How does one adequately comprehend and confront the chilling and horrific killings of human beings like the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff? It is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. It hits right at our deepest, darkest fears about death. It is difficult for us to fathom what was going on in their heads as they faced their last moments or what would be going on in ours.
As troubling as their killings were, we should not use these tragedies to create more, and we should remember that gruesome killings are not the exclusive realm of a particular people or a particular religion. In fact, the U.S. and our allies are directly responsible for millions of James Foleys (in the sense that millions of victims of our foreign policies were innocent and had loved ones, hopes for the future, etc.); and we (the U.S.) are indirectly responsible for Foley's killing as well.
But millions of corpses can pile up and their deaths don't necessarily resonate as much (with many Americans anyway). There are a number of reasons why these killings may resonate more: They were unusual (beheadings), but also publicly posted in vivid detail on the kind of social media we're used to seeing celebrities or friends on – twitter and youtube (for Foley anyway, until they were removed). The men were also Americans, so for most Americans, they was familiar – "dudes" we could have gone to school with or who might have worked for the local newspaper a few years back. That all makes sense, but it isn't an excuse to care more about their deaths than others, or worse, to use their deaths to call for policies that would result in the killing of many, many more innocent people.
A beheading seems like one of the worst ways to die at the hand of another human being – and these were uniquely gruesome – done by a person covered in black fabric with a knife in hand as opposed to a guillotine or some other contraption that provides some separation between killer and victim. (Our ally, Saudi Arabia, beheads people as well, but their victims aren't white Americans, so let's not bring that up.) I didn't watch the video, and I won't, but I've seen some of the still images; images which are pretty chilling. The man in black could easily be the next horror movie villain.
The killings, vividly captured on video, were also distributed online. Foley's killing was posted to YouTube with crisp images and someone with an English accent (as I understand) speaking in the video. The perpetrator even had a twitter account which he used to post the video. These weren't grainy videos smuggled out of the mountains of Pakistan.
As the richest, most powerful nation on earth, there is probably a lot we could theoretically do to counter ISIS in a way that preserved life, promoted justice and secured religious freedom. But that ideal simply does not reflect the history of American foreign policy, particularly over the last few decades in this part of the world, and it isn't what our enormous military apparatus is set up to do or what military industries find profitable.
Just consider what we've done in Iraq over the past 25 years. The first war in Iraq killed a few thousand civilians and injured thousands of others, but it was just the beginning of a drawn out military and economic campaign against Iraq by the U.S. After Bush senior left office, Democratic President Bill Clinton gladly took the reins, maintaining no-fly zones and devastating sanctions. When asked about the estimated half a million children killed by sanctions in Iraq, Clinton's Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, famously replied, "we think the price is worth it." When George W. Bush came to power, it was much easier, even if controversial, to justify attacking Iraq in part because of the prior decade of ongoing aggression against that country by the U.S. During Bush's war, even conservative estimates are that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of others injured or who died from the effects of war. All of that bloody history is pretty f***ing scary. Why would we think that having the Pentagon intervene in the current situation would lead to humanitarian results?
Considering the state that we've left that country in – the millions of dead, their families and friends with their memories; the millions of injured, their families and friends who must care for them; the destroyed infrastructure; the political vacuum that we've tried to fill with this or that leader favorable to the U.S. – it is hardly surprising that a group like the ISIL (or ISIS) would take advantage of the situation. One wonders what would happen in this country under similar circumstances. Would racist militias become more organized and violent? Would Christian Fundamentalists begin to train fighters? There are plenty of backward elements in this country that could easily take advantage of such a situation.
For those who would use this act to continue to demonize Islam, one wonders why a beheading by someone who calls himself Muslim tells us more about Islam than the murdering of hundreds of thousands by someone who calls himself Christian tells us about Christianity, or the murdering and maiming of thousands by someone who calls himself Jewish tells us about Judaism. Despite the terror inflicted on the rest of the world by people who identify as "Christian," I still love my Christian brothers and sisters.
Those who cynically use a frightening and sad killing to push for wars of aggression by the U.S. or our allies are ignoring or downplaying the gruesome results of American war-making and foreign policy in the Middle East: the millions of innocent people killed had hopes and loved ones and plans for the future, just like James Foley and Steven Sotloff. If only their killings (those millions killed by U.S. foreign policy) resonated with more Americans in the same way, the urgency to "do something" might translate into a foreign policy that actually did something good.