Editorial: Journalist’s death must be confronted
New Hampshire native James Foley was executed this week, apparently by members of the Islamic State militant group.
His killers used social media to spread video and images of their latest affront to humanity, and those whom the terrorists most hoped to terrorize did the rest of the work.
They talked about Foley and how he died. They vowed to celebrate his life rather than focus on the details of his death. They tried to disarm the terrorists by admonishing those who shared gruesome images on Twitter and Facebook.
All of these efforts, as well-meaning as they were, helped the killers use fear and repulsion to extend their reach across continents. The terrorists wanted the world to focus on the manner of death. They banked on the fact that even the war-weary American public retained its ability to be shocked at the brutality of war. And they were right.
Last month, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst named Aki Peritz wrote an article for the Washington Post headlined, “I watched all the terrorist beheadings for the U.S. government, and here’s what I learned.”
“The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” he wrote, “is, among other things, a social media powerhouse. The group skillfully exploits platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, among others, to promulgate many gut-churning images and videos of its war against Shiites and the Iraqi government broadly. . . . As appalling as these examples are, ISIS is merely following a decade-old playbook.”
If the terrorists are as sophisticated as Peritz suggests, its social media team would know that most people will try very hard to avoid seeing images or video of the execution. The Islamic State probably also predicted that the American public’s social media counterattack would largely involve photos of the smiling journalist with some variation of the caption: “This is how I choose to remember James Foley.”
But that’s not how most Americans will remember Foley, and the terrorists know that. They know that images of this particular act of evil will exist even for those who never laid eyes on them, because that’s how the mind works. That is how horror works. People will imagine what they refuse to see.
Foley, like every journalist drawn to the battlefield, understood that in order to tell the stories he believed needed to be told, he would have to put his life on the line. He also knew that he could be taken captive in Syria because he had already been taken once before, in Libya in 2011.
As consumers of news and information, the American public should understand how important it is that there are people willing to take such risks. Yet that doesn’t make it any easier to accept the worst-case scenario.
But that is what must happen. The only way to legitimately battle horror is to confront it. That begins with acceptance that when anybody enters a war zone, evil awaits and lives will be lost, sometimes in unthinkable ways. Civilians will die, too. Tens of thousands of Syrians have already done so.
It was reported that Foley was fond of one particular quote from military theorist Carl von Clausewitz: “War is fought by human beings.” The sentiment is simple and true, so why is there so much outrage and disbelief when people die in war?
Why does the manner of death even matter when the end result is the same?
Why is there any shock at all over what happened to James Foley?
When horror is removed from the equation, what is left is a group of terrorists adept at using psychological warfare and a brave photojournalist who gave his life to make sure that the geographical remoteness of war did not blunt understanding of its brutality. Foley’s final dispatch – and perhaps his most powerful statement on the true nature of war and man’s inhumanity to man – was his own death.
Now is not the time for America to avert its eyes.