It’s telling that the barbarian who beheaded the American journalist James Foley kept his face hidden behind his black headdress.
In what was essentially a gruesome snuff film posted online on Tuesday, the masked man stood over a kneeling Foley in a desert landscape. He said the execution was in retaliation for American airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that’s a major combatant in Syria’s civil war and of late has captured significant swaths of Iraq. In his cowardice — the essence of any act of terror — Foley’s butcher hid behind the anonymity of his keffiyeh — a stark contrast to the courage represented by reporters like Foley.
Foley was a freelance journalist covering the Syrian civil war for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse when he was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012 by ISIS militants. His family fought endlessly for his release. (On Wednesday, it was reported that the Pentagon launched a commando raid — unsuccessfully — earlier this summer against the terrorists in northern Syria to free Foley and other hostages. It was also reported that ISIS had demanded a ransom of several million dollars from the U.S. government for Foley’s freedom.) The family’s desperation was understandable. Mainstream Islamic organizations here and abroad have condemned ISIS’s extremism; President Obama accused its militants of having “rampaged across cities and villages, killing unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence.” Foley, sadly, became just another one of its victims.
Reporting on war has always been a dangerous job. And the death of one journalist clearly can’t compare with the deprivation, destruction and wholesale slaughter the people of Iraq and Syria have suffered. But the point is that Foley chose to be in Syria, that he committed himself, regardless of the risk, to turning our eyes to the hardships of its citizens. And it’s a job that daily becomes more deadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that the number of journalists killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the changing nature of war. Most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. By the CPJ’s calculations, Syria has become the most dangerous country for reporters; at least 70 have been killed covering the conflict — which has raged for over three years — and more than 80 kidnapped.
So why should you care if journalists are themselves becoming targets? Because democracy only works with an informed electorate. Without the free flow of information, we risk being reduced to a mob mentality. And that includes information from the rest of the world. The increasing globalization of our society means that what used to be an isolated event — say, the conflict in Ukraine — now affects everything from the New York Stock Exchange index to the cost of our gasoline at the pump. Knowledge matters.
Collecting and disseminating information: that’s all Foley was trying to do. And he paid for it with his life. As the CPJ said in a statement: “Foley went to Syria to show the plight of the Syrian people, to bear witness to their fight, and in so doing to fight for press freedom.”
As a former foreign correspondent who worked in war zones in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, I take this all very seriously. And personally: my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central America. He and a young freelance photographer, Richard Cross, were driving on a road that straddled the Honduran-Nicaraguan border when their car went over an anti-tank mine. The explosion was tremendous. The force of it shot the car into the air, then split the body in half; the motor, blown out of the chassis, was found a football-field away. Dial and Richard were killed instantly.
I never discovered the identity of their murderers. That they were murdered, however, is indisputable: dozens of vehicles passed along the same desolate stretch of road on that day without setting off the explosives. That’s because the mines were command-detonated; someone with a clear view of the cars had to pull a trigger or push a button. Like Foley’s assassins, they hid behind anonymity in their cowardice. Like Foley’s assassins, they intended to silence their critics through fear and intimidation.
Like Foley’s assassins, they did not succeed — and they never will.