The Islamic State buys itself a day of horror, little else, by killing James Foley
By uploading a video of its execution of journalist James Foley to the Web on Tuesday, the Islamic State achieves the impossible: It re-executes him every time somebody presses play.
The horror of perpetual re-execution was obviously the Islamic State’s goal. Nobody with a soul—knowing what’s coming—can listen to Foley’s speech without their hearts going full-throttle and shuddering at the murderous climax. For its troubles, the Islamic State has gotten a sliver of what it wants today. The story dominates the news. The video has become available on every desktop, laptop, and smartphone in the world. People are beseeching one another not to link to the video. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has announced the suspension of accounts that tweet the graphic images, and the New York Post and Daily News are suffering a boatload of criticism for printing screen-grabs of the murder on their morning covers.
And yet, video-beheading seems to be a strategy to nowhere. Al Qaeda attempted similar contamination of our dream pools more than a decade ago with its 2002 video killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, which was also disseminated on the Web. Like the Islamic State video, which proclaimed it was a “message to America,” Al Qaeda’s video was designed to deter the U.S. government from continuing to intervene in Iraq and to shift American public opinion. But had the Al Qaeda strategy been successful, the United States wouldn’t be bombing in northern Iraq today. More likely, the videos, which our Western eyes tell us are staged for our benefit, are really aimed at the video-makers’ constituents to attract maximum attention, showcase the groups’ power, attract recruits, and build cadres – all things that the video may actually do.
As the Washington Post notes today, Islamist groups have been videoing beheadings in a dramatic way since 1996, when one took Russian soldier Yevgeny Rodionov prisoner during the Chechen War and documented his murder. In 2004, American businessman Nicholas Berg was beheaded on tape after being grabbed in Iraq. In each instance, the slayings dominated the news and the Web for a couple of cycles, and the horror had then subsided. But graphic killings have yet to sway any country’s policy or public opinion in a meaningful way. It’s no consolation to the friends and family of Foley, but like our exposure to other atrocities, we have a way of normalizing the videos and compartmentalizing our revulsion. The Islamic State’s threat to kill another American journalist held captive, Steven Sotloff, unless President Barack Obama takes the right “steps,” won’t deliver the results the organization seeks.
The killing of an innocent reporter violates what many of us would call an unwritten social contract stipulating that journalists deserve protection because they’re witnesses to history, not state actors. This unwritten contract, while often observed, has also been ignored. In his history of war reporting, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley writes of the “nasty condition attached to being a neutral correspondent accredited to the British army” during World War I. “If the correspondent later reported from the German side and was captured by the British, he would be summarily executed as a spy.” The Germans followed this example, he continues.
There are other notable occasions in contemporary times when the social contract collapsed and Western reporters were deliberately killed by soldiers — not just caught in a crossfire. During the spring 1970 invasion of Cambodia by the United States, two dozen reporters, including several Japanese, were taken prisoner by either the Khmer Rouge or the Viet Cong and never found again, presumably killed as spies or for being reporters. In 1979, ABC News reporter Bill Stewart was executed at a Nicaraguan army checkpoint. Although the video was blurry and taken from a distance, news organizations did not suppress it. Walter Cronkite ran it on The CBS Evening News.
The old framework, in which reporters are generally tolerated, may be coming to an end, especially on the Syria, Iraq, and Libya battlegrounds. As the New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson writes today, “Yesterday’s guerrillas have given way to terrorists, and now terrorists have given way to this new band [from the Islamic State], who are something like serial killers.” Serial killers tend to reject social contracts.
As we mourn Foley’s death, we need also acknowledge how routine the killing of reporters has become world-wide, and not just on the war-front. According to statistics compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 706 reporters have been murdered since 1992, and only 25 percent of them while covering a war. The remainder was assigned to other beats — crime, corruption, politics, human rights, and the like. Of the total dead, 94 percent weren’t foreign correspondents, they were local reporters.
Journalists make huge sacrifices every day by reporting from the edge. A century ago, when a young reporter asked the New York Evening World ‘s legendary reporter Charles Chapin what to do while he was covering a fire, Chapin had a quick answer. “Go pick the hottest place and jump into it.” That’s what real reporters do. That’s what James Foley did.
Mathew Ingram of Gigaom explores the decisions by Twitter and YouTube to delete the Foley images from the Web. Send tips to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Watch my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: A sign outside a shop remembers James Foley in his hometown of Rochester, New Hampshire August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder