The images of American photojournalist James Foley's murder of are so shocking that YouTube removed the video and Twitter is scrubbing the photos. But the grim scene is something all Americans should see.
Foley disappeared in November 2012 while covering the war in Syria for Agence France–Presse. His killing this week took place on a stark stage; barren, featureless sands under a brilliant sky. Foley is mockingly in orange, after the jumpsuits issued to terrorist detainees, his head shaved, appearing drawn and stoic. He and his black-clad, masked executioner read statements in English, directed to an American audience. Then follows the bloody deed itself, forceful, grotesque, brutal.
Terrorists have long combined violence with theater, to inspire the fear their name implies. And reporters were a critical part of the terror calculus; in order to entice coverage, bad guys gave the press dramatic story lines and compelling visuals. Journalists, nurtured in the culture of objectivity, went along with the game in the interests of the scoop. The terrorists of old would not have executed James Foley, it would have been bad for business.
However, the internet-age democratization of media has made reporters less important to terror groups. They have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. They publish webzines and produce sophisticated videos. They know their messages will get out whether a reporter is on hand or not. Journalists in war zones are now simply hostages waiting to be taken.
The event that most prominently marked this deadly transition was the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Pearl was working under the old rules, understanding the risks but hoping the fact that he was a member of the press would keep him alive. Since then things have grown worse. In 2002, 25 journalists were killed worldwide, 4 of them in the Middle East . Last year, the total was 77 killed globally, with 46 dying in the arc of countries from Pakistan to Mali.
Foley no doubt would have been happy to get the inside story on ISIS, as any journalist would. A movement that proudly posts videos of its followers slaughtering unarmed Iraqis lying in shallow ditches has nothing to hide; except of course the identity of Foley's cowardly executioner.
But ISIS had no use for Foley as a reporter, only as a U.S. citizen. In a final humiliation they forced him to read a statement addressed to his "friends, family, and loved ones" to "rise up against [his] real killers, the US government," and concluding "all in all I wish I wasn't American." The video also briefly shows captive American freelance journalist Steven Joel Sotloff, with a warning that his fate depends on Mr. Obama's next moves.
Foley's dramatic death was a media breakthrough for ISIS. There have been countless beheadings in Iraq and Syria in recent months and years, but this was the first one that became such a dominant news story. In part it was because Foley was an American, and also because he was a journalist.
But rather than censoring reports on this gruesome act, Americans should understand it as a direct expression of ISIS and its creed. Seeing Jim Foley's headless body resting on featureless sands, his bloody, shaved head placed near his folded hands, tells us all we need to know. ISIS sent a message. The only question is, what message the United States will send back.
James S. Robbins, author of The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
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