Don’t Watch James Foley’s Execution Video


I know what you will see, should you choose to watch the video of the execution of James Foley, a photojournalist for the GlobalPost who was abducted in Syria in November 2012. You will see Foley, head shaved and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling on a sand dune in front of his captor. You will see Foley in his final minutes forced to give a speech to the camera denouncing Americans. You will see the masked man brandish a knife and tell the camera, in a murky British accent, that “any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights to live in safety under the Islamic Caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” before summarily butchering Foley. You will see the same executioner hold another American to the camera and threaten his life. You will see someone die.

James Foley was, by all accounts, an upstanding son, brother, and human, as well as a brave and dedicated journalist. The film of his death is calculated to inspire fear and abhorrence. It is part propaganda and part weapon. But perhaps the most sickening part of the video is that it is made for your consumption. It has subtitles; it has production values. It was made to be passed around on social media, to be linked to and shared and gasped at. They have packaged a man’s death for your entertainment. To watch the video is to bear witness to inexcusable violence, and it is to fall into the trap that ISIS has set. You are meant to be shocked into the moral equation that they have determined operates the world, the terrifying and false clarity of us vs. them.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl died under similar circumstances in 2002, beheaded in front of a camera as a message to Americans, an uproar about the video of his death ensued. Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich posted a link to the video on his site in order to galvanize his readers against the perpetrators, and determined that the Government’s choice not to publicize the images as “nothing less than an act of shame.” Even then, it made little sense—what American has ambivalent views towards acts of terror like this? None of us living post-9/11 are ignorant of what terrorism looks like.

But 2002 was a time before the reign of social media, when images and videos did not automatically embed in your timelines, unbidden. It is harder in 2014 to opt out of watching Foley’s death when it begins to play automatically in front of you when you open your computer, or when stills of the video appear on the covers of the New York Post and Daily News. (My heart went out to the photo editors and journalists forced to watch the video as part of their jobs, the people who had to take stills and blur out the images of Foley’s body at the bidding of their employers. You can’t help but think that if Foley had been a reporter of either tabloid, the covers would have turned out differently.) In the aftermath of the video’s release, the circulation of the grisly stills was immediately followed by a backlash asking for a blackout of the video, for media to cease reporting on ISIS activities. YouTube yanked the video of Foley’s death, and Twitter began freezing accounts that shared the disturbing images.

Removing an image or video from the Internet is impossible, an endless game of whac-a-mole. A blackout on information on ISIS, and even on this video is an impossible feat. Nor do I believe that it is desirable to eliminate the video. It is part of the historic record, perhaps to someone it will have value as a way of preventing similar barbarity. But I do not believe it should be compulsory viewing, either. It should be something that you have to seek out to see, not something that is automatically included in the newsreel. What is called for in this situation is the stuff that we have precious little of, which is tact, compassion, and caution.

The intent of the ISIS video is to strip James Foley of his humanity, to turn him into a symbol. It is an act that Foley’s own work was dedicated to combatting, reflected in the Carl von Clausewitz quote he chose as a subtitle for his blog: “War is fought by human beings.” We can pay tribute to him best by refusing to participate in the twisted one-act play, this allegory that his killers have scripted for us. He may have been killed because he was an American or a journalist, but his death is not a blow against just those groups—it is an affront to every single one of us.

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.


  1. When I saw the stills last night, I truly felt nauseous and was on the edge of retching right by my desk. These barbarians make it so easy to hate them, and that’s just what they want. They want us to send in soldiers so they can try their hardest to kill them and/or become martyrs.

    It’s just so hard for me to understand how systematic killing and destruction can be a tenet of any culture or belief system. How did things sink this low? How did Americans become such great enemies of this extreme form of Islam? For the Islamic State it’s not “thou shalt not kill,” it’s “to ensure your place beside Allah and Muhammad, you must cleanse the world of infidels.”

