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Islamic State Terror Spreads Whether or Not You Watch Execution Videos

Twitter cannot stymie Islamic State propaganda by banning graphic images of James Foley's death, but there's no good reason to watch him die.
Photo via AP/Steven Senne

I won't watch the video of James Foley's beheading because I'm scared of it. This is, I realize, the very reason so many people actually want to watch it: to morbidly test their own capacity to witness an authentic horror. Which means the video is essentially being treated as a form of entertainment — which is disgusting.

Unless you're in the business of analyzing the footage to identify the executioner, there's no good reason to watch it. That said, the debate on whether or not media platforms should ban the content is somewhat misconceived. Above all, we should be careful not to confuse the personal (and collective) ethics of whether to watch such a video with the business of banning it.


Islamic State militants claim to have beheaded US journalist James Wright Foley. Read more here.

YouTube took the video down and Twitter's CEO stated Wednesday that the site is "actively suspending accounts" of users posting gruesome images of Foley's last moments. London's Metropolitan Police issued a statement that downloading or even viewing the video could constitute a terrorism offense. Meanwhile, the New York Post ran a graphic image of the knife being applied to Foley's throat on its cover.

A prevalent argument for banning the video is that it is the dissemination of Islamic State propaganda — it abets their terrorism, and is the very reason the video exists. Militants murdered Foley to produce footage that would circulate and terrorize. For this reason, the video's content is arguably different from other content showing violent deaths.

But a question of truth doesn't separate imagery of Foley's beheading from, say, an image of Gaza's young, innocent dead. Both reveal horrifying truths. There are also political consequences to displaying and viewing either. I support the political work done by highlighting, with visceral force, Israel's murder of Palestinian children. I don't support the spread of Islamic State terror.

Therein lies the rub: I make those choices. This isn't about my choices as a professional, but as a member of the media. If you're reading this, you're also a member of the media (you just might not get paid for it). A vast audience constantly mediates online content, with everyone projecting their own particular variety of politics and ethics on whatever they browse.


In photos: Meet Iraq's minorities displaced by the Islamic State.

I support a collective refusal to share the video of Foley's beheading, but I don't think Twitter is correct in its effort to ban the content.

As a number of commentators have noted, the social media site is already lousy with Islamic State content. Images from executions of Syrians have not prompted censorship, betraying the undeniable double standard with which the Western media treats deaths abroad. Consequently, showing a Western journalist's execution instead of that of a Syrian civilian produces a different political effect. This is as true as it is racist. Islamic State militants counted on this when they beheaded Foley on film and directed it to the United States, with the threat of killing another US reporter next.

Nonetheless, Twitter cannot exempt itself from serving the Islamic State PR machine with an attempt to stymie the spread of graphic content from Foley's execution video. I'm not remotely suggesting that Twitter doesn't want to cleanse its streams of this sort of terror. I'm simply suggesting that it can't, none of us can — because it is inescapable. In merely discussing the Islamic State and its tactics, it's nearly impossible to avoid evoking the terror that its extremists want to impart to "infidels."

Of course, we cannot simply ignore the Islamic State. But part of the chilling power of the group is that to talk about it is to talk about its ferociousness, its terror. Releasing the video of Foley's beheading was a tactic as horrifying as it is unbeatable in this regard. The Islamic State's adept propaganda machine knows that seeing a brutal beheading is its own specific horror, but talking about a beheading spreads terror too. It seems impossible to address the vicious tragedy of Foley's execution without producing some of the effect the Islamic State intended to provoke.


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With this inescapability in mind — in recognition that the Islamic State is a force that demands grave attention — media platforms cannot expect to defeat the sickening force of a video like the one of Foley's death after it has become the focus of international attention. Banning the content doesn't actually work to shut down or black out the Islamic State's propaganda. Whether you watch it or not, the video elicits horror.

Certainly, downloading and watching the video should not carry the risk of a terrorism charge, as the London police warned. Accordingly, the mere discussion of Foley's execution would also count as a terrorism offense. Of course, there's a difference between talking about terror and actually watching it. But the fact of Foley's death is no less or more horrible whether you sit through the video or not.

Therefore, while I disagree that viewing and sharing the content should be made illegal and don't think that it should be banned, those who choose to watch it are diminished for doing so. You don't need to see the footage to be sickened by it — I call bullshit on those who say they watch it to access some sort of truth about the situation in Syria and Iraq, or the human capacity for cruelty.

"Don't watch the video. Don't share it," one of Foley's relatives urged on Twitter, offering perhaps the most compelling reason against doing so that I've seen: "That's not how life should be."

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard