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 got a sliver of what it wants today. The story dominates the news. The video has become available on every desktop, laptop, and smartphone. People are beseeching one another not to link to the video. Twitter’s Dick Costolo has announced the suspension of accounts that tweet the graphic images, and the New York Post and Daily News are being criticised for printing screen-grabs of the murder on their covers.
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 US government from continuing to intervene in Iraq and to shift American public opinion. But, had the Al Qaeda strategy been successful, the US 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 to showcase the groups’ power, attract recruits, and build cadres — all things the video may actually do.
As the Washington Post noted, 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 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 normalising the videos and compartmentalising our revulsion.
The Islamic State’s threat to kill another American journalist held captive, Steven Sotloff, unless US president Barack Obama takes the right “steps”, won’t deliver the results the organisation 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 the First World War. “If the correspondent later reported from the German side and was captured by the British, he would be summarily executed as a spy,” he reported.
There are other notable occasions in contemporary times when the social contract collapsed and Western reporters were deliberately killed by soldiers. During the 1970 invasion of Cambodia by the US, two dozen reporters, including several Japanese, were captured by either the Khmer Rouge or the Viet Cong and never found again.
In 1979, ABC News reporter Bill Stewart was executed at a Nicaraguan army checkpoint. Although the video was blurry and taken from a distance, 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 worldwide, and not just on the warfront. According to statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 706 reporters have been murdered since 1992, and only 25% of them while covering a war. Of the total dead, 94% 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.