James Foley, a U.S. photojournalist who had been working in Syria when he disappeared in 2012, was executed by Islamicist militants. He was beheaded. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a video of the crime. Another journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, was also shown in the video. He is evidently next for the executioner.
Sixty-six journalists have been killed covering the war in Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Three American journalists remain in captivity in Syria. Every year, in places most of us will never visit, journalists risk their lives.
Foley and the other journalists choose to be in these troubled areas. That fact makes their deaths both more heroic and less pitiable than the countless deaths of innocent civilians who found themselves in ISIS’s murderous path, or Assad’s murderous path – there are no good guys in Syria anymore. Sometimes it is said that we live in an age that is anti-heroic, that the culture meme of heroicness has lost its luster. Tell that to the families of these journalists.
I do not pretend to understand such bravery. For me, a rough day at work is when the computer is slow, or when my morning walk with Ambrose, when I think about what to write each morning, is interrupted by a cat. I have no right to claim a professional association with the likes of Foley and Sotloff and all the others. I can only admire for afar.
My friend Anna Husarska has made her career reporting from places she affectionately calls “shit-holes.” She has been to Libya, Cuba – including three days in a Cuban prison, which she planned so she could write about Cuban prison conditions – North Korea, Somalia, East Timor. When we met, she was covering the war in Bosnia. She had come back to Washington for some reason or another and we became friends the second we met. A few weeks later, she returned to Sarajevo, and I called her. I had never telephoned into a war zone before and had no idea what to expect. I dialed the number. The phone rang two or three times and then someone picked up and the voice said, “Holiday Inn, Sarajevo. How may I direct your call?” What do you say to people who are living in a hotel that is under constant sniper and mortar fire? “Do you have a pool? The kids won’t come without a pool.” The operator put me through to Anna. She told me she was okay but that she narrowly missed being shot the day before. I urged her to come back to the States and safety. She answered my request with risible derision. “If I do not cover the horror here, who will?” she said or words to that effect. I was duly humbled.
In the fullest sense of the word, journalism is a vocation for these intrepid men and women who risk their own lives pursuing their calling. They go to dangerous places so that the rest of us can better know the character of the danger, its sources, its methods, its aspirations. The facts they report rob us of simplistic answers. The horrors they expose demand attention. They do not do this work for the headlines, certainly not for the pay. They do it because it is their vocation. The next time some talking head lambastes the mainstream media without warrant, ask them about the sixty-six dead journalists in Syria.
As a matter of psychology, these journalists are the antithesis of an isolationist. Also as a matter of politics. By exposing cruelty, they make it harder for the rest of us to throw up our hands and claim there is nothing to be done. They make it harder for us, especially us Americans, to hide behind the excuse that we will only make things worse. To be sure, sometimes America’s involvement in the world does make a situation worse, but sometimes not. The reporting by Husarska and others from Bosnia eventually led to NATO involvement, and the situation got much, much better for the civilian population of Bosnia. A genocide ended. Eventually, war criminals were brought to justice. Sarajevo is not the shining city it was in 1984 when it hosted the Winter Olympic Games, but it is bidding to host the games again. That would not have been thinkable in 1994 when Anna was dodging sniper bullets.
ISIS seems like a Hollywood producer’s idea of evil. When your cruelty is such that Al-Qaeda thinks you are giving Islamicist extremism a bad name, you know you have something radically evil. Even the Vatican has recognized that something must be done to stop these murderers, deviating from their usual call for only prayer and peace talks, and cautiously endorsing some kind of action under United Nations supervision. The U.S. government should be putting a lot of pressure on Qatar and the Saudis to cut off the group’s financing. There is no negotiating with people who behead and crucify other people. I admire my friends who are committed to pacifism, and hope that there will always be such a witness to the Kingdom in the life of the Church. But, I am glad, too, that we have a just war tradition capable of addressing the radical evil that is embodied by ISIS.
There is a little bit of an isolationist in all of us. I could not bring myself to watch the video of the beheading of James Foley. In 2002, I forced myself to watch the video of the beheading of Danny Pearl, in part because I knew him slightly. One such viewing is enough. But, I watched that horrible video of Pearl’s beheading for a different reason too. He and Foley and Sotloff and others lived their lives combating the human desire to look away. As Christians, we are never invited to be unrealistic. The Bible is nothing if not realistic about human iniquity, the brokenness of our world, the tendency to violence, all right there in the first few chapters of Genesis. These brave journalists who cover war zones perform an essential task if the rest of us are to live moral, responsible and decent lives, by forcing us to face the cruelties in the world. I do not have an ounce of their bravery. I am proud beyond measure of their work. We should all be grateful for their sacrifice – and horrified to action by it. Otherwise, they will have died in vain. Journalists can prick the conscience of the world. Shame on us if we look away.