Should I Watch the James Foley Beheading Video?

“Watch the video,” The Five’s Greg Gutfeld tells the American public, in reference to ISIS’ video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley. For Gutfeld, watching the video is a justified act because it can arouse a better understanding of the terror ISIS pledges against our country.

I can’t help but wonder, however, as an American with no National Security credentials, if watching a barbarous assassination of an innocuous life is the best way to confirm ISIS’ unbridled terrorism. Isn’t it enough to trust my officials and know that it happened? Or do I really need to watch a terrorist decapitate a fellow American, one whom I’ve never met, but one whose identity of which I’m aware, in order to understand ISIS’ barbarity? Is it the only way to come to grips with the severity of the situation?

One thing is sure: Such a video can never be unseen.

I once read a blog on the subject of pornography and sex slavery that I think provides insight into what we might be doing when we watch a video like the James Foley beheading. The blog’s title was something along the lines of, “Want to stop sex trafficking? Stop watching porn.” The thrust of the blog was that pornographers vigorously record every click one makes on their websites. It also detailed the fact that most pornographic videos include women forced against their wills (sex slaves), and so the idea is that when you watch these inappropriate videos, you support sex trafficking.

I tend to wonder if ISIS has the same mentality for their James Foley video. I wonder what their videographers think when they see countless clicks from American states. And I wonder what the opposite would mean. Between having thousands of hits versus not having any hits, I wonder which scenario would encourage them to consider making another video.

This of course isn’t to say that not watching the video would solve the problem, only to say that watching the video might embolden it.

The truth is, I’m not sure the American public should have to, as Greg says, “watch the video” to understand that ISIS is a barbaric organization thirsty for American blood. Is it unreasonable to say that the act should be reserved for our National Security officials? These individuals can verify the legitimacy of the video and report that information to the public and our governing officials. Isn’t this why these security organizations exist?

Watching these kinds of videos might counteract why we elect these kinds of officials at all.

As much as I think about it, I don’t know what advantage my watching of the video would accomplish. I can only think of disadvantages. I think of Foley’s mom and dad, who have to go to bed at night knowing that a video of their son’s brutal death is floating, like a child’s lost balloon, in the skies of the internet. I think of Foley’s final legacy, where he is forced to repeat antiAmerican propaganda at the hands of his murderers. And I think of how clicking “play” in the safety of my living room might be interpreted in the treacherous deserts of Iraq.

I know there are many who argue that watching the video can, as Greg says, help us understand the lethal brutality of ISIS, I’m just wondering how it might be viewed from the other side.

After originally posting this on my personal blog, I had a host of questions asked and decided to write a follow up blog:

Earlier today I wrote a blog entitled, “Should I Watch the James Foley Beheading Video?” It was a question many people were asking, which is evidenced by the dialogue I received via social networks and private messages, as well as the traffic that reached the post from Google searches looking for the actual video.

The blog wasn’t written to necessarily argue against watching the video (although I do make an appeal to dissuade it), but to offer what I hoped were thoughtful questions on what watching the video might encourage, namely ISIS’ motivation to make another video of the same nature. I have personally opted not to watch the video, for the reasons of respect to the family, the idea that the still images and reports were enough for me, and that doing so might encourage ISIS to make another video.

With all of this said, some important questions were asked concerning what we as the American public should view or not view when it comes to similar situations. References to the 9/11 attacks and the Holocaust were the best examples, but I’m also thinking of things like the Boston Bombing, the Malaysian airplane that was shot down in Ukraine, or even the fatal Nascar accident that took the life of Kevin Ward, Jr. The latter example isn’t a terrorist attack, but some of the same questions can be asked concerning the video.

In light of these questions, I wanted to articulate some of my thoughts concerning the subject:

First, I think it is important for me to say that I think showing the video of the Twin Towers collapsing was an important moment in the history of our country. While I understand that censoring the video today can be a respectful gesture to the families that lost loved ones in the attack (think if you lost a father, mother, spouse, or child and had to watch that scene over and over again every year on 9/11), I also fear that such censorship might keep much of our younger generation ignorant of the significance of that day.

Second, I think there is a big difference between watching concrete collapse, even if we know there are living people suffering in it, than explicitly watching a man burn to death in the building. To take this further, I think that showing said video with the man’s identity posted at the bottom of the screen begins to cross questionable lines. And if that man was forced to read a monologue that obviously goes against his beliefs while another man tortures him, I think even more lines would be crossed in the active participation of watching such a video.

Third, I think it’s important for Americans to be fully aware of the evil that resides in our world, and this means seeing things that we would otherwise not want to see. I have personally seen Holocaust images that I can never unsee, as well as other images and even videos that I can never unsee. Some of these have been beneficial in helping me pop the bubble I live in and secure a healthy understanding of the real evil in our world.

