Journalists who report from war zones recognize the danger of becoming “collateral damage” of conflict. It’s a risk they choose to take because they believe it is important for the world to get a more complete picture of what’s happening.
That was freelance photojournalist James Foley’s goal in reporting on the civil war in Syria before his disappearance in November 2012. The American turned up this week – in a gruesome YouTube video showing him being beheaded by an Islamic State militant. All who value the free flow of information and the courage of those dedicated to it should mourn this man’s death.
The pretext for the barbaric act was retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the IS, an ultra-extremist offshoot of al-Qaida that has taken over parts of Syria and Iraq. But, in truth, the IS needs no excuse; it’s murdered untold numbers of innocent people for such “crimes” as not being the right kind of Muslim or refusing to convent to Islam.
The IS also threatens to kill another U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff, unless the airstrike end. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that about 20 other foreign journalists abducted in Syria remain missing. It is unknown how many are in IS hands.
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Clearly, the United States cannot base its foreign policy decisions on whether or not they will result in journalists’ deaths. It can, however, use its resources to track down killers and try to locate hostages. If the airstrikes weaken IS or help hasten its demise, all the better.
Besides the cruel way in which Foley was murdered, the IS video of his death is unsettling for another reason: The killer spoke with a British accent that a linguist believes reveals him to be from the London area.
It’s well known that many citizens from Britain, Europe, the United States and other Western nations have joined the IS; some estimates put the number at about 1,300. Using a Briton to kill Foley is likely meant to underscore the IS’s threat to take its jihad to its fighters’ home countries. Not needing a passport or visa to enter the United States, these brainwashed, militarized fighters pose a particular threat to homeland security.
As much as the United States wants to avoid deeper involvement in the region, it has to decide when to fight the IS: now, before it establishes a caliphate as a base for exporting terrorism, or later, after it has. Foley’s brutal murder – and its not-so-subtly implied threat – may help clarify that choice.