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.