Kennicott explains:

By reenacting the appalling excesses of what we would call biblical violence in the modern world, it has issued us an invitation, a chance to return to what it posits as the basic moral condition governing all men. It is a family reunion of sorts, a chance to relive the fratricides and infantacides and genocides that give our shared religious narratives their bloody vigor, a chance to live together under the most blunt and unimaginative law ever promulgated: An eye for an eye.