Tragic 'TV murder' must wake-up deluded Western liberals
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
For people with an aversion to modernity, Arab militants have always been enthusiastic early adopters of technology. It was Palestinians who briefly made the hijacking of airplanes the fashionable modus operandi for terrorists everywhere, and Al-Qaida who later changed planes from the target of bombs into explosive devices in their own right. Throughout the recent history of Islamist terror, however, the primary weapon of choice has always been television.
The real targets of any terrorist attack are never the people who die. The victims are merely collateral damage. The real target is the watching audience, firstly in the Middle East itself, where communities are starkly reminded what fate awaits them if movements such as the Islamic State hold sway, and where reporters have spoken of entire refugee camps emptying in an hour as rumours spread that Islamists are coming; but also, crucially, in the West, where viewers can watch events as they unfold, practically in real time, on their TV screens and laptops.
"Kill one, terrify a thousand," was the watchword of the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu. He was too modest. Now terrorists can kill one and terrify millions in their homes thousands of miles away.
The beheading of US photojournalist James Foley fits perfectly into that rationale. Killing him was brutal, but it was "just business", as the Mafia might say. It was those watching the murder subsequently who were the real target. His killers wanted to get inside the Western imagination and they did so last week with consummate skill.
I didn't watch the full video of Foley's death, but some years ago I did see footage of the killing of American hostage Nick Berg. The difference could not have been greater. That video was mercifully grainy. This latest was professionally filmed and edited, and it was cruelly ironic that a man who devoted his life to bringing the world pictures of what was happening in Syria should ultimately have died in order that his captors might use the same power of images for perverted ends.
Its flawlessness was one of the reasons why clips from the video were shown so widely in the media. Six One News admirably resisted the temptation, but others were less scrupulous. They didn't show the moment of the actual murder, of course, though they did show as much as they decently could before that point; and it's worrying to think that, as our collective moral boundaries are pushed back by familiarity and desensitisation, public tolerance for terrorist PR films may be growing to such an extent that media organisations may start to show progressively more graphic pictures. In doing so, there's surely no doubt that we are colluding in the twisted rationale of the terrorists.
Radio cannot show pictures, so had to use words and description to fill in the gaps for listeners who might not have even heard about the video. Most chose not to dwell too much on the details, sticking to facts alone. That was Pat Kenny's approach on Newstalk. The only slightly troubling incident was when, discussing Foley's death with Terence McCoy of the Washington Post, RTE's Sean O'Rourke asked: "Do you have a sense … clearly he knew that he was facing death ... of what his demeanour was?" McCoy replied that Foley was "reserved and poised", with a "trace of resignation", but did he have to be asked this at all?
That the moment of a young man's death was being widely distributed online was bad enough without indulging in voyeuristic speculation about his state of mind. Foley himself asked for dignity in death. This wasn't really honouring the spirit of that request. O'Rourke didn't seem entirely comfortable with it either, and quickly moved on.
It could have been worse. Much of the media coverage last week was rightly described as "death porn", though there's a certain hypocrisy about that too. Channel Four News opted not to show any footage from the video, but such scrupulousness was lacking a few weeks ago when anchor Jon Snow tweeted pictures of dead children when he was in Gaza to cover Israel's assault on Hamas. The pictures turned out not to be of Palestinians but of Syrian victims of the Assad regime. Snow apologised, but it was a common mistake.
The recent conflict in Gaza produced a slew of images online of victims of violence. Twitter has pledged to delete the accounts of anyone sharing images of Foley's death, but has taken no action against the thousands who swapped graphic footage of the Palestinian dead.
They wouldn't do it so readily if they had personally known the victims. That they have no similar qualms about making a sick circus out of pictures of dead strangers feels as if a boundary has been crossed. As if the moral sensibility of those who are distributing these images is struggling to keep pace with - and more importantly, control of - the technological possibilities at their fingertips.
Worse, that they are unwittingly complicit in spreading the evil. James Foley's public murder was an implicit challenge to deluded Western liberal opinion as it seeks to make excuses for Islamic terrorism and to "understand" its causes.
The man who murdered the journalist was no more the poor, uneducated victim of Israeli aggression than the handful of would-be jihadists who've left Ireland to fight in Syria. He was One Of Us, and was probably radicalised by the same medium he now exploits to spread his message.
Care is needed so as not to fuel the next wave of radicalisation by allowing the internet become a voyeur's paradise. Those images sicken the many, but excite the few. And it's not only Western journalists who die at their hands. The principal victims of Islamic extremism have always been other Muslims. The radical chic mindset which continues to have a sneaking regard for jihadists dishonours them as much as it does the memory of James Foley.