With all of this said, I think the main question that every person needs to ask before viewing an image or watching a video like the James Foley beheading is this:

“Why am I watching this?”

This is to say, what is your motivation for watching the video or observing the still image? In my original blog, I argued that we ought to be cautious with this particular video, because some believe that ISIS wants to use such videos to garner worldwide popularity. Thus, googling the video might only encourage their sinister minds to recreate the situation with another hostage. In this, we might actually be promoting the death of James Foley, which is the opposite of what any good American would want to do.

It’s important to know that this is not a blanket philosophy for these kinds of graphic situations. The images from the Boston Bombings, for example, came from American news outlets, not terrorists. I saw pictures that I will never forget, and these images spurred me to a better understanding of the evil residing in our world. The same is true for Holocaust images.

But with all of this said, I don’t think that I could bring myself to ever watch, if it were available, a video that explicitly showed a bomb exploding and disseminating a human being, especially if I knew the identify of the person. Nor could I bring myself to watch a video of a German explicitly torturing a Jewish person. And I don’t even know if I can really articulate why I couldn’t bring myself to do that and why I could, at the same time, view certain images. All I know is that lines can be crossed, and we ought to be be mindful of our motivations in viewing such content.

An interesting question I found myself asking after conversing with people on this subject today is the one posted in the title of this blog, which is, “If Jesus died today, and if his torture and crucifixion were posted on YouTube, would I watch it?”

My answer to that question is, “Yes.” This is because the motivation of watching the video would be to understand the totality of what he did for me, not because I was curious, or because I had some kind of fetish, or because I needed some kind of reminder about evil in the world. I have obviously never seen the footage of Jesus’ crucifixion, but reading the accounts has been more than enough to prompt me to do something with what I have been confronted with, which is an important part of the question of motivation. More importantly, Jesus’ death is in a category of its own. His death meant something that no other death can ever mean. He died in the stead of every single person that has ever lived. This means he died for you, for James Foley, and even for the ISIS terrorists. And for that reason alone, it would be a video that I would encourage every person to watch.

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

The only conclusion I can really come to with this whole discussion is that before we watch a video of an identified person’s brutal murder at the hands of terrorists, we ought to ask ourselves if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. That is, will the video personally aid you in your progression to fight evil or will you watch it and then go home and eat a sandwich. If it’s the latter, don’t watch it, because all you’re doing is contributing to the present evils in our world.

Observations on the Ferguson Tragedy

I do not know precisely what happened that tragic day when Officer Darrell Wilson shot Michael Brown to death. I’ve read some reports and watched some video, and gone back and forth thinking, “This is unconscionable police brutality and murder” to “Wow, what else could the officer do?” I don’t have all the facts, just press reports and some opinions and a lot more questions than answers. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one left with some doubts, but most of the opinions I’m reading declaim with certainty and confidence that I just don’t have. Those who opine seem assured that they understand exactly what happened and why. I grow less certain every day.

I watched a video a couple of days ago that fascinated me, made by a man on the scene who started filming soon after the shooting took place.  At the very beginning he said, “The cops shot him for no reason.” Several other bystanders joined him and repeated that almost verbatim. “For no reason.” “For no reason.” Over and over again. Then someone came along who had actually watched the shooting and he explained some of the details. Evidently, they realized, this incident was more than just a calloused (white) cop shooting down an unarmed and helpless (black) man on the streets, “for no reason.” Whether the reason justified the shooting is for others to decide, but the assumptions of the onlookers were shaken by the introduction of facts.

It seems to me that a lot of my friends, bloggers, and commenters here have fallen into the same trap – making a snap judgment and assuming that their perspective is completely accurate.

  • Racist white cops gunning down an innocent black citizen.
  • An unjust system exposed once again.
  • Militarized police acting like soldiers instead of law enforcement officers.
  • Looters! Lawbreakers. Troublemakers.
  • There are Al and Jesse again, just stirring things up.
  • We need law and order! Support your police as they go out to battle crime in your neighborhood.

We’ve seen about as many opinions as we’ve seen opiners. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ve seen

  • Racism and injustice reaction – focused on the continued presence of racism and injustice in law enforcement and the legal system.
  • Law and order reaction – supportive of law enforcement and generally dismissive of the claims of those who see racism and injustice.
  • Police abuse of authority reaction – militarized police and the abuse of authority as cops turn into soldiers, oppressing free speech and the free press.

I’d like to make a few observations about the reporting, discussions and facts as I’ve seen them in this debate.

