WASHINGTON – There are lots of reasons to ban the beheading video of photojournalist James Foley from social media. But one argument to let it be shown trumps them all.
In the video, which was posted Aug. 19, an Islamic State jihadist cuts Foley’s head off with a knife. The video shows only the beginning of the execution. Even the Islamic State’s video editors seem to have decided that the full beheading was too grisly, or at least counterproductive, to show.
They did, however, show the result: a scene of Foley’s blood-spattered head resting on the back of his lifeless body. One might have imagined that Islamic jihadists behead their victims with a swift chop of a sharp sword. As the video makes clear, the process is horrifically slow.
To be sure, it’s hideous, gruesome, barbaric and sickening. As James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, has argued: “You shouldn’t suppress the facts, but you can suppress the image. That’s just pornography.” And at least one of Foley’s relatives asked that it not be shown. Others have also argued that the video shouldn’t be shown precisely because the Islamic State wants it to be, hoping to deter President Barack Obama from further action or to recruit jihadists from Europe, America and elsewhere.
In response to these arguments, YouTube and Twitter removed the video from their sites. I could find it only once.
But what convinces me that the video should be accessible is that it shows, very clearly, the horrendous nature of the ideology behind it. The reasons not to show it are good; the educational value of showing it is greater. And just as this video should be accessible, so should others that display similar violence by both the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.
Warnings should be posted about the violence; the public should have the choice of watching or not watching. But if they want to watch, they should be able to do so – and learn something important in the process.
I learned this from another dilemma involving the display of gruesome images.
Back in 1995, photos at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, provoked controversy. They were of Latvian Jews about to be shot in December 1941 as part of the fierce campaign of mass murder carried out by the Einsatzgruppen as German forces advanced into the Soviet Union. The photos – taken by Germans as they were shooting the Jews – had been on exhibit at Yad Vashem for 23 years, but some visitors began to object to the fact that the photos showed nude women.
The women – and men – were nude because the Germans had ordered them to undress before shooting them into ditches and pits. Many of the women, probably most, had been religiously modest. Suddenly, they were forced to throw off their clothing in public as they saw their neighbors being shot around them. German soldiers’ cameras captured women trying, in their horror and last desperate moments, to cover their nakedness.
Some Israelis campaigned to have the photos removed, arguing that showing them constituted a perpetual degradation of women who had been murdered but who, forever after, would be on display in their nakedness. One Israeli whose mother had been murdered during the Holocaust wrote in a letter to Haaretz, “If my mother’s picture would be hanging on the walls of a museum – naked, shamed and frightened the moment before her death – I would do anything, and I underline 'anything,' to get her off the wall.”
But another Israeli wrote in the Jerusalem Post that she had been forced to take off her clothing in Auschwitz, and that if photos of her stripped naked existed she’d want them shown in the museum. “Are the pictures indecent, immodest, demeaning, humiliating?” she asked. “The facts are, not the pictures. We couldn’t cover our nakedness then. Don’t cover it up now.”
In the end, the head of Yad Vashem refused to take down the photos “to cover up the terrible truth or to beautify it.” I utterly agreed. As someone whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, some of them no doubt having had to remove their clothes, I found it appalling that these women would be on display for all to see, and forever, in their nakedness. But I felt it was bitterly necessary to show the nature and consequences of the ideology that inspired their murderers, an ideology that promoted degradation and dehumanization in the service of achieving its murderous goals.
Similar bitter necessity requires us, I’m convinced, to make it possible for the public to understand the nature, methods and consequences of the grotesque ideology at the heart of the Islamic State.
Nazi Germany used degradation and dehumanization as tools in its mass-murder of Jews. The Islamic State uses similar tools and unspeakable violence to conquer territory, commit genocide against non-Muslims, and murder those who don’t interpret Islam the way they do. All of this is happening right now. We have to understand it. And we shouldn’t make it impossible to witness the graphic images of its reality. They concentrate the mind.
Reich, a psychiatrist, is the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University and former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the editor of “Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind.”