    • I didn’t actually–I read a transcript of the video. And I’m pretty clearly not saying that anyone should be denied the choice to watch it. Just that it should be a choice, and not something that automatically plays on your newsfeed.

  2. I’ve been wrestling with this issue since the news broke. I agree, we should not accept the script that ISIS has written for us. But something in my gut is pulling me towards the video; it’s something wholly distinct from any bloodlust or sick wonderment at human atrocity, which disturbingly seems to be a draw for some in our society where fantasy so easily blends into reality… rather, it’s more rooted I think in a sense of duty, a feeling that it could have been me kneeling in that sun-scorched desert waiting for a fanatic to start slicing into my neck and remove my head, and, therefore, I owe it to this poor journalist to watch every second of what was done to him. Otherwise, I’m somehow burying my head in the sand and ignoring what’s really going on in the world.

    In the end, whether I watch it or not doesn’t change the fact that these Muslims savages need to be stopped. I get it, they’re a minuscule number compared to the billions of Muslims in the world, and their version of Islam is apparently a perversion of the religion. But can’t we identify evil any more in this morally relativistic world? Can’t we just draw a line and say beheading prisoners is evil, full stop? Can’t we say “I get it, not all Muslims are terrorists, and horrible things have been done in other religions’ names and for the sake of other ideologies, but this sh#t is just unacceptable? And can’t we take the next logical step and, rather than wring our hands and wonder at the sort of environment that spawns these sorts of savages and fit their narrative into our own ideological framework, simply say that life is too short to abide these monsters, to tolerate them, to try to understand them? Isn’t it a moral imperative to rid the world of this sort of abject evil as quickly and forcefully as possible so that the rest of the world can see that humanity stands ready to guard civilization from amoral savagery?

    If not, I truly don’t understand morality and feel a sense of despondency knowing that men like Foley can have their heads lopped off and our enlightened world can’t objectively condemn such action and demand its eradication.

  3. I think the important point is made here, that Mr. Foley’s death was nothing more than a tool for use in a sad and objective. A political statement for the Facebook generation. The adaptability of the extremists to use our own culture and social media to disseminate terror is an ominous sign. Imagine the forces that will be mustered with this new-found propaganda stream.

    All it takes is for us to continue this game of cat and mouse with the extremists. The only solution is disengagement. Not isolationism, but merely restraint in our foreign policy.

    I have watched the full video and it is sickening. Less for the gore, of which there is little, and more for the smooth, CNN-style animations and packaging. The author is correct that you don’t need to watch it. A scripted event, leading to the death of a young man is what you will see and nothing more.

    You can’t reason with the dogma and superstition of religious fundamentalism. Until we evolve to consider all of humankind as inexorably linked and precious (and not just “the saved ” ones), we bear witness to this cycle of violence time and time again. A stronger world community is the answer, and not the ineffectual UN we have now, but a true union of nations.

  4. I watched it. Not watching it is okay and that’s your choice. But calling for people not to watch it… It’s shameful. Evil exists. People who want to remind themselves of it should see this video. I’m deeply, deeply disturbed and moved by this video. I’ve never watched anything like it. I’ve seen images of war and death before. But I felt like I needed to see this. I felt like I needed to know just what Americans will be up against if we don’t fight ISIS. I know now we should fight these people. This is evil. To call on people to ignore this video, and to allow ISIS to continue doing these things goes against everything in this world that is right and true.

  5. On the contrary, it should be mandatory for every American to see this video. It viscerally demonstrates the barbarism these militants are capable of, and may serve to galvanize Americans in the proper perspective in dealing with such lowlife. Why is it so important to isolate America from the realities of Muslim jihadist doctrine and tactics? To watch this video is not to “strip James Foley of his humanity, to turn him into a symbol,” as the author suggests. It’s elevating his death and his family’s loss by making it part of our social conscience and conversation. The video won’t inspire fear, it will evoke a justified rage and righteous incentive to exact retribution on Foley’s behalf.


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