1. We are very comfortable shooting from the hip.

We make snap judgments on complicated issues. If you pinned me down and forced me to hazard a guess as to what really happened that day, I would guess that Michael Brown was aggressive towards the police and did some things that provoked the men in blue. I’m also thinking that perhaps the police were a little intimidated by this large man and his behavior and responded with force – perhaps more than they needed. The truth might well be somewhere between the extremes of overt racism and completely justified law enforcement action. I don’t know. Maybe someday I will. There is a verse in Proverbs that talks about how one side seems right until the other side presents its case. Most of us will never really know what happened that day.

That does not stop us from drawing firm conclusions, writing strong opinions, and holding fast as if ours was the only view that could possibly be right. Simply put, most of us act like we know a lot more about Ferguson than we actually know.

2. We are quick to paint the other side in bad light.

  • Supporters of Officer Wilson are racists and enable the police state. They ignore justice and turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of blacks.
  • Critics of Wilson don’t care about law and order, support reverse racism and discrimination and side with Jesse Jackson (them’s fighting words.)
  • And, if you don’t agree with me on this subject, you probably love to drown puppies.

Of course, these are exaggerations which I hope make the point. We stake out our own positions and put those who disagree with that position in the worst possible light. In this fractured, partisan, divided world, that is a natural (if sinful) tendency. Unfortunately, this attitude has spilled over even into the Christian world, where we treat those who disagree with disdain, as if their viewpoint makes them enemies of the Cross, of the Bible and of the Church. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but not by that much. hat is not really hyperbole.

It is a common failing among bloggers, the “you who disagree hate Jesus” response to differences of opinion.

3. While our justice system is based on “innocent until proven guilty,” our opinions are not. 

In our legal system, one accused of a crime is supposed to be regarded by the law as innocent until the crime is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Would that it were always so, but despite frequent failures in application, it is still a fundamental legal principle in America. It is not a principle we hold dear in American public opinion.

Remember Richard Jewell? The press had him tried, convicted and sentenced and public opinion was demanding summary execution against him for his role in the Atlanta Olympic bombing. One problem. He didn’t do it. He was innocent. By the time he was exonerated, his name was smeared in such a way that he never recovered.

We go through that every time. By bedtime on the night of the shooting, most Americans had heard all the evidence they needed, had convicted the guilty party, and were ready to pass sentence. Michael Brown was a hoodlum who attacked the cops and is responsible for his own fate. Darrell Wilson is a murderer, and probably a racist. Ferguson cops are jack-booted thugs ready to turn their town into a police state.

Guilty! Appeal denied!  Lock them up!

4. We see what we want to see. 

Most people see things like this through the lens of their own convictions.

  • Black people, who have been subjected to racism and discrimination all their lives, who know firsthand what DWB is, who are used to being viewed with suspicion because of their skin color - they tend to see this as another instance of brutality by a white cop against a black citizen. They’ve seen it a thousand times. They live it. Why wouldn’t they make this assumption?
  • Many white people, who reject the notion of “white privilege” (denial ain’t just a river in Egypt), who (rightly and honestly) deny that they are racist or have ever discriminated against black people, and who value law and order, see this as another instance of unruly people who are stirred up by Jesse and Al, who overreact and riot and loot.
  • Those with certain political leanings see this primarily through their libertarian lens and focus on police militarization and the loss of liberties, the increasing power of the state and such trends.

And guess what, each of them has a point. Black people have been mistreated in this beloved land for 400 years. It is the most shameful mark on American history and it has left a stain on black culture, an anger that often overflows sometimes into violence. Most of the white people I know are genuinely not racist or discriminatory. They just can’t understand why they should be held liable for the sins of the past. And I join in the concern about the growing power of the federal government, the trend toward police overstepping their bounds and denying civil rights. Reading stories about the cops arresting members of the press for reporting on the situation ought to chill all our bones, even if we view the press as leftist elites who slant their reporting. It’s still better to have a free press than a police state. Most of the sides in this debate seem to have at least a partial hold on truth.

My point is that we tend to look at situations to verify and buttress our opinions and convictions. We approach Ferguson and other such tragedies not with the question, “I wonder what really happened,” but with the attitude, “See, this is just what I’ve been talking about!”

I would never suggest that Christians soften their convictions, but it might be helpful if we tried to look at this from the other side.

  • Members of the Law and Order brigade, maybe you could try to understand what life is like as a minority in America. Sympathize. Empathize. Try to see the other side.
  • The Anti-Racism and Justice league, take a deep breath and see how rioting and looting could cause good, decent people, who are not racists, to withdraw support from your cause.

There are levels and perspectives on this argument and the wise person will try to see all sides. Avoid rushing to judgment and try to hear the facts, not just those that buttress your viewpoint and affirm your convictions. Be careful about the proverbial rush to judgment and the bloodthirst that often develops in the wake of that rush. Most of all, pray for the churches of Ferguson, that God might use them to bring real healing to that city.