Sometime last week, James Foley, an American free-lance journalist, was beheaded by a masked individual who claimed to belong to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This was a moral and political atrocity, requiring frank talk about the appropriate response. But it was also an attempt at visual persuasion: ISIL communicated the killing in a carefully produced YouTube video that condemned President Obama’s decision to bomb their advancing forces. The group had a message. Foley was murdered to ensure that it was heard.
I watched the video on my iPhone – which is to say, I saw little and heard nothing at all. (I pieced together my description from a transcript as much as from what I saw.) President Obama was shown saying that US power would be used to contain ISIL in Iraq. Video followed of a smart bomb blowing up what was presumably an ISIL vehicle. Foley, in a prison-orange gown, on his knees, was then forced to make an anti-US statement. “I guess all in all I wish I wasn’t American,” he concluded, tragically, yet from what I could see without much emotion. His killer stood behind him, dressed in black and waving a knife. “Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny Muslims their right of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” he blustered in a British accent. Then he put his knife to Foley’s throat.
Beheading videos are a grisly tradition among insurgents in that part of the world. Al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor organization to ISIL, delighted in such productions under Abu Musa al Zarqawi. Because of my work, I viewed some of them at the time. I wanted to make sense of the message: what possible political advantage could AQI expect from their displays of savagery? They instilled fear, certainly. It gave the group a terrifying, gangster-like reputation. Mostly, however, the videos seemed to reflect nothing more substantial or strategic than Zarqawi’s bloodlust. I was not alone in this assessment: Ayman al Zawahiri, then Al Qaeda’s second in command, admonished Zarqawi in a captured letter that “scenes of slaughtering the hostages” would never be “palatable” to Muslims.
The last AQI video I could stomach showed a massacre of Nepalese workers, men totally innocent of the conflict in Iraq. One by one, they were in a very literal sense slaughtered by Zarqawi using a small knife. I was told by a Muslim colleague that this resembled the ritual sacrifice of animals during holy days. Not only had the Nepalese workers been terrorized and killed, in the process they were denied their humanity.
James Foley died in the same manner. In this case, the motive for murder was transparent. The killers, who wished to be considered “an Islamic army, and a state” rather than a gang of violent men, sought to frighten the US public and warn off further US military attacks by snuffing out an American life. In the dark mind of the ISIL zealot – personified by the ninja-clad, British-sounding assassin – the killing was tit for tat.
Predictably, the video of Foley’s beheading went viral on the information sphere. Just as predictably, a strong backlash resulted against showing such a repulsive act. By the time I got to my laptop, YouTube had taken down the video. The company had every right to do so. Foley’s family then requested that the public not watch, share, or use any images produced by ISIL. That was understandable. With regard to the beheading video, and excluding the usual mindless trolls, the public largely obliged.
But soon a digital frenzy ensued against showing any images of the video, anywhere. A campaign to “blackout” ISIL media by Twitter user “Hend” garnered immediate support. Feeling the pressure, Twitter agreed to cancel the accounts of users who posted images from the beheading video. A great deal of online rage was aimed at those, like the New York Post, that displayed Foley in his last minutes of life. With typical herd instinct, most of the news media engaged in self-censorship on the matter.
The reasons given were not devoid of merit, but sounded strangely out of tune with our informational reality. The beheading video was said to be propaganda for a murderous group – true enough, but it was unclear how looking away in horror would defeat or out-persuade the murderers. The images were out there, in any case. ISIL supporters were said to revel in them. The information sphere is irrevocable.
Respect for the feelings of family members was also offered as a reason for blocking images of Foley’s death. Twitter generalized this into a new policy regarding the removal of images of “deceased individuals” at the request of family members. It was a kindly meant but somewhat misguided gesture. The pain of loss, after all, is not in images but in the flesh and the heart. Death is the ultimate irrevocable. Murder, I should think, trumps insensitivity. Reality must be confronted and grappled with. It would have been a bizarre response to 9/11, if we had decided to ban the images of that horrible day.
In fact, a strange moral and political myopia afflicted the digital chatter about the murder of James Foley. A violent, disgusting act had been perpetrated, but most of the anger was directed at those who shared images of it. It was as if social media users cared only about social media – or worse: as if by blocking out pictures of the crime, we could somehow avoid dealing with a world that contained dangerous criminals.
For the record, I incline to the second explanation. The reflex to blot out shocking information, particularly of the visual kind, has been a well-documented trait of the elites.
At the time of Egypt’s bloody street revolt, state-owned TV ran footage of happy consumers in shopping malls. During violent police repression of anti-Erdogan protests in Turkey, CNN – owned by Erdogan allies – showed a documentary about penguins. A government report on the 2011 London riots concluded that the “single most important reason” for the disorders was “the perception, relayed by television as well as social media,” that police had lost control of the streets. In every case, the idea was that if the mediated images of unpleasant events were blocked, the reality of the latter would be nullified. This is not magical thinking, merely a throwback to an era when hierarchical institutions controlled the flow of information.
That era is long gone. I find myself perplexed to observe so many participants in social media – the unruly public, gifted amateurs who have broken the information monopoly of the institutions – grasping for the illusion of control.
We can’t give James Foley his life back, or wish ISIL out of existence, by closing our eyes to the moral horror of their collision. Instead, we should ponder the relationship between our current response and the next video: the next horror. We should gaze into the heart of darkness of that knife-wielding killer and his kind. They seem to think Americans can be stampeded by fear. To the extent that we treat images of their crimes as a reality too unbearably painful for us to behold or discuss or accept – to that extent exactly, I suspect, they will feed us more.