The Islamic State buys itself a day of horror, little else, by killing James Foley

August 20, 2014

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 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


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Kind of surprised that the killings of Australian journalists by the Indonesian military in 1975 (E. Timor) didn’t get into the article.

Posted by Solli | Report as abusive

I agree with the author, and add that ISIS beheading someone only makes me against them and stand with the FOley family.

ISIS threats of “drowning us in blood” in fact make me email President Obama and tell him “send the bombs and missiles”.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

Serial killers can’t effectively run governments – or caliphates for that matter. ISIS is literally and figuretively a dead end for everyone around them.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

Isis = cowards hiding behind masks. I will raise my glass to toast the day these vermin are bombed into oblivion.

Posted by somethingtosay | Report as abusive

I agree with Factoidz. What he said is exactly what I thought.
Killing a helpless unarmed journalist as a way to prove their might? I believe they have achieved the absolute opposite: show they can only harm the defenseless. Like they did the yazidis… Or the unarmed Christians they chased away from their homes…
The civilized world has to get rid of them before they spread…

Posted by separatornyc | Report as abusive

What they did accomplish is a wakeup call for people like myself. I am pretty much a moderate, not a war monger,
I am not a fan of the industrial-military complex either. What ISIS did turned me into a pro war advocate!
The conflict between Hamas and Israel also changed my mind. I was rather neutral in this conflict, not pro Israel.
I now understand how naive I was. Hamas is a terrorist group, sacrificing their own people with one goal only: Another Caliphate and another ISIS. Nice to have “friends” like the Saudis who have done absolutely NOTHING in this conflict.

Posted by Hermist | Report as abusive

We should pity the fighters and supporters of the Islamic state…they have no future in this life or the next. Nothing strengthens the resolve of a free nation like agreeing on who is the enemy.

Posted by Blackshirt | Report as abusive

The report fails to mention the “Maguindanao massacre” in the Philippines, wherein 34 journalists were killed in the performance of their duties in a single attack. Dubbed by the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as “the single deadliest event for journalists in history”.

Posted by global2 | Report as abusive

The Islamic State didn’t expect to gain anything from the U.S. It was just for propaganda purposes to show how “Bad” they really are. Well, they are that “bad” and Obama is showing them how “bad” we can be. Like Jefferson with the Barbary Pirates of his administration in the early 19th Century, we don’t pay ransoms. We send in the Marines, or in this case the Navy Air Force.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Someone should explore why Islamic radicals are so certain that their religious beliefs are so entirely devoid of any rational thought or attraction that they could not convince anyone to join their faith through persuasion and must, instead, use threats of death. They have essentially conceded that their beliefs are without merit and could not persuade anyone, thus death threats are the only proselytizing tools that remain available to them. All radicalized Muslims seem to suffer from this lack of faith in their own faith (well, the Koran itself also recommends death threats as a proselytizing tool, but one would hope that that is not their first go-to option). Such weak faith in their own beliefs says a lot about these apparently faithless and cowardly murderers.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive

Unfortunately words alone are not going to stop ISIS. The outrage over Foley’s murder reminds me of the day after 9/11/2001 when the US had the resolve to find and kill every one of these vermin in Afghanistan. Now 13 years and 2341 US deaths and 453 UK deaths later there is a new threat from ISIS that I don’t see the rest of the world has the stomach to fight. The US is war weary and unless there is a new push from some other government, ISIS is going to grow because nobody else in the region can organize an effort to stop them.

Posted by weather3014 | Report as abusive

Where do all these gangsters (ISIS, HEZBOALLAH, HAMAS) get the money to finance all of this? That is the agenda…..Because that is where the bombs should go.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Homo Islamicus: Kill ’em all!

Posted by bsc111 | Report as abusive

Where the money comes from was reported on the news today. While the US does not pay ransom, the EU countries fold instantly and pay up big time. Of course, France is the largest payer; Spain is second. Also paying up to these scum are: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy…and the list goes on. A quick one-day search by NPR found out that over $125 million euros was paid out in just the last year to radical islamist terrorist organizations by our cowardly “allies.” They — our own allies — are financing these murderers. So, don’t hold your breath that they will ever muster any backbone to confront them on the battlefield. It may seem radical today, but our children should be prepared for a world with an Islamist state covering the Middle East, much of Africa and all of Europe, some Asian democracies holding their own against the hordes, China remaining somewhat civilized though communist, Russia holding out brutally against them, and the U.S. not giving an inch. And, of course, our tough Australian comrades will fight them the most ferociously. But the world is going to look very different in the future. And the threat we face today from these murderers will look quaint in comparison.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive

A relevant haiku:

Rude to interrupt
Obama’s golf vacation.
Beheading Foley.

Posted by Beefbone | Report as abusive

Obama was so appalled by this he immediately went for another round of golf.

Posted by retired_sandman | Report as abusive

Except this president doesn’t see them as worse than his country.

Posted by Quek | Report as abusive


“the EU countries fold instantly and pay up big time.”

The United Kingdom is a member of the European Union.
We do not pay ransoms.

Posted by bumpmad | Report as abusive

@bumpmad: Sorry about that! You are quite right. The Brits are as tough as our Australian allies — neither pay ransom (and both can be depended on in a battle). We will have to watch each others’ backs, because a large part of the rest of the Western world don’t seem to get the existential threat.

Posted by Welred | Report as abusive

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Posted by The Islamic State buys itself a day of horror, little else, by killing James Foley | Broward County, Florida, USA | Report as abusive